FT 012-S Archaeostronomy: Heaven and Hell, Heroes and Demons in the Ancient World
V. Daniel Rogers, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Mythology and Cosmology are deeply compelling subjects. When I set up one of the college telescopes on the mall at night, it draws students like moths to a flame. Even with modern science fiction films and jaw dropping special effects, nothing beats the real thing. When one of my students sees the moons of Jupiter or Saturn’s rings for the first time through a telescope, they start asking very interesting questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it.
When our oldest ancestors looked up at the night sky, they saw not just points of light in the dark, but a portal or threshold for understanding the most basic questions of human existence. Their cosmologies (and what we now, perhaps too easily, call mythologies) point us in two very different directions. On the one hand, our modern understanding universe is rooted in texts, monuments and pyramids of these ancient astronomers. But these same texts, monuments and pyramids also point toward deeply religious and existential questions. Our course is predicated on this fundamental tension between scientific and religious/mythological world-views. The formal name for this kind of study is Archaeoastronomy — the study of ancient material artifacts to better understand the ways ancient cultures responded to the movements of stars, planets, the sun, and other astronomical phenomena. Our Freshman Tutorial on ancient astronomy and mythology will give us the opportunity to explore the specific ways ancient civilizations responded to the Cosmos. Our approach will contrast the modern mind with that of the ancient astronomer. Although we will begin the course mastering the modern, scientific perspective, when we turn our attention to the past, we will need to approach the Maya, Inca, Celts and others on their own terms. It is easy, probably too easy, to feel superior to ancient peoples when we contrast our modern scientific understanding of natural phenomena with theirs. This course will have been successful, however, when you appreciate how much more aware the ancients were of the heavens than modern folk such as ourselves. The course will not have been successful if you leave it feeling like “we” are right and “they” were wrong. “We” are, in fact, quite complacent and more than willing to let modern experts tell us what to understand about sky. If we had to do so without the Discovery Channel or Nova, you will quickly realize how difficult the task is.
Rogers, V. Daniel