Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Myths and Monuments I

Dresden Codex

Where we have first-hand informants or can actually still witness long-standing cultural practices, we are in the strongest position to recognize aspects of other worldviews. Examples such as the modern Yucatec Maya village of Yalcobá in southern Mexico, where the structure of the cosmos is reflected in a whole variety of aspects of social behavior, show just how rich and complex these practices can be. Yet ethnographers can be misled by informants, especially if they ask the wrong questions—all too easy if they have very little initial understanding of the nature of the worldview they are studying. Added to this, sacred information is often withheld, or the anthropologist may not be at liberty to pass it on. There is also the additional danger that the ethnographer may succeed, unwittingly, in influencing the very worldview he or she is trying to investigate, so that a subsequent investigator is misled into thinking that certain modern knowledge was in fact indigenous. Finally, most of us are limited to approaching the cultural information indirectly, at best at second hand, which imposes a selectivity that is not of our choosing and a filter—that of the ethnographer’s interpretations— through which we are forced to view everything.

Historical accounts, whether by indigenous people themselves or by past ethnographers, are subject to all the problems just mentioned together with some additional ones. For one thing, an author who is no longer alive cannot be questioned, so there is no possibility of clarification or elaboration. For another, in interpreting a historical account it may be critical to appreciate the context in which it was produced.

Ancient written records directly relating to astronomy exist not only among the civilizations of the Middle and Far East. Perhaps the most extraordinary example produced in the American continent is the Maya DRESDEN CODEX, a pre-Columbian astronomical (or, more accurately, astrological) almanac. Both its complexity and level of detail are exceptional. In some cultures, other types of recording device encapsulated sacred information, including astronomical knowledge or calendrical data. One intriguing example is the QUIPU, bundles of knotted strings used in the Inca empire. A much more widespread practice, which did not produce any form of written record, was to embed sky knowledge and cosmological beliefs within myths that were transmitted from generation to generation orally. Storytelling may have been entertaining, but it could also have the deeper purpose of passing on wisdom. Creation myths often served to confirm a community’s rightful place in space and time, or to establish the genealogical credentials, and hence the social standing, of a king or leader. (Genealogies were not limited to human forbears. The KUMULIPO, a 2,000-line long Hawaiian creation chant composed in the eighteenth century, recounted in detail how chief Ka-‘I-i-mamao was related, ultimately, to everything in the world.) Some sacred stories were carefully learned and recounted, often in the context of formal ceremonies. Other tales might change in the telling, bringing many variations down to us but leaving intact the essential underlying substance and meaning.

The further we delve into the past, the more we find ourselves limited to the archaeological record—the material remains of past human activity. Silent alignments of stone temples and tombs, interplays of sunlight and shade that light up dark spaces only on rare occasions, symbols with unfathomable meanings but which resemble the sun or moon or familiar groups of stars—these form many of the most famous manifestations of ancient astronomy. But they also present the serious scholar with serious methodological problems. Every oriented structure must point towards some point on the horizon, and in all likelihood to one or more identifiable astronomical targets. Similarly, the majority of entrances and openings will let in a shaft of sunlight at some time of the year and day. The mere existence of (say) a solar alignment is no guarantee that this meant anything to the builders of a house, temple, or tomb. Since astronomical alignments can—and frequently will—occur completely by chance, we must do more than simply “butterfly collect” them if we are interested in what they actually meant to people in the past. There are two ways of proceeding: either to seek statistical confirmation— for example, by identifying a group of several monuments in which a certain type of astronomical alignment occurs repeatedly—or by finding corroborating archaeological evidence of different forms. An example of the former is the RECUMBENT STONE CIRCLES of northeast Scotland, which have a consistent orientation relating to the moon. Two different examples of the latter, also from Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain, are the THORNBOROUGH henges (large round embanked enclosures) in Yorkshire, England, and the cairns at Balnuaran of Clava in Inverness, Scotland.

In some cases, such as pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, we have both archaeological and other forms of evidence, including ethnohistory (accounts recorded during the early years of European contact), iconography, and written records. Integrating these diverse forms of evidence can be a considerable challenge. This problem is illustrated by the prolonged controversy that surrounded the putative Venus alignment at the so-called Governor’s Palace at the Maya city of Uxmal. Inscriptions on the building attest to a strong interest in the planet Venus, but the apparent orientation of the building toward an extreme rising point of the planet has generated much debate. In ancient Mesoamerica in general, the historical evidence relating to astronomy and calendrics is strong, and the archaeological evidence—for example in the form of alignments—tends to strengthen and corroborate this. If it were not for the accounts of the early Spanish chroniclers, the calendrical inscriptions, and the vital bark books (codices), we would simply have no idea of the sophistication and complexity of Mesoamerican astronomy.

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