Anthony F. Aveni is Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies Emeritus at Colgate University. He began his career as an astrophysicist, but soon became interested in cultural astronomy—the study of how various peoples and cultures have viewed astronomical events. His research led him to develop the field of archaeoastronomy and is considered one of the founders of Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy for his research in the astronomical history of the Mayan Indians of ancient Mexico.
A lecturer, speaker, and author or editor of more than two dozen books on astronomy, Dr. Aveni was named one of the 10 best university professors in Rolling Stone magazine and was also voted National Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Washington, D.C., the highest national award for teaching. He has also received numerous awards for teaching at Colgate.
He has also endeavored to educate the public, writing or speaking on astronomy-related subjects for the Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, PBS-Nova, BBC, NPR, The Larry King Show, NBC’s Today Show, Unsolved Mysteries and in the New York Times, Newsweek, and USA Today. He has lectured in more than 300 universities around the world.
He has been awarded research grants by the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation and various private foundations for work in both American continents as well as in Europe and the Middle East. He has more than 300 research publications to his credit, including three cover articles in Science magazine and key works in American Scientist, The Sciences, American Antiquity, Latin American Antiquity, and The Journal of Archaeological Research.
His books include Empires of Time, on the history of timekeeping; Conversing With the Planets, a work that weaves together cosmology, mythology, and the anthropology of ancient cultures by showing how they discovered harmony between their beliefs and their study of the sky; The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012, and most recently, In the Shadow of the Moon: Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses (Yale University Press 2017). Dr. Aveni was kind enough to speak with me by phone the busy week of the total eclipse. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: What is cultural astronomy and how did you come to study it?
Aveni: Cultural astronomy is the study of the people who study the sky. It has as much to do with the cultural context of astronomy as with phenomena in the natural world. I came to study it by accident—taking a group of astronomy students to Mexico to escape a cold New York winter. We had been studying Stonehenge when one of the students pointed out a footnote on the ancient Mayans aligning their pyramids with the sun and other stars. He suggested that we go down and investigate. As it turns out, no one in modern times had ever really measured to confirm the pyramids’ celestial alignment, so my students and I undertook that work.
What I have come to discover is that astronomers throughout time have studied astronomical phenomena, but the significance of those phenomena varies according to culture. To me, this is as fascinating as the astronomical events themselves. Western scientists, for example, think that the universe is separate from us humans; that there’s the universe and then there’s us; there’s spirit and then there’s matter. Other cultures, particularly indigenous cultures, don’t separate the two. They find the universe to be teeming with life that humans are a part of. They find human significance in celestial events. I don’t attempt to say that one view is right and another is wrong. I will say, though, that the Western view is the anomaly. We look at the sun, the moon, the stars, plants, and rocks, as mere objects. Other cultures don’t see the world that way.
The MOON: How did you become interested in the moon, in particular? In my search for an expert to interview for this issue, I found that many astronomers specialized in more “exotic” or far away objects—black holes, or quasars, or deep space. It was almost as if the moon were overlooked because it is so familiar.
Aveni: I’m as interested in the moon as in any celestial object, and more, because the moon has played such a significant role in historical and cultural contexts. I think it’s unfortunate that most astronomers tend to consider the moon only from a geological standpoint; as a rock that happens to orbit us. But that’s a product of our training.
There’s so much more to talk about regarding the moon. It influences the way we keep time: although a year is the time it takes for the Earth to travel around the sun, a month is the duration of a cycle of the moon. The moon influences our understanding of human behavior, human fertility, the tides, and other aspects of the natural world. It colors the metaphors we use for the dualities of male and female; day and night; conscious and unconscious; rationality and emotion; and so much more. Your readers might be particularly interested in Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, which discusses some of these aspects of the moon.
Here are some of the unique attributes of the sun and the moon: they both appear to be the same size in our sky. They’re also the only two celestial bodies with faces on them. The sun shines gold; moonlight is silver. The moon rules the night; the sun rules the day. If you watch the moon, you’ll see that it mirrors the sun, following the same path but in the opposite season. That is to say, the full moon is lower in the sky in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky. The moon is higher in the sky in the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky. In many cultures, the sun and the moon are really two halves of a unified whole—the significance of which varies according to the time and the culture. In Greek mythology, for example, the sun was associated with the god Apollo, while his twin sister Artemis was the goddess of the moon. In other cultures, the sun and moon are husband and wife. Together they share dominion over our Earthly heavens.
A total eclipse of the sun is a significant event in our solar system—witness the millions who flocked to be in the path of its “totality” this week. We know that eclipses have been studied, tracked, and predicted for at least as long as recorded history, and quite possibly longer—we just have no record. Because the sun “rules” the sky, many cultures have considered the sun a symbol for earthly rulers, as well. Accordingly, rulers throughout time have expected their court astronomers to keep them apprised of celestial events that might bode well or poorly for their careers. There’s a famous story about two Chinese astronomers—Ha and Hin—who were executed by the emperor for their failure to predict a total eclipse of the sun.
We in the West tend to look upon other cultural myths and traditions about celestial events as “superstition,” but they typically serve a useful purpose in the culture. For example, the Greeks thought of an eclipse as the closing of the heavenly aperture through which the gods kept watch on us. It’s common knowledge that people behave better when they believe they’re being watched.
From Peru comes a tradition of making a lot of noise during a total eclipse of the sun, banging on drums and pots and getting the dogs to howl. The moon, they believe, is fond of dogs, and may abandon blocking the sun if she hears them howling.
The Mayan say that people make a lot of noise during an eclipse to distract the sun from the lies the moon is whispering about human behavior at night. (If you look at the crescent sun during an eclipse, it does look like an ear.) Their tradition reminds us about the evils of lying.
In many cultures there are stories about the Man in the Moon—who is visible in profile during a crescent moon, and full-faced during a full moon. Many of these stories have a common theme—about the cycle of life. The crescent moon is born from the darkness of the new moon, when the moon has been eaten by the dragon of darkness. The young moon matures into his fullness and rules the night for a short while—but then, inevitably, wanes and falls again into darkness—from which another new moon emerges.
Our own DNA repeats this cycle: we’re born of an older generation, reach our fullness, pass our genetic material onto a new generation, and then wane into darkness again.
The moon is generally thought of as a symbol of the feminine in cultures around the world; however not always. In Mexico there’s a story about the moon bragging that he will one day become more powerful, eclipse the sun, and rule the day. But the sky gods, hearing of this boast, throw a rabbit at his face—which is the splotch visible when the moon is full. The story reminds us on Earth not to brag about what a big shot you are. You could end up with rabbit on your face.
It’s interesting that the gestation period of a rabbit is 28 days—the same as the lunar cycle and the human female’s menstrual cycle. In fact, the word menses comes from “moon,” which is completely understandable: we evolved with the circadian rhythms of the sun and the moon.
A lot of eclipse myths have references to sex—and even to incest. Again, this is understandable: the sun and the moon, which are usually separated, come together, causing darkness in the daytime. Navajo people say that you shouldn’t look at the sky during an eclipse. You should be respectful and give the sun and the moon their privacy. The Arapaho of the Great Plains see total eclipses as a cosmic gender role reversal—the normally masculine sun and the normally feminine moon change places.
Many cultures interpret a total eclipse as a devouring of the sun by the moon because the moon has become angry with the sun. If we stop our habit of taking these stories literally, we realize they are symbols for restoring order and balance in the cosmos—between the sun and the moon; male and female; light and dark; the conscious and the unconscious.
The MOON: I’m impressed that ancient peoples knew so much about the movements of the sun and the moon—without the benefit of telescopes, binoculars, computers, or even darkened plastic eclipse glasses!
Aveni: For thousands of years, people have watched the skies and tracked the movement of various celestial bodies. Because knowledge is power, rulers have kept astronomers and scribes close—to inform them of events that were imminent and to interpret events that occurred.
Ancient peoples were much more finely attuned to natural phenomena—their lives depended on it. You and I sit in artificially lighted and temperature-controlled rooms. Most of us have little need to know about the natural world—and our knowledge reflects that.
But ancient people—and today’s remaining indigenous people who still live traditionally—have a need to know and thus are keen observers of natural phenomena. We know that humans tracked eclipse cycles as early as Stonehenge—which archaeologists believe dates back to 3000 BC—and possibly prior. By tracking the dates of eclipses, early peoples realized that eclipses occur in “families,” called saros, which follow a 6/5 beat—meaning they occur in sequences divisible by six or five—and an approximately 18-year cycle. Seasonal eclipses recur every saros (18.03 years) but not in the same place, so there will be an eclipse close to Aug 21, 2035. After 3 saroses (54.09 years) you get a seasonal eclipse at the same longitude, though not exactly at the same latitude. These are what I call the grandparents/grandkids; so the grandparent of 2017 eclipse was the 1963 event that occurred in the northeastern United States.
We know that the Babylonians understood the approximately 19-year cycle of total eclipses. We also know that the Mayans tracked the cycles differently—but no less accurately—based upon the 260-day cycle that was meaningful to them. Two hundred and sixty days is the gestation period of a human fetus; it is also the product of 20—the number of layers of heaven—and 13—the number of lunar months in a year.
In Mayan culture, Ix Chel is the goddess of the moon, associated with healing, fertility, and weaving the web of creation. She is often depicted holding a rabbit in her hand because the Maya, like the Chinese, see a rabbit on the face of the moon. Rabbits, of course, are also associated with fertility.
Because the moon rises in the east, which for them is over the Caribbean, the Maya built a large temple to Ix Chel on the island of Cozumel. They also kept very careful records of her movements so they would know when she would have contact with the sun. Although they had different reasons for it, their science turns out to be every bit as accurate as ours.
The MOON: What are some other cultural differences you can share with us about how various cultures honored cosmic events—and particularly, the moon?
Aveni: Ancient astronomers and their rulers would often rewrite history to coincide with cosmic events. For example, one brilliant Aztec astronomer linked the founding of Tenochtítlan—the Aztecs’ capital city—with a 99 percent total eclipse of the sun that took place on April 13, 1325. As an added bonus, the first day of this calendar year fell two days after the spring equinox—which is the day their sun god arrived at his station in the Templo Mayor. Immediately after sundown on that day, four planets—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury—appeared in the western sky, lending cosmic import to a religious celebration taking place on the ground.
We look back on this tale and find it amusing, or childish, that indigenous people attributed human significance to celestial events, although of course, that is what the entire field of astrology is about. And, indeed, we westerners, too, assigned cosmic events to the birth and crucifixion of Jesus Christ—the Star of Bethlehem accompanying his birth and a total eclipse—causing the sky to go dark at midday—accompanying his crucifixion. Indeed, until recently, we even divided the history of civilization into BC—“Before Christ”—and AD—“the year of our Lord.”
Another tale I particularly like is from the Inuit people of the Arctic. They say that during an eclipse all the animals and fish disappear. To get them to come back, the hunters and fishermen gather pieces of every kind of animal they consume, put them in a sack, and carry it around the perimeter of the village, tracking the direction of the sun. Then they return to the center of the village and distribute the contents—pieces of flesh—to all the villagers to eat. I like this story because it reveals the actions humans must take to restore order and balance after an “out of order” event like a total eclipse. The Inuit also say the story reminds them that the animals need their attention; they cannot simply be taken for granted. The only way hunting the animals can be resumed safely is if the humans perform this rite.
The MOON: How many solar eclipses have you experienced in totality—and what was the most profound?
Aveni: I’ve witnessed eight total eclipses and my favorite was the 2006 eclipse I viewed on the Egyptian border with Libya—with fine rugs spread on a tent in the desert sand, and a woman in a burka pouring tea. Just before the eclipse began, Egyptian President Mubarek landed in his presidential helicopter and gave a speech about the significance of the eclipse and his power as ruler of the Egyptian people. He watched the eclipse and then took off again.
After the eclipse a young female astronomer came up to me with tears streaming down her face and said, “You’ve told us all about the science of eclipses, but for me, it was a miracle.”
And that’s true; that’s what experiencing a total eclipse can be like. It takes us out of our intellect and gives us a sudden and dramatic cosmic experience of the power of this universe. It’s the classic demonstration of the sublime: something that begins in fear and ends in bliss. No wonder ancient peoples—and even people today—strive to attribute meaning to it.
In the end, the common thread that knits humanity together is the desire to find meaning in intangible natural phenomena—whether they’re black holes in an infinite universe, or an angry moon temporarily consuming an all-powerful sun. It’s good for us westerners to remember that, in all societies but ours, the sun and moon are not members of a world apart, a world of matter devoid of spirit. Rather, the celestial players re-enact for us the human drama, with implications for our understanding of male and female, light and dark, good and evil, night and day. They celestial bodies are powerful motivators for us to consider deeply the meaning of human existence.