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Fr. Kurt Messick

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Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power
by Fr. Kurt Messick   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, September 10, 2004
Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

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A fascinating book


The title of my review is the subtitle to E.C. Krupp's book, 'Skywatchers, Shamans, and Kings'. This serves to illustrate the point that in many civilisations, the roles of priests, scholars, scientist/researcher, astronomer/astrologer, and healer were often mixed, and generally closely related to the centre of power.

Even today, the fact that the Queen of England appoints bishops who (many of them) also sit in the legislative body, is demonstrative of the hold-over that this kind of power has been through history. When the calendars for the year 2000 were prepared, they omitted the leap year, a decision made in a papal court hundreds of years prior, as being important for the proper alignment of the calendar season with the real location of earth in its orbit. Minor as these things may seem today, in the past they took on enormous importance – the ability to tell time in periods prior to mechanical time-keeping devices was an important skill passed on along priestly/shamanic castes in many cultures, along with ability to recognise stellar patterns and planetary motion, and prediction of seasonal changes.

Drawing from the archaeological, historical and literary records of many old civilisations, Krupp's text goes from China (where early dynasties invested heavily in astronomical observation) to the Mayan Empire (where likewise whole towns were devoted to the maintenance of a priesthood that in turn maintained a calendar). These in addition to the Hopi and other Native Americans, African tribes, Pacific islanders and other cultures have found astronomical observation necessary for the proper interpretation of signs, too, and thus the astronomers become shamans and wield power.

Krupp discusses the sociology and politics of power alongside the scientific and archaeological data he presents. In his chapter 'Plugging Into Power', for instance, he goes into a linguistic analysis of the word `power' and talks about the pitfalls of those who exercise power and authority while also discussing the ceremonial rites and attributes of artifacts of particular cultures.
'No less an authority than the Smithsonian Institution asserts...that the most powerful person in each village of the Yupik Eskimos of southwest Alaska was the shaman. Like all shamans, he moved between this world and the spirit world to cure illness and influence the weather. He persuaded the sea mammals, the fish, and the game birds to return in their proper seasons, and he mobilised the ceremonial life of the community. Yupik communities were small. They relied almost exclusively on hunting, and most of the time each family operated independently. The shaman was their contact with the spirits and the one most familiar with the requirements. To deal with spirits, he had to go to their neighbourhoods, and that meant knowing how the universe was organised.'

Of course, in more developed societies, the shaman becomes the priest, who begins to take on prerogatives of power, particularly when there is a leader who can be easily influenced by religious ideas.

'Power to modify the behaviour of the king, no matter how well it may be contained, retains the risk of exploitation,' Krupp writes in the chapter entitled Enlightened Self-Interest and Ulterior Motives. However, often as not, shamans and priests were agents of renewal, rebirth, managers of the life cycles of the communities, and healing powers (particularly important in times without mechanical clocks, calendars, or modern medicine).

Krupp an astronomer by profession, proves himself in this text an able historian and archaeologist as well. He has a vast knowledge and experience of visiting hundreds of ancient and medieval sites, and has incorporated his observations and discoveries together into this text. In many ways, I see this text as a sort of ‘Cosmos’ a la Carl Sagan meets Joseph Campbell, exploring the many ways in which humanity’s views of the cosmos and world in which we live shapes lives ‘on the ground’, not just from the standpoint of scientific understanding, but throughout the culture. Our modern ideas of separation of science from religion, and religion from politics, was almost never the norm in ancient cultures, where things were much more fluid as part of a continuum, if not directly combined.

One point also brought up in the text is the fact that the West has not always had the dominant position in world cultures – many learn to trace history from the Roman Empire to the modern world as an unbroken and unchallenged linear form of progress; the idea that the Roman Empire ruled the world is still commonly taught. A counter to this method of historical thinking is included in various places, but perhaps best highlighted in the chapter on ‘Celestial Empires’ – Krupp discusses the empire of Genghis Khan and his successors, which ‘was twice as large as the Roman Empire at its height…. [and] ruled one-third of the world’s land, from the tip of the Korean peninsula to the threshold of Europe on the Danube River.’ The importance and influence of astronomy was significant enough that the astronomical alignments in Beijing’s early architecture during this period can still be seen today. Krupp highlights history, sociology and anthropology from modern researchers as well as ancient sources (Marco Polo’s experiences with Khubilai Khan are incorporated here as well).

This book is a very interesting discussion of world cultures from a perspective often overlooked by historians generally, and Western historians particularly. It has a great bibliography for those inclined to further research.

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor (Reader)
Sounds a fascinating book. I will add it to my list. I have been deep into Campbell for years, and I find his contemporary Dr. Sam Keen equally interesting. We still have much to learn from ancient cultures. Sad to know most of their libraries have been destroyed.

Reviewed by Peter Benson
A great review that makes me want to read the book.
I wonder; does "'Power to modify the behaviour of the king, no matter how well it may be contained, retains the risk of exploitation,'" touch upon the the opposite risks? Thomas Beckett and Thomas Moore spring to mind.
Reviewed by Tinka Boukes
Wonderful review dear friend!!

Love Tinka
Reviewed by Kate Clifford
Your review is inspiring to one who likes to learn the other side of the story. Thanks for the sharing.
Reviewed by Zenith Elliott
Well written informative review on an interesting subject. ~Z~
Reviewed by Susan Barton (Reader)
nice review

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