by Rens Van der Sluijs

February 2021

from Thunderbolts Website





Was this congeries of pictures from

the Moche culture of Peru a star map?

Lower terrace reliefs, north facade, ceremonial plaza,

Huaca de Luna, Valle de Moche, Trujillo, Peru.

© Rens Van Der Sluijs



Where does the idea

of constellations come from?


And how do these arbitrary

groups of stars relate to mythology?







Part One
February 04, 2021


The early 20th century saw the ascendancy of a short-lived movement in scholarship called 'Pan-Babylonianism', soon bemoaned for its folly.


Supporters of this group held that the Babylonians had been remarkably bright astronomers from a very early time onward, spreading their science and the associated mythology to all the world's major civilizations.


Part of this knowledge gift were the notion of constellations, even the zodiac itself, and an understanding of the precession of the equinoxes.


The figurehead of the movement, Alfred Jeremias (1864-1935), pontificated that attestations of the zodiac traced back to the Age of Taurus, i.e., the late 5th millennium BCE.

Dotty ideas such as these continued to produce ripples in other areas, such as anthropology and the history of religions, until the present day.


Did countless myths worldwide originally encode the precession of the equinoxes, the protagonists representing asterisms?


An affirmative 'yes' was publicized in such influential bestsellers as,

  • Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill (1969)

  • Thomas Worthen's The Myth of Replacement (1991)

  • Elizabeth and Paul Barber's When They Severed Earth from Sky (2006)

Variants of the precessional theory of myth continue to be placed in the spotlights, yet it is incumbent to put their supporters quite firmly on the spot - this line of thought is in as poor a shape as Pan-Babylonianism ever was.


Not a scintilla of proof was found for knowledge of precession antedating Hipparchus.


Evidence for constellations in Mesopotamia is non-existent prior to circa 2,000 BCE.


And specialists agree that the zodiac itself, in its traditional form, only arose in Babylon during the 5th century BCE, affecting the Greek-speaking and the Egyptian worlds as late as the Hellenistic period.

If key myths were not modeled on star patterns,

Where do familiar denizens of the sky - such as Capricorn, the Twins, the Virgin or the Bear - come from?


Were ancient stargazers, prone to an overactive imagination, simply seeing things?

Three steps point the way to a satisfactory answer.

- The first point is that mental images of these entities must have existed before they were artificially 'read into' the starry sky.


An English solicitor and amateur orientalist, Robert Brown junior (1844-1912), published a detailed study of the origins of the constellations in 1900.


Though his analysis was far from stellar, it was surely spot on with the words:

'...the great majority of the primitive constellation-figures had a pre-constellational history; and were in fact forms and phases of thought familiar to the mind of early man before he had entered upon the task of stellar uranography...


For, as we have seen all along, and as even a cursory examination of the starry heavens will convince any reasonable person, the stars themselves, with certain exceptions which will be noticed, do not in their natural configuration resemble the forms in which they have been grouped, or where there may be a slight resemblance it is equally shared by a hundred other objects which have never been constellation-figures...


Having already certain fixed ideas and figures in his mind, the constellation-framer, when he came to his task, applied his figures to the stars and the stars to his figures as harmoniously as possible.


Thus, nearly each primitive constellation-figure is a reduplication of an idea connected with simpler natural phenomena, solar, lunar, or as the case may be'.

In the case of Taurus, for example, bulls appeared in iconography from a very early date, but nothing suggests that the corresponding constellation of later times was intended.

- A second pointer, of universal application, is that the characters associated with many constellations figure in mythology.


The fact is somewhat obscured in Greek astronomy, as most of the classical asterisms were imported from the Near East. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to spot the link between the constellations of Hercules, Andromeda, Hydra or Perseus with the mythical entities of the same names.


Countless other one-to-one connections were in circulation.


Some would identify Aquarius with Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, survivors of the deluge; others would pinpoint Auriga as the tragic Phaethon, close to Eridanus, the river in which he drowned.

- To complete the picture, a final element is the remarkable pan-human belief, seldom documented, that the stars are mythical beings - such as gods, heroes or ancestors - who were translated to the heavens long ago.


Just to give a flavor of this widespread theme of catasterismi, the Skidí Pawnee (Nebraska),

'believed that the stars were either gods or people who had once lived on earth and had been changed into stars at death'.

Among the Lillooet (Fraser River, British Columbia),

'All the heavenly bodies are said to have been people who were transformed during the early ages of the world'.

The Khasia (currently Bangladesh) relay that,

'the stars are men who have climbed into heaven by a tree'.


'All over Australia, it is believed that the stars and planets were once men, women and animals in Creation Times, who flew up to the sky as a result of some mishap on earth and took refuge there in their present form.'

And among the Khoi-San peoples (southwestern Africa), too,

'the stars are held to have once been animals or people of the Earthly Race, on some cases people who had been transformed upon breaking some taboo'.



Part Two
February 05, 2021


The argument shapes up nicely in the light of traditions that name specific constellations as mythical creatures thus conveyed to the night sky.


Examples are again in no short supply.


Thus, a chief of the Snohomish (Washington State) related that a few of the first people, who were unaware that the sky was about to be raised, climbed up into the sky, as was customary to do, and were forced to remain there, in the form of familiar asterisms:

'But a few people did not know about the sky pushing.


Three were hunters who had been chasing four elk for several days... The elk jumped into the Sky World, and the hunters ran after them.


When the sky was lifted, elk and hunters were lifted too. In the Sky World they were changed to stars. At night, even now, you can see them. The three hunters form the handle of the Big Dipper.


The middle hunter has his dog with him - now a tiny star.


The four elk make the bowl of the Big Dipper. Some other people were caught up in the sky in two canoes, three men in each of them. And a little fish also was on its way up into the Sky World when the people pushed.


So all of them have had to stay there ever since.


The hunters and the little dog, the elk, the little fish, and the men in the two canoes are now stars, but they once lived on earth'.

An informant from the Kathlamet (border area of Washington and Oregon) reported a transformation of the first 'people' into stars following the severance of the 'rope' that had occasioned their transportation to the sky:

'Then (Bluejay) cut the rope and the sky sprang back. Part of the people were still above.


They became stars. (Therefore) all kinds of things are (in the sky) - the Woodpecker, the Fisher, the Skate, the Elk, and the Deer.


Many things are there'.

In eastern Colombia, the Sikuani agreed that, following the destruction of the string of arrows upon which Tsamani and his siblings had travelled to the sky, the members of the party turned into familiar asterisms:

'They remained in the sky, to one side of the sun.


When they got there Máva gave them other clothing, and when they threw away the ones they had worn on earth they turned into stars, into groups of stars:

Kahúyali, Híwinai, Tsamáni, Íbarru, Sáfarrei.

They can be seen in the summer, for in August they begin to appear early in the morning.


Not all of them can be seen at the same time'.

Of this party,

Kahúyali represented Orion, who 'can be seen in the sky without a left leg', Tsamani Delphinus, three brothers the Pleiades, and their sisters Coma Berenices.

In Amazonian Peru, meanwhile, the Shipibo-Conibo would finger the,

  • Pleiades as Huíshmabo

  • Orion as the cripple Quíshioma

  • the constellation 'Hare' as Ráya, three brothers who had ventured into the sky along a chain of arrows

Or again, in the far southeastern tip of Australia, members of the Bibbulmun nation figured that many familiar asterisms were mythical characters well known to them, at least in 1924:

'Now Wommainya and his family and his brother-in-law may all be seen in the sky.


Wommainya (Vega) stands beside the lake, and in the middle of the lake his two boys still stretch out their hands to him (two stars south of Vega).


Wommainya looks angrily at Irdibilyi (Altair), and sees the spear still sticking through her heart, and near the women's fire sits Karder (Delphinus), because he was lazy and tired, and would not hunt for meat or look out for his nephews...


Wommainya, Irdibilyi, Karder, and the boys sit down in the sky, so that all Bibbulmun shall see them and shall keep the camp laws'.

Joining the dots, the following picture now emerges:

around the world, bands of people passed on myths regarding mysterious supernatural beings that had lived on earth, but at some point moved up into the sky, where they occupied permanent positions.

Looking up at the starry firmament, people then projected the famed members of this departed race onto the stars, either framed individually or in bunches.


Practically every culture arrived at different identifications, but the fundamental concept was the same.

Where does this leave the nature of such mythical beings themselves...?

The solution to this enigma is intimately tied up with the origin of creation mythology as a whole.


Steering clear of the pointless hypothesis of alien visitors as advanced by Erich von Däniken, a promising scenario involves extraordinarily vivid transient events in the atmosphere, as observed globally during prehistoric times.


Once our scientists are ready to recognize the full impact such near-earth plasmas must have had on the earth and its inhabitants, we may want to thank our lucky stars that some survived to tell the tale.