Numerous ancient civilizations created complex methods for watching and understanding the cosmos, and in the process, they found other systems to enhance their ways of life.
Ancient Polynesians learned to travel hundreds of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean using the stars, allowing them to settle faraway islands such as the Hawaiian Islands. Likewise, the ancient Egyptians meticulously monitored the rising time of the brilliant star Sirius, whose annual cycle matched with the flooding of the river Nile, upon which they relied for grain production.
Along the Atlantic coast are ancient European megalithic monuments oriented to solstices and equinoxes dating back to Neolithic cultures. Two of the most well-known, Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, were already old when the pyramids were constructed and were the most prominent artificial monuments.
Many experts disagree with the theory that megalithic structures such as Stonehenge were constructed as enormous observatories so that ancient civilizations could calculate the motions and cycles of the planets, sun, and moon.
These monuments were ceremonial enactments that served to memorialize what they already understood. In addition, they helped cultures keep time. Before broad calendars connected individuals, how could a civilization remain cohesive?
Massive festival gatherings at these ritually significant locations anchored in the cosmos, which likely gave them holy significance, was one method to do this. It enabled people to remember their culture and, more significantly, gave them a place in the universe.
For what purpose am I here? Our fascination with the stars has societal ramifications, but I believe it also has personal ramifications. It’s about bringing purpose to our life. Humans are known to explore concepts through art, and space art is no different.
More on the Mayas
The Maya, the most well-known of Mesoamerica’s classical civilizations, created a complex calendar based on their astronomical observations. Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas were extraordinary astronomers. Maya cosmology and ideology assert that the Maya possessed a profound grasp of natural processes and the world, the passage of time, stars, and calendrics.
The Maya may have developed approximately 2600 B.C. on the Pacific coasts of what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, and the Yucatán and came to prominence between 200 B.C. and 900 A.D. Experts state that the Maya universe comprised three different regions. First, a gloomy and watery underworld, Xibalba, lurked under their feet. Then, the 13 levels of the upper world, the domain of heavenly bodies — gods and departed ancestors responsible for the operation of the cosmos — were located above them.
In between, the earthly sphere was split into four corners, approximately corresponding to our cardinal directions and indicated by the sun’s journey over the horizon from solstice to the equinox and back again.
While the Maya, like many ancient cultures, lived following the cycles and rhythms of the universe, they also placed great importance on the relationship between time and space, believing that the purpose of civilization was to count the days of creation and maintain the sacred calendars of the time cycles.
The Dresden Codex from the eleventh or twelfth century is the most compelling proof of this. Its pages, which unfold accordion-fashion to 12 feet, are densely packed with Maya hieroglyphs depicting exact astronomical figures based on thousands of years of observational knowledge.
The Maya followed Venus’s immensely complex migration over the horizon for generations so they could forecast when it would emerge in the sky because they believed it was an ominous warning that might portend war, disease, or death.
The Codex also contains astonishingly precise data that enable the prediction of solar eclipses over Earth within a three-day window and indefinitely into the future. For example, in 1991, two eminent Maya historians, Harvey and Victoria Bricker, utilized the Dresden Codex to accurately forecast a solar eclipse, at least 800 years after the tables were produced.
The Maya viewed the world through the lens of animism, as did the vast majority of American Indigenous societies. They thought that the stars, planets, and clouds in the sky were representations of their forefathers and played a significant part in the operation of their cosmos.
These civilizations perceived a link between the stars, the sun and the moon, and the clouds in the sky. On some level, they felt a kinship with everything they saw around them, even the objects they touched and utilized daily – a rare trait in our modern, post-Enlightenment society.
The Maya’s distinctive style of perceiving and portraying the world is peculiar to many people. However, he contends that when we delve deep to unravel and comprehend these symbolic representations of natural processes and the universe, we discover a wealth of information.
It’s articulated in an entirely different ontology, but it results from profound empirical knowledge. It’s the sort of thing we could consider to be pretty scientific. The old Mesoamerican metaphor for the Earth was a crocodile floating on a watery underworld whose breath, which flowed in and out of cave mouths, caused rain.
At first look, experts believe that many people would remark, ‘Well, the Earth is not a crocodile; this makes no sense. However, there is an enormous quantity of water underneath Mesoamerica. And the Earth-exhalations crocodile delivering rain explains barometric pressure fluctuations and the onset of weather systems that bring rain. Agnes My Universe creates artistic art work related to space and our universe.
Comparing the Ancient and the Modern
How does the Maya’s understanding of the cosmos compare to our own?
Heller asserts that the Maya had a profound understanding of their surroundings. They had a compelling set of metaphors to describe the working of the world processes that, in many ways, determined their triumphs and failures.
Ancient people utilized their resources to navigate their place in the cosmos. Experts believe they were contributing to the tale of the cosmos in some respects. Knowing your position is understanding who you are and why you exist in the cosmos as it is.
Many eminent scholars still say they are uncertain whether they were correct or incorrect. At some time, everything we thought we understood about the cosmos will alter, as contemporary science is a continually developing debate. Nevertheless, the ancients navigated the cosmos in a manner that made sense to them and lived their lives accordingly. Experts believe that we as a modern people are still doing it.