When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.
— David Hume
The Power of the Astronomer
Today, astronomy is just one of the sciences and most people are, at best, fascinated by the night sky and the advancing sun and moon. But throughout ancient times, the astronomer was critical to agricultural societies. Someone had to watch the sunrises and sunsets, or the changing star patterns, or the moon cycles to determine the seasons for planting and harvesting.
Different cultures developed very sophisticated methods for tracking these phenomena. And it appears that as the astronomers got better at their craft, they also acquired more and more importance, and, therefore, more and more power in the society.
|Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, NM
|Sun Dagger marking the summer solstice
Atop Fajada Butte
There was a pattern. At first, the astronomer(s) earned their keep in the community and they basically provided calendric information. Initially, it was the planting seasons, then the timing for ritual celebrations. Over time, their function branched out and they began to study weather patterns and gained skills in prediction. And, finally, the step that man seeks in all of his activities – control. The ability to not only predict the weather but determine the weather – cause it to rain, etc. Most societies recognized a greater force controlling climate – God or gods, spirits. The astronomy class gained great power by being able to connect and communicate with the higher forces and eventually, influence the gods. It elevated the astronomer/priests, in some cases, to the level of gods.
Over time, with the climate stable and year-after-year of the same weather cycles, the credit for the stability shifted to the astronomer/priests. And the leaders were credited for the successful crops and the bountiful harvests and the glorious way of life created.
But, of course, climate invariably changes. And when the astronomer/priests were unable to stop the change or correct the droughts or bring on rain, they faced a huge dilemma and the threat of losing their place in the society. So, when they failed to influence the gods, they blamed the society itself for offending the gods by their offensive actions. Society had offended the gods and must make amends. Greater and greater penances had to be paid to “right the wrong” and gain back the favor of the gods.
In many societies, it was even human sacrifices. In some cases, captured enemies were sacrificed to appease the gods. In some cases, the most precious of all assets in the community, the virgins were sacrificed. When, in the end and over time, it was proven that, alas, the priests did not have control of the elements, or influence over the gods, often the entire society failed. The grand cities and temples built by the arrogant leaders and priests were abandoned or destroyed and the leaders and priests vanquished.