1.1 Prehistoric Astronomy

    From half a millennium before 4000 B.C., long barrows - elongated burial mounds of earth - were arranged so as to be aligned on the rising and setting of bright stars. In the middle of the third millennium this technique was transferred to circular grave architecture, the so-called round barrows, and in this form it lasted for well over a thousand years. Why this particular phase in prehistorical astronomical activity is so important is that it testifies to the marriage of astronomy with geometry. There is clear evidence that the Sun and the Moon were observed. Stonehenge, shown in Figure 1, is the most famous prehistoric megalith (standing-stone monument) in Europe and lies north of Salisbury, England. Stonehenge had an exceptionally long history of use as a religous center and is also believed to have functioned as an astronomical observatory.



Figure 1. It must be related to geometry and it may have been a window to the stars. Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, still the focus of hot debates.


  1.2 Egypt

    Some concern with astronomy had already been shown in a cosmology associated with the rulers Seti I (r.c.1318 - c.1304 B.C.) and Ramses IV (r.c.1166 - c.1160 B.C.). The Egyptians had by then long been adept at measuring time and designing calendars, using simple astronomical techniques. They too aligned their buildings on the heavens. Some early Egyptian sources speak of a cult relating the Sun god Re (represented in art with a man's body and a falcon's head surmounted by a solar disk) and an earlier creator god Atum. The cult of Re-Atum was well established by the time of the first great pyramids, that is, about 2800 B.C. At first this was centered mainly on a temple to the north of the old Egyptian capital of Memphis. The place was known by the Greeks as Heliopolis, 'City of the Sun', but by the Egyptians as On (located northeast of Cairo, Egypt). By historical times, the priests of Heliopolis had laid down a cosmogony that held Re-Atum to have generated himself out of Nun, the primordial ocean. His offspring were the gods of air and moisture, and only afterthem, and as their offspring, were Geb, the Earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess, created. The deities of Heliopolis, (the Great Ennead) were made up with Osiris, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys, the off-spring of Geb and Nut.

1.3 Mesopotamia

    In the dynasty of Hammurabi (r.c.1792 - c.1750 B.C.) in Babylonia not all gods can be identified with stars. The three highest - Anu, Enlil, and Ea - corresponded to the heavens, Earth, and water.

1.4 India and Persia

    The oldest of the Vedic writings in Hinduism, the Rigveda (dating from between 1500 and 500 B.C.), gives more than one account of the creation of the world (Figure 2).



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Figure 2. Shiva is one of the two pricipal Hindu gods (the other being Vishnu); his most celebrated appearance being the one as Nataraja, the King of Dancers. Indian artists have represented Shiva's cosmic dance in magnificent bronce sculptures of dancing figures with four arms whose superbly balanced and yet dynamic gestures express the rhythm and unity of life. The upper right hand of the god holds a drum to symbolize the primeval sound of creation, the upper left bears a tongue of flame, the element of destruction. The balance of the two hands represents the dynamic balance of creation and destruction in the universe, accentuated further by the Dancer's calm and detached face in the centre of the two hands, in which the polarity of creation and destruction is dissolved and transcended. The second right hand is raised in the sign of "do not fear", symbolizing maintenance, protection and peace, while the remaining left hand points down to the uplifted foot which symbolizes release from the spell of maya. The god is pictured as dancing on the body of a demon, the symbol of human ignorance which has to be conquered befor liberation can be attained.



    The main version is that the world was made by the gods, as a building of wood, with heaven and Earth somehow supported by posts. Later it is suggested that the world was created from the body of a primeval giant. This last idea gave rise to the principle, found in later Vedic literature, that the world is inhabited by a world soul. Various other cosmogonies followed, with the creation of the ocean sometimes being given precedence, and place being made for the creation of the Sun and the Moon. There is a certain circularity in it all, however, since heaven and Earth are generally regarded as the parents of the gods in general; and water was sometimes introduced into the parentage. The Vedic literature gives no clear indication that mathematical techniques for describing the motions of heavenly bodies were discussed in India before the 5th century B.C.

1.5 The Puranas and the Brahmapaksa

    Although influenced by texts going back to Vedic times, and by Iranian sources too, the Puranas are Sanskrit writings about primordial times with cosmological sections dating from the 4th to 16th centuries A.D. of the Christian era. The Puranas deal with five topics: the creation of the Universe; the destruction and re-creation of the Universe, including the history of humankind; the genealogy of the gods; the reigns of the Manur; and the history of the lunar and solar dynasties. The Earth is now represented as a flat circular disc, with a world-mountain, Meru, at its center. The Meru is anchored to the yasti, which symbolizes the axis of the universe. The mountain is surrounded by alternating rings of sea and land, so that there are seven continents and seven seas. Wheels are conceived to carry the celestial bodies, these turning around the star at the north pole by Brahma, using cords made of mind. This cosmology was taken over by Jainism, a monastic religion which like Buddhism denies the authority of the Veda, but from the 5th and 6th centuries onwards it was undermined by the influx of a new form of Greek cosmology, with pre-Ptolemaic roots. In short, Aristotelianism reached India (see North, 1995).