The History of Astronomy

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The History of Astronomy: The American Indians

No exact time frame, in the creation of the Big Bang has the universe in all it’s splendor, ever shown brighter to no other man, than that night sky which was first perceived by a thinking man. The history of man, is written in the song, and not in the stone, for I feel that stone only represents a fleeting moment out of time, a snapshot if you will, of a frozen physical expression of a coherent mind. These images carved into the rocks surface, are only a pebble in the path of understanding the vast knowledge the American Indians possessed concerning the night sky and in some cases the sky in general.

From time unmemorable man has gazed up at the night sky in quiet reverence. And from these ancient star gazers, came a primordial desire to learn more. In pursuing this desire; man became aware of the world around him, and began to have rational thought. Out of this rational thinking sprang a strong desire to understand that which man perceived with his eyes. For in these eyes, man not only saw death in this world, but he also bore witness to the nature of birth itself. All of these visions that assaulted man’s senses, only inspired him to ponder the same questions that plague us today. The questions that I speak of, are who am I? Where did I come from? And where do I go when I die?

These are perplexing questions indeed, and in the eyes of ancient man they were questions that desperately needed answers. So in search of these answers man looked to the world around him and found that in some cases the answers only brought more questions. So in desperation man learned to mimic the world around him. He studied the land, and the sky above him. And in his discoveries man saw that the world was in perfect balance with itself . A world where everything was ordered, and in a simplistic state of existence. He saw that the birds could fly, but he did not know why. He saw the seasons come and go, but he did not know why. He saw his loved ones and friends cease to exist, never to join the smoke again. But yet still, he did not know why. He witnessed the birth of a human child, and he saw this birth in all the creatures around him. But still, with his thirst for understanding driving him on, he still did not know why.

During these antediluvian times the world was believed to be full of magic. This was a place where the trees whispered to each other, as they sensually conspired with the wind, as they gently sway to and fro. The sounds of the night reverberate up and down your spine. Your senses reel, as you think you hear a movement in the dark. Fear grips your soul, as red eyes stare at you from the inky abyss that is the great darkness. These are the primordial fears that haunt us all, and as always we want to know why?

In an effort to calm the people there were many times in which the medicine man was also the tribal chief; one reason was that this was because the chief held more power than anyone, not to mention the most respected. But who ever he may be, the well respected job of spiritual leader was assigned to the medicine man. The medicine man was responsible for the spiritual wellness of his tribe. So in an effort to keep alive the tribe he unites them in stories that do their best to answer that which has no answer. The art board if you will was the night sky. This vast starry sky was the dark portrait, and painted on it were the envisioned pictographs of their gods. These pictures, comprised much the way the Greeks did it, are of all the major constellations along the Milky Way.

So, I think it might be safe to say, that this is where American Indian astronomy first began. The medicine men believed that it supplied the answers to the two most perplexing questions. On one hand it placed a lot of faith in those, who like him, were appointed keepers of the faith, That’s why you had Shamen or Medicine Men. It was the job of these holy men to teach the people the laws of the land, and to insure that this knowledge was never lost in the pages of time. These holy men showed that the gods were alive and well and were responsible for their very existence, but the people needed more, they needed the visual evidence, something they could see with there own eyes, and express with the song and dance. this my friends was the origin of astronomy.

The stories told by the holy men organized an already existing society, and the stories justified the reasons why they made them. For now when the holy men spoke of gods, the people could look up at the sky and see the greatness of the world around them. The people could see their gods in action; they could see the results of their prayers. The people had something tangible to hold on to.

It was very important to tell these stories orally, because there was no written language. Sure there were pictographs and Petroglyphs, but they were incomplete and were usually used only to document an event rather than tell a story. That is why the American Indians that populated much of the North American continent, inhabited this region long before the coming of the Vikings and the Spaniards. They believed that the lessons regarding the welfare of the people should be learned from the simplicity of the world around them. For in this world that surrounded them, was envisioned a dynamic world that was seen to be in a perfect state of balance and harmony. This was not a septic static world, that was etched in unchanging stone. This was a dynamic world, crackling with life’s energy, pulsing with people that saw that every thing around them had a purpose. The people learned why the leaves turn color in the fall. They learned why the Robins breast is red. They learned why the stars are in the sky, and why the Sun rises in the dawn. These were all questions and answers that needed to be there in order to maintain a balance that would push the people in a direction that was harmonious to the teachings of the holy men.

You will find as we go on in our somewhat one sided conversation, that any discussion concerning the American Indian folklore and or myths were not imaginary stories meant to amuse the children; they were stories of what the people considered to be factual events. So do not be surprised when you read of animals and inanimate objects that could talk, and how these things interacted with themselves and their human counter parts. Now I know that this sounds rather fanciful, but you have to remember that to the American Indians everything was alive, and the boundaries that separated this world from the spirit world were very fluid. This boundary could be passed through with no difficulty at all, if one only knew the path. In fact these two worlds intertwined and meshed together so much, that in the minds of the American Indians it was hard sometimes to tell the difference between reality and the unreal.

Since these stories were meant to convey a message to the people, these messages were to cover every aspect of their lives, so the stories told, explained it all in such simplistic terms that no one questioned them, or they would face the consequences of holy retribution (our equivalent of hell).

As I researched these stories I found that they could be divided into several categories such as those stories that pertained to the “spirit world”, those that pertained to Power (which is a totally different view than the west has). Then there were the stories that described the “creation” of everything from the earth to the stars in the sky. Next we have those stories that pertained to “moral values”, mixed with those stories that dealt with “rituals” Then of course there were those stories that revealed the “hero’s and villains” and the “things that are forbidden”, and lastly those stories that dealt with “everyday life”.

To anyone who has ever been to such places as the American Southwest you can not only see with your eyes the splendor of a summer in this region. You can also see how the contrast of the land leaves a lasting impression on not only your mind, but also an indelible mark on your soul. The grand panoramic vistas that one beholds when you are here, are etched in the memories of the sandstone mesas set against the back drop of the beautiful skies that seem to come alive just before the sunsets. What I mean by this, is that these picturesque hues displayed by the clouds and sky, resemble those one might expect from the easel of an artist who sat there, with skillful strokes and gently caressed the canvas with opaque blends of orange, red,  pink, with a dash of yellow and blue. All this laid out as a stage for the shadowy outlines of not only the grand mesas and plateau’s, but also define the pine, cedar, and juniper trees until they appear as the playful shadows of approaching darkness silently tempt the twilight to come and play. In addition to this when the darkness falls and the land slips slowly into a false slumber, once more, the sky itself bursts into brilliance, with so many stars that they seem to have no place for others. These sights that fill the soul are quite dramatic indeed and once you have seen them you can understand what all this meant to the American Indians.

Now as you read this book I hope that you will have a better understanding of the beliefs of the American Indians, and why they truly felt that everything from the grass in the fields, to the stars in the sky all had spirits. The animals talked to the trees, the trees talked to the ground, the ground talked to the rocks, and the rocks talked to the water. These spirits could even talk to those men who knew how to listen; these spirits could guide those who would follow. Teach those who could see, and even take the souls of those who were foolish.

These stories that were told and passed down through the generations contained a wealth of knowledge, in fact some even tell of a time before the great flood, a time when a land bridge existed between Russia and the North American continent a time when Mammoths roamed the land. As these stories unfolded they laid the frame work of how each attribute such as speed, cunning, ruthlessness, yes and even love played out on the stage of life in more complexity than any Shakespeare ever written.

These stories dealt with how a person should treat another person, and how the tribe should share in its fortunes as well as its misfortunes. In doing this, the stories allowed the tribe not only as individuals but also as a unit to see themselves and the world around them. These stories also allowed the people to communicate with their gods not only on a personal nature but as a whole tribe as they acted out their beliefs in song and dance. This way the people could hear their gods in the words of their songs, and see their gods not only in the sky and in their art, but also on the ground in the dances that helped tell the stories. This way the people could see their gods in their dreams and speak to their gods in their vision quests, and therefore become a part of the great circle of life. Now we will examine the categories that I spoke of earlier, and we will begin with “Power”.


The concept of power as we know it today revolves around just who is in control. Power is not in the weapons that one has, but the control one has over another’s life. If you told a person to jump into a lake of fire and they jumped, then that is power. That is the world’s philosophy of today’s thinking and will probably be the death of us all. To the American Indian however, this western concept of power was lost in the depths of pure natural thought. They believed that true power came from being able to call forth one,s spirit guide to assist him or her, in their quest to converse with their gods to seek advice in every day matters. This knowledge would assist the seeker in achieving their goal whether it be more wives, more horses, more food, or simply to help them vanquish their enemies. That brings us now to the fabulous stories of creation.

Creation Stories

Creation stories try to address the questions “Who am I, and How did I get hear”? How did the world come to exist? One of the most common stories on creation come from the Pawnee, and tells of a time before time when “Bright Star” gives “Great Star” a rock which he promptly throws into the great ocean that covered the world. As “Great Star” tosses the stone into the dark primordial waters, the waters begin to subside, and land begins to rise from its depths, thus creating the earth. After this miraculous event, the daughters of Bright Star and Great Star marry the sons of the Sun and Moon, thus populating the earth with their offspring.

These stories and many more are meant to explain how we as a people came to be. It also tells us how these events were orchestrated by either divine intervention, or ou right trickery which came as a direct result of interactions between gods and mortal men. These creation stories also attempted to explain what the people saw in the night sky, such as the Milky Way, the Orion constellation, not to mention the Corona Borealis and the Pleiades star cluster. These were and still are dominate asterisms in our skies today. That brings us now to Ritual Acts.

Ritual Acts

In rituals practiced by the American Indians, we find that images depicting hunts and wars can be found on drums, tipi’s, and clothing, not to mention tattoos and body piercing. They can also be seen in the sky, by the recognition of tribally known constellations, or maybe even in singularly known bright stars, or even stars that only appear at certain times of the year. In fact some stars are so reliable, that they are used to predict pregnancies in soon to be gravid females. The stars have for many thousands of years been used to tell the holy men when to plant crops, when to harvest crops, and even when to wage war. That is why thanks are to be given in the form of rituals of dance or songs associated with images of their gods. That is also why in some images of American Indian rituals you see people dressed up as animals or what appears to the western eyes as strange beings, because this is a ritual way to give or ask blessings over their livestock or game animals that are so important to their survival. Now we come to the stories that cover moral behavior

Moral Values

These were the stories that taught the tribes to not take the possessions of others in their tribe. These lessons spoke of obeying your parents, and to do right by your fellow man. Work hard and don’t be lazy! Never take a life, unless it is absolutely necessary, whether it is a man or beast. Treat your wife as a part of yourself! (too bad we don’t follow that advice today).

So in essence stories of this kind are designed to teach the people to live in harmony with not only themselves but with the world around them. Stories of this nature are told to the young even before the child is old enough to talk. The reason for this of course, is that these songs and visual aids as seen by the mind of a child. Who by observing ritual dances that are comprised of sounds and colors that on instinct alone, will draw the attention of an infant.

This is not intentional, for I know the ritual dress does hold great meaning to the tribes. But instead I am saying that a child does not at first understand nothing more than the rudimentary things of life, and over a period of time this conditioning (if you will) is implanted into the child’s memory. So as in time the meaning of the stories being told to the infant becomes second nature to the child’s behavior when they are grown, which provides the necessary guidelines for the child to follow throughout their lives, in order to become a better person.

You will find that there are quite a few stories teaching moral values that also include our next topic which is “Heroes and Villains.”

Heroes and Villains

I guess you could say that in the stories of heroes and villains these would be the times when physical things were being introduced to the people by the gods. You know, through stories that told how a god had taught the people to make fire, or how to hunt with a bow and arrow, but in the next second, he would kill you for something you possessed. We also find that the gods will emulate certain traits, so the story can take on a specific meaning, such as why I should not steal from my neighbor. The answer of course is because it is not your neighbor that you steal from. You steal from the whole tribe, because the tribe shares in the good times as well as the bad times, because the tribe is your extended family.

So I guess we can say that the gods of the spirit world can teach you or they can deceive you, it is up to the individual person to know the difference. And that is what the purpose of the stories is.

Now as those who are prone to do by nature, will slip and go against the normal order or balance of things, which brings us to our next subject “things that are forbidden”.

Things That Are Forbiddin

These are the stories that deal with the punishment dealt by the gods for those who broke the laws of the tribe by not heeding the warnings given, or by not keeping his word. For example some stories are meant to be told at only certain times of the year and could not be told during any other time or heavy retribution had to be compensated. There could be crop failures or maybe the buffalo would not return, so the moral was “learn the lesson well” and “put your trust where your heart is”. Or next entry is “stories of everyday life”

Everyday Life

These are the stories that are meant to convey the needs of the family and the tribe as a community at large. These stories teach of the movement of the stars and how the rising or setting of certain key stars or constellations (such as the Pleiades) which signal the time in which to plant or harvest crops. It was also thought by some tribes, that the rising of certain stars was the best time to conceive children. The positioning of or rise and set times were very important, so important in fact that in some tribes the chiefs gathered for hours discussing when certain stars would rise so they would know when the salmon would run, or the indigenous plants would be ready to harvest.

Now that we can partly understand what the night sky meant to the ancient American Indians, and how they viewed life. We begin to understand that they, and we, aren’t that much different as a people. We have the same desires; we have the same problems, so remember, the American Indian is not the savage we once thought they were in fact we can learn a lot about life in their teachings.

More about this author: Larry Stringer

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