Astronomy Encoded in Calendars and Myth
by Valerie Vaughan
Much of what we know today about the ancient past has been gleaned from the study of mythology, in particular the special category of myth called sky lore or astro-mythology. These are stories that include detailed astronomical facts which demonstrate an understanding of measured astronomical cycles. Scholars who study this type of myth believe that the astronomical information they contain is so specific that it couldn't simply be details that were added on to enhance the realism or entertainment value of the stories. It is more likely that such myths were devised as astronomy lessons, a way to pass on important knowledge about the universe.
In such astro-myths, numbers are usually mentioned which are not arbitrary; they represent important measurements. In Egyptian myth, for example, the god Osiris died in the 28th year of his reign, and he was cut up into 14 pieces, which were later reassembled so that he could be reborn. The numbers give a clue as to what astronomical cycle is being discussed. Osiris was associated with the Moon, which was known in Egypt to repeat its phases every 28 days, with the full moon occurring on the 14th day.
Anyone interested in the historical roots of astrology eventually comes to recognize the value of studying astro-mythology, the body of mythology that portrays astronomical and astrological information in the metaphorical language of sky lore. In this regard, a must-read text is Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (Boston: Gambit, Inc., 1969). In this watershed publication, the authors show that many world myths contain information concerning astronomical cycles, and that this fact changes the modern notion of just what exactly is "prehistory." They argue that knowledge about the precession of the equinoxes and the shifting of the ages can be found within the symbolism of ancient mythology and cosmology.
For example, in Greek mythology, one of the Twelve Labors of Herakles was to capture the golden apples of the Hesperides. Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend consider the golden apples of the Hesperides as part of the symbolism of the ecliptic axis. They explain it this way: When Herakles went to fetch the apples in a land that lay far to the west, he found the garden guarded by a dragon. He killed the dragon, who was then placed in the sky as a constellation. Draco guards a celestial tree, the axis of the ecliptic, from which hang the planets (the apples). The constellation Herakles shows the hero kneeling with a dragon underfoot.
The authors present many such myths from various world cultures to support their thesis that knowledge of precession (one component of ancient natural astrology) runs very deep in the consciousness of the human species. Because the complexities of precession would have been understandable to only a few people in the ancient world, the authors suggest that many myths were intentionally devised to appeal to the masses. The popularity of mythical stories would thus guarantee that the real content, a deeper understanding of time and its organization, could survive and be passed down the centuries.
Compared with modern standards of astronomical knowledge, some of the
ancient astro-myths were quite sophisticated. Essentially, these myths
tell us how the ancients understood astronomy and the repeating cycles
of time. They explain such complex topics as the measurement of precession,
how the solar system was created, and why the galactic center or the north
pole is located where it is. These astro-myths are of great use in understanding
the calendars created by ancient people, and thus provide a practical tool
for reconstructing historical chronologies. The basic themes of these astronomical
myths are so universal and enduring that some have even survived into modern
times as nursery rhymes. There's one in particular that will sound very
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water,
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
At first glance, the reader might ask, "What's so astronomical about that?" Viewing the rhyme as metaphor will reveal the answer. The rhyme is about water, and the celestial body which is almost universally associated with water is the Moon. There are numerous legends found throughout the world of Moon maids carrying buckets of rainwater. For instance, there are many different tribes from Canada, Alaska and Siberia who see a person in the moon who carries a bucket, and when she upsets her bucket, it rains. This Moon-rain association has incidentally been confirmed by modern meteorological studies which show that lunar cycles correspond to the timing of precipitation.
Some folklorists have traced the Jack and Jill rhyme to a Scandinavian tale about two children, a boy named Hjuki (Jack) and a girl named Bil (Jill), who were kidnapped while on their way to get water from a well. Linguists have determined that these names are derived from the Swedish verb "jakka," which means to assemble or increase, and "bila," which means to dissolve or break up. Thus, the Moon grows "up the hill" (waxing) to its full or crowning phase, and then "falls down" during the waning phase.
This interpretation might seem a bit far-fetched if it weren't for the fact that this rhyme is not an isolated example; it is one of a huge class of similar folktales and rhymes designed to teach the rudiments of astronomy. Back in the days before book printing, organized public education, and widespread literacy, the oral tradition of storytelling was the only way that the general populace could learn and remember such practical information.
There are numerous examples of astronomy encoded in myth, but it is especially surprising to discover their presence in the most familiar stories of classical literature, such as The Iliad of Homer, written about 750 B.C. Homer was probably the last poet in a long line of bards who memorized and passed on astronomical knowledge through an oral tradition. This is clearly demonstrated by Florence and Kenneth Wood in their book Homer's Secret Iliad: The Epic of the Night Skies Decoded (John Murray Ltd., 1999). After years of painstaking analysis of the Iliad, these authors found convincing evidence that Homer's great epic is the world's oldest astronomy book, written in metaphorical language. They show that Homer assigned each planet and star to a mythological character, and that battles between Greeks and Trojans mirrored the movements of stars and planets as they fought for ascendancy in the night sky. It becomes clear that Homer's purpose in relating the Iliad was the preservation of knowledge essential for life in ancient times and the usefulness of observations to support theoretical ideas about the nature of the universe.
Such phenomena as precession and the earth's obliquity were clearly understood and measured; they were described and remembered through the analogy of myth and legend. Homer's narrative describes the path of the sun along the ecliptic during one solar year. However, the timeline of his story does not correlate with the equal-part zodiac. Homer used the number of days the sun spent in each of the zodiacal constellations. This reflects the fact that the early Greeks, like the Babylonians, concentrated on the actual setting and rising of stars and their constellations, and had not yet developed the standardized view of the ecliptic as divided into twelve equal parts. Homer's Secret Iliad gives further support to the thesis of Hamlet's Mill; that is, that knowledge of precession and other astronomical cycles was encoded in the mythology of ancient cultures.
Let's look at a more recent example, a calendrical legend from European folklore. The Czechoslovakian folktale of Dobrunka is ostensibly a story about a good-hearted, well-behaved girl who is mistreated by her cruel stepmother and stepsister. One day in January, the stepsister decides that, even though it is wintertime, she wants some violets, so she demands that Dobrunka go out into the snow to find them. On her search, Dobrunka discovers something else -- twelve people sitting in a circle around a campfire. They are all different ages; three are really old, three are mature, three are younger, and the last three are the youngest. They are evidently the twelve months of the year. Dobrunka speaks respectfully to them and asks for help. The youngest one (March) gives Dobrunka violets to take home.
The stepsister then decides she would like some strawberries, and once again, Dobrunka is sent out into the wintry snow to find them. She comes across the same group of people, she is respectful towards them, and in gratitude, June gives her the strawberries, which she takes home. Then the stepsister wants apples, and the plot sequence is repeated until September provides Dobrunka with two apples to take home. But this isn't enough for the greedy stepmother and stepsister, so they rush out into the snow to get more. They, too, come across the group of twelve figures, but because they are rather nasty characters, they fail to treat the group with respect, so January stirs up an especially bad winter storm, and the stepmother and stepsister never return home. It is clear in this story that nature and the seasons follow an order of time (the yearly cycle of 12 months), but the underlying message is that natural order is aligned with good behavior and not with evil.
This world view -- that there was an underlying order and balance in nature -- was completely embraced by the ancient Greeks. Their word cosmos, which we moderns have adopted to mean "universe," is more literally translated as the "ordered universe." The Greeks believed that a high principle of justice operated to keep everything in place, both spatially and temporally. Conversely, they thought that when everything holds its proper time and place, then all is right on earth and in heaven, and justice reigns. To overstep this or to attempt to change the natural order of things was believed to be an injustice which upset the world and the gods. The Greeks thought that the order of the universe was violated when humans in their pride (hubris) tried to make major alterations in what was already working quite well. They had an attitude which we might today call "ecological"; that is, that the whole universe was balanced when people had a respectful relationship with each other and with the natural environment.
Concerning the order and balance of nature, the Greeks had a myth that explained the proper arrangement of seasons -- the story of Persephone, who was the daughter of mother earth, Demeter (known to the Romans as Ceres). This story takes place in the distant past, a time when the earth was an idyllic place where everything grew year-round. One day, Persephone strayed from the watchful eye of her mother and was abducted by Pluto, who carried her off to his underworld. Ceres was so upset that she stopped all the plants from growing, which of course cut off the food supply for humans. The starving people prayed to Jupiter to bring Persephone back and restore order. Jupiter allowed that Persephone could return if she hadn't eaten anything in the underworld, but she admitted to having consumed three pomegranate seeds (a symbol of fertility and thus a clue that she had consummated a marriage with Pluto).
Eventually, however, after much discussion among the gods, a compromise was reached. According to the number of seeds she ate, Persephone would spend one third of the year underground with Pluto, and the rest of the year with her mother. The months underground (what we would call winter) referred to the dry season in Greece when nothing grew. The return of spring or the rainy season was celebrated as part of the Eleusinian mysteries, which honored the Persephone myth and included rituals whereby humans reaffirmed their connection with the natural world, as well as the eternal cycle of growing and dying and rebirth.
Persephone is a seasonal character, but like many female mythological figures, she displays the lunar characteristic of disappearing and reappearing. The festivals honoring her and Ceres were actually held at both the beginning (the seed) and end (the fruition) of the growing season, which was analogous to the new and full moon. Persephone is also part of a threesome that is common among goddess mythologies, portraying a universal theme of youth, maturity, and old age that is tied to the lunar cycle. Persephone symbolizes the spring or newly waxing Moon, her mother Demeter/Ceres represents the summer-fall growing season or fullness of the Moon, and Hekate (who also plays an important role in this myth) is the waning, dark Moon. The number three is very prominent in Persephone's story as the number of seeds she ate and the third of the year that she is underground -- when Ceres mourns her absence. Many early Mediterranean lunar calendars reflected this essential three-ness of the femininity cycle by dividing the month into three "weeks" of 9 or 10 days each.
In the American West, the people of the Pueblo had an almost identical story about Blue Corn Maiden, who was abducted by Winter. The maiden yearns to go back home and make the blue corn grow for the Pueblo People. Winter and Summer argue over this problem, which results in a battle between ice and fire, but since neither can win the contest, they work out a compromise. They agree that Blue Corn Maiden could live with the Pueblo people for half the year and give them corn, and then return to live with Winter, which is the time that the people have no corn. Blue Corn Maiden thus became the sign of springtime, eagerly awaited by people. Sometimes, so the story goes, after spring has already arrived, Winter will occasionally blow cold winds or scatter some snow. It is said that he does this just to show how displeased he is about having to give up the maiden for half of the year.
Stories like these reflect not only how the early seasonal calendars were constructed, but also how they developed and achieved their final form. For example, the earliest calendars of Greece had two seasons only, growing and non-growing, or what we could call winter and summer (just like the two seasons of the Blue Corn Maiden story). As the knowledge of astronomy, weather and agriculture developed, the Greeks progressed to a lunar type of calendar, with three seasons based on climate and agricultural cycles. These three seasons were known in ancient Greece as the Horae, who were depicted on vase paintings bearing gifts; they were more or less identical to the three Charities or gift-givers.
In Greek, the word Hora had a meaning that was almost equivalent to our word for weather. In other words, season or time was identified by the current weather conditions. This linguistic connection shows the ancients' preoccupation with the practical or agricultural side of time and seasons. Eventually, the word Hora came to refer only to time, not weather, and it survives in English in the words "hour" and "horoscope."
A similar development occurred with the Latin word Tempus, which forms the basis of such English words as "temporal" (meaning time), "temperature" (which refers to weather), "tempest," (which now means storm, but which in Latin meant an amount of time or weather), "temper" (quality of mood or behavior) and "temperament" (character). In addition, the verb "temper" means to adjust or moderate or combine in due proportion.
As we follow the train of meanings of these words, we see there is a
direct connection from the astronomical measurement of time to the science
of astro-meteorology, and ultimately, to the ancient astrological delineation
of personality (via the four temperaments or humors). When the weather
is nice, we feel good. (Our temper is tempered by the temperature.) When
celestial objects used to measure time are arranged in a certain way, we
act accordingly. (Our temperament is tempered by the temporal.) We do indeed
"live by the clock."
Copyright © One Reed Publications, 2002
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