Heavenly Obsession

The ancients were obsessed with the heavens. Their gods were up in the heavens above – many were planets, for some strange reason – and they kept a keen eye on their movements and the portents above. As the planets are not visible during the day, this had to have been a nocturnal activity. They must have been insomniacs and there must have been some important reason for their sky-watching rather than some idle whim. The basic struggle to survive lent little time for such “academic” pursuits on anything but a modest scale. There must have been some worldwide pressing need to keep such a vigilant watch.

Again, historians aid our understanding by pronouncing it superstitious fear. They tell us Stonehenge was built for this reason: they feared the Sun was disappearing, going away southward, and needed some reassurance it was returning.

(I don’t know where anyone got this notion. Surely the ancients, more in tune with their environment than most modern mankind, would have noticed that the Sun came back every year. And without the intercession of a priest. How could anyone convince them otherwise? Perhaps if they had just crawled out of some hole and never witnessed the seasons… No, probably not.)

Obsessed, though, they were. They could see the planets moving independently of the background star-field and were able to plot their courses, predict their future positions, as if they had nothing better to do. Why go to the bother if there is no pressing reason?

Fear is a good motivation. Not some hypothetical superstitious fear but something tangible. For us, Friday the 13th is a symbol of bad luck; for the Templars it was a deadly reality. Many today still fear the 13th but it lacks the punch.

We find it remarkable that the ancients understood precession – use it, in fact, as a standard for intelligence – but how important is it, really? How does it impact our daily lives? Most people would be hard pressed to define what it is and even fewer could say if it had any bearing on anything.

Precession is the by-product of the slow wobble in our planetary axis. Astronomers think the entire process takes a little longer than 26,000 years to complete the circuit. As this wobble progresses, the equinoxes (spring and autumn) appear to move backward through the signs of the zodiac. Hence the term: precession of the equinoxes.

Many think this slow progress through the zodiacal houses is the mechanism the ancients defined the “world ages” of the past. But for the variation in the equinox there is nothing that actually affects the world and the people on it. Why would the changing of the positions of the equinoxes be any matter of importance to the ancients unless there was a momentous event attached to the change? Easter and Thanksgiving fall on different dates each year and yet very few people could describe the mechanism for the change. It is merely a calendrical appointment and nothing to require the changing of an age.

Precession is, in essence, nothing of any great importance to our day-to-day world. From its study over the centuries, observers have come to understand that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Precession shows us the motions of the solar system on a grand scale. Any effect on us is miniscule. It is a mechanism for denoting the passage of time not unlike the rotation of the planet or the length of revolution of the Moon around our world or the Earth around the Sun.

So that could not have been the change in the heavens watched so carefully by the ancients. They tracked the planetary motions and something more as well: they seemed to know features about some of the planets they should not have. Jupiter’s red spot and Saturn’s rings were known to the ancients even though they could not have seen these features without the aid of a telescope.

Scholars scoff at the notion that the ancients had such intimate knowledge of the planets but the facts speak for themselves. Cultures around the globe mention these features. Were they simply lucky guesses? Incredibly so to be made in diverse localities.

Can the ancient world have been so different from our own? And what might these changes have meant to the people in the world, like the Maya? Certainly it would have affected their world view, their philosophy, and the priorities of their culture. By studying their histories and artifacts we might come closer to understanding.

Studying the modern Maya may help in our understanding but one should not confuse them with their historical counterparts. How many Catholics today would relate to their Church in the ninth century?

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