Celestial influences on Sacred Places
Throughout the ancient world human beings exhibited an enduring fascination with the movements of celestial bodies. Lunar and solar notations carved on bones found in caves show that prehistoric people performed careful observations of astronomical events since at least upper Paleolithic times of 28,000 BCE. Megalithic astronomers of the fifth to third millennium BCE used stone rings, chambered mounds and various arrangements of standing stones to observe the horizon movements of the sun, moon and stars. Other early sky watchers, including the Chinese, Babylonians and Mayans, recorded precise observations of the five visible planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Consideration of these matters raises two important questions. Why were prehistoric people so intent on observing the periodic motions of the celestial bodies? And, why are astronomical observation devices found at many of the world's sacred sites?
Archaeoastronomers - those scientists concerned with the study of ancient astronomies - have proposed several answers to these questions. One explanation is that ancient people, being deeply mystified with the nature of existence, sought to find meaning within the orderly movement of the heavens. By observing the celestial bodies and integrating human activities with their dependable cyclic movements, people were able to live in harmony with the supernatural influences that pervaded the universe. The nighttime sky was a grand textbook from which early humans gained a profound sense of cyclic time, of order and symmetry, and of the predictability of nature.
Another explanation for why the ancients watched the heavens is suggested by mythology. In some long-forgotten era the portentous idea arose that the celestial bodies represented gods and goddesses with the power to direct, influence or intervene in human life. By the time astronomical observations were being carried out in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, a pantheon of celestial gods and goddesses was firmly established, with each god or goddess having power over a particular area of human experience. To watch the movements of the heavens was to gain insight into the behavior of the gods and goddesses. Both explanations seem reasonable.
Other answers proposed by archaeoastronomers are nothing more than unfounded conjecture. One example of such erroneous speculation is the idea that astronomical observations were used by early people primarily to prepare an agricultural calendar. The reasoning goes that such a calendar would determine the exact days in the year when the seeds were to be planted and when the crops were to be harvested. But let us question this idea. Did ancient people really need sophisticated astronomical observations to tell them when to plant seeds? Could they not simply have taken their cues from native plants all around them? A wealth of evidence, gathered from both ancient folklore and contemporary study, indicates that humans have always watched the life cycles of wild plants to determine when to prepare the ground and plant the seeds. People have taken these cues from wild plants in areas of the world where detailed astronomical observations were never conducted. In those regions where such observations were made, people had used native plant cues long before astronomical observation devices were ever erected.
Furthermore, while the structural alignments of many prehistoric observatories do indicate certain astronomical periods that coincide with the agricultural cycle, those periods are highly precise; they occur every year at the exact same time. The planting of seed, however, is imprecise. It is not always done on the same day but fluctuates according to each year's different climatic conditions. A longer-than-usual winter followed by a later-than-usual spring will naturally influence wild plants to drop their seeds at a later date than they had the previous year. Humans taking their cues from the plant world will likewise delay their own planting so as to be in harmony with seasonal cycles. The fixed astronomical periods marked by the ancient observatories do not account for such yearly changes and are therefore unreliable indicators of when to plant seeds.
Additionally, various cultivated plants are seeded at different times of the year, from early spring to late summer, and the prehistoric astronomical observatories definitely did not mark all these individual planting times. Nor were they needed to indicate the time for harvesting. Nature certainly does not need astronomical observatories to tell her when an apple is ripe; the apple simply falls to the ground. Neither do farmers need astronomical observations to direct their timing of harvest. Having been daily out in the fields cultivating their plants, farmers would know just when to gather each particular grain and vegetable. They learned this not from observing the skies above their heads but rather directly from the plants they grew.
Finally, and most important, many ancient astronomical observatories were used to ascertain numerous days in the solar year that have nothing whatsoever to do with the agricultural calendar. For example, the summer solstice occurs in the middle of the growing season and the winter solstice comes in the coldest part of winter when the earth is frozen and no crops are growing. These days were extremely important to ancient people. Because they have nothing to do with the agricultural cycle, they compel us to disregard the current archaeoastronomical theory that early farmers used the prehistoric observatories as planting and harvesting date indicators.
Why then were ancient people so concerned with the precise observation of various celestial objects? And why did they orient so many of their sacred structures in alignment with the movements of the sun, the moon, the planets and various stars? Let us consider some of the findings of modern astronomy and geophysics regarding the influences of celestial bodies.
The Earth is continually bathed in a constantly changing flow of gravitational, electric and magnetic fields from the sun, moon and planets. These fields powerfully affect the Earth's electromagnetic fields and every living thing upon the planet.
Decades of research in this field continues to demonstrate that metabolic processes in living organisms are geared to astronomical periodicities, such as the rotation of the earth upon its axis, the earth's revolution around the sun, and the moon's encircling of the earth. Indeed it is presently believed that there is no physiological process that does not exhibit cyclic variations and that all organisms on earth contain metabolic clocks which trigger essential internal biological activities at appropriate intervals related to geo-celestial cycles. Robert Lawlor comments that, literally thousands of interrelated rhythms in body chemistry are cyclically orchestrated with geophysical and celestial periodicities - such as the blood and the urine, the levels of sugar, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, corticosterone and adrenocortical outputs, fibrialytic activity in the plasma, deep body temperature, blood pressure, cellular division, and the hormonal patterns of growth and maturation, as well as many neural patterns. (45) Additionally, transformations in gene structure, oxidation cycles in cellular energy systems, heartbeat and fertility rates are all linked with the cyclic movements of the Earth, the moon and other celestial objects.
It is now well accepted (though little understood) that all manner of events - political, social, military, seismological, atmospheric and biological - occur in cycles of about eleven years, apparently following the regular cycles of sunspot activity. By altering the earth's magnetic field, sunspot activity has been found to affect the internal processes of human beings. Research at hospitals around the world has confirmed that the frequency of psychiatric admissions correlates highly with the geomagnetic field intensity. The moon also affects geomagnetic activity on earth. Long-term studies have shown an average of 4 percent decrease in geomagnetic activity during the seven days preceding the full moon, and a 4 percent average increase during the seven days following the full moon. Studies of human reactions to the moon have shown that cases of murder, aggravated assault and arson are most common during full moon periods.
Animals are equally influenced by energies originating in the sun, moon, and planets. For example, a number of marine creatures such as oysters have been found to be sensitive to the position of the moon irrespective of whether or not they are in water or can feel the tide. And the activity levels of laboratory mice and rats have been shown to correlate to the positions of the moon even when the animals are completely isolated from any direct contact with it.
While science is not yet able to explain the effects of celestial influences on living things, it is none-the-less certain that those influences do occur. The human nervous system is profoundly responsive to changes in the cosmic environment. It is probable that human beings in remote antiquity were not only subconsciously influenced by different celestial forces; they also consciously perceived those influences. In response they developed a variety of astronomical observation methods with which to study the movements of the celestial bodies and a rich assortment of celestial mythologies and zodiacal astrologies to describe their influences.
Prehistoric astronomical observatories have been found in a wide range of forms including stone rings, rows of standing stones, chambered mounds and numerous buildings whose structural parts (doorways, windows, walls) are aligned to the rising and falling of various celestial objects. (46) The alignments of these structures show that they were used to determine particular astronomical periods such as the solstices and equinoxes, the minor and major lunar standstill dates, the heliacal risings of certain stars, and the movements of the visible planets. The method whereby these periods were determined is too complex to fully describe here but basically it entailed the use of the observatories as sighting devices to note the small daily horizon movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars.
The ancient astronomical observatories may thus be understood as sophisticated calendrical calculators designed to give advance notice of the various periods of increased celestial influence. Why would advance notice have been important and what is the relevance of these celestial periods to the sacred sites? To answer these questions we must first recognize that prehistoric people knew such periods were coming because they had been occurring with regularity for as long as anyone could remember. People had experienced the periodic influences of celestial bodies and had come to venerate those times as especially sacred.
The ancients had also found particular power places on the Earth's surface that had especially strong resonance with the incoming celestial forces; over millennia these places had become the sites of ceremony and pilgrimage. With the growth of population and the elaboration of culture the periods of celestial influence began to be commemorated with festivals, celebrations and religious rituals involving more and more people. These activities were conducted at the power places. The astronomical observatories at these sites served a crucial function in relation to the festive and ritual activities. They were used to predetermine the dates of the celebrations so that people living distant from the ceremonial centers had enough time to travel to the shrines.
At some sacred sites the astronomical observatories simultaneously served two functions. They were the places where the astronomer-priests conducted their studies of the heavens and they were also the sites of the religious rituals and festivals. This seems to have been the case with the megalithic stone rings and the chambered mounds of western Europe. At other sites the astronomical observatories were simply components of much larger schemes of sacred space. Examples may be seen at the Maya site of Chichen Itza where an enormous ceremonial city surrounds the astronomically aligned Caracol and the temple of Kukulkan; and at the Zapotec site of Monte Alban, where nearly a dozen massive pyramids surround an observatory known as Mound J. A particularly fascinating example of citywide astronomical orientation existed at Teotihuacan, the largest social center of the pre-Columbian Americas. Located near present-day Mexico City, Teotihuacan was apparently originally laid out along lines perpendicular to the direction of the rising of the constellation Pleiades in AD 150. One scholar has suggested…
that this was probably done because the Pleiades made its first appearance in predawn in June on the day the sun passed through the zenith at this location in AD 150. Zenith, or overhead, passage of the sun was of signal importance throughout Mesoamerica, for on that day at noon the sun cast no shadow and the sun god was said to descend to the earth for a time. (47)
Another telling example of ancient peoples' attunement with celestial bodies is found at the sacred site of Karnak in Egypt. Among the extensive ruins are the foundations of a very old temple dedicated to the god Montu. Little remains of this temple, not because it was weathered by the elements but because it was systematically deconstructed and its building stones were then used in the construction of other temples. According to the Egyptologist Schwaller de Lubicz, this mysterious dismantling of temples, found at Karnak and numerous other places in Egypt, has to do with the changing of the astrological cycles. The supplanting of the bull of Montu with the ram of Amon coincides with the astronomical shift from the age of Taurus, the bull, to the age of Aries, the ram. The earlier temple of Montu had lost its significance with the astronomical change, and thus a new temple was constructed to be used in alignment with the current configuration of the stars.
With Teotihuacan, Karnak and numerous other prehistoric sacred sites we have been left a message about the timing and character of celestial influences. Encoded within the orientation of the sacred structures and the mythology of the sites are a wealth of information about ancient peoples' perceptions and understandings of astronomical energies. This information is available today for anyone who is able to read the codes. The study of sacred sites is a relatively new endeavor and the science of archaeoastronomy is even newer. Few scientists have learned to read the codes, and even fewer understand the extraordinary implications of what the codes reveal. But one does not have to be a scientist to decode the celestial messages of the prehistoric sacred sites. Only an elementary knowledge of astronomy and mythology are necessary. The most important quality is the willingness to think and feel in ways foreign to the modern mindset.
Everything that exists on earth is but the transient form of appearance of some celestial agency. Everything terrestrial has its prototype, its primordial cause, its ruling agency in heaven. The Chinese philosopher looking at the beauties of nature, the variety of hills and plains, rivers and oceans, the wonderful harmony of colour, light and shade, sees in it but the dim reflex of that more splendid scenery frescoed in ethereal beauty on heaven's starry firmament. He gazes at the sun, that dazzling regent of the day, and recognizes in him, as his terrestrial reflex, the male principle of creation, ruling everything that is under the sun. He lifts up his eyes to the moon, the beautiful queen of the night, and sees her reflex on earth in the female principle, pervading all sublunary forms of existence. He contemplates the spangled firmament at night, and compares with its dimly reflected transcript on the surface of the earth, where the mountain peaks form the stars, the rivers and oceans answer to the milky way. (48)
In this essay, I have endeavored to account for the mysterious power of the sacred sites and the profound spiritual and therapeutic effects they have on people. I have not been wholly successful in this task. The sacred sites have a power that cannot be fully explained by reference to the twenty factors we have examined. Some additional factors must account for the presence of power that surrounds and saturates these places. What might these factors be? Perhaps energies yet unknown to science are especially concentrated at the sacred sites. Scientists may balk at this idea, yet remember at one time we did not know of or understand the energies of magnetism, electricity and radioactivity. Future scientific research may one day reveal the existence of subtle energies beyond the sensing capacity of today's instruments, beyond even our current imagination. Another possibility is the presence of god. What an indefinable thing that is! Throughout the ages countless philosophers and sages have tried - forever unsuccessfully - to define the nature of god. I am likewise unable to define god, yet feel quite confident in stating where the presence of god may be strongly experienced and known: at the sacred sites. The holy places and pilgrimage shrines illustrated in World Pilgrimage Guide web site and also in my book Sacred Earth may be understood as small pieces of heaven right here on Earth. Perhaps we will never be able to explain conclusively how the sacred sites work their magic. For the countless millions of pilgrims who are in love with these places, it is enough simply to experience their magic. The Earth and the Heavens are speaking just as loudly now as they did in the long ago past. Come with an open mind, a gentle heart and a patient spirit and surely they will speak to you.