The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

[We continue the paraphrase of Allan Chapman’s Gods in the Sky, episode 2, from Channel 4]

So what was the point of the bizarre calendars we discussed in the first part of this post?

The primary function of the astronomical religions was to allow farmers to predict the seasons (as we have also seen from our exploration of Ancient Egyptian myth and faith). Indeed, it is the writer Hesiod who gives us the first documentary evidence of how the gods in the sky were used in farming:

But when Orion and Sirius are come into mid-heaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus (30), then cut off all the grape-clusters, Perses, and bring them home. Show them to the sun ten days and ten nights: then cover them over for five, and on the sixth day draw off into vessels the gifts of joyful Dionysus. But when the Pleiades and Hyades and strong Orion begin to set (31), then remember to plough in season: and so the completed year (32) will fitly pass beneath the earth.

Like the peasants of Egypt and Babylon, Greek farmers used their myths to tell the time, but their myths were a lot more complicated than those of the other ancient peoples. And here lies a clue for why it was that the Greeks became by far the greatest astronomers of the ancient world.

In Greek legend, the Moon was held in special reverence, and worshipped as a beautiful and fertile goddess. She was a fertile goddess because her phases corresponded to the menstrual cycle of women, and she was so adored because she was so incredibly useful: her cycle lasted 28 days, dividing the month into 4 weeks. So, the adoration is understandable. But why did the Greeks have so many moon goddesses? Artemis was one, wielding her crescent bow; but so was Athena, who was known as ‘One who shines by night’; Hera, the wife of Zeus, was a moon goddess, as was the virgin Amalthea, and the orgiastic nymph, Io; and Nemesis, Andromeda, Danae, Selene, Helen, Persephone, Adrastea.

In Ancient Greece, you could hardly hurl a discus without hitting a moon goddess. The Sun was no slouch in multiplicity of godheads either. Take the Orion myth: Helios was the Sun. So was Apollo. And Zeus. And Hephaistos. Some Greeks worshipped the Cyclops as a one-eyed Sun god.

Why is Greek myth so complicated? Why all these multitudes of divinities? The answer lies in geography. Greece003 delphi comprises many small islands, and each island contained its own community often worshipping its own astronomical gods. As the Greeks were unified, all these various gods and myths became combined, making their legends very complicated, for they now consisted of multiple overlapping stories of astronomy and timekeeping. What’s more, the myths also began to reflect political relationships between the Greek states. The battles between the Greeks were recorded as squabbles between their various gods. And the fact that the Greeks lived in separate communities meant as well that there were differences in the ways they worshipped their pantheons.

This was to be crucial in the development of scientific astronomy. When the Greeks wished to talk to their gods, they would travel to the great temple at Delphi to meet the priests who would intermediate between them and the deities. At Delphi, they would ask questions of Apollo. But unlike the faithful of other peoples such as the Babylonians and the Chinese, the Greeks sought not instruction from their gods, but advice. And they could choose whether to accept or reject that advice. The Greeks, you see, were free.

Of all the peoples of the ancient world, only the Greeks enjoyed freedom, and this made a big difference to their view of the Universe. To see why, we can examine the despotic regimes of the ancient Orient. Unlike the Classical Greeks who lived in independent and democratic city-states, the Orientals lived under the heel of mighty monarchs, absolute kings, ruling by divine right in the names of their gods in the sky. 004 japan In Japan, it was said that the rule of the Mikado was by direct right from the Sun Goddess, and since he was the earthly representative of the divinity, he accompanied his court astrologers when they were taking astronomical readings of the shadow cast by the sun. Like the rulers of Ancient Egypt, the Orientals believed that the order they imposed on earth was a direct consequence and mirror of the order in the heavens. And just as the earthly emperor ruled on earth, so a Heavenly Emperor ruled in the skies. In China this was the Jade Emperor who lived in a cloud palace in a pearl star, and was so mighty he controlled the movements of the stars and the planets. To illustrate, we have the myth of the ox-herd.

The Jade Emperor’s daughter, we are told, is a beautiful princess called Chi Nu, the celestial goddess of weaving, associated with the star Vega, and who formed the constellation of Aquarius. Chi Nu was said to have made the clouds, and worn magical garments that changed colour with the seasons. One day she came down to Earth, and approached the bank of a silver river. She took off her magic coat and stepped into the flow in order to bathe. But while she was bathing, she was spotted and abducted by a common ox-herd (who was later to be associated with the star Altair, and whose ox was the constellation Capricorn). Much to the displeasure of the Jade Emperor, the two were happily married and had children. But one day, Chi Nu rediscovered her magic coat, and flew back into the heavens. To prevent the oxherd from following her, the Jade Emperor threw up the silver river into the heavens where it became the Milky Way.

Now this story which pertains to two stars belonging to what is now called the Summer Triangle is quite unlike the myths of the Greeks, for here we do not find a bunch of squabbling gods. Instead there was one supreme ruler, the Jade Empeoror, and it was in the name of this heavenly monarch that China’s rulers governed. So to challenge the earthly ruler would be to challenge the heavens themselves. You can see this in the myth of Monkey.

The story of Monkey is a satirical creation. Like other creation myths, it begins with an egg, which is fertilized by the wind. From the egg, there emerges a rebellious monkey who refuses to obey the laws of any human king, and declares himself a monkey king, and tries to become immortal like the heavenly ruler, to live forever among the people of the sky. This insolence angers the Jade Emperor and he summons the heavens themselves to attack Monkey. First, Monkey had to battle with the stars, and then with the planets, and if these weren’t enough, the Jade Emperor sends Time itself in the form of the twelve hours to attack the rebel.

Because the rulers of the ancient despotic lands claimed to govern as a divine right, the development of astronomy was seriously stymied, for anyone who speculated about the nature of the heavenly bodies was condemned as a blasphemer and a traitor. People were not free to question the official view of the heavens. What’s more, this way of linking the affairs of heaven with those of earth was deeply astrological, and a disturbance above would immediately suggest to a soothsayer something amiss down below. As a result, emperors were keen to keep astronomical data a closely guarded secret, terrified as they were of adverse astrological predictions, which they thought would reflect badly upon their rule. Astronomy, then, became a closed system. Although the Chinese collected a stupendous amount of astronomical data, they were unable to develop a truly scientific astronomy.

Today we might imagine that scientific astronomy began with Galileo and Copernicus. In truth, though, it was the Ancient Greeks who created the science of star-gazing. To understand how and why, we must look down from heaven and out to sea.

[To be continued.]


Post a Comment