SOME MIDWAY CONSIDERATIONS
It has not been difficult to establish the fact of an early and vital interest in the manifestations of seasonal time. It was expressed in religion, in festive ceremony, and in the overt testimony of some of the oldest extent textual material. It is also, in each of these instances, indissolubly linked with agricultural concerns.
The connection is obvious and natural. It presents us, however, with a certain difficulty in getting at the overall cultural meaning of seasonal time, in that the agriculture link is so overwhelming. At some stage in history the metaphoric sense of seasonal time became virtually synonymous with agriculture. It appears to have been already unquestioned as early as Hesiod; but we cannot be sure until his Theogony and his Works and Days have been given an analysis from a fresh and unbiased approach. It is all too easy to impose our own framework of reference on early works that present us with sufficient problems of interpretation on the basis of philology alone.
What we can do, however, is to try and bypass this handicap by turning to other historical evidence, most particularly to cultural artifacts which stand in strong identification with aspects of seasonal time and were yet, to varying degree, clearly outside the province of agriculture. This is not to deny the significance of crops and harvest in the earliest of seasonal concerns, as has already been noted, but only to get behind the mask of conditioning that denies us the full picture of seasonality in human affairs.
Evidence of other seasonal insights is available to us, as will be shown; but it has largely been treated as "rationally unworthy" in modern scholarship -- cast outside the ring of serious study by being relegated to primitive superstition and irrationalism. We have had biases virtually bred into us by a lifetime of such academic dismissal. Yet, what are usually generalized as irrational belief systems seem to contain elements of a lost perspective on natural science, one that is becoming a credible challenge to the self-destructive values of a planet under threat of ecological extinction. This is tangential to our present concern, but not without relevance to the legitimacy of the evidence.
Furthermore, modern depth psychology has brought to light the significance of the irrational for both personal and cultural development. While these insights have been mainly applied to personal analysis, they also provide a rationale for an entirely fresh consideration of superstition and cultural irrationalism. The artifacts of "primitive superstition," as it is often regarded, far from being insults to human intellectual prowess, may have very important things to tell us -- about history, about ourselves, and about nature's own reality.
The particular "irrationals" we'll be looking at in this segment are astrology and the symbolism of certain numbers. Both are closely related to the development of the calendar -- which presents us with a rather interesting anomaly, for the calendar has become so "civilized" that we hardly associate it with the irrational. In fact, the earliest mathematics and astronomy that led to calendar development are regarded as the very roots of modern science, and commonly disaffiliated -- with extreme prejudice -- from that "dark cousin," astrology. The historical truth of it, however, is that the three grew up as "Siamese triplets," with astronomy and astrology never actually separated from each other until well toward modern times.
In her book, Studies in Medieval Science, Pearl Kibre points out (pp. 133-140) the academic merging of not only astrology and astronomy, but meteorology as well, in medical education as late as the 16th century. Resistance to astrology, in fact, came more from the church than from science, and we may well consider the possibility that the automatic dismissal that characterizes today's "official" academic view of astrology may derive more from the purges of an aroused concern for ecclesiastical apostasy (in the largely sectarian educational establishment of the Middle Ages) than from any latter-day enlightenment. At any rate, the calendar, a child of astrology as well as of astronomy, will be seen to have roots every bit as irrational as not.
As to the matter of numbers, there never has been a clear-cut separation between mathematics and the seemingly magical qualities to be discovered when numbers are examined in their multiform relationship to one another. Some of these formulations, like the Golden Section -- the ratio that can be found in many of nature's most intricate design patterns, from the chambered nautilus to crystals and leaf alternations -- have achieved near-holy status among both scientists and seers. Quantitative and linear count, in fact, have only served to diminish our sense of what numbers may be all about; these are the lowest common denominators of the numeric world.
AND THE TENSION BETWEEN 12 AND 13
Astronomy, astrology and mathematics, as well as calendar construction itself, were avenues toward unlocking -- or at the very least, becoming attuned to -- the secrets of the gods. And it all began with watching the heavens, and the discovery that five stars, and only five, went their own way. Of such things, gods are made. For these concerns were long prior to any objective interest in understanding for its own sake -- a passion that seems to have first taken root in the age of classical Greece.
As astrology's emphasis would appear to indicate, this fascination with the heavens was a yearning for predictability. And why should that be? For agricultural purposes, to be sure, but not for agriculture alone. This motive may be properly assignable to the Egyptians, who had a highly unusual situation in the regular annual flooding of the Nile, with its critical effect on their agriculture -- but it applies nowhere else with the same necessity.
On the other hand, every indigenous cultural perspective on time that we have any account of -- be it as to hourly time, monthly time, or seasonal time -- has within it a structural assignment of superstitional consequences: good or propitious times for one activity, and bad or inopportune times for another. The ethnographic records are profuse with such schemes, and they are as various as imagination could conspire to achieve. Archeological evidence indicates that time-related supersition goes as far back in human development as we can trace. It was necessary to "know time" in order to know what to expect of it.
Whether this need to know the future is something inherent in our psyche, or whether it grew apace with our realization that the movement in the heavens, itself, operates in a predictable fashion, is something we may never know. But of its ubiquity as a human fascination, there can be not the least doubt. The concern for agriculture seems a more realistic or practical motive to our modern way of seeing, but the strong probability is that it was a secondary and lesser concern to those earliest of star watchers.
Two cyclic processes in the heavens were readily apparent -- that of the sun and the moon -- and at the same time, they presented one of the earliest of challenges to a human sense of order: the two cycles did not mesh! We needn't detail the circumstances of their incommensurability -- they are familiar enough. What we are more concerned with is the impact this must have had on a people who were just beginning to exercise a consciousness of nature, as well as emerging from the totality of a living investiture in it. The consequences and social implications of the discovery of a "disordered universe" -- as this lack of harmony must surely have appeared to them -- have never been fully appreciated or explored.
There is a lore of the differentiation between sun and moon, in our psyche, that is extensive and deep. It is found in the mythic patterns of every culture, and is thought to represent archetypal elements in consciousness. It is not likely that we can attribute this to the realization of incommensurability in their cycles, for it would seem to be pre-conscious at a level of development long prior to the capacity for such a discovery. But there is no question that archetypal associations must have played a large part in the cultural consequences of that realization.
The sun and moon represent, among other things, the distinction between light and dark, between the obvious and the hidden (or occult), the knowable and the mysterious, between power and subterfuge, between wakefulness and the dream . . . they symbolize our gender distinction, and every contrast of qualities ever implied by it -- all of these elements and more, in their oppositional aspect to one another, were representationally highlighted in the failure of these two cycles to find a proper mesh with one another -- or more correctly, in our earliest awareness of this circumstance. It was tantamount to a cultural schizophrenia being certified in the cosmos, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the pursuit of astrophysical mathematics was an effort to resolve this dilemma. Not only humanity, itself, but the very gods would not be harmonized until the heavens were!
It all seems of light consequence to us, in our latter-day awareness of the facts of cyclic circumstance; and of their remoteness, in any case, from the affairs of our lives. But this, it is necessary to emphasize once more, is our culturocentrism. At every level, the data we have on prehistoric cultures points to their unconscious investment in a natural order of unity and wholeness. We can reconstructively imagine their early effort to validate the "geared" harmony of sun and moon, and the horror of discovery that it couldn't be done.
We can also suppose the central significance of certain numbers, mainly twelve and thirteen. The sun's full round could almost be contained in twelve moons, but not quite. It overshot the mark by a seemingly significant timespan of almost twelve days. Almost! The measure was close enough -- close to the harmony of twelve on twelve -- that it easily inspired devoted efforts (in some cases, monumental, in the most literal sense!) to prove that it was really so. Or perhaps to find the yet lesser factor-of-twelve by which the discovered remaining disharmony could somehow be rationalized.
These are sufficient reasons (though they have never been advanced as such) to account for the construction of paleolithic stone edifices to early astronomical discovery. We know beyond reasonable doubt that these had a seasonal orientation, very carefully and precisely devised to align with the moment of sunrise and/or sunset on the occasions of solstice. But we have no way to account for this creative energy and intellectual magnificence than by the feeble catch-all of religious ritual. It was certainly religious, in a sense, but with the specific feature of ascertaining the harmony of the gods.
The "twelve-on-twelve" theme was the earliest way that calendars sought to reconcile the disparity: twelve days added to the end of a lunar year of twelve months. Remnants remain of this system, in current holiday lore, as the twelve days of Christmas leading to Epiphany -- once the Roman festive period of Saturnalia. Frazer, in his Golden Bough, (v. 9, pp.322-328) validates this and recounts a widespread peasant lore that would extend reliable weather forecasts for the successive twelve months of the year, from the day-by-day weather of those twelve days.
Most efforts at accommodation between the solar and lunar cycles, however, achieved it by the intercalation of an extra month at some calculated interval adding up to seven times in nineteen years -- what we know as the Metonic cycle, named for Meton, the Greek mathematician who formalized it around 430 B.C. But there was never any way to do it gracefully. It always came as an "odd lump" patched onto an otherwise orderly calendar structure. The two cycles were never harmonized, just accommodated to each other in their dis-harmony. Public and ritual observances had to be solar or lunar, could never be both.
The two numbers would naturally come to represent the dilemma. Twelve, a sought-for, ever elusive harmony; and thirteen, which stood for the aggravating and perhaps fearsome incommensurability: the intrusively out-of-order month. For two and a half solar years, or so, the calendar scheme presented a facade of relative order, but then its unavoidable drift called for the dislocating insertion of a thirteenth lunar month, upsetting any pretension to harmony. Twelve and thirteen: harmony and "bad news."
Even today, it bedevils working researchers who have to deal with a diversity of ancient calendar structures. Otto Neugebauer (The Exact sciences in antiquity, p. 81), who has little positive to say of the astro-mathematical skills of early Egypt, blesses them for "the only intelligent calendar which ever existed in human history," for its uncompromisingly solar basis of construction. And D. R. Dicks, in a footnote to his critical examination of the dating of Greek astro-mathematical knowledge ("Solstices, equinoxes, and the pre-Socratics" in Journal of Hellenic Studies, #86, p. 39), avers that "the difficulties encountered in the attempt to measure time accurately by the motions of sun and moon (difficulties which it is all too easy to underestimate) provided the chief problem for Greek astronomy throughout most of its history."
Today, of course, we live with a calendar rationalized to solar demand; the months, while integral to our lives, are nothing more than named categories for unequal blocks of divisional time -- twelve to the year -- with no other definitional distinction. Many calendars, however -- the Chinese and the Jewish, prominently -- remained with that ungracious luni-solar accommodation, and we shall explore them in greater detail later on. One singular calendar, the Islamic, was rationalized in the opposite way, becoming entirely lunar so that it lost all correlation between its regular twelve "moons" and the solar seasons.
But let us return to those significant numbers, and why they are important to our present inquiry. Let me reprise the point being made . . .
We know that one of the earliest approaches to an understanding of nature was through astronomy, as a means for the construction of an accurately predictive calendar of the seasons. This is generally understood to have been in the service of agriculture. But there were at least two deeper human needs being facilitated by these developments -- one being the conscious realization of order in the nature of things, and the other a perhaps parallel, perhaps resultant need for some predictive grasp of future probabilities in all spheres of life.
We know that such needs existed from the profusion of evidence of a preoccupation with magic, oracles, and divinatory processes, engaged in by all early and indigenous cultures. That these concerns may have constituted a prior motivation for calendar development is strongly supported by the culture-wide intensity of negative reaction to the number thirteen, which most likely derives from the tension between solar and lunar cycles, and those earliest efforts to bring them into a harmonious calendar relationship.
Can we really say that a conflictual tension between twelve and thirteen has its origin in these circumstances? As to thirteen, its bad-luck reputation has popularly been linked with the fate of the thirteenth participant (Judas) in the Last Supper. But Annemarie Schimmel notes that thirteen was already an unlucky number in Babylon, and ascribes it to the very circumstances here detailed (in Encyclopedia of religion, Ed. by Mircea Eliade, v. 11, p. 17). And A. B. Keith traces the unsavory connection (also in a calendar context) back to the Rg Veda, the very earliest of Sanskrit works (in Encyclopedia of religion and ethics, Ed. by James Hastings, v. 9, p. 413). The evidence is thin but impressive.
For twelve, we cannot be quite so clear as to origins, yet circumstances connect it with the calendar even more strongly than thirteen. The number twelve has been, as far back as it is traceable, regarded as a number of order and harmony, the reason often being given that it is the multiple of three and four, each of which has magical significance hinging on order. This circumstance, however, merely acts more emphatically in its favor, when applied to the possible harmony of a twelve-month solar round. It would heighten the degree of tension between twelve and thirteen. But there are other early indications of its calendar significance.
John MacQueen, who explores the literary tradition of numerology (Numerology: theory and outline of a literary mode, pp 15-16), advises us that seven (3 + 4) and twelve (3 x 4) have a particular temporal symbolism in the early iconography of the Bible: seven represents time and twelve represents eternity; and he proceeds to relate how the Book of Revelations is deeply intersected by various usages of the number twelve in this connection (and seven as well).
David Womack (12 Signs, 12 sons, p. 41 et seq.) has labored over an analysis of the Genesis passage in the Old Testament (Genesis 49) that tells of Jacob gathering his sons and of his predictions for the twelve tribes of Israel they will generate, and Womack finds a clear astrological relationship in the arrangement presented in the Biblical text, suggesting Hebrew roots for astrology that have never been recognized.
Charlotte Long, who has compiled an exhaustive catalogue (The Twelve gods of Greece and Rome, pp.147-152) of every recovered artifact and document from early Greece and Rome that relates to the twelve major gods, and their possible progenitors, reports a dating for Mesopotamian month deities that has been established at 1000 B.C., and appears to relate to Babylonian astrology. She also references Herodotus in his reference to the Egyptian group of month deities -- the earliest such that are known to us, going back to the reign of Amenhotep III in the 14th century B.C.
The earliest suggested evidence of a connection having been made between the number twelve and the sun's annual cycle, however, is in a recent evaluation of the materials excavated at the neolithic site of Çatal Hüyük in Iran, by Mary Settegast (Plato prehistorian, pp. 204-5). In reflecting on the possibility that there may have been a Time god worshipped there as early as the sixth millennium B.C., she makes note of a painted panel uncovered in the digging, with a net-like linkage between twelve hand-symbols on one side and seven on the other. While no certain interpretation can be made, Settegast suggests that it may be a zodiacal reference to 12 signs and 7 planets, the traditional astrological constituency -- at a far earlier date than had ever been supposed for this pattern of beliefs.
It is highly significant, of course, that both the Greeks and Romans grouped their major gods in a cluster of twelve. There is certainly reason to believe, just on the face of it, that it connotes a calendar connection, at least in its origin. The Romans later made that connection quite explicit, as a quote from Manilius in the first century of the present era indicates:
"Since these matters are attended to, what is our next concern? To recognize the tutelary gods and the divinities connected with the Signs and what matters Nature has assigned to each god, when she gave their great strengths divine expression. She has established different forces under a sacred name so that one can place weight upon affairs..." (Quoted in Long, C., The Twelve gods of Greece and Rome, p. 110)
And he goes on to relate each Roman deity to the appropriate sign of the zodiac. Note well, his phrasing "...so that one can place weight upon affairs..." for this is directly to the point of our thesis, suggesting the awareness of a relationship between seasonal time and human affairs! It is offered in an astrological context, to be sure, and we shall look at that more closely in a moment.
Having explored the ramifications of the twelve gods probably more thoroughly than anyone, Charlotte Long arrives, in the end (The Twelve gods of Greece and Rome, pp. 141-2), at no sure idea of why it happened to be the number twelve. She quotes the Neoplatonist Hermeias of Alexandria, who offers an attribution to the afore-mentioned perfection of 3 x 4, and she observes with some finality that "this reasoning may have satisfied the Neoplatonists, but it has nothing to do with the origin of the system. It may simply be that the Greeks along with other peoples, including ourselves, had a penchant for collecting similar phenomena in lots of twelve." In other words, because Long sees no point in the symbology of numbers, the Neoplatonist attribution becomes a non-sequiter -- though she has nothing to offer in replacement but "a penchant."
We shall look at a similar insistence that the number twelve was only a chance and arbitrary choice, applied to the Egyptians of the early third millennium in their development of star charts, as we next consider what astrology has to contribute to our inquiry. But first let's briefly note Jung's view of the archetypal meaning of numbers. Extracting the essentials from a long passage in his late-life paper on synchronicity ("Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principle" in The Interpretation of nature and the psyche, pp. 57-58), here is what Jung has to say about the significance of numbers:
"Since the remotest times men have used numbers to express meaningful coincidences, that is, those that can be interpreted... Number helps more than anything else to bring order into the chaos of appearances... It may well be the most primitive element of order in the human mind... That numbers have an archetypal foundation is not, by the way, a conjecture of mine but of certain mathematicians...Hence it is not such an audacious conclusion after all if we define number psychologically as an archetype of order which has become conscious... It must be emphasized yet again that they are not inventions of the conscious mind but are spontaneous products of the unconscious, as has been sufficiently shown by experience."
THE MISBEGOTTEN CHILD OF SEASONAL TIME
We are so completely embedded in the secular use of time -- alarm clocks, appointment schedules, billing dates, travel itineraries, and all the other paraphernalia of a Mammon-worshiping life -- that we impute similar civil usages to those who first developed systems of temporal structure. Evidence is plentiful that their purpose was entirely different -- but our eyes for it, and our judgment of it, are completely mystified by a prior enchantment with the rational uses of time.
The Greek word for hour, from which our own term directly derives, was -- and still is -- hora. In Greek, this means both hour and season -- a commonplace bit of Greek etymology whose full significance has never been appreciated. It suggests immediately a parallel view of the year and the day; and that the hour as we know it, as a counting increment, was originally nothing of the sort! The hour in its original form was "the season of the day" -- for if the analogy were to be made the other way around (i.e., to call a season the "hour of the year"), the application of hora would have been not to the seasons as we know them but to the months, which were far more coherent and trackable temporal entities. Thus, the hours of the day were, conceptually, the ripening stream of time in its microcosmic form of a day's passage.
The segmentation of our daily round of time -- its breakup into 24 hours and subsequently smaller units -- is a purely arbitrary arrangement that had no natural cues for its particular construction. The history of it is curious and somewhat problematical. It interweaves with certain functions of astrology, in such a way that it may afford us some illuminating perspectives on this matter of the seasonality of daily time. But it is complex, and we shall have to circle around it, a bit, before the picture of this interweaving can be seen in all of its dimensions.
Let us continue with the philology, first. The term hora -- which, as we have seen, means season, with the connotation of a stage of ripening -- is also the root of the word horoscope. This term, in current popular usage, refers to the entire birthchart, so-called, of an astrological characterization for an individual; but its original usage was a precise notation of the point of the heavens immediately rising above the horizon at the moment of birth -- or what, in astrological parlance, is now called the ascendant. It literally means "to watch the 'hour'" -- but with reference to the immediate hour as a stage of "shifting seasonality."
In this usage, the term hora reveals astrology's probable original function -- not fortune-telling, in the popular sense, but as a way of understanding human relationship to the ripening process of the seasons -- both annually and in the course of a life's ripening. Or in a larger sense, the changes that evolve through time itself. Astrology took on many other nuances over the course of time -- not all of them particularly creditable -- but its staunchest supporters have always regarded it as a philosophical system based in the experiential nature of temporal change.
Franz Cumont, in his seminal scholarly survey of the roots of astrology, early in this century (Astrology and religion among the Greeks and Romans, p. 110), captured the essence of it somewhat airily but rather well:
"Each portion of Infinity brings on some propitious or unpropitious movement of the heavens, which is anxiously watched, and these motions incessantly modify the earthly world. The Centuries and the Years, each subject to the influence of a star or a constellation, the Seasons which are related to the four winds and the four points, the twelve Months over which the signs of the zodiac preside, the Day and the Night, the twelve Hours, are all personified and deified, as being the authors of all changes of the universe."
And speaking specifically with reference to calendars --- but obviously aware of the general application to all time-keeping devices --- Cumont (op. cit. p. 108) directly contradicts our habituated view, in proposing that "their original object was not to secure the measurement of the gliding moments, but to indicate the recurrence of propitious or unpropitious dates separated by periodic intervals." [emphasis is mine]
Cumont does not uphold astrology --- he quite obviously sees it as a fortune-telling device --- but he is interested in the utility of it, for historians and others of inquisitive concern, as an avenue of insight into the proto- and pre-historic world-view. And he is able to get beyond the culturocentric insistence that peoples of antiquity are best gauged on the standard of their directness of approach to the modern ideal of a rational, technical society.
There is another word in our lexicon deriving from the Greek which offers interesting evidence that there were deeper reasons in wanting to track the daily process of time's passage. Its connection with daily time will be obvious: the upright shadow-caster on a sundial is called a gnomon. Clearly, the sense of it is "to know time" -- but much more deeply than the "measure" of it.
The gno-, of the Greek, relates to insight, not measurement -- as in gnostic and gnosis, which refer to "a special knowledge of spiritual mysteries."(O.E.D.) Even in modern Greek, its cognates reflect the idea of advisor, expert, criterion. Thus, the device that has come down to us as a mere "time-clock," of primitive design, had purposes of much greater consequence. It was employed to fathom meaning, not ordinary time.
The word is Greek, but it was applied to an Egyptian invention from the second millennium, possibly reaching Greece through Babylonia as late as 550 B.C., according to B. van der Waerden (Science awakening, p. 42, p. 285). But there is much mystery around the word. It was also the term for the element of any geomentric construction which, when added to another element, enlarged it in the same proportions as its original dimensions, doing so by the mathematical constant called tau, an irrational number. This is the very principle behind the magical Golden Section, earlier referred to. Why this particular association with the "shadow caster" of a sun-dial, no one any longer knows, but one might reasonably consider that it indicates a "proportional relationship" between the moment on the clock face and the moment of experience.
At any rate, we cannot be sure exactly whose notion it was that the shadow-clock was doing more than "measuring time." It is worth noting, however, that Otto Neugebauer, in translating 800-year earlier Egyptian texts on their time-tracking techniques, which we are about to consider, also employs the term "to know" in his transliteration. (Egyptian astronomical texts, v. 1, p. 53 and elsewhere)
THE EARLIEST ROOTS, IN EGYPT, OF . . . WHAT ?
Shadow-clocks and gnomons were not the earliest documented effort to devise a structured tracking of daily time. That honor belongs to a star-charting system that was also Egyptian but at least a thousand years earlier, thus antedating the Mesopotamians in their twelve-section division of day and night, and also in their commonly supposed "creation" of astrology, by some 2000 years. And it is to Egypt we now turn, to consider this interesting intersection between the tracking of annual time, the tracking of daily time, and the significant numeration of twelve.
The star charts are found as a decorative motif in Middle and Late Kingdom funerary structures (that is, as early as 2100 B.C.), usually on the inside of coffin lids. But from the astronomical data in them, it is clear that these were standardized copies of a much earlier set of observations that can be pinpointed to 2781 B.C. (or else --- but not likely --- 4241 B.C., because of the cyclic peculiarity of what they record).
They are copies of a very ingenious formulation based on observation of a portion of sky off the range of the ecliptic --- the central path followed by sun and planets --- observations probably made just prior to daybreak, over the course of a year. In such a process, a full cycle of heliacal risings can be observed and noted -- the star or constellation seen to be rising over the horizon just before the onset of daylight fades away all traces of its presence. And in this manner, a "string" of such risings can be linked, to provide a kind of heavenly daisy-chain of 36 identified constellations, useful in either of two respects: as a seasonal indicator (each season of the year will have a particular 90° segment of the "string"), or as a nightly "clock" -- which will have to be shown schematically in order to be visualized, so that some of its astronomical, astrological, and time-keeping implications can be appreciated.
What follows is the representation of a portion of the chart (about a third of it) as it is found on the inner coffin lids -- taken from H.W.F. Saggs (Civilization before Greece and Rome, p. 234). The complete chart consists of twelve rows (without the numbers), as shown, but has a full lengthwise spread of 36 columns rather than 13.
The 13 (properly 36) numbered columns are divisions of the year into 10-day segments. The rows of letters are the stars or constellations used as significators, each row spaced about 40 minutes in time from its upper/lower neighbor -- so that the vertical string of twelve letters constitutes an eight-hour span in elapsed time (varying according to the season) for what will pass a given point in the heavens (such as the horizon line), with the bottom letter being the one that is rising just before daybreak. The letters (stars) above it are already visible in the night sky.
To take a concrete example, then, let us say that the L in the lower right-hand corner is the star Sirius rising at dawn on July 1st. On July 10th, Sirius has already been 40 minutes visible in the pre-dawn skies, but constellation M is just rising -- indicated in the second column. And so the progression can be seen. At every ten days --- or decans, as the Egyptians called them --- another star marker is rising as the day dawns. And Sirius has progressively more time in the night sky. When it reaches the columnar apex --- twelve decans or 120 days after its heliacal rising --- it is about to set in the west as the day begins.
Now let's turn to the received commentary on all of this. We have it from two primary sources: in the extensive treatment provided by Otto Neugebauer (The Exact sciences in antiquity, pp. 80-91; and Egyptian astronomical texts [Neugebauer & Richard Parker], v. l in its entirety), and more modestly that of Bartel van der Waerden (Science awakening, pp. 13-32); and also in several lesser commentaries...viz:
- H.W.F. Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, pp. 233-6;
- D.R. Dicks, Early Greek astronomy to Aristotle, p.28;
- S.J. Tester, A History of western astrology, pp. 19-20.
Uniformly --- and despite the fact that there is no known precedent to the creatively inspired ingenuity of these star charts --- our scholars disallow much astronomical consequence to the Egyptians, from a view that seems guided by the fact that these early observations were still being copied, a thousand years and more after their devisement, for those latter-day funerary purposes . . . uncorrected as to error (the quarter-day annual lag) and unadjusted over time.
They also, uniformly, ascribe no astrological significance (historically speaking) to the development. This, at least partly, arises from the circumstance that no astrological writings turn up in Egypt until quite late times, and then they clearly reflect input from Hellenistic Greece. But it is also due to the particular outlook on what the Egyptians had actually devised. And this, in turn, is somewhat conditioned by the consensus opinion on the use to which these star charts were being put, long after their construction.
As to that, van der Waerden sums up the collective view that they were "texts given to the dead kings of the New Kingdom as manuals for telling the time..." and then he discounts their scientific significance for being long out of date, the scribes having "simply copied an old text as if it had eternal validity."
It is quite apparent that all have routinely accepted Neugebauer's original assessment; and there was not very much reason to question it considering the thoroughness of his work. Yet, he had clearly proceeded on the basis of some preliminary assumptions, and seems to have worked his material to fit them.
The decision had been firmly made that the purpose and use of these star charts was to monitor the passage of time through the night. As if the Egyptian of the third millennium had some pressing need to know when midnight arrived, or by how many hours (of some sort) the dawn had yet to rise. Tester straightforwardly proposes that "the rising of those decans during the night were used to divide the darkness into hours." Saggs tells us that "the reason the Egyptians wanted to know the time at night was probably to ensure that nocturnal religious rites were celebrated at the proper time." "Proper time" might well be conceivable if we had some idea of what these "nocturnal rites" consisted. Another catch-all.
The most amazing reconstruction comes from Neugebauer, himself, who manages to find in his work the cue for the evolvement of the twenty-four hour system -- though that development was not to emerge for another 2000 years, and had then to go through a phase of "double-hour" usage (a twelve-hour round) in Babylonia. Neugebauer, in a passage too lengthy to quote (even from his shorter text) takes us through his reasoning, beginning with the 36 decans that are paralleled in the 36 signs transiting through the night sky. He halves this for the half-round portion of a night, and then deftly reduces it again by three decans on either end, to allow for the twilight hours during which no valid observation of the heavens can be made, and -- voila! the prototype for a 12-hour night, even though the Egyptian "hours" are only 40 minutes long. He then brings in reference to a 1300 B.C. Egyptian text about a sundial with a ten-part segmentation, posits his morning and evening twilight again (never mind that he is now working with shadows instead of visibility, and incrementing by two rather than decrementing by six), and -- presto! another 12-hour passage, adding up to a total of twenty-four!
Clearly, he is coming at the whole situation from a latter-day awareness, force-fitting it to suit the purposes of his claim. We can recall his satisfaction (referenced early in this chapter) with the perfectly ordered Egyptian solar calendar! It is interesting that he was never challenged as to cultural presuppositions, which is yet a further indication of how universal is the culturocentric habit.
If one turns to Neugebauer's major opus, however, the four-volume work on Egyptian astronomical texts --- one entire volume of which is devoted to the detailed analysis of these star charts, including translation of the tomb ceiling inscriptions from two major sarcophagus chambers of the late second millennium that purport to explain the star charts from "relatively contemporary" times --- one has a better idea of what he was up against, in trying to account for the star charts, as well as a much clearer picture of where his conjecture pattern may have misled him.
Completely aside from questions of translation, the documentary text as given is highly confusing. Problematical constructions and purported scribal errors abound, and Neugebauer continually expresses his uncertainty and the need for guesswork. What eventuates as a seemingly methodical and confident analysis, on his part, has originated from a series of obscurities, and it becomes quickly apparent how much the final reconstruction depends upon Neugebauer's initial frame of reference.
The Egyptian sarcophagi texts are especially confusing as they attempt to account for the "decanal hours" -- the range of 36 positions (40 minutes each) around a day/night cycle -- which is, of course, the heart of the matter. And I could not match the facility with which Neugebauer manages to tally them, however I might try. I concede that what Neugebauer sees in it might be there -- but I am not persuaded that it is, because of several things that I see quite differently than he.
1. The Egyptian texts speak of the "work" that the stars do in the heavens. Neugebauer defines this work as the act of coming to culmination, or setting, on the western night horizon. I can find nothing in the text, as he has transcribed it, that would justify this interpretation. What is clear is that there are precisely twelve stars "working" on any given night, and that they are the ones in the mid-range of the heavens. They might very well come to culmination but this is nowhere indicated as defining --- much less constituting --- their "working" status.
2. There are certain indications in the text that the Egyptians conceived of the passage through the night sky, the "birth" and "death" of stars, in terms of rising and setting, as analogous to their annual passage. At one point, for instance, the Egyptian text says "The twelve months is one way of speaking of the 36 stars." But Neugebauer makes no comment on this and generally overlooks any such implication.
3. Quite related to the two above points, the circumstance that a round of 36 decanal stars should be charted in rows of twelve seems to me to have a greater significance than Neugebauer is willing to grant. It highlights the possibility that his interpretation of the charts as a onetime "clock," and his clever explanation of why an 18-part division should be reduced to twelve -- in order to arrive at that conclusion, may suit his own preconception more readily than the facts.
The idea of twelve "working stars" in the night sky, shifting one by one as the decans progress through the year, carries a strong suggestion of seasonal heavenly influence in terrestrial affairs. The Egyptians recognized three seasons, and not four, so that a full "changing of the heavenly guard" came with each new season. There is much possibility for other developmental lines of conjecture, here, than Neugebauer was willing to pursue.
While I cannot be sure there would be no astro-mathematical complications, it appears to me that the chart of twelve rows might just as easily have represented the "working stars" rather than the entire nightly spread (for which they are obviously insufficient). This seems a much more coherent beginning on which to base an evaluation. It would explain, among other things, why it made little difference that the charts went "out of date," yet continued to remain in use. They continued to represent a pattern of whatever work is done in the heavens -- and for the dead they constituted, if anything, a kind of map, not a clock.
A USEFUL COMPARISON
For the sake of instructive contrast, let us for a moment consider the people of Tikopia, an isolated Pacific island community of recent times, located in the British Solomon Island Protectorate. This is not to suggest that any level of cultural equivalence can be found, across 5000 years and half a globe away, but only that a culture without any system of time-keeping may very well -- and more likely -- use astronomical reference points in a less precisional fashion than might ordinarily be expected of any demonstrated effort to track such phenomena. Certain points of cultural similarity will, however, be immediately apparent.
The Tikopia engage in a semi-annual ritual cycle called the Work of the Gods, "a formal traditionalized means of maintaining contact with powerful spiritual beings and inducing them to look with favour upon the Tikopia by the grant of food and health."
Ethnologist Raymond Firth (The Work of the gods in Tikopia), who observed the process on two occasions, separated by 23 years, continues: "It must be reckoned as a very considerable feat for members of a society without calendar to plan and maintain such a highly intricate system of performance for six weeks, twice a year... The Tikopia have no fixed calendar and no names for the months or for the days or nights of the months."
Their index for starting the ritual process is a combination of seasonal effects and astronomical observation. Firth elaborates on the latter:
"...when the Pleiades appeared above the sea in the east, in the dawn, then that was a signal for the Work of the Trade-Wind to begin... The Work of the Monsoon is also so guided. When it is seen that Manu, a bright star, has passed the zenith in the evening, then the time to throw the firestick for this season's work has arrived. Saraporu, another prominent star, stands midway in the western heavens in the evening at this time; towards the end of the Work, when the dance festival begins, Saraporu has gone below the horizon in the evening.
"The Tikopia thus do not use these stars as definite determinants for the beginning of their rites but as general indicators and controls; their most important function is in giving the signal to prepare for the work rather than actually to begin the work."
This, then, heightens the point of the present analysis. Neugebauer has stretched his evidence so as to support a modern-day conception of astronomy's principal evolutionary utility, as a time-keeper. He imputes to pre-Old Kingdom Egypt not only a precisional time-keeping need, but a 2000-year lead in the historic development of clocked hours charted from the heavens, when the material more readily suggests --- both structurally and by textual implication --- an ancestry to astrology. But this Neugebauer categorically rejects, and he does so in what seems a clearly prejudicial manner.
Witness: He acknowledges the Egyptian origin of decans, which became a later (and present-day) astrological fixture, but he glosses over it, allowing no more than an etymological ancestry. He fails to take account of the much more "influential" meaning implied by the idea of "working stars," and ascribes to them a mere time-keeping function. He persistently ignores the clearly dominant theme of twelve, in the text, considering it to be a mere derivative of the 36 decans, and more applicable to his time-keeping notation in any event. In short, he provides us with an analysis skewed to his own perceptions of significance. That this dismissal of astrology, in favor of time-keeping, has been dutifully upheld by his successors is probably due less to the persuasion of his argument than to the general low regard in which astrology is held.
If astrology were not so readily consigned to the closet of human history, it might be seen to carry in its structure a strong suggestion of the early conception of our relationship to the seasons of the year. Astrology undoubtedly arose from such a perspective, and the star charts of ancient Egypt might provide a useful "missing link" in tracing that connection -- in the qualified hands of a more receptive scholar than Otto Neugebauer.
If you are ready, let us move along to Part V
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FOOTNOTES (linked from text)
"it is all too easy..." As an instance of this, David Womack (12 signs, 12 sons, pp. 62-63) points out a full passage in the Bible, Galatians 4, which has lost its original meaning because Paul's phrase, ta stoiceia tou kosmou, a common Greek usage (literally: elements of the cosmos) for the astrological signs of the zodiac, has either intentionally or through a misreading (though more likely the former) been translated as "elemental spirits of the universe," or even "...of the world" Back to text.
"insults to human intellectual prowess"...Franz Cumont, in the introduction to his Astrology and religion among the Greeks and Romans (p. xvii), refers to a certain Letronne who, in a speech to the Academy of Inscriptions in 1824, spoke of astrology as "nothing but one of those failings which have done most dishonour to the human mind." Back to text.
"...twelve days." According to Frazier, the range of this weather lore extends from Britain all the way across Europe to India, along the route of which it appears in many variations, even as to the specific twelve days involved, thus indicating a far earlier and pagan origin, than what Christianity could claim for it. Back to text.
"Metonic cycle." There were several other such formulations, of greater and lesser accuracy, but the Metonic variant has been the one most generally adopted by lunar-calendar cultures. Back to text.
"a penchant." Perhaps with some vague sense of the inadequacy of her conclusion, Long ends her passage with the equally vacuous note that "the number twelve could be regarded as large enough to imply universality but at the same time finite, producing a limited group out of an infinity of deities." Back to text.
"the ripening stream of time..." This is further validated in the construction of many words in modern Greek that are variants on maturity and the ripening process, whose word-stem is hori-. Even the word horizon carries such an implication in the second (and obsolete) definition given by the O.E.D.: "...the frontier or dividing line between two regions of being." Back to text.
"...tau, an irrational number." Tau is a constant which, like Pi, cannot be resolved by any complete number, but only approximated to some arbitrary extent of decimal places. Both of these irrational numbers, critical to any complete description of nature, demonstrate the ultimate inability of reality to fully conform with any rational analysis. A more detailed account of both tau and the gnomon can be found in Guy Murchie's The Seven mysteries of life, pp. 337-8. Back to text.
"...ten day segments." The Egyptians had made corrective allowance for the additional five days in the year, but not for the quarter-day that accounts for our leap year. It was this latter oversight that enabled the pinpoint dating of the star chart. Back to text.
"...'relatively contemporary' times." These sarcophagi inscriptions were much closer in time and culture to the star charts' origin than we -- but they were nevertheless more than 1500 years removed from it! Back to text.