Viewing the Heavens Through Ancient Eyes

Anthony Aveni
Anthony Aveni

Although they are sometimes hard to see through the smog and light pollution, the stars illuminate the night sky as they have for millions of years. While many of us enjoy driving out on country roads to admire the star-studded landscape of the night, few can look into the heavens and see thousands of years of human history like Anthony Aveni can.

Aveni, the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University,  visited Hamilton to present the Winslow Classics Lecture on the topic of ancient calendars and their relation to the sun and moon on Jan. 31.

His field of study is known as archeoastronomy; his work focuses on the lives of prehistoric peoples, those living before the invention of written script, and how their understanding of the ethereal bodies helped shape subsequent civilizations. Their contributions are manifested in the creation of religion, science and perhaps most obviously, the calendar.

Aveni challenges the mindset that the modern Gregorian calendar is the true representation of a year. Time, according to Aveni, is based on activities; the planting and harvesting of crops, migration of wild animals, or the calculated meeting of two tribes. Because of this, prehistoric peoples used a variety of medias to create their own calendar years. Monumental calendars, like the enigmatic megalith Stonehenge, were calibrated through the summer and winter equinoxes. Environmental calendars used landmarks to observe the rising and setting of the sun, while notational calendars required the physical marking of an object daily in correspondence with the moon.

Our modern obsession with time has led us to create a calendar year that is more precise than the orbit of the sun. Aveni described this phenomenon as “leaping ahead of nature” and finds it a bit frightening. His lecture was ripe with various anecdotes and culturally diverse myths about solar and lunar deities. Perhaps the most compelling though were his selections from the works of Hesiod. Using short passages, Aveni illustrated how ancient people referred to times of the year by their prominent constellations, visible planets and shifting phases of the sun and moon.

Human history is deeply intertwined, Aveni would argue inseparably entwined, with the perpetual journey of the celestial spheres. Looking up at the night sky, the stars paint an intricate story. They tell of myths, rituals and peoples long since lost to antiquity. More than just a backdrop for a summer night, the stars provide a link to our past, the tale of our beginnings.

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