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Astronomy in Ancient Civilisations

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Astronomy in Ancient Civilisations
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Astronomy in Ancient Civilisations[credits]

by Michael Lewis


It is a pity that the myths of ancient civilisations are so easily dismissed as the musings of savage minds, as it is subsequently easy to overlook the fact that many of their myths were encryptions of their astronomical knowledge.  The best example of this is the Incas.  Although primitive in their thinking and technology, the Incas had much that modern civilisation could envy.  Not only the huge mineral wealth which was looted by the invading Spanish, but also a culture that allowed tribes of different races to live together in perfect harmony, joined by a mutual religion that told each tribe its place within the Incas, a religion instructed by their studies of the stars above them.  The Incas believed that each tribe originated from a different constellation, and just as the stars upon which their religion was based moved in harmony in the sky, so they to chose to live in harmony with each other.

The Incas interest in the stars went far beyond social affairs.  When the Spanish attacked and destroyed the Incas, claiming their wealth and converting them to Roman Catholicism, they recorded many of the Incas myths.  This has preserved the myths of this civilisation so that we may study them today, in a much purer form than the myths of any other ancient civilisation.  The work of Dr. William Sullivan in his book 'The Secrets of the Incas: Myth, astronomy and the war against time' has revealed that these myths, previously considered to be mere stories, in fact reveal an awareness of astronomy.

In 'Hamlet's Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time', Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend propose a theory that the ancient civilisations throughout the world were aware of precession of the equinoxes, an astrological phenomenon.  As the Earth orbits the Sun its axis of rotation (the imaginary line from the North Pole to the South Pole) is at 23.5 degrees to the equatorial plane of the Sun. In other words the Earth leans slightly to one side.  The gravitational pull of the other planets in the solar system effects mainly upon the centre of the Earth, effectively pulling it 'upright'.  These dynamics cause the Earth's axis to wobble as it spins.  The wobble of the Earth's axis of rotation, is called precession.

To the human observer, without the use of technology, this precession can only be observed as a change in the orientation of the stars, or more accurately, of the Earth's orientation within the fixed sphere of stars. The Earth's tilt remains almost constant in relation to the ecliptic plane (the path of the Earth's orbit) and so precession has no observable effect on the position on the horizon where the Sun rises at any given time of year, such as solstice or equinox.  It is only by observing the background of stars rising at dawn on a given solar date, such as a solstice or equinox, that an ancient astronomer could have observed precession.  In this way, the observer would have noted that a given star or constellation would rise 'late' after a period of time.  It takes the Earth approximately 26,000 years to complete a single precessional wobble on its axis, and so it takes a long time to notice the change in the day on which a given star or constellation will rise, the rate of recession observed in this manner is approximately one day every 72 years.  

The ancient civilisations did not fully understand precession, having no real knowledge of the structure of the solar system.  They did not know that precession was a continuing cycle, repeating every 26,000 years.  To them, it was a linear phenomenon, and it appeared to them that the stars were following, or perhaps writing, time.  This led to their beliefs that the future could be determined by studying the stars, and predicting their movements, and in particular, by studying precession.  However, studying precession, even as a linear event, still required a 72 year observation, and so the task could not be performed by a single individual.  The task had to be passed on to the next generation, and so the information gathered so far had to be passed on, and it was for this purpose that the myths were written.  By referring to a particular solar date such as a solstice or equinox and naming a star just rising at dawn (when it would be visible) each myth could encrypt a years data.  On a year when precession was noticed (every 72 years) the myth for that year would encrypt this observation.  Over time, the patterns could be seen, and the ancient astronomers would gain a further understanding of precession.  

The ancients also used the planets, and so Saturn, having the longest orbit, lasting 30 years, became the Old God, the Father of Time.  We still remember this as Old Father Time or the Grim Reaper - the staff or scythe respectively represents the precessing axis of the Earth.  Saturn was said to be the owner of a mill - Hamlet's Mill, and this image of the Earth as a grindstone, rocked back and forth by Saturn, encrypted a diagram of precessional time as mental imagery, and also how Saturn was the marker of precessional time.

Dr William Sullivan took these theories further by applying them to the Incas.  He decoded the Andean myths using three fundamental rules:

                     Planets are referred to in myths as gods

                     Stars are referred to in myths as animals (the word 'zodiac' means 'dial of animals')

                     Topographical descriptions (positions of places in relation to each other) in myths describe the position of the sun against the fixed sphere of stars

This revealed how Andean society had been completely governed by the stars since 500 BC.  Every part of their lives was part of their religion, and their religion was written in the stars.  The Milky Way, which they called 'Mayu' meaning 'river', was seen as a passageway between the material world of the living, and the ethereal world of the gods and the dead, and the Andean myths decoded by Dr William Sullivan centered on this belief and on the Milky Way, revealing the Incas history encrypted in their myths.

For example, in their creation myth, the Creator god Wiraqocha - a tall, bearded stranger carrying a staff - appears at Lake Titicaca and creates the Sun, Moon and stars and the agricultural tribes of Andes.  Wiraqocha means 'tilted plane of the celestial sphere', which is a reference to the obliqueness of the ecliptic to the celestial equator.  Wiraqocha is Saturn, hence the bearded man carrying a staff - Father Time.   The myth explains how, beginning around 200 BC, the Sun rises at the solstices so that it is seen from Earth to be touching the Milky Way, opening the 'gate' to the land of the dead and the god Wiraqocha comes to Earth, beginning a new religion of ancestor worship.  There is archeological evidence of a rapid spread of a sedentary agricultural civilisation throughout the Andean region at this time.

The key points of the Incas history are recorded in their myths right up to the destruction of the Andean Empire.  The Incas used the same system of astronomy in around 1432 to predict the inevitable destruction of the entire Andean civilisation and its religion within five generations, as the Sun would no longer appear to touch the Milky Way when it rose at the solstices.  Despite attempts to avert this disaster, the stars cannot be changed, and sure enough, in 1532, at the December solstice the sun was seen to rise alongside, but not touching, the Milky Way, closing the 'gate' to the land of the dead and signifying the end of Andean civilisation. The Andean Empire, the largest land empire in the world, was successfully invaded by 175 Spaniards.

The Incas had a complex religion of astronomy through which they predicted and wrote their history.  The Andean Empire began when the Sun first rose over the Milky Way in 200 BC, and ended when the Sun failed to do so in 1532 AD, and throughout this 1732 year period the empire was governed by the Milky Way, and the stars around it.  

The Incas were not the only civilisation to hold such beliefs and practices.  According to Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in 'Hamlet's Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time', thinkers in the ancient civilisations of Sumer, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, India and even Ireland shared the awareness of precession, and had comparable myths and religious ideas.  Dr William Sullivan explains how the Inca pantheon matches the ancient pantheons of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, the Hopi and the Polynesians.  For the Incas, Saturn was the old, bearded god who carried a staff, Venus was a beautiful woman with disheveled hair, Jupiter was the king, Mars was the god of war, and Mercury the messenger.  The vital question here is why these same ideas appear in so many different ancient civilisations all around the world.  Across five continents, from all around the world we have myths mentioning an underworld or land of the dead, with an entrance along the annual path of the Sun where it crosses one branch of the Milky Way.  This entrance or gate (Helgrind in Norse mythology) lies between the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius, and marks the centre of our galaxy.  The Roman writer Virgil said that this land was guarded by scorpion men (Scorpius), and the medieval Italian poet Dante said that this land was guarded by horse men, called centaurs (Sagittarius).

The Incas celebrated their rites of the dead at the December solstice, when their constellation of the Llama (in the western Scorpius) was rising.  At this time, they believed, the entrance to the land of the dead was open and so they feasted in the presence of their sacred ancestors.  To the Polynesians, the Milky Way was road along which souls traveled to the spirit world, and the Sump Indians of Nicaragua see 'mother scorpion' in the Milky Way as the destination of the deceased's soul. When we celebrate Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and (two days later) All Souls Day in the Christian tradition, we forget that when the first European pagans were celebrating at this time, it was at this time that the entrance to the land of the dead was rising.  In Central and South America, the native Indians spend All Hallows Eve visiting the graves of their loved ones and feasting.

So how did people across five continents, in civilisations that had not even developed a written language, come to share the same ideas?  How were these ideas shared between cultures that did not even know of each other's existence?  There is a vital clue in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  Two Peruvian archeologists, brothers Fernando and Edgar Elorrieta, have discovered that in this valley, the valley of the Urubamba river, each of the constellations significant to the Incas is represented by a huge effigy of the appropriate animal - each effigy is made up of a whole mountainside.  Some are natural, others have been created by the selective placement of agricultural terraces, but all of them have been there for around two thousand years.  The two condor effigies (the Incas believed that the souls of the dead were carried to the land of the dead by a condor) both have pre-Columbian graves beneath them.  Carved into a cliff overlooking this valley is the 45 metre (159 feet) tall face of a bearded man wearing the cap of a priest-astronomer, the face of Wiraqocha.  

So who is this tall, bearded man who came to the Andes in 200 BC, carrying a staff and wearing a cap, and taught the Incas agriculture and astronomy?  He was not Andean, as the Andean people do not have facial hair, so where did he come from?  In fact, it appears to be the same man that taught agriculture and astronomy to each of the other four continents, each remembering this man as Father Time and identifying him with Saturn.  Now we can assume that it could not possibly be the same person, but we cannot deny that these teachers must have come from the same race themselves, and have had at least some level of recent contact, seeing as they all maintained similar, if not identical, attire.  Perhaps they were a race of explorers.  This would certainly explain their interest in astronomy, as this would be the science necessary to them in order for them to navigate the lands and seas and cover the distances that would have taken them to every corner of the world.

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A Sioux Prayer

Translated by Chief Yellow Lark -1887

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds
Whose breath gives life to the world, hear me
I come to you as one of your many children
I am small and weak
I need your strength and wisdom

May I walk in beauty
Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
And my ears sharp to your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught your children.

The lessons you have written in every leaf and rock
Make me strong--------!
Not to be superior to my brothers, but to fight my greatest enemy....myself

Make me ever ready to come to you with straight eyes,
So that when life fades as the fading sunset,
May my spirit come to you without shame.