Do you remember the last time you looked up to the night sky and scanned the celestial part above the horizon with your eyes, to spot the positions of the bright stars? Have you ever needed the help of the stars and/or the planets to determine the cardinal directions in order to define your rout when you are travelling to an unfamiliar location outside your home town? Can you tell the planetary bodies from the fixed stars high above the sky? How many constellations can you name? Or even a tougher question: Do you have an idea at what time of the year, say, Sirius does its heliacal rising?
For us twenty-first century folk, the sky usually does not have much functionality other than being an impressive backdrop for our highly sophisticated cityscapes full of skyscrapers. The bright city lights and the thick layers of pollution that hang in the air do not even allow an enthusiastic stargazer to spot most of the celestial bodies above. We have advanced technological navigation gadgets in our cars or even on our cell phones, so we do not need to observe the position of the stars to find our way. Our various calendars and high-tech clocks accurately and precisely show us the time and date which make stargazing obsolete for telling the present day, month and season of the year. Sometimes, we do look up to the sky though, to get an idea if it will rain or not, and sometimes, usually when we are on vacation out of town with a loved one, it adds some romantic spice to our leisurely nights.
Skywatchers, Time and Civilization
For our early ancestors who dwelt on the very same locations thousands of years ago, observing the sky definitely meant much, much more. First of all, for at least some individuals of a primitive society, gazing at stars was an essential part of the cognitive process to help get a clear perception about the universe that surrounded them. The basic instinct that stimulated the earliest wise men to direct their attention towards the sky was based upon familiar questions which we still ask ourselves from time to time: “Where are we? What is this place? How does this huge system work?”
Beyond the philosophical needs that triggered the immense curiosity of man about the universe, there were, of course, practical needs of daily life which forced the earliest leaders of society to use the sky as an accurate guide. They needed to perceive the time concept and measure it as accurately as they could if they were to plan the future of the group which they lived in—and it did not took them long to notice that the key factors were up there, waiting to be observed and discovered. So the wise men of the early communities eventually became skywatchers.
The sun and the moon acted as reliable guides from the very beginning: They soon discovered the phases of the moon and its cycle; then noticed the sun’s voyage on the eastern horizon between far north and far south which allowed them to mark the equinoxes and the solstices. With the concepts of day, month and year in their hands, they were able to advance their time measuring system from a mere day count to a sophisticated and accurate calendar. Wisdom like this meant the world to our ancient ancestors: If you had a calendar, it meant you had a future.
We can find many instances worldwide of ancient sky observatories in the form of the so-called stone circles, among the most famous, namely, Stonehenge near the Salisbury Plain or Callanish in Scotland. But was it enough to follow the sun and the moon’s paths along the sky to get a comprehensive view of the heavens? Certainly not.
The important 1960s archaeological discoveries show that the first skywatchers paid great attention to the brightest stars and clusters on the night sky as early as 20,000 years B.P. (before present). On the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France and Altamira Cave in Spain, scholars noticed curious drawings which probably depicted the star cluster Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. Even more intriguing about these so-called “cave paintings” was the clear bull figures which were associated with these Pleiades depictions.
“Come on—” I can hear you asking. “Did they develop a kind of sky charting system and define the constellations 20,000 years ago?” With so few data in our hands, we cannot say much about this, but one thing we can safely argue, the bull figure was clearly related to the heavens since very early times and the group of stars we call Pleiades was thought closely connected to the bull, which may (or may not) suggest that Taurus was the first constellation in the sky defined by the ancients.
What is the point of practically grouping the stars in the night sky and defining the constellations among them? Well, it actually provides a skywatcher with a very valuable method for charting the heavens. Naming the groups of stars in sequence allowed our wise ancestors to draw very impressive sky maps which helped them to be more familiar with the once “unknown territory” of the universe. As early as the dawn of the Bronze Age, they went even further and depicted some of those constellations in equal sizes, which in turn, allowed defining a “circular belt” that divided the sun’s path into measurable stations. Using this system not only allowed our skywatchers to measure the time up to “hours” using the night sky, but helped them observe and record the movements in the heavens.
They noticed the difference between the fixed stars and the “fast-moving ones,” specifically, the planets. The orbital periods of the five planets that can be observed with the unaided eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn—were carefully calculated. The constellations behind their movements served as a background chart which allowed the skywatchers to follow and record every single step of these celestial bodies as they passed the stations one-by-one along this circular belt.
What Else Did The Ancients Know?
For the ancient enthusiastic skywatchers, there were more elements in this “heavenly ocean” than stars and planets. These generally unpredictable celestial bodies of comets and asteroids rarely appeared above the horizon, and skywatchers observed them very carefully without skipping a detail. Then the wise men of the observatories meticulously recorded the movements to their logs in a simple but brilliantly-devised sign system. These logs were kept for millennia (yes, millennia!) by the skywatchers, passed along to generations, and allowed the precise calculation of even the most unusual bodies.
Since the last century, our knowledge on ancient skywatching lore has dramatically mounted up especially after archaeoastronomy emerged as a new scientific discipline with the pioneering efforts of Sir Norman Lockyer. His groundbreaking work published in 1894, The Dawn of Astronomy, specifically focused on the sky observing traditions and methodologies of ancient societies. Lockyer bravely came up with a new approach which suggested that the ancient skywatchers knew much more about the celestial bodies than we used to think (or we were ready to acknowledge). In 1969, two scholars, who followed Lockyer’s footsteps, shook the scientific world with their sensational work on archaeoastronomy: Giorgio di Santillana and Hertha von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill presented a highly unorthodox view suggesting that ancient astronomers were well aware of the movements of planetary bodies, including the specific cycle of our earth’s axis—precession or “shifting of equinoxes.”
Simply, precession is the movement of the rotational axis of the earth that completes its cycle in approximately 26,000 years. Its most important visible result appears with the shifting of the constellation behind the sun at the time of equinoxes. About every 2,148 years, the constellation behind the sun shifts during vernal equinox (i.e., shifts around 30 degrees). For example, the vernal equinox sun was in front of the constellation Aries about 2,200 B.C.E. (before the Common Era). With the effect of precession, it shifted to Pisces after 100 B.C.E. and will shift to Aquarius in this century. To notice such a long cyclic movement, a society must deal with sky observations for thousands of years and regularly pass the celestial records along to generations. If Santillana and Dechend are right, then the beginnings of our ancestors’ systematic skywatching activity go back as far as 8,000 years or more.
Agriculture: The Power of the Seed
“What are all these sky observation things?” an impatient reader may ask at this point. The answer is quite simple: If we have an asset in our hands called “civilization” which we love to be proud of, we simply owe it to our ancestors and the settlements they built. A settled society requires a steady and reliable activity to feed all the members—agriculture. Only after a group of people had discovered the power of the seed, could human beings settle down and build themselves places called towns. Without agriculture, there would be no human civilization. For the sake of a healthy and steady agricultural activity, mankind needed the knowledge of the skies: knowledge that would allow them to predict the seasons, the weather, sowing and harvest times and much more. So to cut to the quick, the good old skywatching tradition helped the early Neolithic settlers to observe the skies, record celestial events and plan their future.
Beginning with the Neolithic, ca. ninth millennium B.C.E., the inhabitants of the early settlements began to take sky observation activity seriously, eventually leading to the construction of a special kind of building solely for this endeavor. The shamanic skywatchers of the hunter-gatherer era quickly transformed to a new kind of sage–priests. Special buildings called temples became the heart of settled life: Agriculture was planned there; celestial records were kept in its special rooms, and the youngsters selected to be raised as sages (priest) were educated in its halls. Finally, one of the most important things for society was to assemble in these buildings for rituals that held the spiritual unity of the town together.
After the male-dominated, oppressive patriarchy replaced the peaceful matrifocal social structure of the Neolithic period, the temples became one of the key elements in the center of the hegemonic system based on a ruling class and its subjects. After the dawn of the Bronze Age around the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E., the golden principles of the Mother Goddess faith, namely “liberty, equality and fraternity” were abandoned in favor of a violent, despotic, warmongering new order throughout the Old World. But despite the sharp shift in this sociological and political situation, the main functionality of the temples remained almost unchanged. The priests continued to keep the records and make their observations while trying to develop their understanding of the universe.
“As Above, So Below”
Beginning with the third millennium B.C.E., the first big central kingdoms emerged from northwest Africa to Mesopotamia and from Anatolia to India and China. The wisdom of astronomer-priests flourished in the fertile lands of Ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Aegean Islands, Near East and Indus Valley. They looked at the stars every single night, observed the celestial movements, and recorded all the things they witnessed in detail to pass the knowledge to the next generation of elite priests. Beginning with the second millennium B.C.E., they came to a conclusion, regardless of the culture in which they belonged: The universe was operated as a whole: Everything, every event and every aspect was somewhat interconnected; the earth below our feet and the sky above us were not different entities separated from each other. For this reason the famous Hermetic motto “As above, so below” appeared thousands of years ago.
What does all that mean? The ancients recorded not only the celestial bodies and events, but also earthly changes and noteworthy milestones or “breaking points” in human history. When they examined these records altogether, they found strong correlations between what happened in the sky and what in turn happened on earth. No, there was actually nothing mystical about these connections. In fact, according to the ancient wise men, the effects and correlations were rather physical ones. They felt the need to consider Mother Nature’s history, along with the history of humanity and spot the major changes on the route of civilization which seemed to be affected by natural and celestial events.
Let’s make it more clear: If and when a major social turmoil or chaotic event appeared on a wide scale, and if it somehow coincided with a series of natural disasters, they tended to look for a triggering celestial movement (like an impact of a comet or a close passage of a mysterious celestial body) if they could find some relation. And sometimes, they did find it.
2012: A Change Underway?
Everything is in constant change in this universe as the ancients told us; nothing remains the same or unchanged. Leaning on their millennia-long skywatching tradition and ancient records, they pointed to some key cycles that serve as signs of major changes. For ancient Mesopotamians, this cycle was around 3,661 years long and related to the orbital period of a celestial body whose latest close passage triggered a chain of natural disasters after 1650 B.C.E., including Thera’s volcano eruption, large scale earthquakes and tsunamis in the eastern Mediterranean, and a “volcanic winter” that severely damaged agriculture worldwide. The aftermath of the disasters was large-scale social and political chaos lasting a decade which affected Egypt, Babylon, India, Minos and China. After 1650 B.C.E., the Old World witnessed a sharp change in every manner.
If we look at the other side of the Atlantic, the New World, we find much younger cultures with very similar aspects of the “cyclic time” and the effects of Mother Nature on human societies. The Maya of Central America has stunning astronomical knowledge and an impressive tradition of skywatchers. They also mention a cycle which seems mysteriously connected with celestial events and movements. According to the Mayan “Long Count” calendar, we are walking the last steps of this “world age” which they claimed began in 3114 B.C.E. With the year 2012, along with a series of natural disasters (most probably connected with a celestial sign), this age will end and a new one begin.
The Maya tradition talks about five “world ages”: Each one has a time span of 5125.36 years which makes a total of 25,627 years. This also equals 7 x 3,661 years, the cyclic period of an unknown celestial body. Mere coincidence? Maybe.
According to the Maya, 3114 B.C.E. was the beginning of the last world age—the time when all known central patriarch kingdoms emerged around the world and changed the face of human civilization. Indeed, in a way it was the beginning of a new age. Coincidence? Maybe.
We should state one thing for certain: The Maya never mentioned an apocalyptic end of the world just like the ancient Mesopotamians or Egyptians never prophesied such a thing either. The ancients modestly tried to understand the rules and principles of the universe and observe the fluctuations in human history where they believed they found strong connections. So, Mayans, Babylonians, Egyptians or other skywatcher cultures mentioned a dramatic change, not the end of the world. The apocalypse concept is a mystical fantasy of the much later Abrahamic religions and nothing to do with the ancients.
Let’s suppose the ancients were right; then we can expect a surge of natural changes that shakes the world and triggers unrest, which we have been experiencing already. In this case, probably the wise thing to do is calm down, carefully observe what’s happening around the world, and choose how to act. No need to be anxious; change is the rule of the universe and controllable if you are eager to take the initiative over your life. Lean on your most valuable asset—an uncontrolled, free human mind and intuition.
And suppose they were totally wrong…All this stuff was made-up fantasies of some primitive, ignorant, superstitious priests who lived millennia ago. Then it means nothing is about to change; everything will remain the same, and there is nothing to feel anxious about—that is if you are happy with the present situation, of course.
The choice is yours.
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