Many people today are pessimistic about the future.  They listen to dire newscasts and worry about apocalyptic predictions ranging from Y2K to Armageddon to the end of the 13th baktun in the Mayan calendar.

But they’re always curious about their personal, immediate future.  That’s why the girl in love picks the petals off a daisy, muttering “He loves me.  He loves me not.  He loves me.  He loves me not,” picking off the petals one by one until she comes up with the answer. 

And they read their horoscopes.  Even folks who don’t believe in horoscopes glance at them in newspapers or magazines.  Usually, the language is as vague as the note in a fortune cookie, with a message like “Hard work and perseverance will pay big rewards.”  Still, they’re very popular.

Horoscopes have a very, very long history.  They’re based on the assumption that all parts of the natural world are connected. Specifically, you are influenced by everything around you, including the sun, moon, stars and planets.  In western astrology, your daily horoscope is based on the angles (“aspects”) of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as their placement in the sky.  Your “sign” refers to the sun’s position in the ecliptic on the day you were born.  The ecliptic is the path the sun takes across the sky over the course of a year.  If you could superimpose the sun’s path on the night sky, it would move through the twelve constellations we call the Zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.

While some people dismiss modern astrology as nonsense, it may well have been the impetus for early humans to develop advanced counting systems, directional orientation, sophisticated language, and mathematics.

The Moon

For ancient people, the heavens provided a way to understand space and time.  According to the NASA Lunar Science Institute, etched bones tracking lunar cycles date to at least 36,000 years ago (Lebombo bone found in Africa (photo), Aurignacian bone in Europe).  After the sequence of day and night, the moon cycle offered the mostly easily understood division of time. Every moon followed the same pattern, taking the same number of days to wax and wane. It was predictable in the same way as day and night. Yet each moon was also connected to a slightly different season.  It had its own name and activities.

People near the sea probably knew that the moon influenced the tides.  During the full moon or new moon, they saw the high tide was higher, the low tide lower.  During quarter phases, the tides were weaker.  And it was obvious that a woman’s menstrual cycle followed the same general timing as the moon, which is perhaps why the moon was often described as female.  Clearly, the heavens influenced what happened on earth in profound and very personal ways.

They could see that the stars too moved in a predictable fashion.  The constellations that revolved around the center of the sky were always there, while those closer to the horizon appeared at a certain season and then later disappeared off the opposite horizon.

Their appearance, disappearance, and reappearance coincided with specific seasons.  They created the calendar.

Sirius, the “Dog Star” in Canis Major

For example, the first day that Sirius, the very bright star to the lower left of Orion (shown in diagram), appeared in the pre-dawn sky in the east was considered the beginning of the year for the ancient Egyptians because it marked the time the Nile would flood, bringing its life-giving waters to the parched area.

The ancients needed to know when the Nile would flood, so they needed to be able to count the days and record the information.  This necessitated both advanced counting and consistent record-keeping, to allow them to learn that it would be about 365 days between one instance of Sirius rising, bringing the floods, and the next.  Sirius, which they called Sopdet, came to be associated with the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god.  In ancient stories, the 70-day absence of Sirius from the sky was the time Osiris spent in the Underworld after he was murdered.  As Isis wept for him, her tears flooded the Nile.  Using her magic, she was able to collect the parts of Osiris’ body and restore him to life.  Of course, the flooding of the Nile also restored life to the area, and the celebration of the death and rebirth of Osiris became linked to the pre-dawn rising of Sirius and the annual regeneration of the parched earth along the banks of the Nile.

For the ancient Greeks, the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius marked the beginning of the hot, dry summer.  Since they called it the Dog Star, they called the stifling hot days that followed its appearance the “Dog Days of summer.” They found its appearance a bad omen, bringing on strange behavior in those under the star’s influence, a condition they called “star-struck.”

For the ancient Maori, the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius marked the beginning of winter.  One term for the star, Takurua, also meant winter.

Very early on, people realized that with enough effort, this sacred union of heaven and earth that moved time in cycles could be understood.  More importantly, if humans wanted to be part of this time, they needed to participate in the drama being played out in the sky.

Venus – The Morning and Evening Star

Many ancient people believed each day was a separate entity, defined by the combination of celestial forces at work on it.   For the Maya, one of the most powerful forces was Venus, the Morning and Evening Star.  They knew this “wandering star” appeared as the Evening Star just after sunset in the west for about 263 days and then sank into the Underworld for about 8 days before being reborn in the east as the Morning Star, just before dawn.  It stayed in the east for about 263 days then sank into the Underworld for about 50 days before reappearing in the west as the Evening Star.  The whole cycle took 584 days.  Five Venus cycles equals eight solar years, or 2,920 days.

The Dresden Codex, one of the few Mayan screen-fold books to escape burning by Bishop de Landa, dedicates six pages to notations of the appearance of Venus as both Morning and Evening Star, covering five full cycles or 2920 days.

The rising of Venus as the Morning Star was a very dangerous time.  Its light could bring evil down on those who looked at it.  In addition, it was often the first day of warfare with another Maya city-state.  The original “Star Wars.”

Lunar Eclipses

The Dresden Codex also follows solar and lunar cycles through 405 lunar months, for a total of 11,959 days.  Both the lunar eclipse glyph and the solar eclipse glyph  are visible in the pages in the photo (shown).  They have a light half and a dark half, suspended from a sky band.  A k’in (day) sign is superimposed on the two halves.  In some, a serpent rises from below, mouth agape.

The tables in the Dresden Codex are extraordinary records, requiring the collective efforts of many people over a long period of time.  These astronomers followed in the foosteps of many others who had recorded their observations.  Some of the oldest human records  note celestial events.  It wasn’t idle curiosity that drove these people.  It was a desire to be active participants in the sacred world the gods established.

Harmony of the Spheres

The famous Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (580 BC) felt the sun, moon, and stars generated unique sounds that blended into what he called the Harmony of the Spheres.  This sound was echoed in all life on earth.

This idea that human and celestial time are intimately connected wasn’t limited to the ancients.  Johannes Kepler, the noted German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, explored the same concept in his treatise Harmonices Mundi (1619), in which he stated that the regular pattern of the movements of the sun and planets reflected the glory of God.  The unique combination of planets and stars at a given moment created a special harmonic vibration that was then taken up by all the creatures under their influence.  This reflected the Hermetic maxim: “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below.”  Today, however, Kepler is more likely referenced for his discovery of the Laws of Planetary Motion and his ability to predict the motion of the planets far into the future.

That’s exactly what the ancients wanted to do – to claim the future as part of their own time by extending their understanding far beyond the present.  That quest demanded a uniform method of investigation, an exact method of counting and recording, a figuring of recurrent patterns, and a desire to share accumulated knowledge.

In our disenchanted age, where too much information is the norm and most of it is suspect, the daily horoscope survives as the distant echo of the time when people knew as surely as they were breathing that the alignment of the sun, moon, stars, and planets influenced all life on earth.

Sources and interesting reading:

Michael John Finney “The Dresden Codex: Eclipse Table” and The Dresden Codex: Venus Table” www.bibliotecapleyades.net

Maya Astronomy Page  www.michielb.n/maya/venus

The Dresden Codex: The Book of Mayan Astonomy by  Vladimir Bohm www.wolny.cz/paib/dresden_codex

NASA Ames Research Center “Johannes Kepler” kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/JohannesKepler

“Isis”  and “Sirius”  Wikipedia

Will Kyselka The Hawaiian Journal of History vol. 27 (1993)

Tally Sticks

Ancient people probably counted with their fingers and toes.  Many modern people still do.  Ancient Mesoamericans like the Maya saw twenty as the perfect fullness of measure because it was the total of a person’s fingers and toes.  Therefore, their counting system worked in units of twenty.

While most information was transferred orally, some occasions called for a different kind of record.  Tally sticks, actually notched animal bones, are some of the oldest recording devices known.   The Lebombo Bone, found in Swaziland, has been dated to 35,000 years ago.  It has 29 notches along one side, leading some researchers to suggest that it was developed by a woman to track her monthly cycle.  While that might be the case, probably most calendars at the time were lunar, with each month having its own name, character, and traditional activities.

More confusing is the Ishango Bone, found in the  Democratic Republic of Congo.  Estimates of its age

vary widely, but the most conservative is 20,000 years old.

The baboon fibula is inscribed with a series of marks in three columns, which some mathematicians have said indicate a series of prime numbers.  While that might be very interesting to mathematicians, it was probably not a prime concern (pardon the pun) of the people using the device.

Actually, it’s hard to know how these devices were used.  Even today, some people use a notched stick to remember specific events and their chronology.  In other cases, they might have been guides for story tellers.

A knotted string would have served the same purposes but wouldn’t have lasted as long as rock or bone.  The rosary is an example of a knotted string memory and counting device.  So was the quipu, or knotted string device the Inca used, except it was dynamic, not static.  As they marked an exchange, they would remove a knot from one section and add one to another.

All this is to say that the ancient people were interested in the same sort of information we are: accounts payable and receivable, history, important events, trade, culture, and entertainment, and they figured out ways to record and remember what mattered to them.

Interestingly, the split tally was used in Europe up until modern times for exchanges, loans, and promises of goods or services.  The person extending the credit was given the larger piece of wood, usually squared-off hazelnut, which was called the stock.  The receiver was given the smaller piece, called the foil, which fit into the larger one so the marks lined up exactly.  This practice gave us the expression “holding stock.”

In the story, a sweet, crazy man talks to Asha about how his people keep split tally sticks because they’re involved in trade.  He’s something of a disappointment to the family in that he has no interest at all in the accounting business, but he manages to do a little trading of his own with things he finds in the river.