Гурштейн Александр Аронович
Relevant Queries In Respect To The Archiac Chinese Sky

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In Orchiston,W., Stephenson, R., Debarbat, S., and Nha, I.-S., 2003. Astronomical Instruments and Archives
From the Asia-Pacific Region. Seoul, Yonsei University Press. Pp.


Relevant Queries In Respect To The Archiac Chinese Sky

Alexander A. Gurshtein
Mesa State College, P.O.Box 2647, Grand Junction, CO 81502, U.S.A.


   An extensive pattern of xing guan (celestial officials)--the asterisms of the Chinese heaven--has very little in common with the European cultural tradition of celestial nomenclature. It was shown in current-day literature, first of all by Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker (1997), that the Chinese astronomical nomenclature in question was completed at the end of the Eastern Han (2nd-3rd centuries C.E.). Thus, a grandiose celestial reform was conducted in China the likes of which, fortunately for historians of astronomy, has not been accomplished anywhere else in the world. The European tradition of celestial nomenclature could be easily traced back to Greece and even deeper in time to Mesopotamia. As for China, its newly born pattern comprising of 283 asterisms and 1,464 stars practically ruined and erased all footprints of the preceding ingenuous astronomical pattern. Nevertheless, modern research on the genesis of constellations, especially the Zodiacal constellations, poses a set of problems in the resolution of which the data on the ingenious Chinese celestial nomenclature could play the crucial role. Problems connected with the author's hypothesis of constellation origin are considered. Its challenges with respect to the archaic Chinese sky and corresponding responses in modern literature are discussed.


   As a professional European astronomer, for decades I dealt only with the European sky. Ten years ago, I turned my attention to its roots and reached some conclusions that could be of significance--at least from a method-ological, if not factual, point of view.
   In this presentation, after exposing some method-ological ideas and mentioning my own results, I shall try to demonstrate that the time has come for a much broader look at the unity of historic development within and across cultures. A present-day challenge is to seek ancient links between the European sky and one that was created in ancient China.
   What was the reasoning behind the term, `Renaiss-ance'? Literally, it means a `Re-birth' of classical Greek antiquity, i.e. a return to cultural values of Greece in its blooming days. During the Renaissance--and many centuries henceforth--European thinkers were sure that the Greeks were their forerunners in art, philosophy, and science, and in the overall cultural development of the entire world. The Greeks were considered to be the founding nation of our civilization, and the adoration of the miraculous ancient Hellas was great. The same ideas were applied to the European astronomical heritage. The European sky was considered to be a precious legacy of the `Greek miracle'. Among other social reasons, it was adoration of Greece that later on became a fertile soil to Eurocentrism.
   It took several centuries to discover the great Mesopotamian cultures and to decode the plethora of cuneiform texts; and nowadays we clearly realize that the Greeks were not pathfinders without precursors. They heavily borrowed knowledge, skills and cultural traditions at least from earlier Mesopotamian predecess-ors, and possibly from the Egyptians. The European sky turned out to be a Mesopotamian legacy, delivered via Greece. A new fad called Panbabylonism spread at that point.
   In the middle of the twentieth century, Samuel Noah Kramer, the prominent Assyriologist, titled his out-standing treatise History Begins at Sumer (1959). Is such a title honest? The answer is: it is justified, but only partially. This title is correct only if you pay attention to the subtitle: Thirty-nine Firsts in Man's Recorded History.
   Who knows, it may be true that written history of mankind began in Sumeria. The birth of written history, however, was in no way a starting point of human history.
   Unfortunately, I cannot disregard the established historical terminology with its division of history and prehistory, but I dislike the term prehistory as I think it is inaccurate and misleading. There was no interruption between history and prehistory. There was just one--continuous and successive--history of mankind. The invention of writing was a tremendous milestone in changing the mechanism of public memory. Writing accelerated the course of human history, but it did not erase all social accomplishments of humankind that were achieved before this invention. I insist that it was history, not prehistory, that existed tens of millennia before Sumeria. For historians, the period before writing is interesting in the same format as, for a physician, the life of a child before he starts to speak.


   What is quintessential in my message? It is, no doubt, that studies of written sources remain an extremely important issue in history of ancient astronomy. But such studies do not exhaust the problem. Have historians of archaic astronomy any other valuable sources of inform-ation? We most certainly do. To begin with just four such sources, I have to mention cave images, linguistics and mythology, which are rooted in the abyss of prewritten history, and astronomy itself, or in other words astronomical common sense. We as historians of astron-omy must agree that astronomy itself contains many scientific clues to its own history. And, sometimes, astro-nomical peculiarities can play a crucial methodological role in our historical understanding, and be the carcass of efficient archaeo-astronomical research.
   Ultimately, I would like to stress that self-restriction of a scholar by written sources is methodologically counterproductive. It is the same as putting blinders on one's eyes. Such a restriction narrows one's horizon. Frankly saying, without internal protests I can not hear a question: "where was it written?" While talking about archaic astronomy, very often we are forced to reply: "this feature was described nowhere and never." The problem is that many undeniable things were never and nowhere put down in written form!
   Moreover, even complete records are skewed by the perspective of the writer. In many cases written sources could not be understood without pretext or context. But, on the roadmap of ancient astronomy, historians always deal with only tiny scraps of occasional and collateral written information that alone might lead them to a `Big Lie'. Significance of written sources is always limited.


   Back to astronomy: if an archaeologist detects skeletons oriented to the cardinal points of the horizon, he ought to reach a solid conclusion. These bodies are proof that the culture in question knew the cardinal points of the horizon and that these points were of importance for it. These cardinal points could be determined only by astro-nomical observations. A result will be not of a fictional or speculative nature but of a pure scientific nature: the people in question conducted astronomical observations. This solid fact appeared to be established entirely due to its astronomical nature, without the involvement of any recorded sources.
   What follows from all of these assertions? Centuries ago, the roots of astronomy were seen in Greece. A century ago, the roots of astronomy were moved deeper in time to Mesopotamia. Today, more and more scholars reach the conclusion that the roots of astronomy are even millennia deeper and lie in pre-written history. So, efforts to display these roots with only written sources are inadequate and narrow-minded.
   In this connection, I would like to remind you about my own concept of gradual development of the Zodiac through three stages starting as early as the sixth millenium BCE (see, for example, Gurshtein, 1993; 1995; 1997; 1998).
   What is the basis of my reconstruction? Let us examine some propositions.
   In literature, for example, there is a millennia-old disagreement between those who consider constellations as fancy sky pictures and those who consider them as symbols. I am a resolute proponent of the second view. Of course, it is just a guess, the result of a belief, and one can even say that it is a confession of faith of sorts. But in scientific terms, let us rather talk about postulates. For my reconstruction, I need to introduce ten of them:
   1) The Zodiac served to reveal the movement of the Sun, but not that of the Moon. So, the Zodiac was linked with a solar calendar.
   2) For any astronomy practitioner, it would be evident that the positions of the Moon and the planets in the sky could be co-ordinated only by relating them to a starry background. Let me assume that the position of the Sun in the sky was recognized by comparing it to the adjacent starry surroundings as well.
   3) The results of an astronomical reconstruction have to be checked for reasonable concurrence with the historical and archaeological context.
   4) The constellations were not fanciful images or mean-ingless flights of imagination. In our reconstruction, the constellations will be considered as special signs to mark certain important areas of the starry sphere (i.e. they were space markers).
   5) Astronomical observations of the Sun's movement along the ecliptic in the archaic stage led to the identify-cation of the four distinct points of the ecliptic, which required marking by four groups of stars.
   6) The names of constellations were not the result of ungrounded fancies, but were given with serious symbol-ic purposes in mind.
   7) Astronyms (the names of celestial objects), as well as toponyms (topographical names) and hydronyms (the names of water bodies), are highly stable in time.
   8) The constellation configurations also remain stable through time.
   9) We have to remember the impact of the astronomical phenomenon of precession. The result is that the pos-itions of the equinoxes and solstices keep moving along the ecliptic. It could be used as a clock to date events.
   10) The final postulate will concern a methodological approach to the examination of some connected happen-ings; it is necessary to consider them collectively, and not as a series of separate, disconnected occurrences.
   I have no room to discuss and justify all these post-ulates, but the details can be found in my afore-mentioned publications. So, I must skip directly to the conclusions I reached using these postulates.
   The Zodiac was formed gradually through three stages. At each stage, four new constellations on the ecliptic were involved. I call these four ecliptic constell-ations a quartet.
   At the time of the Neolithic Revolution, having turn-ed to farming and cattle-herding, man found himself in total dependency on the seasons of the solar year. He could no longer remain a prisoner of the impaired lunar calendar, which had nothing to do with the solar seasons. The new lifestyle demanded that the `priest-watchers' delve into querying the annual movement of the Sun against the starry background. Development of the solar agricultural calendar was put on the agenda, and this remained the primary purpose of astronomers for several thousand years to come.
   Establishing the annual track of the Sun among the starry groups turned out to be possible through the introduction onto the ecliptic of four constellations that functioning like icons on a computer screen. These indi-cators had to mark the moments of two solstices and two equinoxes.
   We shall call the four icon constellations of the first generation on the ecliptic by the name of the vernal symbol, the quartet of Gemini. The corresponding period of time is conventionally named the astronomical Age of Gemini At that period of time, the milestones of the Sun in its track were set up in the constellations now defined as Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces; three of these constellations were anthropomorphic.
   The given symbolism completely corresponds to the epoch in question. Not only does each of these four icons fit into the epoch by itself, but it is obvious that they are all homogenous elements of the same meaningful contin-uity. They function as a system, due to their interior links. Astronomical timing, based on the change in the sky's appearance due to precession, indicates the debut of the Gemini quartet at 5,600 B.C.E.
   Historians know that the period around 5,600 B.C.E. was a special one in Near Eastern pre-written history--a very important phase in the making of the Neolithic revolution, with a sudden rise of agriculture and urban cultures. And so it comes as no surprise that an interest in administrating the solar calendar should appear at that very time.
   In the fourth and third millennia B.C.E., in a completely renewed socio-cultural atmosphere, it was detected that the symbols of the first quartet did not match the real track of the Sun. Evidently, in addition to the remaining four ecliptic constellations of the first generation, it became necessary to annex (or to rename) another group of four symbols. This was done about 2,700 B.C.E.
   During that epoch, monumental temples with cult statues, among which an important role was played by the portrayal of sacred animals, spread throughout the Near East. These idols were the evident archetypes of the celestial metaphors of the new epoch.
   The vernal renewal began to be personified by the Bull, or its phallus, which was the embodiment of male reproductive power. The kingly metaphor--the Lion--became the indicator of the Sun's reaching the highest point of its path. The Sun's lowering into the waters of the World's ocean was marked by the likeness of a Scor-pion, which kills itself in the autumn. Finally, the Water Carrier became the lord of the waters of the Lower World where the Sun withdrew for the winter.
   In this way, the constellation markers of the second generation were distinguished as a circle of animals, in contrast to the previous circle of humans. Probably, it was this new quartet that gave rise to the term still in use--the Zodiac, i.e. the `Circle of Animals'.
   As in the case of the first generation, the making of the new constellation markers was not hampered at this time by serious space restrictions, and that allowed the constellations to take up large areas so that the brighter stars could be included. The average dimensions of these new star groups were therefore not much smaller than the dimensions of the constellations of the first generation.
   The names of the ecliptic markers of the third gener-ation, which I define as the Aries quartet, were finally elaborated within the framework of a newer tradition, and are not as sacral as the past generations, but instead were allegorical.
   Spring was symbolized by a spring sacrificial animal, the Ram. Cancer, moving backwards, became the met-aphor of the summer turn of the Sun on the ecliptic. The Claws of Scorpio were cut off the torso of this celestial arachnid to become the novel star group--the Balance, the metaphor of autumnal equilibrium of day and night. Finally, for the third time, the `water' symbol was used for the winter solstice. It was the mythological Goat-fish, renamed by the Greeks as Capricorn. According to my evaluation, this last quartet was fashioned about 1,200 B.C.E.
   All four constellations of the third generation have the smallest dimensions, testifying that they were marked out after the rest of the ecliptic constellations. In add-ition, faint stars also characterize these tiny groups because by that point, there were no bright stars left to be used.
   This reconstruction thus makes it possible to divide the constellations into three generations, to time the epochs of the elaboration of the various Zodiacal constell-ations, to interpret the meanings of their symbolism, and even to explain the origin of the name Zodiac--a `circle of animals'.
   There is a possibility to verify this concept with a size criterion. Another way of confirmation was found, too: the viability of the quartet concept was supported by the images of these symbols found together.
   Of most value, however, would be verification or falsification of this model by testing it in an absolutely new context such as, for example, the archaic Chinese sky.


   My basic source in this very specific area is the book The Chinese Sky During the Han: Constellating Stars and Society by Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker (1997).
   The case of the Chinese sky appeared to be entirely different than the case of the sky in the Mediterranean region. In the centuries before the Common Era, the `Empire beneath the Heavens' reached well-being with a rise in national self-consciousness and the making of its own worldview, an example of which could be the unique Chinese religion without a priesthood. Chinese rulers believed that they had a mandate from Heaven to rule over the Earth.
   The ideology of imperial China served as the prime mover for a cataclysmic reform of the celestial `meg-alopolis', which was fully reshaped. Instead of the earlier episodic constellations, Chinese court astrologers of the Han Dynasty thoughtfully peppered the sky with 283 petty asterisms, often comprised of only one or two hard-to-distinguish stars. These newly-formed asterisms were molded to the likeness of the Chinese Empire: the Emperor, Celestial Officials, the Emperor's Facilities, etc. This celestial assemblage was propagated by all Chinese royal astronomical institutions of later times in that the previous celestial repertoire was utterly abandoned.
   For present-day historians of archaic astronomy, the reshaping of the Chinese sky was a stroke of bad luck. The misfortune happened because of the zealousness of the Chinese court reformers, who eradicated the legacy of ancient epochs in the sky. Nothing like this took place in a tradition that we can call the European tradition. The Mesopotamians followed in the footsteps of their prede-cessors. Greeks and Romans took the same path.
   Research of the archaic pre-Han Chinese sky would be of great importance for many reasons, and has to be put on the agenda. Results could be reached through purely astronomical considerations, archaic images, lin-guistics, and, last of all, probably through mythology.
   My knowledge of the issues of Chinese mythology, of course, is not complete. So far, I only know of one attempt to analyze some issues connected with it. A question posed by two Russian researchers (Stepugina and Kaurov, 1995) is whether any correlation exists between early Chinese mythology and the symbolism reflected in the names of the constellations of the first Zodiacal quartet. Is it possible to recognize archetypes for Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces among the mythological characters of archaic China during the era that was synchronous or, at least, reasonably close to the institution of the first Zodiacal quartet?
   The associated research was carried out by T.V. Stepugina, a well-known historian of Chinese culture, and E.N. Kaurov, a beginner in archaeo-astronomy, and I would like to stress that they had no expertise in ancient Chinese astronomy. Their task was rather restricted, and their sources were solely mythological. They aimed to research Chinese mythology for the limited purpose of determining whether the early features of Chinese myth-ologyical narration could be interpreted as derived from the same archetypes as the figures of the earliest Zodiacal quartet. The title of their short presentation was "Ancient Chinese Myth and Mythological Grounds of Zodiacal Constellations", and it was published as a part of a discussion in the Herald of Ancient History, an official magazine of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Their conclusions are intensely positive.
   Concerning the idea of twins, as a Chinese analog to this metaphor they suggest a pair of early Chinese deities: a male, Fuxi, and a divine ruler of world, a female named Nuwa (Lady Wa). It is evident that transliterations of original Chinese names were possible. For example, `Fuxi' could be spelt Fu-hsi; Paoxi; Fu-Xsing; Pho-hsi; Pi-his, and so on. The same is true in respect of Nuwa. Who are these mythological characters? The goddess, Nuwa, was either a sister or a bride to Fuxi. A later tradition ascribes to them demiurgic activities: this divine couple administered order out of primordial chaos, they designed the world, and they configured human beings with a capacity to create their own sons and daughters. That is absolutely the same idea, in my mind, that was behind symbolism of Gemini in the European tradition.
   For an analog to the Mother Goddess--an archetype for the Zodiacal constellation of Virgo--they considered the same Chinese goddess, Lady Wa, who was playing a pivotal role in early Chinese mythology and at times was depicted with the body of a fish. Once again, this pec-uliarity stresses strong aquatic elements in Chinese mythology that could be easily linked with the symbolism of water seen behind the Zodiacal constellation of Pisces.
   Finally, the fourth metaphor within the first Zodiacal quartet, Sagittarius, was seen to be represented in early Chinese mythology by the Great Archer, Yi, who also has strong astral connotations. This legendary archer saved the Earth from death by shooting down nine of the ten Suns that originally were brought into being.
   Stepugina and Kaurov's paper strongly argues in favour of a conclusion that suggests that it can reasonably be argued that early Chinese mythology and Zodiacal symbolism of the earliest quartet could possess the very same archetypes.
   Many interesting details on the same issue can be found in the poster "The Home of Cosmic of Ancient East" presented at this conference by Zhang Chuanqi (2002).


   As mentioned above, I am not an expert in a specific field of early Chinese mythology, and so I cannot critically evaluate the arguments put forward by Stepugina and Kaurov. I am simply telling you about their research as an example of queries into the Chinese sky that are relevant to modern archaeo-astronomical issues. As with many other scholars, I consider archaic Chinese data as crucial to the verification or falsification of the hypothesis on Zodiacal development. That is why I appeal to this meeting. With so many experts present, jointly we can track down the puzzles of genesis and development of the archaic constellations that took place before recorded history.
   I would like to conclude with an allusion to Hamlet's Mill, the precedent book penned by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend and published thirty-three years ago, in 1969. I am deliberately referring to this extremely controversial book despite my knowledge of a stream of criticism and ill-wishing that has fallen upon the heads of these authors. The controversies surrounding this book continue to blaze even today.
   As a matter of fact, I agree that the authors were really short of `solid' so called `scientific' facts in support of their position. They deal basically with very uncertain mythological material. In the eyes of rigorous astrono-mers who have no feel for archaic history, this book could be considered bizarre and unconvincing. Never-theless, as a professional astronomer turned historian, I would like to insist that this book is a great one. It is great because of its point of departure and its methodology, and it is great because of its output. Without serious factual astronomical evidence, due to their mastery of mythology and their intuition, the authors reached some very excit-ing and--I do not fear these words--`prophetic results'. I consider my model of the genesis and development of the ancient sky to be the next logical step along the same path. I am pleased that a number of my claims agree with the claims of de Santillana and von Dechend, and I am glad to count these very courageous authors as my direct forefathers.
   And once again, I appeal to this highly-regarded audience to help either verify or disprove the concept of the gradual development of the Zodiac through the three quartets that appeared due to the influence of astronom-ical precession. In this respect, the application of pictorial, mythological, linguistic and astronomical material from South and Eastern Asia could be very productive.


   De Santillana, G., and Dechend, H. von, 1969. Hamlet's Mill. Gambit, Boston.
   Gurshtein, A.A., 1993. On the origin of the Zodiacal constellations. Vistas in Astronomy, 36: 171-190.
   Gurshtein, A.A., 1995. Prehistory of Zodiac dating: three strata of Upper Paleolithic constellations. Vistas in Astronomy, 39: 347-362.
   Gurshtein, A.A., 1997. The origins of constellations. American Scientist, 85: 264-273.
   Gurshtein, A.A., 1998. The evolution of the Zodiac in the context of ancient Oriental history. Vistas in Astronomy, 41: 507-525.
   Kramer, S.N., 1959. History Begins at Sumer. Anchor Book, Doubleday.
   Stepugina, T.V., and Kaurov, E.N., 1995. Ancient Chinese myth and mythological grounds of Zodiacal constellations. The Herald of Ancient History, 1: 172-175 (in Russian).
   Sun Xiaochun, and Kistemaker, J., 1997. The Chinese Sky During the Han: Constellating Stars and Society. Brill, Leiden.
   Zhang Chuanqi, 2002. "The Home of Cosmic of Ancient East." Poster paper presented at the International Conference on "Astronomical Instruments and Archives from the Asia-Pacific Region."

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