Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/September 1884/The Astronomy of Primitive Peoples

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THE geographical ideas of the lower races, as well as those of civilized people, are of both ethnological and psychological interest, and it is my purpose to devote a few lines to the little-worked field which here presents itself to view. The special subject of my essay will be the ideas concerning the earth and the world formed by primitive peoples, especially the ideas of the form of our planet and of the most important sidereal phenomena; and among primitive peoples I shall, for the purpose of this review, include such half-civilized nations as the Toltecs and Aztecs, and the ancient Peruvians.

Men form different notions of the sky and the earth according to their different points of view. The first appearance of the earth is that of an unbounded surface, and the constructive mind forms a responding picture of that part of it which is within its vision. Islanders regard their groups as their world, and finish out the picture with fantastic conceptions of the ocean-regions beyond. Highlanders, who, like the ancient Greeks, also see the sea-shore, figure their earth as a cup or a hollowed surface into which the waters run together. The Grecian view held its ground till the Crusades, unaltered even as to its particulars, and is still entertained by the lazzaroni of Naples. People who live in high mountain-regions, and never look upon extensive plains, regard the earth as a sublime range, a massive dome in which peak towers above peak, as the Caucasians do, or as a lofty cone, like the Thibetans. On conceptions like these stand those religious systems which place the seat of the gods, the first home of the human race, or the abode of the dead, among lofty mountains. The Hindoos called Meru, the Thracians Olympus, the residence of the gods. East African tribes, such as the Masais, the Wakamba, the Wakwasi, and the Gallas, say that their gods dwell in Kilimanjaro or Kenia, or a third equally lofty mountain of their regions. And the Indians of the American prairies believe that the happy hunting-grounds of their departed are to be found in the Rocky Mountains.

The conceptions that are formed of the regions of the earth lying outside of vision are equally diversified. In classical antiquity, the earth was imagined to be surrounded by the sea, Oceanus; or the heavenly vault to rest upon mountain-ranges or isolated peaks. The Caroline-Islanders represent the region beyond the Marianne Archipelago, and north of their home, as one in which the sky gradually approaches the earth, and finally rests upon it, but not so closely but what a space is left that a man can creep through. To the Esquimaux of Greenland the sky seems to be a steep, high mountain in the north, around which the stars revolve, while the earth rests upon props that would have decayed, crumbled, and disappeared long ago, if it had not been for the mummery of witches.

From this we may pass to a wider view, which attempts to form an idea of the back side of the earth. The Kamchatkadales conceive that the earth is flat, and that its under side forms a lower world, under which is another land; or as, according to Steller, they expressed it, the earth is the reverse of a sky under which is still another world; so that they consider the world as a vessel of three stories. The conception of the earth as a flat surface lies at the foundation of most of these myths; but there are a few of them that rest on better ideas. According to Newbold, some of the Malays regard the earth as round, like an egg. The Chippewas and Winnebagoes, according to Lawson, and the Duphlas of Assam, regard the earth as a square, with four corners; but the imagination of that shape is exceptional.

What holds the visible world together, and what supports the earth in it, are also questions that have occurred to primitive men; and their attempts to solve these questions also carry with them efforts to account for particular phenomena of the earth's surface, and such convulsions as earthquakes. Some have tried to compare the earth with an egg in a vessel of water, or with the yolk in the egg; and cosmologies involving this idea are widely spread in Southern Asia, Polynesia, and Melanesia. The Tonga-Islanders say that a god they call Maui carries the earth on his back, and whenever he moves, to turn the other side, or falls asleep, there is an earthquake; and the people were accustomed to beat the ground, with a great cry, to make Maui be quiet. The Khasias, in Assam, say that everything would be destroyed by earthquakes if God did not hold the earth in his hands. The priestly philosophy of the Hawaiians figured the earth as a great mass which the earth-shaker, or earthquake-god, laid upon the central fire. The earth on its side supported the sky by means of two or four pillars. The heaven of the Maories and the Soma of the Vedas are also supported by pillars. The manner in which the sky was in the beginning lifted up on these pillars is carefully described in the Polynesian myth, which relates that the gods Maui and Rua together held the sky on their knees, then lifted it upon their backs, and then on their hands. Other stories relate that, while the sky was resting on the broad leaves of the teva-plant, Rua raised it a little higher up by putting sticks under it, and then the stalwart Maui put his hands to it. In Celebes an earthquake is fabled to take place whenever Eber, who is supposed to be the earth-bearer, rubs himself against a tree and shakes his load. The world-bearing frog of the Mongol lamas, the world-ox of the Moslems, and the gigantic Omophore of the Manichaean cosmogony, are all creatures that carry the world on their back or head, and shake it whenever they stretch themselves or turn around. A similar part is performed in European mythologies by the Scandinavian Loki, who is bound with iron chains in his subterranean cave; by Prometheus, trying to break his chains; and by the Lettish Drebkuls. A branch of the Yuma Indians in Colorado are in dread of an evil spirit that is sleeping on Mount Avicome, and causes a slight earthquake when he moves uneasily, and a dangerous one when he turns clear over. The Caribs were accustomed to say, when there was an earthquake, that Mother Earth was dancing. The Iroquois, according to the testimony of many travelers, conceived the earth as an island in the sea, resting on the back of a huge tortoise. Floods occurred whenever the tortoise sank under the water, earthquakes when it shook itself or changed its position. The Hindoos imagined an earth-bearing elephant, standing on the tortoise, and attributed terrestrial convulsions to his motions. The Duphlas of Assam imagined four elephants supporting the four comers of the earth, which had to suffer when either of its bearers became uneasy.

According to the Kamchatkadales, earthquakes originate when the dogs of the earthquake-god, who travels in a sleigh under the ground, shake the fleas in the snow from themselves. The Siberian hunting races perceive in the bones of the mammoth, so often found in their country, evidences of the real existence of underground monsters, whose movements may give rise to earthquakes. According to Livingstone, the natives of Magomoro relate that once when an earthquake occurred, by which rocks were thrown down from the mountains, the wise men of the country got together, and concluded that a star had fallen into the sea, and the consequent swelling of the waves had caused commotions over the whole earth.

Most of the astronomical conceptions of our Polynesian, African, and American brothers are childishly simple and crude enough, but at the same time curious. A very odd belief is that of the Namaqua Hottentots that the sun is a piece of bright bacon, which the people who go in ships draw up in the evening by enchantment, and let down again after they have cut a piece off from it. The Polynesians say that the god Maui holds the sun and regulates his course by means of a rope. In the beginning he hurt the star in catching it and deprived it of half its light, and since then the days have been longer and cooler, and men have been able to work in peace. The Japanese myths fable eight hundred thousand gods holding the sun with a rope, while it is all the time trying to get back into the cave out of which they have drawn it by means of a trick. The Society-Islanders have a story that the sun goes into the sea at night; it plunges in and is extinguished with a great hissing that can be heard away off in the west. And this recalls a story that is mentioned by Strabo. According to Bock, the Dyaks have a myth that the sun and the moon were made by the Almighty out of a peculiar clay which is found on the earth, but is very rare and costly, the vessels made from which, called guji blanga, are holy and protect against evil spirits. The settling of the sun's red disk upon the mountain-tops and its final descent behind the hills engaged the attention of dwellers in the regions where the phenomena assumed that character; and the Karens of Burmah and the mountain tribes of America spoke of the sun going down into a deep cleft in the rocks.

In passing over to the numerous myths in which the sun is regarded as a living being, we meet the belief of the Navajos that it is newly set in the sky every morning by a woman. Kext, we come to a great number of stories that personify the sun, although they may not make a god of it, and represent its setting as a process of being swallowed by some monster. Sometimes it is a hero, sometimes it is a virgin, which is thus swallowed and afterward released or rejected, as in the Greek stories of Perseus and Andromeda and Hercules and Hesione, the old Norse story of Eireck and the Dragon, and the Teutonic myths of Little Red Riding-hood and the Wolf and of the Seven Little Goats.

Without going into the discussion of sun-worship, of which so much has been written, we may refer to the wide diffusion of the practice in insular and continental Australasia, Northern Asia, and Central America.

Curious are the forms under which many people have figured the sun and moon. The simplest are the disk-forms, with or without rays, which are of frequent occurrence. On a temple of Palenque, while the sun has this form, the moon is represented as a shell-shaped vase or a spiral shell filled with water, out of which a hare is creeping. Squier found similar representations painted on the rocks in Nicaragua. In pictures ascribed to the Toltecs, the four great Mexican gods are bearing the eye-dotted sky on their shoulders and arms, while the sun-god and the moon-god are indicated under the symbols of the tiger and the hare—a form of representation that has extensively spread in North America. In the ancient Kami religion of the Japanese, the moon was worshiped as a fox. The Caffres and the Esquimaux ascribed an independent life to these planets, the latter people holding that they were human beings who had ascended to heaven, and conceiving the Moon to be the younger brother of the female Sun. In Peru the Moon-mother was both sister and wife of the Sun, like Osiris and Isis in Egypt. In the Lithuanian folk-songs the Moon takes the Sun to wife, and the Morning-Star is their daughter. The red Mintiras of the Malay Peninsula regard both Sun and Moon as women. In Southern Australia, among the Mbokobis in South America, and in the old Slavic sagas, the Moon is a man, and to the Khasias of Northwestern India he is the son-in-law of the Sun. By the Hurons the Moon is called the creator of the earth and grandmother of the Sun; in the myths of the Ottawas it is an old woman with a pleasant white face—the sister of the Day-Star. The Chiquitos call the Moon their mother, and the Navajos make it a rider on a mule. Where the planets are worshiped, preference in honors is generally accorded to the brighter and more conspicuous star of day. But the Botocudos of Brazil give the higher place to the Moon, and derive most of the phenomena of nature from it; and in Central America and Hayti are also people who hold the Moon in no less honor. Curiously, these people find their counterparts among tribes of Western, Southern, and Central Africa, who rejoice with dancing and feasts at each appearance of the new moon, and expect an improvement of their condition from its beneficent influence; and they are not so far removed from the superstitious women of civilized Europe and America who wait for the increase of the moon to change their dwelling, to cut their hair, to be married, and to baptize their children. A belief existed among the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians, the Natchez of the Mississippi, and the Appalachians of Florida, that the sun was the radiant abode of dead chiefs and braves. To the Esquimaux of Labrador belongs the honor of having discovered that the moon was the paradise for the good, while the wicked were consigned to a hole in the earth; although some of the South American Indians and the Polynesians of Tokelau may be nearly abreast of them in the competition.

The facts we have adduced abundantly illustrate the various interest with which primitive peoples regard the two principal stars of the earthly sky. They have also their theories, or rather their myths, respecting the periodical changes to which the appearance of these bodies is subject. The phases of the moon are particularly the subject of much concern. In the belief of the Hottentots, the living being we call Moon suffers from a chronic headache, in consequence of which it becomes greatly reduced in appearance by laying its hand on its head. The Caffres bring the Sun into play in accounting for the phenomena, and say that she pursues the Moon and reduces him, but that he is cunning enough to escape, and then recovers his strength. More curious still is the part the waning moon plays in the eyes of some Polynesians, who say that it is eaten from by departed spirits. Another extremely materialistic explanation is found in some Greenland stories to the effect that the Moon pursues his sister the Sun in love. When he has become exhausted and thin, he goes seal-hunting, and disappears from the sky. In time he reappears, well fed, fat, and shining, as the full moon.

Purely fanciful and obscure are the myths in which animals are found in confidential relations with the moon. The Dakota Indians have a fiction of mice that periodically attack the moon to satisfy their hunger, and eat of its substance. An old Slavic saga makes the ruler of the night the husband of the Sun, who faithlessly gives his heart to the Morning-Star. In punishment for this offense, he is cleft through the middle, and must exhibit himself periodically in this plight as a warning example. The Hos, in Northeastern India, also fable the moon split in two and growing together again. In some of the stories these love-attacks become very violent, and then the aggressive party is made to receive a kind of retributive justice; and we accordingly have the spots that are to be seen upon the moon explained by saying that they are the marks which the vexed solar beauty has made upon her pursuer in defending herself against his importunities. Thus, according to Mr. D. Hooker, the Khasias in Northwestern India say that the Moon, an over-ardent son-in-law of the Sun, burns with love for her at each new change, while she, in her aversion, throws ashes into his face, which stick upon it as dark spots. The Esquimaux have two opposite, yet fundamentally harmonious, explanations. One is that the Sun smuts the face of her younger brother, whose attentions have become troublesome; the other, given by Bastian, that her heart warms toward her lover during his periods of darkness, and the spots are the marks left by her sooty hand caressing his face.

A variety of sagas of another kind discover living beings, not in the whole moon, but only in the dark points of its surface. The Hindoos fancy a hare in it, or a deer; the Japanese, a rabbit. According to one of the Namaqua legends, the hare has scratched the moon, and the marks remain, but the animal itself has broken away, and is now continually fleeing before the planet. Who, in the face of such stories, can be oblivious of the general connection between the moon and the hunting goddess, and its personification in identity with her, which figure in the fables of classical antiquity?

A most remarkable fact is the agreement of peoples who have never had anything to do with one another—of South African tribes and the Northern Europeans, the Samoa-Islanders and the ancient Peruvians—in the belief that the spots in the moon represent a creature of our own species. The story of the man in the moon, which may be traced in Europe for some hundred years back, and appears in the old Norse myths, and which still charms our children, prevails in many different versions. The Raratongans recognize in it a departed chief; the Ossetes of the Caucasus, a demon, which they regard with an idolatrous fear; the Namaquas, a higher being, to whom they attach great importance; the Pottawattamie Indians, an old woman; the people of Timor, a spinster; the Mangaians, a busy housewife; and the ancient Peruvians, a courtesan. The Siamese see in it, now a hare, and now a married couple, who cultivate the fields and accumulate heaps of rice.

There remain to be considered the impressions that eclipses of the sun and moon make upon primitive peoples. A large number of their explanations represent the planets as a man and a woman, and sometimes bring in a child to help in producing the phenomena. The Jesuit Le Jeune was told by an Algonquin, in Canada, that the Sun and Moon were man and wife who had a child. When the father took up the little one to caress it, there was an eclipse of the sun; when the mother held it in her arms, an eclipse of the moon. According to the Mintiras of Malacca, the Sun and Moon are two women, of whom the former eats her children, while the Moon hides hers, although she is pledged to eat them too. Enraged at this breach of faith, the Sun chases the Moon around, swallowing her own star at each dawn, while the Moon brings hers out as soon as her pursuer is far enough away. At times, the enemies approach so nearly that the Sun can strike the Moon, and then there is an eclipse. The Hos of India have the same story, with the variation that the Moon, in punishment, is cut in two by the Sun, and has to grow together again. Notwithstanding the frequent recurrence of eclipses, with nothing particularly bad happening after them, most primitive peoples aasociate with them an omen of some great danger to the earth or the moon. The Greenlanders have a personal apprehension in the matter, and believe that the Moon rummages their houses for skins or victuals, and destroys those persons who have not observed due sobriety. The South American Chiquitos try to help the darkened star against a dog that has worried it till its light has been colored red, and extinguished by its streaming blood; and they shoot arrows into the sky to drive away the dog. Charlevoix gives a similar account of the Guarani, except that with them a tiger takes the place of the dog; and in the language of the Tupis the literal translation of the word for an eclipse is, "The jaguar has eaten the sun." So, in Asia, the Tunguses believe an evil spirit has swallowed the earth's satellites, and they try to frighten it away by shots at the darkened disk. In Sumatra and Malacca the fear is aroused that a great snake will swallow the sun or the moon; and the Nagas of Assam set up a great drum-beating, as if in battle, to frighten away the devouring monster. Among the American tribes are some who believe that eclipses are a warning of the approaching disappearance of the sun and the fall of the moon at the end of the world. The Pottawattamies tell of a demon in the shape of an old woman, sitting in the moon weaving a basket, on the completion of which the world will be destroyed. A dog contends with the woman, tearing the basket to pieces every once in a while, and then an eclipse of the moon takes place; others imagine that the Moon is hungry, sick, or dying at these times; while the Alfuras of Ceram think he is asleep, and make a great uproar to awake him.

These superstitions are not so remote as they may seem at first sight from the impressions which the heavenly phenomena make upon many persons who consider themselves civilized. Circles may be found in nearly every nation upon whom the appearance of anything unusual in the sky carries an apprehension that something dreadful is about to happen; and by whom even the most ordinary phenomena are invested with occult influence upon things that we know have no connection with them; and it is only two or three centuries since the dire portents of comets and eclipses were prayed against in all the churches. In strange contrast with the impressiveness of the peoples whose names we have mentioned so often, and with the lingering European superstitions, stands the indifference of the stolid African tribes mentioned by Cameron and Paul Richard, who paid no attention to the eclipse, or thought it was only caused by passing clouds.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.

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