The construct of time, the narrative element of marking time, and the construct of orientation are traceable to the human experience of a random and arbitrary astronomical phenomenon: The elliptical circuit Earth travels around the Sun.
A 365° elliptical circuit of the Sun is the astronomical metronome that provides the clicks and markers for perhaps the most persistent human narratives which are the marking of time and a sense of direction.
Years are marked by a lap around the Sun. A year is segmented into seasons. Earth proceeds counter-clockwise through eight spatial milestones marking the beginning, midpoint and end of each season. The eight positions are visualized as spokes on what is considered the Wheel of the Year by modern Pagans.
Last month, Earth traveled through its Summer Solstice. Next month Earth passes through the cross-quarter called Lughnasadh, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest. September brings the Autumnal Equinox, followed by the cross-quarter Samhain, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest.
December harkens the arrival of Winter Solstice, followed by the cross-quarter Imbolc in February, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. March brings the Vernal Equinox, followed by the cross-quarter Beltane, corresponding to a Gaelic May day festival. Completing the circuit brings us back to the Summer Solstice.
A rising and setting Sun is a predictable orientational prop. The force of gravity plays the principal role in our orientational fiction for up and down.
Earth's orbit of the Sun provides an additional framework for directional orientation. In native American cultures, notably the Hopis, direction is derived from observable phenomena rather than intellectual abstraction.
The four cardinal directions of Hopi cosmology, and apparently those of many other American Indian cosmologies, are not the four directions which the European tradition derives from an abstract geometrization of space. Rather their cardinal directions are empirically observable ones defined by observations of sunrise and sunset at the winter and summer solstices. The four solstitial directions not only provide a stable empirical framework within which astronomical observations are made, but they also provide a general cosmological framework which draws apparently unrelated natural phenomena into an organic unity.Ancient humans gazed up at the night sky to observe sparkling bodies overhead seemingly stationary, but to the patient observer, moving. Our ancient ancestors would have noticed the phases of the Moon because of the opportunities and threats an illuminated Moon might have posed to them.
— Stephen C. McCluskey
With unaided eye, our ancient ancestors would have also noticed faster moving bodies in the sky which we now know were the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They likely would have noted sunlight and shadow aligning, striking, and passing across targets aligned with equinox, solstice, and cross-quarter sunrises and sunsets.
We are all one child spinning through Mother Sky.To ancient civilizations awed by cyclical astronomical phenomena, the ability to predict and mark such events was prized and sacred knowledge.
— Shawnee proverb
- Archaeoastronomy, Wikipedia.
- Archaeoastronomy in the New World: American Primitive Astronomy, Anthony F. Aveni, Cambridge University Press, 1982.