by Rens Van der Sluijs
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
constellations come from?
And how do these
groups of stars
relate to mythology?
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
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,
Santillana and Hertha von Dechend's
The Myth of Replacement (1991)
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
Not a scintilla of proof
was found for knowledge of precession antedating Hipparchus.
constellations in Mesopotamia is non-existent prior to circa 2,000
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?
stargazers, prone to an overactive imagination, simply seeing
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.
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:
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...
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.
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
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
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'.
The argument shapes up
nicely in the light of traditions that name specific constellations
as mythical creatures thus conveyed to the night sky.
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
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
'Then (Bluejay) cut
the rope and the sky sprang back. Part of the people were still
They became stars.
(Therefore) all kinds of things are (in the sky) - the
Woodpecker, the Fisher, the Skate, the Elk, and the Deer.
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
Híwinai, Tsamáni, Íbarru, Sáfarrei.
They can be seen in
the summer, for in August they begin to appear early in the
Not all of them can
be seen at the same time'.
Of this party,
represented Orion, who 'can be seen in the sky without a left leg',
Tsamani Delphinus, three brothers the Pleiades, and their sisters
In Amazonian Peru,
meanwhile, the Shipibo-Conibo would finger the,
Pleiades as Huíshmabo
Orion as the cripple Quíshioma
'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.
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
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...
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
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
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.