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Myth and Science

A number of the media frame our issue that our struggle is about science versus culture. But it depends on if you classify our culture as only a culture and not a science.

Consider the fact that we built many of our temples using trigonometry, science. We had an understanding of zero. The kupuna tell you these things. They tell you about the Po, or the origin of time where matter and energy were one. Or they tell you about the stars beyond the stars, you know, the hoku ka lewa, way out there. They knew the difference between planets long ago, the moving stars and the fixed stars.

And I think we have a lot more to learn about what our ancestors knew. What our ancestors knew, we’re still learning today. I think a lot of Hawaiians get frustrated when modern society says what you’re talking about is myth. And I would like western society to recognize that our culture has value, even to mankind today.

Kealoha Pisciotta
Mauna Kea Anaina Hou

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Why, again, are we seen and labeled “deficient?” Do you see that when we understand larger systems that are working, we begin to understand more of what’s happening within and around ourselves? And because of that knowing, we are singing our own liberation.

It’s time. It’s time because the world needs our clarity, and we need our own. The segue from knowledge and the qualities of what we value as “intelligence” was necessary so that we can now ask: “Whose knowledge are we talking about?” Here is the key, the turning point in all things.

Ho’oulu – Our Time of Becoming
Hawaiian Epistemology and Early Writings

by Manulani Aluli Meyer
‘Ai Pohaku Press, 2003, Native Books, Honolulu, Hawai’i

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Pacific peoples have been astute observers of the heavens for millennia. Without written records, however, much of our past knowledge of astronomy has been lost. That which survives is found within oral tradition, cultural symbols, and the orientation of archaeological sites and cultural landscapes.

Two fields of modern study, archeo-astronomy and architectural astronomy, explore these concepts.

In the excerpts below, Francis Warther and Von Del Chamberlain discuss the ways astronomical and cosmological knowledge is revealed through the study of mythology, symbols, cultural landscapes and architectural orientation.

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Because of the profound interest of the Hawaiians in navigation, the stars, the planets, we believe that the discipline of architectural astronomy will reveal the place of astronomy in the ancient value system, the place that astronomy has in the intellectual and cultural organization of the Hawaiian past.

The discipline of architectural astronomy requires the study of the geophysical nature of the land and the heiau complexes, along with the mythology and the chants. It is part of Hawaiian imagination and history.

It's this type of thing that needs intensive investigation by our best minds. And in this way we will find the cords that bind.

The heiau complexes complement a celestial plan. Often they are exact reflections on earth of the star constellations. They also are calendars for the seasons. If you orient the western wall of a heiau to 15 degrees east of north, the diagonal will automatically point to the summer solstice.

We feel very positive that the Hawaiians approached all valleys, all mountains and viewed them as a ceremonial landscape, a landscape they enhanced by building structures, a designed ceremonial landscape. That's why we cannot select single shrines or heiau and draw a little circle around them and say "save that." We look to the whole complex of shrines and heiau, because the complex is an integration of a culture and value system that has developed over centuries.

The discipline of architectural astronomy requires certain techniques, and the first one is to study the geophysical nature of the island and the complexes. And as we proceed, we must feed into this continuously the mythology, the ethnology, the chants and the knowledge of sources.

Because of the profound interest of the Hawaiians in navigation, the stars, the planets, we believe that through the discipline of architectural astronomy will reveal the place of astronomy in the ancient value system, the organizational complexes of the Hawaiians.

Through this study we hope it will reveal the place that astronomy has in the intellectual and cultural organization of the Hawaiian past.

The discipline of architectural astronomy will lead us to evidence of alignments not evident in the past. And in our search we believe it will give us evidence of that cultural and that type of ethics system of the ancient Hawaiians.

What our preliminary investigations tell us and what we will show you is that there is a cosmological connection between the heiau’s and the complexes from one island to the other island and to the summer solstices. This is in conformity with the ethnology and the chants of the Hawaiians. It is what has been expressed in them, and we will literally interpret it and show you how they bind the cords between islands, between sacred heiau to sacred heiau.

Francis Warther

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One of the ultimate questions is the origin of the things that make up the world, including us, the origin of the elements that make life possible. Those are the kinds of things that astronomers up on the mountain research as well as trying to understand the time scale of the universe, how it was created, how it came into being, the way they find it now and what might happen.

But native people have also thought of those things and have explanations. They’re different, but they come out of the same observations of nature around us. And the explanations are found in what we call mythology, lore, stories, which are wonderful things. Most people fail to appreciate the beauty and the scope of what we find in the myths.

Mythology, after all, organizes experience of human beings and groups of people into very useful elements that describe us human beings existing in and within nature, and how to survive.

And what I find is really beautiful in native indigenous cultures, is that ability to look around to see the clues all around us, to see the turning of the sky, the turning of the seasons, the relationships between the sky overhead, that seems so constant but really isn’t, and the earth, and the cycles of our own lives, and to understand that we’re part of this.

There’s an interesting field of study that’s developed in the world today. It’s not new but it’s called archaeoastronomy. It is the study of astronomy of cultures. More and more people are calling it cultural astronomy. And that’s probably a better term. Hidden within it is ethnoastronomy, the astronomy that is revealed by ethnographic things.

The evidences that archaeoastronomers study if they want to know something about the astronomical foundations of other cultures, come from a lot of different directions, from architecture, religion, belief, from stories, mythology. All of those things contain astronomical understanding and symbolism.

They come from traditions, they come from any writings, any oral history that might exist. They come from symbols. Those symbols could be rock art for example, pictographs and petroglyphs. The symbols could be people. They could be things from nature, including symbols that look very much like the sun, which is common in rock art, or the moon or the stars and, in some cases, groups of stars.

Those who live close to the earth are the ones who pay most attention, are most observant, and have that foundation of basic knowledge that is all too lost in the world today.

Von Del Chamberlain
Astronomer, naturalist (retired)
Educator formerly with Utah Valley State College, University of Utah, University of Michigan
Former director, Hansen Planetarium, Salt Lake City and Albert Einstein Planetarium (Smithsonian Institution)

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Native American Astronomy: Traditions, Symbols, Ceremonies, Calendars, and Ruins.’ In Astronomy Across Cultures, The History of Non-Western Astronomy, Helaine Selin, ed. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Chamberlain, Von Del. 1982. When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America. Los Altos, Calif., and College Park, MD.: Ballena Press and Center for Archaeoastronomy.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Navajo constellations in literature, art, artifact and a New Mexico rock art site.’ Archaeoastronomy 6(1-4): 1983.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Navajo star ceilings.’ In World Archaeoastronomy, A.F. Aveni, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘Rock art and astronomy: Navajo star ceilings.’ In Rock Art of the Western Canyons, Jane S. Day, Paul D. Friedman and Marcia J. Tate, eds. Denver: Denver Museum of Natural History and the Colorado Archaeological Society, 1989.

Chamberlain, Von Del. ‘The Chief and his Council: unity and authority from the stars.’ In Earth & Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore. Ray A. Williamson and Claire R. Farrer, eds. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.





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