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Perception and Ancient Astronomy
David Griffard


It is difficult for the average city-dweller to visualize the complexity and beauty of the night sky. Ground-glow from street lights, advertising signs and traffic coupled with pollution-laden air all but blot out the view of external Nature. Only the light of the planets and of the very brightest stars, a select minority among the vast number visible to the human eye, manage to penetrate this man-made collective scotoma and serve to remind us that our natural environment is twofold; terrestrial and extraterrestrial. Our ancestors suffered no such loss of perception and saw the whole of nature with a clarity now possible only if one is willing to travel some distance to escape the vision-dimming effects of the city lights and smog.

What the effects of such foreshortened vision might be on the contemporary mind is, for now, a matter of speculation. In practical terms, it would seem to make little difference since time-measurement long since has been standardized to the Greenwich Meridian and stellar navigation largely has been turned over to electronics. But it is difficult to assess the price, in psychological terms, of blinding a major portion of the human population to a view which, in the past, has inspired the great poets of the race and taxed the limits of rational thought. The modern mind has, in a sense, been shut off from a source of stimulation which formerly led humankind, through visual perception alone, to develop particular cosmological conceptions.

We now have substituted a more realistic view. at least in the physical sense, of the natural order in space but only by interposing technology between the eye and the mind. This has clarified questions regarding the nature of space but, in the process of mechanization, the "mental picture" of the universe itself has become wholly abstracted. The un-aided eye cannot see it. It must be assembled in the imagination, a montage of telescopic views, spectrographs, images from non-visible wave- lengths, spaceprobe "close-ups", Doppler-shifts, magnetic fields, gravitation, invisible "black holes" and other partial conceptions of the dynamic physical universe.

A general scientific conception currently is far from complete and theories with widely different visualizations of the extraterrestrial world compete for acceptance in the mind's eye. What you see is not necessarily what you get. The' picture fluctuates with every new discovery; one or another physical model gains or loses support and the whole vacillates in clarity and form, somewhat like a poorly tuned television image with more than one station on the same channel.

As a result, modern urban people lose contact with the celestial environment in two ways: 1) they can't see it clearly if they look and 2) the disembodied, supra-sensory visions supplied by modern astronomy are not what they would see if the night-sky were perfectly visible. This causes no difficulty for the science of astronomy itself, but it obscures for others the critical role of the starry sky, as seen with the un-aided eye, in the development of civilized thought and behavior.

In the last issue it was shown how, generalizing from experiments in behavioral science, both human and animal behavior is shaped directly by astronomical cycles and how, by extension, the formalized central importance of astronomy in ancient culture was largely an environmentally pre-determined characteristic. Here, from the perspective of research on human vision, we begin a discussion on the role played by intrinsic mechanisms of visual perception in forming early concepts of the universe. We will see that certain early cosmological conceptions shared by culturally and historically diverse peoples were pre-determined by the environment to emerge as formal knowledge.

Research on the processes of sensation and perception in psychology has generated a mass of experimental data. These results quantitatively define the range and sensitivity of the sense organs and describe consistent principles by which perceptual processes organize our sensations into the conscious experience of Nature. The visual sense has been researched intensely in both its objective and subjective domains. The parameters of its sensitivity have been worked out to within a few photons. The perceptual capacities to discriminate differences in shape, distance, size, color, and other qualities of visual stimuli have been tested to the limit. Studies of the way complex stimulus patterns are organized by perception into images and ideas have found lawful principles at work in this mysterious realm of mind.

If we apply these findings in the study of ancient astronomy we discover that certain stimulus characteristics of the starry vault and the predictable effects on the human visual response would have predisposed a general order on the ancient observer's abstract mental picture of the cosmos from the very beginning. For the early astronomers, whom we assume to have had no objective knowledge of the physical nature of the universe above, what they saw was what they got.

The geocentric viewpoint

Perhaps the most immediate example is the geocentric viewpoint. This perception dominated thinking about the universe for thousands of years until the times of Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo and the telescope. The reason for its tenacity in the mind was inherent in the realm of vision; so far as the human eye could see, it was at the center of things. The whole universe revolved around it.

On a Moonless night, the starfield is a stimulus with no resolvable objects. All that can be seen are points of light in a total void. There are no visual cues for the actual distance to the stars and, aside from variations in brightness and color, there are no cues for relative distance or other differences between them. The spatial distribution of visible stars is random with respect to position, brightness and color. When confronted with these types of stimuli in the laboratory, the perceptual response of vision itself imposes order. It does so in ways so consistent that if our experimental subjects were early astronomers and the stimulus were the sky itself we could say with confidence generally how they would have visualized it.

When presented with a visual field having a horizon but a completely featureless sky, the human visual system inherently perceives the sky as an encompassing dome or shell, being slightly closer overhead than at the horizon. The starfield, itself without distance cues against a uniform background, is cast by perception into the same mould. The illusion is greatly enhanced by the fixed position of the stars and their apparent motion as a single field around the sky. Known as "common fate", the shared movement of individual stimuli is a particularly visual strong cue to perceive them as a common whole. The limitless expanse of outer space is transformed naturally by human vision into a starry vault bounding the universe with Earth as its center. This common conception among the ancients was not an intellectual contrivance to satisfy the human ego but an idea predetermined by basic laws of perception. It was, when only the un-aided eye was used, an observationally objective conclusion: this fundamental celestial structure as visualized by one mind 'Would have been seen directly and verified by others.

The celestial hierarchy

Other characteristics of the visual system suggest how the concept of a celestial hierarchy, a stratified order of the celestial dome, was latent in the stimulus effects of the starfield on human perception. At sundown, and across the range of twilight into the night, the human eye progressively adapts to the dark, undergoing neurological and chemical changes that increase its sensitivity thousands-fold. By the end of twilight human vision is well into the range of sensitivity where the planets and bright stars become visible. Sensitivity continues to increase rapidly during the first half-hour or so; then, at a progressively slower rate over the next several hours. The ancient astronomer who began his work at sun-down would have seen the stars behave as though they were a hierarchy. Because some are brighter than others, specific stars are always the first to appear to the eye in a given segment of the sky (excluding, of course, highly variable stars). Shortly, more come into view, and so on, until the eye has reached its extremes of sensitivity.

An additional characteristic of eyesight creates a step-wise effect on what would otherwise be a steady, progressive rate of newly visible stars. It is the fact that the visual system is not equally responsive to changes in external stimulus energies throughout its sensitivity range. At the extremes, where brightness intensities are either very low or very high, significant changes in the energy levels of the stimulus are required before an individual can perceive a noticeable difference. In the middle range, smaller increases or decreases in stimulus energy are required. Because the total range of visible starlight is at the lower extreme of the energy scale, the subjective division in perception is fairly coarse, delineating only six or seven general levels of difference between the brightest and dimmest stars. The net effect on perception is that not only do the stars appear in a predictable sequence but they seem to aggregate in time as discrete populations, adding exponentially to the visible population as each new range of sensitivity is reached. [The contemporary visual magnitude scale reflects this perceptual trait in the use of seven basic divisions of visual magnitude; from 0 (brightest) through 6th magnitude (the limits of sensitivity for the average human eye).] Here again, the appearance of a common concept in ancient cosmologies, i.e., a stratified hierarchy among the "host of heaven" can be seen to have roots in the way the visual system senses and perceives light. The conscious consensus by early observers that the celestial dome was populated by a hierarchy of stars was directly predisposed by the mechanics of vision.

Still other principles of perceptual organization determine that the-starfield would have been subdivided into individual groups, the constellations, from the start; and that the choice of which stars to define as a group was not arbitrary as is often proposed [See for example Carl Sagan's understanding of the ancient method of grouping stars into constellations. Cosmic Connection, 1960]

[*!* Image: nearness; similarity; good continuation; good figure. Hypothetical field of stars and the simultaneous effects of perceptual grouping principles. The reader can see directly how common constellations would have emerged. The effect is enhanced by squinting.]

Gestalt principles and the constellations

When, in the laboratory, the eye is stimulated by random distributions of dots or points of light, the perceptual system immediately seeks order in the whole. It does so consistently according to principles known from the early days of psychological research and associated most with the Gestalt theorists. Known as the Gestalt Laws (or Principles), their operation in perception automatically draws recognizable patterns from a random visual field.

One of these, common fate, has been mentioned. Other stimulus qualities used as cues in grouping are nearness, similarity, and continuity (or good continuation). Another principle, good figure, acts to select the most stable overall configuration among the variables. Applied to the random field of fixed stars, these perceptual principles at work in early observers would have assured the common recognition of some constellations. Configurations where stars are close together, of equal brightness, seem to continue in a line or curve, and to form a whole figure would have been seen similarly by astronomers (in the same latitude range) around the world. Whatever the constellation was considered to represent - lion, bear, serpent, mythical character, etc.by different cultures, the stars which composed it would have been configured in essentially the same way.

The effects of dark-adaptation also apply to the process. A constellation with stars of nearly the same brightness becomes visible essentially as a unit; all its stars appear to the eye at about the same time. The brightest constellations, emerging well before the majority of stars become visible, obviously are the most likely to have enjoyed universal recognition. The stars which form the main structure of Orion, for example, are visible before the eye has reached 2nd magnitude sensitivities. As 0 and lst magnitude stars they continue to be prominent as the field gradually fills in with dimmer stars. With the qualities of nearness, similarity of brightness, good figure, and maximum exposure time, it is no surprise to find that Orion has been a dominant universal constellation since the beginning of history.

The same analysis can be applied to other well known constellations and, in each case, the pattern of its stars, shows clearly why the particular combination is perceived as a unit. The main stars of the Big Dipper all have brightness energies close to 2nd magnitude and, like Orion, the whole basic form appears in a short period. Since other stars in the area are significantly less bright, the Big Dipper too, stands alone for a time. It has been known since the beginning by cultures around the globe, generally, as the "Great Bear".

Because of the limitations of visual sensitivity, it appears later than Orion and, as with individual stars, the perception of a stratified hierarchy of constellations is predisposed as well. Its location in the sky gives it a further quality of special identity - it behaves differently. As a circumpolar constellation, its figure rotates around the North Pole and, from the northern hemisphere, never sinks below the horizon. Its stars always are visible at some angle. Orion, however, travels across the horizon from East to West and is not visible at all at during certain times of the year because it is overhead during daylight.

This differential turning of clearly perceived figures greatly amplifies the existing perception of the celestial vault as a rotating dome and the persistent observer is led directly by vision to the basic spatial relationships between sky and earth. The importance of these celestial "landmarks" to spatial orientation at night was no less than the importance of landmarks in the terrain by day. This functional utility in survival adds to the likelihood that accurate, relational "mental maps" of constellations were already common tools by the time the earliest formal astronomy entered civilization. The concept of the cardinal points, so fundamental in ancient cosmologies, also was inherent in the visualization - specific places perceived in the 1andscape" and not the intellectual product of astronomical geometry. Only in the North does one see stars circling about a point; in the opposite direction, the stars turn from East to West in broad flat arc; some are visible for only a short time as they barely skim the South horizon. Facing East or West, one sees the place where stars appear to rise and set most vertically. Early specialists in astronomy merely set out to measure the points precisely.

Astronomy and archetypes

We have not gone very far into the sensory and perceptual characteristics of the human eye and yet already can see the broad outlines of many ancient cosmologies. The Earth-centered universe, the surrounding starry shell, its division into concentric hierarchical levels, its subdivision into individual constellations, and the recognition of its organization as a whole was a gift predetermined by idiosyncrasies in the human sense of vision. More importantly, it was the same gift to everyone. As the human mind first turned conscious attention to observation of the cosmos, the interplay between the starfield as a visual stimulus and the nature of human perception predetermined the basic conclusions most would draw from their senses about its spatial structure. The same structure can be seen by any observer today who attends only to the appearance of, and not to what is known about, the starry universe.

That Nature would answer her most intelligent, curious, observant species with a total illusion of reality may seem to violate reason. The growth of knowledge is recognized as the major avenue of human survival. In the context of natural selection, how can a naturally determined proclivity in the most intelligent species, to reach the wrong conclusion about the deepest questions be justified as advantageous? However, from the viewpoint of peoples without advanced technology, whose primary task was to survive on the Earth, the structure provided by vision was more than generous in information and wholly advantageous to human survival. It provided an accurate sense of direction and a gauge of both diurnal and seasonal time. To have some awareness of both was essential for successful adaptation in the natural world. Even some birds are known to perceive and to navigate by the celestial pole. When to migrate, or to breed, etc., are astronomically cued in other species. The conscious refinement of these perceptions though systematic observation would have led quickly and directly to knowledge essential for the development of complex civilizations; a precise calendar to control agriculture and a formal system of navigation. The creation of food-surpluses, long-distance exploration, efficient land routes for widespread trade, seafaring, the growth of formal knowledge in astronomy, geometry, and mathematics, engineering, surveying, - all gifts of Nature to the mind of her newest species through the mechanisms of vision.

All that was necessary to acquire and profit from Nature's teaching was to pay attention and contemplate; to try and read the celestial hieroglyphs she passed across their vision. Though the shape and placement of the characters varied in different parts of the world, the language they expressed was universal, the message simple, and free to all who would make the effort to read it.

The scientific approach to the study of early civilizations could be greatly facilitated by the direct application of research in sensation and perception to a task analysis of the ancient astronomer. For example, by laboratory experimentation the most probable configuration of constellations in the starfield could be measured objectively for different parts of the sky and different viewing latitudes. Armed with a quantitative profile of the actual groupings by the modern eye, researchers could approach the task of identifying unknown constellations more easily. It would require no more daring an assumption than that the basic operation of human vision hasn't changed in the interim.

There are other connections, which will be discussed in future issues, between the way human perception natively sees certain celestial stimuli, and basic concepts of structure and form commonly found in ancient beliefs. In some ways, what ancient observers imagined the celestial lights to be, and the characteristics of role or personality they projected onto them can also be related directly to the way human beings most generally see.

Obviously, for any of this to have occurred there had to be prolonged attention to the sky. A glance now and then, by one or another observer, would not produce an integrated picture very quickly, if at all. How did Nature induce her fledgling pupils to pay attention and apply their intelligence to conscious integration of the moving stellar patterns she had drawn to teach them more effective and meaningful survival. The view that it was behavior shaped by reinforcement, as with recognition of the Sun-cycle [see Collective Behaviorism and Ancient Astronomy, last issue] is appropriate to account for its conscious recognition and practical use. But this can't account for what the ancient observers felt about what they saw - what they subjectively perceived the stars to be and the intense reverence with which they treated their task and knowledge of astronomy.

To understand this, it is necessary to shun the conventional "cave-man" image of the ancient human spirit as barbaric and savage and the intellect as minimally functional. Contemporary evidence clearly indicates that basic human capacities of mind and spirit come with the human body. There is no reason to believe, except for the biased conventional image, that our ancient progenitors were less conscious, intelligent, curious, or sensitive than are modern individuals, or that they would have been any less moved to awe by the beauty and splendor of the stars. Many readers will recall a relative or friend who, on a camping trip or some other opportunity to see the starfield clearly, has remarked about the strong emotional impact engendered by the sight.

Why this happens, and whether any such response happens in other animals, is a question currently unanswerable by objective means. Yet, again, the probability of its occurrence in our early ancestors requires no greater stretch of reason than that not only physically, but also psychologically and emotionally, human beings always have been basically the same. It we could see into remote prehistory, we would not be surprised then, to find certain individuals within the new-born human species observing the stars diligently, - trying to find some structure and meaning behind the strange emotion generated by their light. The visible heavens not only stimulated and shaped the human perception of space and time; from the beginning it motivated a burning desire to understand it. The spectacle itself was sufficient to light the intellectual and religious fires of early civilization and to motivate the thriving neophytes with visions of eternity.

Ibis included, of course, the Sun, Moon and planets. These were focal points in the observation of cycles and their perceptually determined influences on primal astronomical conceptions will be discussed in a future issue. For now, the observation that great ancient civilizations in different parts of the world developed similar images of the universe and methods of measuring time is proof enough of our general thesis; that universal characteristics of visual perception first guided human intelligence toward common basic concepts in formal astronomy and measurement.

We see too, some evidence for the parallel thesis; that an emotional response to the clear night-sky which often occurs in modern individuals, often was experienced as well among the earliest human beings. The effect of this evoked emotion on the pristine consciousness of early observers gave a special aura of mystery to the stellar landscape. Massive astronomically-aligned temples dedicated to various planets and stars give literally solid evidence of the religious ardor which accompanied the growth and development of ancient astronomy. Not only similar conceptions of space and time, but similar theologies, it seems, were messages written in the stars for the childhood of our race.

To the modern mind, the supernatural interpretation of the heavens was, like the ancient common conceptions of the geometry of space, an illusion: a fairy tale played out by non-existent characters in a non-existent place; the setting and the players coded in the basic mechanisms of human vision, their tale a projection of awestruck imagination. From the vantage of modern scientific vision, the whole seems bizarre and completely opposite from the truth. Abstract knowledge of the spatial distribution of stars, the heliocentric organization of the planets, and the governance of the whole by natural laws, makes it seem as though Nature alone was a poor teacher indeed.

Yet the product of this education did survive evolutionary birth in the wild, learned quickly to orient by the stars, to measure time, to organize progressively successful means of survival, and to gain a sense of communion with the universal scheme. The elaborate fantasy in which the knowledge was couched was not itself devoid of truth.

The heavens are populated with hierarchies of stars, there are vast powers at work in their nature, and, as Mother Earth succumbs to Time, the hope of humanity well may rest in final achievement of the wish to dwell among the. "host of heaven." Even as we listen with electronic ears for indications of extraterrestrial life, scientific fantasy populates our own heavens with creatures no less bizarre, with powers no less incredible, and with a range of motives no less pious or diabolical, than the mythical star-gods of old. In this sense, all that really has changed is the perception of the physical setting in which the drama of celestial life unfolds, and the scientific interpretation of our role.

Since this modern vision too is human fantasy, projected onto a Big-Bang universe by the scientific mind, the similarities of its themes to those imagined by ancient observers are the more remarkable. On the one hand, there is no more actual observational evidence for the validity of our modern vision than for the ancient belief that the heavens were populated by living beings. On the other, the ancient race-dream of life among the stars, the marvelous archetypes to be encountered there, and the bi-polar sense of good and evil within the whole has survived the transposition to scientific fantasy virtually intact. Nature, it seems, has been trying for millennia to tell us something.

[*!* Image]

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