Sky: Myths and Symbolism

views updated


But when the stars of Orion and Seirios have climbed up into midheaven and rosy-fingered Dawn is facing Arkturos, then, Perses, pluck and bring home all your clusters of grapes. Set them to dry in the heat of the sun for ten days and nights, and in the shade for five days, and then on the sixth day draw off the blessings of glad Dionysus into your jars. (Hesiod, Works and Days 609617)

Moctezuma, having observed the comet since midnight, went the next day to Netzahualpilli to seek its meaning. Replied the king of Texcoco, "Your vassals, the astrologers, soothsayers and diviners have been careless! That sign in the heavens has been there for some time and yet you describe it to me now as if it were a new thing. I thought you had already discovered it and that your astrologers had explained it to you. Since you now tell me you have seen it I will answer you that that brilliant star appeared in the heavens many days ago. (Durán, 1964, pp. 247248)

Diverse as they are both in interpretation and cultural origin, these epigraphs capture the essence of why ancient people turned to the sky for direction and meaning. Their queries were immediate: "When shall I plant?" "When shall I hunt?" And they were deeper: "Will the child I am about to bear be born healthy?" "Will the gods repay my offering to them by sending gentle rain and a good crop?" But why look upward and outward to commune with the transcendent? Of all the numinous forces in nature's domain that can serve as paragons of order in the worldcycles of plants, animals, the running of the stream, the first rain, the last frostonly what happens in heaven offers the precise predictive power that enables people to cast their eyes around the corner of time into the future.

Sunrise, sunset, the phases of the moon, the annual appearance and disappearance of the constellationsall occur with undeviating regularity. Harness the power of the sky and one opens the doorway of time to come.

When Greek poet Hesiod spoke the Works and Days (the first quotation), he was using the sky as a rational guide for how to run a farm. If one desires the optimum vintage, pick the grapes only when the brightest star in the constellation of Böotes, the Ploughman, makes its first annual predawn appearance. People have been aware of the clockwork sky since Paleolithic times. Alongside cave drawings of antelope and bison, one finds tally marks indicating the direction of the light of the moon and the course of the sun. Such practical concerns involved in the making of calendars constitute the earliest forms of exact science.

The second quotation offers a somewhat less rational perspective on the sky. The early seventeenth-century chronicler Torquemada's account of the celestial omens cast by Netzahualpilli, king of Texcoco, a rival state of the Aztecs, pertains to the appearance of a comet in the skies over ancient Mexico in the early fifteenth century. He tells of King Moctezuma's retort, in which the ruler boasts of his prior knowledge of the same phenomenon. Torquemada goes on to give details of the frightful omens concerning disasters that indeed later befell the unfortunate monarch. If it seems odd to find the occult art of astrology attached to scientific comet watching, one should keep in mind that until well after the Western European Renaissance the principal reason for charting the heavens was to interpret messages sent by celestial spirits. As the Babylonian cuneiform tablets in the Old World and the Maya codices in the New World demonstrate, mathematical predictions about the positions of celestial bodies have long been strongly wedded to religious concerns.

"As above, so below." The logic of the credo of astrology, a form of divination, developed quite naturally out of the realization that the movement and position of the sun could be closely correlated with seasonal cycles of life and that the moon governed both the tides and the menstrual cycle. Might not other celestial forces influence tides in the affairs of men and women? Sky objects became deified. They were worshipped, revered, even compensated for the good that they brought, and they were offered sacrifice as a means of averting misfortune. We may not think of Hesiod's poetry as science, nor of Moctezuma's astrological ruminations as religion, but both pursuits are foundational in worldviews undivided by Enlightenment thinking. In the symbolic sphere of sky-meaning dealt with in this entry one confronts the unfragmented world of an alien other open to dialog with tangible cosmic forces that constitute a living, breathing reality.

The Structure of the Upper World

Early records from the Middle East offer a common if not universal concept of the arrangement of things in the firmament (literally a "thin plate"). Consider these Old and New Testament cosmological speculations: "He set a circle upon the face of the deep" (Prv. 8:27); "He sitteth upon the circle of the earth" (Is. 40:22). Both suggest a god in heaven who looks down upon the edge (horizon) of a flat disk. But the earth rests on pillars: "For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's and He hath set the world upon them" (1 Sm. 28). Above the disk lies the water than makes rainfall and below the water that wells up from artesian springs: "God spread forth the earth above the waters" (Ps. 36:6); "Above the earth is the solid firmament supporting the upper waters" (Gn. 1:67).

Elsewhere, Exodus 20:4 speaks of a tripartite universe: the heavens, the earth, and the watery abyss beneath the earth; or, as in Psalms 115:16, the heavens, the earth, and She'ol. As a rule the Bible imagines the physical sky to be a vast hemisphere, sometimes, as in Psalms 104:2, stretched out over the earth. In the Book of Job the sky is a building supported by columns (26:11), a storehouse for snow and hail (38:22), the winds (37:9), and water (38:37). In Genesis 7:11 the sky has windows through which rain falls to the earth.

The Egyptian cosmos depicted in tomb paintings consists of a rectangular box with Egypt at the center. A flat sky was supported by columns on high mountains. The Nile surrounded all and continued its course into the heavens as a celestial riverthe Milky Way. The stars were lamps hung by ropes or painted on the body of Nut, the feminine sky deity. For the Inca the Milky Way is also a sky river, for the Maya it is a road; both are extensions of terrestrial parallels. Among the Egyptian sky lamps roamed deities and spirits. The sun god Ra traveled the sky in a boat. Reference is made to a ladder connecting heaven and earth whereby spirits could ascend to heaven upon death.

Diné Bahane, the Navajo story of creation, describes the smooth hard shell of the sky overhead. There is a hole on its eastern side through which ancient ancestor spirits could enter into a second world. Other entries led to successive upper worlds, each of a different color, in a layered universe. Each layer is inhabited by different kinds of animal deities.

In some cosmologies, the layer-cake concept continues in the world below. In the Western tradition, it offers the spatial polar opposite to the good found in heaven above. The first mention of hell in Western history appears in Hesiod's Theogony, where it is called Tartaros, the lower deck of a three-story cosmos. Influenced by the Greeks and the New Testament, the Italian poet Dante (12651321) would later tell of a hell that came equipped with nine decks, each of which offered inverse luxury accommodations commensurate with the sin in which one indulged. Gluttonous, lustful, and slothful people sat near the top; murderers, blasphemers, and self-robbers (those who committed suicide) resided in the middle; and grafters, simonists (those who committed fraud), soothsayers, and a variety of traitors occupied the upside-down penthouse at the lowest level of hell.

While Maya heaven consisted of thirteen layers, the lower was composed of nine. Like the Dantean lower realm, it was populated with evildoers: the Lords of the Underworld, each in charge of his own particular pestilence. In most instances then, unknown transcendent space seems to be modeled after terrestrial parallels.

Why Sky Gods Behave as They Do

Myths are stories that try to give answers to life's big questions: Where did I come from? Why must I die? What will happen to me when I die? This section will attempt to convey how some of the celestial metaphors that lie behind particular asterisms derive from the discovery of perceived likenesses between the actions of celestial bodies and particular aspects of life for which people sought meaning.

Designating the planets by name and seeking omens from their behavior lay at the foundation of astrally based religions practiced by nearly all our cultural predecessors. The drama overhead constituted a parallel plane of existencea stage on which people here on earth could reflect and examine human behavior. The gods of the ancient Near East, for example, were not personages who guided nature's forces or programmed its laws. These "attribution deities" began with the actual properties of the material elements that gave them their names. Thus, Esharra, an earth god, was the manifest fruitfulness of the land that made for a bountiful harvest and fat cattle. The rubescent sky god Nergal (Mars) was the red feverishness of the summer sun that destroyed crops; Merodach the youthfulness of the spring equinox sun; Dumuzi the sun at the beginning of summer; and Ishtar (Venus) the returning greenness of the grass after winter's frost and summer's scorching heat.


Venus, for example, was given a host of names. She was called Ishtar in Chaldea, Nabu in Babylonia, Anāhīta by the Persians, Benu by the Sumerians, Astarte and then Aphrodite by the Greeksall feminine appellations. The Greeks recognized Venus's dual aspect, referring to the planet as Phosphoros in the morning and Hesperos in the evening. Later the Romans named these aspects Lucifer and Vesper. In ancient Mesoamerica, Venus was a male, Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent); to the Maya he was Kukulcan. Hawaiians named the planet Hokuloa, the Tahitians Ta'urua. Wasp Star, Red Star, Great Star, Lone Star, Lord of the Dawn, Home of the Love Goddess, Proclaimer, Companion to the Royal Inebriate, Bringer of Light, Satan himselfall these titles were given this single celestial source of light by imaginative people from various epochs and corners of the world.

What did these names mean? Bringer of Light and Lord of the Dawn are understandable enough, for Venus always precedes the rising sun. But why has Venus variously been linked with the highest ideal of feminine beauty, love, and sexuality, as in the Western tradition, or with death and resurrection, as in the Mesoamerican tradition? In the ancient Middle East, where Venus was called Ishtar, there is a long history of worship of the goddess who evoked the power of the dawn. The first syllable of Ishtar's name is probably derived from the Sanskrit ush, meaning "a burning" or "fire." Ush also came to mean "east," the direction to which worshipers turned their faces in order to feel the rays of the bright sun god, both powerful and nurturing. Later, east became the cardinal axis about which most early Old World maps were constructed. It marked where the sun rose on the equinoxes, the first days of autumn and spring. The English word orientation means "easting," and most old European cathedrals face that direction. Concerning Ishtar, the pre-Christian worshipers upon whose pagan temples these edifices now stand needed to be sure that every time they faced the cosmic axis and uttered her name they would soon feel within their breasts the power of dawn, of fire, of creation and fertility. When the Sumerians spoke to Ishtar they drew out her feminine sensuousness:

Ishtar is clothed with pleasure and love
She is laden with vitality, charm and voluptuousness
In lips she is sweet; life is in her mouth.
At her appearance rejoicing becomes full.
She is glorious; veils are thrown over her head.
Her figure is beautiful; her eyes are brilliant.
(Pritchard, 1955, p. 383)

Unlike the other planets, Venus always remains close to the sun, close to the surface of the earth. Thus Ishtar descends into the underworld with the sun at night, only to return the morning after her lustful affair with Shamash, bringing with her omens related to the fertility of the land and of women.

Like Ishtar's descent and return, the death and resurrection of Quetzalcoatl are visibly manifest every time Venus disappears in the western sky in the evening and reappears in the eastern sky in the morning. According to the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, a colonial document from Central Mexico, after an eight day disappearance into the underworld, Venus is resurrected in the eastern sky as Lord of the Dawn.

For the ocean-bound people of ancient Hawaiʻi, the planets were sustainers, supporters or pillars of a giant celestial round house built on the model of the houses in which they once lived. They were placed in the sky to help peopleto warn them of coming events. To learn the warning system, one needed to pay close attention and follow the movement of the planets among the stars from year to year. Some planetary deities paid special attention to fishermen, others to tattoo artistsone cannot explain why in every case. Like the stars, the planets could intermarry and breed children. Bright Venus, as one might expect, was by far the most prominent. It was variously known as Dog of the Morning, Star of Day, and Forerunner of the Morning, a status similar to that of the Greco-Roman Phosphoros-Lucifer.

When Hawaiian Venus was the Great Star, its name was Hokuloa, which placed it in the same class as the sun and moon, but when it dodged unsteadily from side to side, like Mercury, it was dubbed the Royal Inebriate. For seafarers like the Hawaiians, weather prediction ranked high in importance alongside astrological affairs of war and state. Naholoholo, literally "swift-moving," like the storms in this region, is one old Hawaiian name given to Venus. In one tale, the Great Guide Star of the Evening deviates from his course to suppress the fury of a hurricane and, as a result, loses his balance and falls out of his canoe.

Venus's habit of dogging the rising and setting sun also had its effect on Chinese celestial imagery. In eighth-century China, for example, white was the color of ghosts, and the brilliance of Venus also mocked the flash of swordly metal. This is probably why the Chinese called the planet the Grand White and the Executioner's Stara planet that portended deadly plots and cutting edges. When Venus crossed the constellation of the Battle Ax (part of Gemini), it foretold the clash of weapons; when it entered the Ghost constellation, it was time to execute the vassals. Warriors once stood on the Great Wall following the movements of the Grand White, even at the expense of neglecting to observe the maneuvers of their enemies. When the planet was especially brightfor example, if it could be seen in the daytimeits spotlight aspect indicated an omen of special importance. Perhaps the yin principle would strongly override the yang so that a lower-order vassal could rise up against the Emperor of the Sun.

Other attribution deities

Other planets exacted their own metaphors. For example, the red planet Marsplanet of blood and fire for the Tang of sixth-century Chinawas regarded as the punishment star. It was especially potent when it passed its namesake constellations of Virgo and Scorpio. Curiously, Antares, the bright red star in Scorpio, also means "rival of Mars" in the Western tradition. Its hot, rosy radiation also warned of drought.

Because they once were earth gods, all the planets in the Sumerian pantheon had terrestrial dwelling places. The dwelling place of Mars (Nergal) was a violent domicile that generated the malevolence associated with the war god. The names the Assyrians gave to Mars suggest anything but beneficence and dependability. He was the pestilential one, hostile and rebellious. War was another of the aspects of Mars, which, some Assyriologists contend, may have been associated with the planet's blood red color, especially when it lies low over the land. Or is it the erratic motion Mars exhibits, well beyond that of the other planets?

Slowest moving of all the planets, Saturn was Ninib to the Sumerians, a phlegmatic old man who lumbered ever so slowly across the celestial vault. Saturn also received the designation Lu-Bat, the steady one, for it could be counted upon, more than any other so-called wanderer (the Sumerians likened the planets to errant sheep who strayed from the flock) to be present in the night sky just as the sun ruled the day. Because it moves thoughtfully, steadily, and deliberately, Saturn's character reflects wisdom and intelligence more than speed and vigorous activity. By inhibiting the uppermost realm, a result of the extreme length of time it takes the planet to complete its cycle around the zodiac, Saturn occupied the biggest sphere and was therefore accorded the highest power in divinatory astrology.

Nearer to the sun than the cold, remote location of Saturn, yet farther than fiery Mars, lies JupiterGreek Zeus. Jupiter is commonly associated with justice. He became a moderator and, consequently, most fit to rule the celestial gods. He alone held the power to create storms, floods, and earthquakes. As Marduk he was elevated to the position of tutelary, or protective, deity of the city of Babylon. He also rose to the godhead position in the later Babylonian astral religions as a consequence of that city having gained prominence over its rivals.

To fleeting Mercury, ancient people applied terms such as burner or sparkler, terms that visually depict the way the planet twinkles at the horizon. Animals associated with Mercury, the stealthy fox and the leopard, characterize its aspect as a trickster, for Mercury would always foil one who tried to follow him by hiding and disappearing frequently.

Celestial Imagery

Conditioned to believe that myth can have no basis in observed fact, the modern mind might seem content to sweep such detail under the rug of superstition and irrational mysticism. But by appealing to natural phenomena that actually took place in land and skyby paying attention to qualities peculiar to each planetone can begin to piece together an empirical side of the mythic coin that complements and enriches the seemingly strange logic behind sky myths. Moreover, if the listener to whom the story is being told knows the celestial imagery that goes with each chapter, the greater its efficacy. The tale truly begins to come to life in the real world.

Culture structures nature. And so people order the stars as well as the planets into patterns in the sky. The most common set is the zodiac, literally a circle of animals, usually twelve or thirteen in number, that circumscribe the sky. The Egyptian zodiac consisted of twelve constellations, the Maya thirteen, the Chinese twenty-eight. The zodiac constitutes the roadway along which the sun, moon, and stars pass. Its stars play a major role in acquiring astrological predictions.

Among the Desána of Colombia, hexagonal shapes and outlines (e.g., a number of bright stars centered on the Belt of Orion rather than a sky band) provided the ordering principle. Hexagons indicate life's creative-transformative energies concentrated and at work. The Desána see these recurring shapes in the structure of rock crystals, which are common shamanic power objects. They see them in honeycombs, wasps' nests, the womb, ritual enclosures, and the plates on the back of a tortoise.

The Aztecs viewed in their star patterns the sustainers of lifethe gods they sought to repay with the blood of sacrifice for bringing favorable rains, for keeping the earth from quaking, for spurring them on in battle. Among the gods was Black Tezcatlipoca, who ruled the night from his abode in the north, with its wheel (the Big Dipper). He presided over the cosmic ballcourt (Gemini), where the gods played a game to set the fate of humankind. He lit the fire sticks (Orion's belt) that brought warmth to the hearth. And at the end of every 52-year calendrical cycle, Black Tezcatlipoca timed the rattlesnake's tail (the Pleiades) so that it passed overhead at midnighta guarantee that the world would not come to an end and that humanity would be granted another epoch of life. The priests in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, climbed to the top of their sky watchers' temple on the Hill of the Star to witness this auspicious sign. These indigenous cultures lived their sky, knowing that everything that happened on earth was destined in the cosmos.

The Sky in Creation Narratives

Genesis means "origination," and every genesis myth begins with a sense of time. The modern scientific genesis began more than thirteen billion years ago in a Big Bang from which all events and things have spun. But this, unlike all other cosmologies, is decidedly nonparticipatorya story without a purpose as one modern cosmologist has characterized it.

In the Old Testament Genesis, the purpose seems to be to demonstrate that all things were intended to be good. Perhaps all people need to believe in a world that can be conceived as orderly, intentional, purposeful, and, above all, created specifically with them in minda good world. The orderly creation by word in Genesis stands in stark contrast to the early Greek Theogony and the earlier Babylonian Enuma Elish from which it undoubtedly derived. These militaristic states portray a present world that emerges in the aftermath of a battle among cosmic forces. In the Theogony, the history of the world is characterized as the history of the descent of the orderly government of Zeus by succession from his godly predecessors.

The Babylonian creation myth, also acted out in heaven, follows a similar might-is-right storyline with Marduk, the analog of Zeus and Jupiter, battling Tiamat (Typhoeus in the Theogony ), the raging force of the untamed waters. Out of Marduk's victory in battle comes a common motif in stories of creation, the raising of the sky:

He shot off an arrow, and it tore her interior. It cut through her inward parts, it split her heart. When he had subdued her, he destroyed her life. He split her open like a mussel in two parts; Half of her he set in place and formed the sky therewith as a roof. He fixed the crossbar and posted guards; He commanded them not to let her waters escape. (Heidel, 1942, p. 42)

The idea behind this fantastic imagery is that divine kingship lies at the root of the state, and it must be established authoritatively once and for all through compulsive force. In like manner, a violent process also was necessary to create an orderly universe.

The concept of raising the sky is especially prominent in the cosmogonies of Polynesia and Micronesia, as well as in Nigeria and the Malay Peninsula. One story conceives of the sky as a vessel suspended over the earth by a cord. Once it hung so low to the earth that one of the first humans accidentally bumped against it while raising his pestle to grind rice. He raised the sky higher up with his hands to its present position.

The further back one traces creation myths, the more hazy they become on the issue of whether man or woman came first in the genealogy. Perhaps this only reflects the magnitude of the problem about where the principle of sexual union originates. For example, in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the blending of the male and female principle is manifested in the commingling of fresh and salt waters where the Tigris and Euphrates meet the Persian Gulf. Before this time the universe was a watery chaos not unlike that in the biblical Genesis. Likewise Ometecuhtli, the creation deity of the Aztecs who resides in the uppermost layer of heaven, is bisexual.

The Popol Vuh, the Quiché Maya story of the creation of "all the sky earth," features twin heroes (usually depicted as the sun and moon, or the sun and Venus) who go into the underworld to battle the lords of pestilence. One brother defeats the evil lords by tricking them into offering themselves for sacrifice. He demonstrates his power over time by sacrificing his twin brother, tearing out his heart; then, by voice command, he reverses time and brings him back to life. So ecstatic are the lords with such legerdemain that they plead to Venus: "Do it to us!" Venus indulges them, but, cleverly, only completes the first half of the process. Were it not for Venus's cunning actions in the netherworld before the dawn of history, the Maya say, the world would be far worse off with disease than it is today. Cunning and trickery are qualities of sky gods in many Native American narratives.

The Chinese think about their past in terms of three ages: the mythological, the ancient, and the modern. The first two are of special concern. Creation was an event that, by most accounts, took place close to half a million years ago. It began just as the sages in many other cultures tell it: by the opening of heaven and earth. This was not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), but rather a stepwise fabrication fired up by the Dao, an unknowable principle that resulted in the sorting out of an originally undifferentiated chaos.

First there was a One, and out of that One, the Two was produced, the yin-yang principle that constitutes the makeup of everything conceivable. As in the biblical Genesis, there is also an anthropic version of the fabrication of the universe. Pangu, a creator god, goes about his work with hammer and chisel as he sculpts masses of chaotic matter into the correct shape. They say his labors lasted eighteen thousand years; day by day as he worked along, he increased in stature, and the heavens rose and the earth expanded around him. Once he made the stage ready, he died. But even his death benefited humans directly, for his body parts became the entities that fill up earth's basin: his head became the mountains; his left eye, the sun; his right eye, the moon; his beard, the stars; his limbs, the four quarters; his blood, the rivers; his flesh, the soil; his breath, the wind and clouds; his voice, the thunder. His limbs were the four directions; metals, rocks, and precious stones were made from his teeth, bones, and marrow. His sweat became the rain, and the insects that stuck to his body were the people.

Sky gods usually appear to be both unique religious creations and products of history. At one end of a broad continuum lie deities who display characteristics related to rulership of the world and moral oversight (e.g., the Indian Varua and Iranian Ahura Mazdā); at the other end are deities whose chief traits mark them as creators, bringers of rain and fecundity, and likely to develop into more specialized storm gods (e.g., Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, and possibly the Inca Viracocha and the Teotihuacan storm god). In the middle of the array would stand the figure of a cosmocrat like Mahāvairocana, the cosmic buddha of the Shingon school in Japan.

Making Sacred Space on Earth

As the Roman urbs was the place of assembly, civitas was the religious and political association of tribal families. Both translate as "city." The Etruscans founded the city all at once rather than by gradual degrees. A white bull drew a plough in one direction, a black bull in the other as circular furrows were plowed to circumscribe the intended location of the heart of the city: the templum, whence the modern English word temple.

Knowing which way to face lies at the basis of rules of communication between people and their gods. Which way must a priest or worshippers turn in order to perform correctly a private or public ceremony, a consecration or sacrifice? For the Etruscans the setting of directions was not according to humans but rather to the world itself. There was a front and a back to Etruscan ritual space, a left and a right in the early templum this human-built representation of the celestial templum, the home of the gods who lived in the sky. "Four parts did it have: that toward the east antica, positca that toward the west: the northern part on the left, the southern on the right," wrote the Roman historian Isidorus. Thus, gates to the city were placed at four cardinal interruptions in the furrow. A foundation sacrificial ritual honoring the ancestors, ancient gods, and heroes, then took place at the center. "There is no place in the city not impregnated with religion and not occupied by some divinity," wrote Livy.

Historians of religions have sorted out a number of reasons that motivated ancient cultures around the world to seek divine plans for the arrangement and orientation of ceremonial architecture. Paul Wheatley, in discussing the spatial arrangement of buildings in the Chinese city, suggests that those religions that specifically associated the creation of the universe with the origin of humanity tend to dramatize the cosmogony by attempting to reproduce on earth a miniaturized version of the cosmos. On the other hand, those that relate divine revelation to the meaning of human existence often abstract their gods from the landscape; the attendant rituals appear to bear little connection to the environment. Thus, in eastern Asia and particularly in Mesoamerica, where creation hypotheses are heavily mythologized, one can expect religion to have played a decisive role in the planning of ceremonial space.

Historian of religions Mircea Eliade gave an account of cosmic hierophanies, which he considers to be sacred phenomena revealed at different cosmic levels. His discussion of architectural hierophanies emphasizes the cohesive bond between ancient religion and cosmology. The use of ceremonial architecture to convey celestial messages to a throng celebrating a ritual seems to have flowered in the classic Maya world (200900 ce). There are numerous examples of important eventsinaugurations, celebrations of victories in battle, great royal turning pointsbeing commemorated on days when some important celestial event occurred. Such elaborate theatrical stagings reveal Maya beliefs about the essence of heavenly power in a direct and forceful way. The goal of specialized Maya ceremonial architecture seems to have been to instill in the viewer-participant the same sort of passion that might have welled up in the breast of the medieval Christian pilgrim who for the first time saw the sun shine through the stained glass windows of, say, the cathedral of Chartres. For the ancient Maya, the cosmos carried powerful messages and their delivery occurred, as one might expect in the tropics, in the open outdoor space of the royal court.

Among the cosmo-magical principles of place-making cited by Wheatley are the location of major ceremonial structures over caves or springs, natural openings to the underworld, and the orientation of such structures to prominent points in the land and skyscape. Thus, the great pyramid of Cholula, Mexico, the largest Native American structure, faces the sunset at the summer solstice between the twin volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccíhuatl. Likewise, Teotihuacán's Pyramid of the Sun, built over a cave, is oriented to a mountain on the north, as well as toward the west to the setting point of the Pleiades star group, the first annual appearance of which marks New Year's day, when the sun passes directly overhead.

Shrines often mark connection points with the sky-earth. For example, a small chapel on the side of Cholula's pyramid is positioned over a natural spring that connects to the underworld. The radial ceque system of the Inca capital of Cuzco is delineated by huacas, sacred places (many of them natural springs) where worshippers feed the earth mother, Pachamama. The Hopi marked the solstices, which the elders referred to as "houses" where the sun stops in its travels along the horizon. At these places along the high mesa, the priests erected small shrines. There a sun priest in charge of the calendar would deposit prayer sticks, an offering to welcome the sun and to encourage it on its celestial journey. Some of these shrines have special openings that allow shafts of sunlight to penetrate particular directions, thus serving as another way to mark the appropriate time. Sometimes the sun priest would gesture to the sun, whirling a shield decorated with sun designs to imitate the sun's turning motion, hastening away any malevolent spirits who might impede the great luminary.

Celestially motivated structures might be classified as theaters, as well as observatories. The modern preoccupation with precision and exactitude in assessing ancient building alignments often undervalues the symbolic significance of sky phenomena. (A modern example is the proposed design of the new World Trade Center complex in New York, which incorporates a colossal shadow casting device to mark the precise moment of the September 11, 2001, event.) Cosmic hierophanies often translate into light and shadow phenomena in architectural space dedicated to worshipping the ancestor creator gods. One example of a hierophany involving the subtle influence of light and shadow on Mesoamerican Maya architecture occurs at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. About an hour before sunset on the vernal equinox, the nine platforms that make up the pyramidal base of the Temple of Kukulcan cast thin shadows on the balustrade wall of the north stairway in such a way as to form an undulating line. The union of this line with the large serpent head at the base of the northern staircase presents a striking picture of a serpent of light. Here was an appropriate event to take place on a temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl-Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god of creativity and reservationand it seems to have been designed to take place at the right time.

Toward the end of the last millennium, the Chichén hierophany was appropriated by the government as a national holiday when it was realized that the event also takes place on the birthday of the nineteenth-century Mexican liberator Benito Juárez. Today, the world New Age community descends on the serpent on equinox day to find salvation and renewal by seeking the ancient truths and lost wisdom of the Maya, which they believe are revealed on this special day. Thousands of people attend the annual event, which has its European parallel in the Stonehenge pilgrimage on the summer solstice. Thus, the ruins of antiquity become the contested ground for the ownership of sacred time and placebetween native and foreigner, between scientific expert and New Ager, between local commoner and national bu-reaucracy.

Like all seasonal rituals in the round of cyclic time, the serpent hierophany is really about hopethe return of a desired past that elevates the present above the mundane. The descending serpent offers food for a spiritually starved society possessed by a longing to recreate a glorious past superior to an unfulfilling present. Whether a descending serpent, a wandering planet, or a conspicuous star group that calls to mind a parallel in the earthly realm, whatever emerges out of the sky seems ever-present, all-powerful and, above all, stable and reliable. The heavens are the hallmark of a collection of living entities that command reverence, exude wisdom, and, with an aura of mystery and wonderment, offer the prospect of human salvation.

See Also

Ascension; Cosmology; Heaven and Hell; Moon; Stars; Sun.


An astronomical tour of ancient sacred places as sources of transcendent power is given in Edwin C. Krupp, Skywatchers, Shamans, and Kings: Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power (New York, 1997). Krupp's earlier Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations (New York, 1983) focuses further on archaeological manifestations of celestial symbolism. Skywatchers: A Revised Version of Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico by Anthony Aveni (Austin, Tex., 2001) focuses mostly on Mesoamerica (see esp. chap. 5). Aveni's Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, rev. ed. (Boulder, Colo., 2003) offers a chapter (3) on sky mythology that includes how early Christianity transformed the pagan sky gods. Chapter 2 of Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker (New York, 1993) gives an excellent overview of ancient and contemporary Maya celestial mythology. Also of a regional nature, historian of religion Lawrence Sullivan's Icanchu's Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions (New York, 1988) discusses celestial beings, world planes, and the transcendent as manifested in sky myth.

Most relevant among the many works of Mircea Eliade are The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, 1959) and Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), especially chapter 2: "The Sky and Sky Gods." Chapter 1 in Eliade's Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York, 1954) develops several themes, such as the symbolism of the center and the celestial archetypes of human space. From Primitives to Zen: A Thematic Sourcebook of the History of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York, 1967), is an excellent sourcebook. Also see W. Brede Kristensen's The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion (The Hague, 1960); see especially chapter 3, "The Worship of the Sky and of Celestial Bodies," which takes an approach very different from Eliade's. Also useful is George B. Foucart's excellent article "Sky and Sky Gods" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 11 (Edinburgh, 1920). Further, on sky gods see the brief essay "The Supreme Being: Phenomenological Structure and Historical Development" in The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, edited by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago, 1959), pp. 5966. A classic English-language work on the sky gods is E. O. James's The Worship of the Sky-God: A Comparative Study in Semitic and Indo-European Religion (London, 1963). In addition, although methodologically outdated, James G. Frazer's Worship of Nature, vol. 1 (London, 1926), remains an excellent source for data (see pp. 1315 on "the worship of the sky"). See also Charles H. Long's concise work Alpha: The Myths of Creation (New York, 1963); Alexander Heidel's The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation (Chicago, 1942); James Bennett Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 2d ed., corr. and enl. (Princeton, 1955); and Diego Durán, The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain (New York, 1964).

Lindsay Jones's Monumental Occasions: Reflections on the Eventfulness of Religious Architecture (Cambridge, Mass., 2000) and Twin City Tales: A Hermeneutical Reassessment of Tula and Chichén Itzá (Niwot, Colo., 1995) deal with broader theoretical questions and the historical interpretation of cosmically related architecture. In the art historical realm the image of the sky dome in art and architecture is dealt with in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's "The Symbolism of the Dome" in Selected Papers, vol. 1: Traditional Art and Symbolism, edited by Roger Lipsey (Princeton, 1977), pp. 415458. See also Alexander C. Soper's "The 'Dome of Heaven' in Asia," Art Bulletin 29 (1947): 225248; and Karl Lehmann's "The Dome of Heaven," Art Bulletin 27 (1945): 127.

Cosmogony and Ethical Order: New Studies in Comparative Ethics, edited by Robin Lovin and Frank Reynolds (Chicago, 1985) offers a series of essays on creation stories from around the world. David Carrasco's edited volumes To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes (Niwot, Colo., 1991); The Imagination of Matter: Religion and Ecology in Mesoamerican Traditions (Oxford, 1989); and Mesoamerica's Classical Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs (Boulder, Colo., 2000) have revolutionized the approaches of cultural anthropology and the history of religion to the subject of Mesoamerican cosmologies. Lastly, the author acknowledges Peter Chemery's essay from the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987) both for guidance and for information in the preparation of this updated contribution.

Anthony F. Aveni (2005)