Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Mar 2nd, - Mar 8th, 2007

The Watery Roots of Astronomy

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  The role of navigation in the ancient's growing awareness of the stars cannot be underestimated. Our earliest European stories speak of the glories of the master mariner, Odysseus,
Odysseus and Sirens

Maritime adventures

caught in the powerful vortex of Poseidon's wrath for ten long years. The briny waters of the sea are transformed into the impenetratable bars of his prison. While he is king of his kingdom, as he captains legions on the seas broad back, his men pulling as one, he is a champion. Yet when the tables are turned as a lonely individual he can also hew from the living tree a raft bound strong and true, as well as any craft could; just not strong enough to withstand Poseidon's mighty wrath. Homer paints a picture of the water bound geography of the surrounding island world and the peoples who once proudly walked their shores.

  How long had this maritime culture been evolving before it reached this pinnacle of prominence, penned by the first author of the western tradition?

  Long before Odysseus's time, as migrations spread to this area around 7,000 BC, Europe's first groups of farmers and herders appeared in Macedonia, Thessaly, Crete and the Peloponnese. A thriving trade network was established around the central island group, the Cyclades, with a rich and powerful elite controlling its core. Delos, a sacred island of an earlier time, stood at the spiritual center. Myth records that Apollo and Artemis (Sun and the Moon) were born here.

Greece Cyclades

Crete to the South,
Greece to the West.

  Time is defined in the ancient world by Stonehenge and the Pyramids; but in Malta and Eire,
Cyclades Statues

Cyclades statues looking up

there are stone temples which are even older than these. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the extensive site at Newgrange (outside Dublin) was being built between 3700 to 3200 BC. The sites on Malta were used consistently from 3600 down to 2500 BC. The Cycladean culture was contemporary the Sumerians and Early Kingdom of Egypt. Each of these overlays are contemporary with the other. Each of these sites demonstrated considerable astronomical awareness, accurately tracking both solstice and equinox.

  Each of these colossal megalithic complexes were begun within a century of each other. They are both islands which can best be reached by other islands. As both land and sea routes developed, the growing importance of the stars was increasingly realized with the more sophisticated information being passed on to mariners. How do you see beyond this curvature of blue? How do you navigate by the pole star, or plot east and west by risings and settings?

  The benefits of having this knowledge were obvious. Island hopping was augmented by stellar navigation. Routes could be shortened, making possible longer journeys. Trade could be increased, with greater profits realized. Human cargo, whether of pioneer, visitor or slave, was made safer. Better info mean better results.

Maltese Spiral

Maltese Spiral

  When we examine the art of the Cyclades, we are looking at the heart of Greece's earliest culture. One of the repeating themes is a strangely futuristic design, stylized figurines with the features of the body and face, but with the heads tipped slightly back, as if looking up.

  They are looking at the stars. Gods to them. They are learning and honoring their wisdom.

  Another artistic theme found in the Cyclades is the spiral, also found in Malta and Erie. The spiral which winds round and round and had become synomonous with the rotating night sky with the tail of the great serpent (Draco) standing at the top of heaven. This is their version for 'As the World Turns', of time moving on.

  This spiral winds its way through the islands of Greece, Malta, and Erie, all locations best reached by yet other islands, yet of a single watery weave.


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