Astronomy in Ancient Civilisations
Copyright © 2001 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
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
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
Dr William Sullivan took these theories further by applying
them to the Incas. He decoded the Andean myths using three fundamental
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
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
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
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.
Suggested Pdf Resources
- ASTRONOMY IN ANCIENT IRAN
- (New Year).i. The Iranians also used their knowledge of astronomy to influence others in the ancient civilization.
- Astronomy in Ancient Cultures: An investigation in - Amgen
- Winning Lesson Plan from Lafayette, CO. Astronomy in Ancient. Cultures: An investigation in Archeoastronomy by Emily L.
- Astronomy of Many Cultures
- the world. Archaeoastronomy is one name we give to the study of the astronomical ideas and monuments of ancient cultures.
- Chapter 3 The Science of Astronomy In what ways do all humans
- scientific thinking? • How did astronomical observations benefit ancient societies ? • What did ancient civilizations achieve in astronomy?
Suggested News Resources
- "Ancient Civilizations of The Americas: Man, Nature and Spirit in Pre
- Unlike in the Old World of the European Middle Ages, those in pre-Columbian America were not advanced in skills such as metallurgy, but they did excel in mathematics and astronomy, and had the most highly developed calendar systems in the world.
- Less jaw-jaw, more war-war
- So perhaps Emperor Ren with his cooking revolution is the unofficial grandfather of Chinese civilization. Ancient Chinese historian and astronomer Sima Qian (145-90 BC) pushed cooking to the next higher dimension in human history.
- Muslim Inventions Dazzle California
- “But it's like we were all taught that nothing happened between ancient Egypt and the Renaissance.
- Saint of the Day: Dominic de Guzman
- UCLA research suggests that warfare was essential to founding the Inca empire in southern Peru over 2000 years ago. more 21-volume work details the language and culture of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia.
Suggested Web Resources
- Importance of Astronomy to Ancient Civilizations
- (Submitted September 17, 1998). Why did ancient civilizations, like Mayans and Greeks, have such advanced Astronomy?
- Space Today Online -- Chinese Astronomy
- Astronomy truly is an ancient science in China. In fact, mankind's first record of an eclipse of the Sun was made in China in 2136 BC.
- Explore: Rome - Astronomy
- The Gift Of Prometheus - Sciences Of Ancient Civilisations · Explore, • Gallery • Interactive • Forum • Translate • About • Advanced Search. Rome.