SERPENTS OF STONE AND TREES OF BIRDS: A LITTLE ANCIENT ASTRONOMY CAN GO A LONG WAY!
As 2012 lurches towards its inevitable rendezvous with destruction, at least for those who think they read something into the Mayan calendar prophecies, it seems like a good time to refocus on the role that ancient astronomy has played in developing many new models for the interpretation of ancient myths and stories as a means by which the distant past can be revealed. That many of these newer models of the past seem to suggest that the universality of these myths goes far deeper than we might previously have suspected should not surprise us all that much, that is if we take a rational view of the capabilities of ancient peoples when comparing them with our own. This author has explored these ideas earlier in this blog and in more detail in several of the novels of The People of the Stone saga, both in terms of the myth making abilities and the astronomical knowledge of the people portrayed in the stories. To any open-minded observer or scholar who deals with this ever-growing body of knowledge concerning the astronomical capabilities of the ancients two things, I believe, quickly become apparent. First, the time/depth of this knowledge and the sophistication of the observational and recording (by all forms, not the least of which must have been oral transmission) powers of the ancients must go much farther back in time than anyone might have suggested fifty years ago. Certainly, the late Ice Age to pre Neolithic Period is not at all out of the question for many such concepts. Secondly, the near universality of some mythic themes and stories are so similar when compared that attributing such to mere coincidence can no longer remain a sustainable position for even the most conservative thinkers on myth, science, and their relationships in past times.
In order to focus, if only briefly in this short article, on these two assumptions, I will look at two broad categories of myths, which might on their surface appear to either have little in common with astronomical knowledge and each other , with universality, or with both. Before getting into these two specific classes of myth and symbol (one dealing with snakes and the other with small birds and trees), however, there will have to be a brief side trip in one or two instances, and I beg the reader's indulgence in allowing for this necessity. First, I will attempt to gain the reader's favor somewhat by explaining how the choices of these two particular categories of myth have been selected.
WHY THE FASCINATION WITH SNAKES AND BIRDS BOTH THEN AND NOW, YOU ASK?
The easy answer to this question might be that these two choices represent the extreme in animal iconography of all types--mythic and otherwise. Snakes crawl on their belly, live on or under the earth (hence their association with many things having to do with the underworld and the other denizens thereof), and are commonly viewed as a threat, as evil, or as some other agent of anti-social belief or behavior. Snakes and serpents are vile, deadly, and always lurking in the dark recesses of real places and in even darker ones in our minds. Birds, on the other hand, are off in the sky, beautiful to look at, closer to the heavens, the gods who dwell there in whatever form, and all other things "good". We envy their freedom, their access to the heavenly forces, and their vulnerability even gives us some feeling of sympatico with their carefree spirits. Easy choices, right? In my case, however, these are more personal choices. I first became fascinated with snake imagery when in 1981 I was looking around for an easily repeatable and recognizable logo for my craft business and chose (at least I think it was my choice and not the snake's) the rattlesnake to be that symbol. Rattler Crafts became the seventeen year outgrowth of that effort (and the rattlesnake became the logo for that business), during which time I became intensely interested in the uses of the snake in the mythology of Native Americans at all levels. That interest has never waned and has continued to expand to broader areas. Furthermore, as the writer of this blog I have become acutely aware that the second most visited article on this webpage is the one entitled "Mystery of the Stone Mounds", with particular interest focused on the little-known but enigmatic stone serpent mound near Catlettsburg, KY. Questions concerning the purpose for this mound and the reason for its location continue to intrigue many. The proximity and general similarity of this stone structure to the more widely known and larger Great Serpent Mound of earthen manufacture in southern Ohio cannot be ignored. Obviously, and just as our ancient forbears were, we seem to still be obsessed with snakes in our storytelling (not the least of which is the role of the serpent in getting Man cast out of Paradise and infecting us all with his own duplicity. But more of this bad snake/good snake reputation and imagery later!) Therefore, I can only say that my choice of the serpent as a universal, celestial symbol is not merely a random one, and will remain something I keep an abiding interest in expanding on a personal basis as time goes on.
". . . AND A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE"
Now, as to the birds--and more particularly the widespread practice of putting them in trees of all sorts and then giving some special significance to the meaning of that tree--this is also a class of symbols I have become hugely interested in, if for no other reason than that as my travels continue to expand to other continents the so-called "Tree of Life" image in the art and symbols of many cultures continues to intrigue me. Why do I see, for example, the same image of small, brightly colored birds sitting on the individual branches (often an even number of either 12 or 16 branches) of a straight tree trunk in wall-hangings in Peru; or on Turkish carpets; or in hand-drawn pictures of Siberian tribal stories; or even on the colorful Navajo rug hanging on my living room wall? And why is this tree--which is sometimes seen growing out of the back of a turtle in Mayan or Algonquin imagery, or from some other place, such as a mountain of origin or a forbidden garden--called the "tree of life" in the first place? Or is it really meant to be "The Tree of Knowledge" whose fruit is forbidden by the gods to the uninitiated? But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Do the numbers of the branches, or the types of birds pictured in the tree have meaning? Why are so many diverse peoples obsessed with birds in trees anyway? (Perhaps, it keeps the birds safe from snakes!) Mind you, we are not talking about all birds here, only small seemingly harmless ones. Raptors, vultures, and other winged giants get their own large place in heavenly myths and stories among most peoples, but those stories won't concern us here.
EXPLAINING THE UNIVERSALITY OF MYTH AND SYMBOL
Since the advent of the modern social sciences over a century ago and the growth of the comparative method in anthropology and related studies to show visible relationships between diverse world cultures, many have attempted to deal with the overwhelming knowledge that people in different times and places seem to have arrived at the same point in their explanations for things time and again. It was Carl Jung who gave us the concept of the psychic unity of mankind to attribute such similarities to deep, inner structures lost in our human past and embedded somewhere in our unconscious minds. Linguists have sometimes expanded on this idea with their "structuralist" models of these deep, hidden mechanisms, which continually lead us to arrive at the same interpretations for things we must verbalize. On the other hand, the cultural ecologists and environmental determinists (Marvin Harris is often cited here) would tell us that given the same set of extenuating environmental circumstances, the same level of technology, and the same level of sophistication of world view (religion, if you will), most people will eventually arrive at the same, narrow set of behavioral options. Over the years there have also been many different Diffusionist models to explain the physical movements of peoples across the earth's surface at different times, carrying the basic linguistic and thought patterns of ancient, often wiser, forbears. These scholars believe that the complexity of certain myths or of actual physical remains (pyramids are a prime example often cited here) can only have been 'discovered' or invented once, or twice perhaps, and were then diffused by human travelers across oceans, mountains, or whatever. One need only look at the work of the Thor Heyerdahl's and others of the late twentieth century to recall the frequent re-emergence of earlier diffusionist thought. Note: However, we have also been too often "burdened" in recent years with regular recurrences of the "space aliens must have done this" theory of explaining otherwise seemingly inexplicable ancient remains of many types. If you are one who still relies on such other worldly explanations as this, then you may not wish to invest any more of your valuable time in this particular blog article!
One relatively newer movement to reconcile these various trains of thought, while still maintaining the full awareness of the growing body of knowledge revealing the depth of the astronomical knowledge gained by ancient peoples, has been the theory that there is a technical language of myth and that this 'language' is embedded in the myths and stories of peoples spread around the globe. This theory, by its very nature, includes elements of diffusionism, with a little psychic unity revealed in linguistic structures, along with a full awareness of many peoples--especially ones in the tropics where sky observations are more easily measurable relative to the equator (precessual movements)--to make sophisticated and long term observations and recordings of all types of star, planet, solar, and lunar movements along the celestial plane. These movements are then recorded in myths, where a specific "language" (stars and constellations are animals, planets are gods, sun and moon are, well, the 'usual suspects': earth/mother, sky/father, etc. These movements then comprise the "grammar" by which this technical language is read. In their seminal book from the late 1960's, HAMLET'S MILL, Santillana and Dechend propose that a broad range of universal myths of all types can be analyzed by understanding this "technical language" of the heavens. (Note: HAMLET'S MILL, is one of those unusual and challenging books that almost requires a periodic re-reading every so many years as more information becomes available to compare to its basic and often challenging premise.) Furthermore, in order to understand this language and use its grammar effectively, one must attribute a substantial amount of ability to observe and record in whatever form celestial movements over long periods of time to various ancient peoples. The ancients, especially the Greeks, understood this well, knowing that the basic structure of mathematics had become the language of science and that the basis of math lay in astronomy as revealed in earlier myths. However, this is something many modern scholars have been reluctant to concede; for to "take a bite of that apple" (so-to-speak) would be to accept all that goes with learning to read this "new language"--the results of which can be almost overwhelming to the casual observer. (Others, however, such as William Sullivan, have eaten the apple whole and have used this knowledge (fruit of the forbidden tree, we might say) to make very detailed and cogent explanations of entire culture histories based on classes of myths, as he has effectively done in almost overwhelming detail for the Inca and the central Andes area in general.)
While it is not this writer's intention to get any more bogged down than the reader probably feels he or she already has in these various explanations, it is important to understand that many scholars are working diligently to integrate the vast arrays of new information, particularly with regards to ancient astronomical knowledge or awareness, with existing culture/myth models of archeological remains and the living descendants of those peoples. With all this in mind, let's see what we can learn from our two selected general classes of animal myths? We must also, I feel, eventually ask the question of why there was so much interest in the ancient skies, especially in late pre-agricultural and later times, for it seems to have dominated ancient people's lives, beliefs, and the way they recorded these.
WHAT IS THE SKY SERPENT EATING?
We have all looked up at the night sky at some point and wondered what it was we were seeing up there. We all know those stars are light years away and that they move along a somewhat predictable course over both short and long periods of times. (Hence, we are all now aware of the Mayan prediction that their fourth world (SUN) age will end this coming Dec. solstice.) Some of you reading this may even still consult your daily ZODIAC sign to see what these star movements are telling you about your own life. We even look at the stars and wonder how a certain constellation, such as Ursa Major for example, ever got its name; for it doesn't look anything like a 'great bear' to me! Ancient peoples, who generally gave us these seemingly meaningless names, did not have the same concept of stellar distance, although they may have been even more aware of movements in the skies than we are, creating meaningful (to them) shapes for memory purposes. For example: we pay far less attention to the relationship of all celestial movements in relation to the larger Milky Way than did ancient peoples. For them, however, the Milky Way was "The Great River of Time", the single most important time measuring concept for developing agricultural peoples faced with a survival need for a dependable short and long range predictive calendar. But it is more than being simply a river of stars (one that floods destructively at key, upsetting points in time). In the larger "language of myth"--the stars and, more importantly, the planets relative to the Milky Way also move like a giant serpent across the the plane of the heavens from solstice to solstice and equinox to equinox. The Milky Way, as the principal grammar point for understanding this language, controls the horizon and the passage of other heavenly bodies, into, through, and out of earthly vision relative to the observer's location in terms of latitude on the earth's surface. Some stars (animals), as well as planets (gods) are seen to be 'eaten' or then expelled and reborn anew by the actions of the celestial serpent. (Note: See the earlier article in this blog series on Stone Ball Court Imagery for more specific ideas on snake symbols and rebirth concepts,)
Furthermore, it is an almost universal concept that the stars are the dwelling place of the dead ancestors of Men--and gods--and that the serpent is often seen as the guardian of the entrance to the underworld (or 'otherworld' as the Maya more correctly refer to it, since it can be "up" as well as "down" from their point of view), a frequent stop on the way to the stars (usually a journey on or across a river of some sort) for those revered ancestors "who go to heaven". The SERPENT then becomes a mixed metaphor, sometimes representing necessary evil, but at other times being the agent for rebirth (or healing, as rattlesnakes are often seen in Native North American mythology). The celestial snake becomes the movement of the Milky Way, determining fixed points in time by consuming or expelling certain key stars or planets at predictable intervals. As the Mayan saw him, the snake's mouth is the entrance to the eternal land of the dead, where the ancestors are 'reborn' as STARS to guide their descendants into the future. As Judaeo-Christians see him, the serpent is the evil invader of the garden of Man's perfection and then the destroyer of Man's innocence, insuring his mortality and subsequent rebirth in the heavens, as well as his awareness of the constant battle with good and evil (the struggle for the control of Time, as some might say) played out "on earth as it is in heaven".
If we look at both SERPENT MOUNDS referred to above in Kentucky and Ohio, they are similar in that both seem to contain what appears to be a large EGG in their serpent's mouth. Both are aligned to solstice sunrises on opposite sightline horizons to mark key solstice points in the annual cycle so important to early agriculturalists. What then does the egg stand for, and why would people invest so much time and effort in such massive constructions as are both these sites? Why is the snake 'eating' the egg--or is he actually delivering it to the first Sun of the new year? Eggs are elliptical in shape as well as symbolic of new birth.. The movements of the celestial sphere are also visible along an elliptical plane, not a circular one. The new year is initiated with the "birth" of the new sun at winter solstice, followed by the spring equinox and a new growing season, coincidentally symbolized by bird's eggs in many cultures. (See the earlier blog entry on this webpage dealing with common winter solstice observances into current times.) The less sophisticated of these cultures explain these eggs by reference to heavenly bodies and the appearance of culture 'heroes' emerging from some great egg in intricately complex and often detailed stories. The more advanced cultures, such as our own of course, paint these symbolic eggs in bright colors and have them delivered and hidden for us to find by giant bunnies wearing clothes, or perhaps by some other non egg-laying rodent--neither of which delivery agent usually has a star or constellation named after him by the way. The SERPENT must become a way of determining a fixed point in time AND space in order to safeguard and deliver the celestial egg on time for its annual rebirth. If the stars do not line up properly and some great disaster (like a flood of stars) occurs, then it is the serpent who also becomes responsible and gets the blame for upsetting the natural order of things, particularly if this involves destroying some bridge to or across the great river of time (Milky Way) to the land of the ancestors through some great heavenly or earthly disaster. Therefore, build him of stone or earth, place him on a hilltop with a clear view of the Sun's rising on the critical day of the annual cycle (the first one)--or at the very least then, if easier memory devices like writing are available, build an elaborate story or myth around him to cause all who retell or hear it to remember and understand what the heavens are telling them about the major events in their life on earth, and in the afterlife as well. And because the "Serpent" is both an agent of good or evil, we have come to both revere and fear him as a thing most mysterious, yet closer than us to the afterlife most recent cultures continue to be obsessed with in their mythology and iconography.
OVERCOMING THE SERPENT: RESTORING THE TREE OF LIFE
Disasters happen, stars fall and disappear (at least below the horizon), real rivers flow and flood on earth as well as in the skies, and Man needs protection from the anger of the spirit world and a second chance, a do-over as it were, when all is washed away despite his best efforts to thwart the heavens and the flow of Time. Trees re-grow and bear the fruit of sustenance (as well as the fruit of knowledge) and protect us from permanent destruction.World Trees connect the 3 realms of the underworld (roots) the middle world (the tree itself) and the celestial world (as it grows to the heavens--and attracts the birds that connect us to the sky world). The most important of these trees, our own tree of origin, or World Tree, springs from our most sacred place, whether it be a celestial turtle's back or a garden of earthly paradise. Still, all else will ultimately fail--every few thousand years as these things are calculated by the Great River of Time--and a New Age and a new Tree of Origin will need to be born and creation begun anew to restore the celestial order once more to a safer, more predictable pattern. (This is a central concept of the whole idea revealed in the Hamlet's Mill and that entire class of myths, where the tree is the spindle of the spinning celestial sphere connecting heaven and earth and the "grinder" of men's souls passing into that heavenly sphere.)
Enter once more the Mayan prophecy for our consideration (or the Inca one, or the Sumerian one, or the Judaeo-Christian one, and so on till the end of time--oops, that's a little slip of the tongue and a poor choice of analogies here, perhaps!) The Tree of Life springs eternal from the place of our origin, or from the back of our particular ancestral animal spirit being--whether it be a turtle (in Orion's belt) or some other worthy beast or sacred place from our deep, spiritual past now cast as a constellation in the celestial sphere. While the association of the tree with an egg may not seem believable, if this egg is seen as a symbol for the rebirth of the Sun, which then nourishes the Tree, then not such a long leap-of-faith is required. (NOTE: Incidentally, fantastically costumed Mayan performers do an outstanding recreation of one of these rebirth myths, complete with giant egg and attendant snake god, at the well-run Xcaret environmental theme park near Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Be sure to see it if you ever go to Cancun for a stay.) So then, why are all these colorful, little birds sitting on the branches of the Tree of Life? Many widespread culture myths refer to certain key constellation or star clusters important in the movements of the heavenly river (Milky Way) as small birds, often a partridge, quail, dove, or other such type. (Briefly recall the role of the dove as a "delivery agent" in our own mythology. After the world is overturned by Noah's Flood, who is it that brings Noah the olive branch--also a Tree of Life symbol in that part of the world--signaling that both the earthly and celestial worlds are now reborn, and that the animals--or heavenly constellations as it were--can be set back into the new world to restore the natural order once more?)
These types of "birds of peace"--or of Love--are most often the kinds pictured in the Tree of Life images on rugs and other uses of this symbol in many widespread cultures. Often, we may view see these small birds perched on the branches of the Celestial Tree as key stars in the basic cosmology of any people. Hence, the number of these bird/stars and branches on the particular celestial world tree can be signifcant within a particular mytho-historical context or framework. Yes, it may often be the hawk or the eagle that frequently overcomes the celestial serpent and deposits him in what then becomes the place of origin for an entire culture (Aztec imagery is but one example of this). However, it is one of these smaller messenger birds, who generally has his own critically placed constellation or black cloud shape among the river of stars and marks himself as the guardian of the siderial movement of celestial time and the Tree of Life, that springs forth at each renewal of Celestial Time. These small bird/stars frequently move differently and independently from the larger stars--much like the flight of a small bird. All this only occurs once the Tree has been planted and has then given birth to the great nation, or its "Culture Hero" (often these are portrayed as twins--who must sometimes die and be reborn--if you recall your world mythology in any small part. These "twin" myths are a whole other class of celestial myths and far too intricate to get into here). The Tree can then take root (on earth and/or in the heavens) and prosper as it "turns" the celestial wheel of time--at least until the world is once more overturned by the stars at some distant time (Age) by flood or other catastrophe and a New Tree and a New Age is recycled or begun anew.
So dear reader, next Christmas (solstice) when you mindlessly repeat a certain (but very catchy) little, meaningless song we often use, try to think of it in the hidden language of myth of what you might be recalling in just this one little tune: "On the first day of Christmas (winter solstice, birth of the new Sun--or son depending on your point of view, I suppose--and the new year), my true love (insert appropriate creator god name of choice here) gave to me (whatever culture "me" represents), A partridge (protector of the recurring solstice, thus preserving Time) in a pear tree (The Tree of Life, eternally reborn on earth, and in the stars, where our own ancestral spirits will ultimately cross-over the river to dwell. It is the first month of a new set of 12---hmmm--months (or days in the song) until the next renewal. If you wish to pursue the meaning of the other 'gifts' on the succeeding eleven days (many involving other birds, of course), you will have to do that on your own, but any such pursuit might prove surprisingly rewarding! Although, two turtle doves (twin stars, I wonder?), three French hens (egg-layers), four calling birds (the Sky Pillars, i.e. quadrant stars) and five gold rings (the cyclical moving planets--really too easy here) certainly can be quite suggestive of other heavenly events.) Why then a "pear tree", you ask? Well, for one thing the Tree has to be a fruit-bearing one, and the meter just doesn't work all that well for "and a partridge in an apple, lemon, orange, or nut tree." does it? After all, how much of the original intent can we keep and still make for a catchy tune anyway? Of course, this type of analysis can all be interpreted as a gross overuse, or misuse, of the technical language of myth--if such a thing even exists; for like many theoretical frameworks this one can allow itself to be almost endlessly wrapped around virtually any argument concerning myth.
In the end, however, this remains one of the basic problems of getting scholars to agree on any exciting and emerging subject on the role of ancient astronomy in our lives--past, present, and even the future, perhaps. Still, it should seem obvious to even more skeptical thinkers that we as humans have arrived at an exciting new point in our ability to look at our distant past and what that past may signify about our own beliefs and behaviors, both for the present and for an ever uncertain future. Inevitably, it seems to this writer at least, that when we do look closer now at that ever-expanding past it is impossible not to gain a new respect and even admiration for the abilities of those whose names and lives have forever been lost to history, but in whose being must have resided an expansive and intellectually vibrant view of their world and the heavens that surround it of which we should be both envious and appreciative.
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