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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/June 1889/Fabulous Astronomy

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | June 1889

By Prof. J. C. HOUZEAU.

THE darkness of the night exercised a sort of terror upon the minds of our ancestors. Just as material existence was supposed to succeed to nothing, and to be followed by it, day succeeds night, and this, they said, is the origin of time, as the winter is of the year. The Ostiaks of the Yenisei count their years by the snows, as also, or by winters, did the Iroquois of North America. The Numidians, Caesar's Gauls, and the Germans of Tacitus, estimated daily periods by the nights. The night had a considerable importance in the North; and the Scandinavians had the most coherent and most poetical ideas of it. Day was the son of Night. The latter went first, a passage in the Edda says, mounted on her horse Rinfax, of the icy mane. Every morning, at the conclusion of his race, the courser watered the earth with the foam that fell from his bridle; this was the dew. Day followed, mounted on Sinfax, of the glowing mane, which lightened up the air and the earth. These people also believed that the longest night, that of the winter solstice, begat all the others, and that the world was created on such a night. Therefore night was called mother. Midwinter-night, or Yule, was the great annual festival, and marked the beginning of the new year. The Chaldeans said that the world began at the autumnal equinox, when the night became longer than the day. The French courts in the seventeenth century still ordered clients to appear within fourteen nights. The English fortnight is a contraction of this term.

The ancient Peruvians said that the moon was dead during the three days that it is invisible. The Khasias, of northeastern India, thought that the sun burned it up. Some savage tribes believe that the lunation is a quarrel between the sun and moon as husband and wife, identically repeated in every month. The increasing moon represents its gaining the ascendency the decrease its yielding, till at last the sun swallows it and spits its head out in the sky. The ancient Slavs imagined that the moon was condemned to wander, for infidelity with the morning star. The Dakota Indians fancied that the declining moon was eaten by mice; the Polynesians, by spirits of the dead. The Hottentots said that, suffering from headache, it covered its face with its hand; the Eskimos, that, becoming tired and hungry, it retired to rest and eat, after which it recuperated very fast.

There is probably no country where some kind of a picture has not been made out of the visible spots on the moon. Two types of figures, distributed according to a geographical rule, have predominated in these fancies. In Eastern Asia, it is a hare or rabbit. The Chinese and Japanese make it a hare, sitting on its hindquarters, pounding rice in a mortar. The Hindus see a hare or roe; the Siamese, a hare, or, some of them, a man and woman cultivating their field. The North American and Mexican Indians symbolize the moon by a hare or rabbit; and some of the Central American monuments represent it by a jar or spiral shell with a rabbit coming out from under it. In South America, a human figure took the place of the hare. The Incas related that a light young woman, walking in the moonlight, was charmed by the beauty of the star, and sprang forward to embrace it. The moon took her up, and has kept her ever since. Some tribes, in both North and South America, make of the spots a woman bent with age. In Samoa, they see a woman and her child; on the Book Islands, men; in Timor, an old woman spinning. The Scandinavian Edda relates that Mane, who regulates the course of the moon in its quarters, placed there two children whom he saw carrying a jug of water hung between them from a pole. The Eskimos say that Anninga, the moon, brother of the beautiful Malnia, the sun, was pursuing his sister and about to overtake her, when she turned round and smutted his face and clothes with her fingers, which she had blackened with the soot of a lamp. The Khasias say that the spots are the cinders resulting from the monthly burning up of the moon by the sun.

French peasants variously believe that they see in the moon the traitor Judas, hanging from an elder-branch; turnip-Jack wheeling a barrow of stolen turnips; Cain leaning on his spade and looking at the murdered Abel; a peasant who has been caught by the moon stealing wood in his lord's domain; a peasant compelled to freeze in the moon with his bundle of sticks for making fence on Sunday; a hunter and his dog; or a she-goat and her keeper by a bush.

Eclipses of the moon attract more attention than those of the sun, because total ones are more frequently seen than those of the sun, and the darkness is of longer duration. The Peruvians supposed that they were an illness of the moon, and if total were a sign of its death, when it would fall to the earth and put an end to the world. When one occurred, they would beat upon everything that would make a noise, and chastise their dogs, in the faith that the star, witnessing the sufferings of the creatures it loved, would revive itself to save them. All would call upon the heavenly powers not to allow the star to die; and, when the light returned, praise was given to the great god Pache-camac, supporter of the universe, for having restored the moon, and thereby prevented the winding up of human existence.

The Caribs, and the Hurons as well, made a great din, upon drums and kettles, and by rattling loose pebbles in gourds, to frighten away the terrible demon Maboya, the author of frightful apparitions, pestilence, thunder, and storms, who was trying to eat up the moon. The French author Dutestre describes the Caribs, young and old, women and men, as dancing all night long, with their feet close together, one hand on their heads and the other on their hips, not singing but shouting lugubriously. Once beginning to dance, every one had to keep it up till daylight, without stopping for anything whatever. At the same time a girl would be shaking a gourd rattle and trying to keep her voice in tune with the din. While Eskimos were applying somewhat similar remedies, their women bored the ears of the dogs in the faith that, if the animals cried out, the end of the world was not yet at hand; for these animals are supposed to have existed before men, and to have a better presentiment of the future. The practice of those tribes which shoot arrows at the jaguar or shark, or whatever animal they may suppose to be eating the moon, is matched by the example of Alfonso VI, of Portugal, in 1664, who, learning that a comet was in sight, went out to look at it, scolded it, and fired pistol-shots at it.

While the story of the dragon which causes eclipses by devouring the sun or the moon is still current among the populace in Siam and China, the educated classes in those countries have mastered enough of the science of the phenomena to be able to calculate them. But in China the court and imperial authorities throughout keep up in form the primitive traditions. Under these traditions an eclipse of the sun was a warning to the emperor to look into his faults and amend them. The coming phenomenon having been pre-announced by the official astronomer,[2] notice of it was given throughout the country and the court made preparation for it by fasting and retreat. The appointed day was one of anxious waiting. The instant the star was touched, or when it began, according to the Chinese expression, to be eaten, the emperor himself gave the alarm by beating the prodigy-roll on the thunder-drum. The mandarins, who had come with their bows and arrows to succor the suffering star, shot into the air uninterruptedly. The Chinese illuminati know that these are only forms, but superstition still rules among the people, who throw themselves upon their knees at the beginning of the eclipse, and make a great noise with drums and gongs, to deliver the star from the devouring dragon. The Greek and Latin authors relate that a great noise was made during eclipses. The early Christians rang bells during storms[3] and eclipses to counteract the action of bad spirits, to repel, with, the priest's blessing, the darkness caused by phantoms—a survival, according to P. Lafitan, of the dark genii that devoured the moon.

The earliest observers of the stars had no suspicion of their true nature, or of the considerable distances that separate them from us. If they did not think them within reach of their hands, they supposed that they were, at least, almost in a literal sense, accessible to the voice. Homer says that the highest pines of Mount Ida passed beyond the limits of the atmosphere and penetrated into the ethereal region through which the clangor of the arms of his heroes reached to the sky. This sky was a solid hemisphere, a bell resting upon the earth, or, according to Euripides, a cover set over the work of the sublime artisan. The Hebrew psalmist, of the eleventh century before our era, said to the Lord, "Thou stretchest out the heavens as a pavilion." The stars of Anaximenes were fixed in this vault like nails. The celestial bell covered a flat earth which was surrounded by water on every side. Every people imagined itself in the center of it, and China is still "The Middle Empire." The Incas exhibited this center in their sanctuary of Cuzco, the name of which signified navel, as the Greeks also saw it in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which was also called the navel (ὀμφαλός) of the world, and was celebrated by Pindar under that name. The Chinese located the navel of the earth in the city of Khotân. The conception of the earth as flat and like a cake prevailed in European civilization till the Crusades, and the lazzaroni of Naples have it still.

The Hawaiians, Maoris, and Eskimos supposed that the whole sky was supported by a pillar, as the ancients fancied it upheld by Atlas. The Iroquois thought it was fluid.

The Polynesians explained the revolutions of the sun by supposing that the great god Meni held it by a cord.

The shepherd of Sapta Sindhon regarded the stars as fires kindled by Agni (the elementary fire), or by Varuna (the celestial vault). A hymn which he addressed to the gods mentions the moon with icy rays to signalize its powerlessness against the divine fires of heaven. (It is to be remarked that the moon is often spoken of as a frozen place—probably in reference to the difference in temperature between day and night.)

The milky way, which was Winter's path to the Scandinavians, was the road of souls for some of the American nations; the souls entered the world by the door situated where it intersects the zodiac in Gemini, and quit it to return to the gods by the door of Sagittarius. French peasants still call it St. James's road; mythology attributed it to the milk that dropped from Juno's breast while she was suckling Hercules. It was the celestial river of the Chinese, a shark-infested creek to the Tahitians; to another tribe, the field where their ancestors hunted ostriches; star-dust to the Peruvians. The Pleiades were regarded by the Iroquois and some of the ancients as a group of dancers, and are still figured in some parts of Europe as a hen and chickens. A tribe called the Chokitapia are said to have regulated their festivals by the appearance and disappearance of this group. When they disappeared, in the autumn in that country, was the time for beginning farm-work, the feast of the men; and the feast of the women was celebrated on their reappearance. The former festival referred to the burial or combustion of the seed; the latter to the return of the absent. The day before the reappearance of these stars the women rejoiced and danced around a pole. In the autumn, the dance of the dead was held. Women swore by the Pleiades, and men by the sun. In all religious festivals the calumet was presented toward the Pleiades, and prayers for happiness were addressed to them. These Indians believed that the Pleiades were seven young persons who guarded the holy seed during the night and executed a sacred dance over it. Epizors, the morning star, charmed with their grace, took them to the sky, where the stars were cheered by their gambols. The sand-dance of Malay warriors may convey some idea of this celestial dance. The bath of purification, prescribed by some of the medicine-men, comprised a triangular hole in which seven hot stones were dropped and covered over with cold water. In their invocations, the medicine-men prayed the Pleiades to help them heal bodily diseases. For talismans, they had seven bones, seven balls, or seven buttons.

The period of fifty-two years formed a complete era for the Aztecs, and they questioned whether at the end of that period the great heavenly clock, having performed its revolution, might not stop forever. This era menaced a considerable number of the population once in their lives, and some of them perhaps twice. The night on which the fifty-second year would expire was a solemn moment to them, and was signalized by extinguishing the sacred fires" in the temples and those on private hearth-stones, and by breaking all vessels that had contained provisions; and the evening was passed in darkness, with trembling and fear. The day was in November, when the Pleiades would culminate at midnight, and this moment was the termination of the century. As the hour appeared, the human victim was sacrificed, and the sticks were rubbed over his still quick body for striking the fire for his funeral pile and the inauguration of the new era. Men were waiting with torches ready to be lighted, with which the new fire was to be distributed to all the provinces. The moment of midnight was hailed with shouts of joy. The world had not come to an end, and men could hope that it would last at least through another era. Those who could not attend the public ceremonies watched kneeling on the roofs of their houses. The secular festival was suppressed by the Spaniards, the last human victim having been sacrificed on the pyramid of Tlaloc in 1507.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from a review, by M. L. Barré, in the Revue Scientifique.


  1. From the "Bibliographie générale de l'Astronomie," by MM. Houzeau and Lancaster.
  2. The astronomers He and Hi were condemned to death for having failed to predict, according to the requirements of the law, the eclipse of the sun that occurred in the reign of Tchong Kang, 2155 B.C.
  3. This practice was kept up till the last century.