Sunday, September 23, 2012

Suns of God, Chapter 1: Astrotheology of the Ancients

Astrotheology of the Ancients

The first error to leap out of the text occured almost immediately into the first proper chapter of the book.
The nomads noticed regularity and began to chart the skies, hoping to divine omens, portents and signs. Others who developed this astronomical science included ancient mariners who journeyed thousands of miles through the open seas, such as the Polynesians, whose long, Pacific voyages have been estimated to have begun at least 30,000 years ago. [1, page 26]

Katzner's The Languages of the World states
THE AUSTRONESIAN, or Malayo-Polynesian, family of languages extends from Malaysia and Indonesia to parts of New Guinea, to New Zealand, the Philippines, across the Pacific Ocean, and, westwards, to Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. Its speakers number about 325 million, all but one million of whom speak a language of the so-called Western branch. There are three other branches: Micronesian, Oceanic, and Polynesian.[2, page 24]
This quote is necessary to establish that Oceanic is included in Austronesian, and that these two families are not two unrelated groupings of languages whose names would falsely mislead the reader on account of being names of geographically adjacent areas.
Katzner continues:
The background and the details of the great Austronesian migrations are still largely a mystery. The original homeland of the people was no doubt somewhere in Asia, perhaps in India, present-day Malaysia or Indonesia, or even Taiwan. There are signs that the settlement of the islands of the Pacific began as early as 1500 BC, about the same time that some of the Indo-European tribes were settling in their new homelands.[2, page 24]

This puts Acharya's estimate at one order of magnitude greater than that which scholars seem to agree on these days. Certainly people have been travelling at sea for longer than that - the settlement of Australia, England, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guina, Australia, etc. demonstrate that, but at the time, none of these required any considerable open-sea navigation. I will not even go so far as to say that her claim that observation of the sky for the purpose of navigation is spurious, just that the facts she cites are false.

Regarding Acharya's claims, even when she provides sources, looking up the sources is often worthwhile:
In recent years, a great number of such ruins on all inhabited continents have been discovered that possess astronomical alignments, whether to the sun, moon, planets or constellations. For example, in 1998 it was reported that the "oldest astronomical megalith alginment" was discovered in Southern Egypt:
 An assembly of huge stone slabs found in Egypt's Sahara Desert that date from about 6,500 years to 6,000 years ago has been confirmed by scientists to be the oldest known astronomical alginment of megaliths in the world.2
 Interestingly, buried around this structure were cattle, while the date of the "temple" corresponds to the precessional Age of Taurus the Bull, some 6500 to 4300 years ago. [1, p. 27]
 This claim would be more remarkable if it could be shown that sacrifices of bulls ceased at about 4300 years ago, as the Age of Taurus came to an end. Cattle has obviously been a valuable resource to its owners in all times, and religious sacrifice - in most religions that practice it - has included things of value to the practitioners.

Of course, reading the paper which her resource links to gives:
In addition to bones of gazelles, hares, jackals, and small mammals, most of the sites also contain bones of cattle, which may have been used for milk, blood, and transport. [...]
The abundance of cattle remains in the Middle and Late Neolithic settlements is consistent with the ritual traditions of modern pastoralists, who may slaughter cattle to mark socially important events.[3]

Repeated and exaggerated claims of 'lost' knowledge can be found every now and then:
The astronomical science of the ancients is the same used today to determine full moons, eclipses, conjunctions and other cosmic events both past and future. It is because of the ancient study that we have this capability today, although our abilities are just beginning to catch up to the archaeoastronomy of such peoples as the Maya and their forebears. This regression and loss of knowledge is due to cataclysm and the destruction of human culture. [1, page 28]
The abilities we have today far surpass ancient abilities. Things such as general relativity are leaps and bounds ahead of the knowledge of ancient astronomers. Many of the mathematical tools necessary for the astronomical advances of the last three hundred years are not present in the writings of the ancient philosophers (although at times, they stumbled close to inventing calculus - one of the necessary tools of today. Of course, calculus is not sufficient for relativity, but even calculus is quite ahead of anything that antiquity had. Had calculus been known in antiquity, we could be quite sure of not only finding philosophers accidentally stumbling close to it, but of actually obtaining results that were much beyond the results they did obtain.)
Thus, astrology - a "godlike science" - dates back thousands of years and has been an important part of human civilization. According to mainstream archaeology, the oldest extant text specifically addressing "astrology" dates from the 3rd millennium BCE; yet, the astrological religion or astrotheology is recorded abundantly in Indian, Egyptian and Sumerian sacred literature as well, some of which represents traditions much older than the third millennium. Also, as noted, megalithic ruins push astronomical knowledge back at least 6,000 to 6,500 years ago, while ancient mariners reveal such knowledge dating back to 30,000 or more years ago. [1, page 29]
Again, 30,000 or more years is an order of magnitude too large. Certainly astrology and astronomical thought goes back rather far - as the sky kind of is an universally available (and mysterious) thing to most people. No one, of course, is denying this. Her exaggeration, though, is there for a reason.
Also, as concerns language and complex abstract concepts, it would seem that the ancients arrived at eloquence of speech and thought much earlier than has been suspected within mainstream science. A language such as Sanskrit, for example, represents the pinnacle of thousands of years of refinement, comparable in art to the progression from finger-painting to expert execution. Furthermore, languages can change quickly over a period of centuries, and it is likely that many languages now extinct existed in very ancient prehistoric times. Each "tribe" or grouping had its own words for local plants and animals that would create a distinct dialect, and no one can honestly say that other languages prior to Sanskrit did not attain as glorious a height. [1, page 31]
This is the first hint in this book as to her beliefs in an advanced world-wide pre-antiquity civilization. She sneaks in such arguments in a number of places without exactly explaining why, probably so that when reaching her final arguments on that topic, the reader is primed to accept them. Now, this is based on a major fallacy.

Yes, Panini's grammar of Sanskrit was a great achievement. But what kind of an achievement was it? It was an achievement of descriptive linguistics. This means he observed how the language in the holy scriptures and liturgies worked, and described the regularities thereof. Apparently, no descriptive grammar of any language was done with the same care and depth as his until over a millennium and a half later.

This does mean that Sanskrit did have a rather large amount of grammar even prior to Panini's groundbreaking study. So where did this grammar come from, if not "thousands of years of refinement"? Well, yes, there's thousands of years of refinement behind it, none or very little of which was intentional, orchestrated refinement the way Acharya here tries to imply.

The mechanisms of language change are a huge topic. However, pretty much all regularities we have in language are a result of analogy. A volume such as Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy's The Evolution of Morphology would probably suffice to explain how complexity arises in languages: it's a result of numerous people interacting. While doing so, they create regularity by analogy - we are, after all, very good pattern-matching machines, and we often generalize patterns even in our speech. Meanwhile, sound change serves to create irregularity. There is a constant tug-of-war between these two (and some other processes), which end up creating language. A given language is of course not just one set of rules, as different speakers may have generalized somewhat different patterns, and the same speaker may actually use different patterns in different situations. We know there are complicated languages that definitely have not been constructed by a prehistoric civilization, viz. Nicaraguan Sign Language (which is only a few decades old). Such languages quickly amass a complex grammar - proof that deaf people in Nicaragua were orchestrated by a forgotten prehistoric civilization, I surmise. No, really, a complex civilization is not necessary for complex language, and some very complex things go on in languages we can be completely certain did not have any contact with a complex civilization in their prehistory.
Roy postulates that various artifacts found deep in caves, such as the painting known as "Sorcerer with the Antelope's Head" from Les Trois Freres caves in the French Pyrenees were occupied during the Magdalenian period, 10,000-16,000 years ago, although Robert Graves dates the painting to "at least 20,000 B.C" Regarding possible rituals performed in these caves, some of which are very inaccessible and would therefore likely represent the place of a secret, esoteric initiation, ... [1, page 33]
Getting to nitpicking, one can point out that what is inaccessible today may not have been inaccessible 10,000 years ago. This is nitpicking, though, and not a major fabrication of hers, and I could have let this pass if it weren't for my frustration with the amount of pure bullshit I have come across this far (note: at the moment of writing this, I am reading the book for the second time). When facts majorly have been fabricated or distorted to favor your thesis, when you have used spurious arguments to discredit pretty much all of academia (yet use an academic title as a credential), even minor infractions done to further your thesis are to be pointed out.

A rather true thing she points out, is of course that Christmas occurs at the winter solstice, a prominent astronomical event, around which any number of prechristian celebrations have been centered. But it is worth noting that this is a thing the Christian churches tend to be quite forthcoming about: the celebration of Jesus' birth was intentionally set at a solstice to compete with pagan religions celebrating that same date. (NB: My observation that Christian churches have been fairly forthcoming about this is my own experience, based on living in a country where even the semi-state-church Lutheranism is fairly secular. However, in support of my claim, also see how the Church of Scotland has often opposed christmas celebrations due to their pagan background, and the same can be said for Jehovah's Witnesses, who of course are a marginal Christian group. This, however, demonstrates that such admissions are made in several, quite independent parts of Christianity.)

Oftentimes, rather notable claims are made with no sources given to support them. However, claims I wouldn't doubt sometimes are backed up by ample sources:
 Another ancient authority who wrote about astrotheology was Marcus Varro, a roman soldier, praetor and writer who lived from 116 BCE to around 27-29 BCE .... Varro is considered a "man of immense learning," "one of the most erudite people of his day," the "most learned of the Romans," "Rome's greatest scholar" and "the most erudite man and the most prolific writer of his times." Writers who raved about Varro's brilliance and erudition included "Tully" or Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) and Terentian (2nd century CE). Even Christians admired his erudition. In The City of God (VI, 2), regarding the gods and sacred rites of the ancients, Christian saint Augustine asks:
"Who has investigated those things more carefully than Marcus Varro? Who has discovered them more learnedly? Who has considered them more acutely? Who has written about them more diligently and fully?"
Augustine also relates that Varro "wrote forty-one books of antiquities." Although Varro's works were burned during his lifetime, after he was outlawed by Marc Antony, a significant portion of his material was evidently extant in Augustine's day. 
Varro's voluminous efforts totaled "about 74 works in more than 600 books on a wide range of subjects ... Unfortunately, one of his most important books, Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, suspiciously has not survived. [1, p. 36]
This imbalance of sourcing statements bothers me a lot - it is as if, by providing sources for uncontroversial claims, the controversial or downright fabricated ones somehow are covered as well. I will henceforth refer to Marcus Varro whenever, in my opinion, a claim is made that requires supporting references. If half a page of text can be wasted on establishing Varro's credentials, a footnote, a page number and a name of a book is not too much to ask for regarding any number of claims that are not widely known, yet she assumes can be expected to be widely enough held claims not to require any support.

Acharya constantly tries to make the reader see sun-worship everywhere, as can be seen here:
In discussing the Europeans, the French scholar reminds the reader of Plato's assertions that the Greek gods were no different than those of the "barbarians," i.e., the heavens, the sun, moon, stars and planets. In Italy, the Sicilians consecrated three oxen to the sun, while "Sicily" itself means "island of the Sun" [1, p. 38]
Now, it turns out that "Sicily" comes from the Sicels, the name of one of the three tribes that inhabited Sicily at some point during antiquity (together with the Sicani and the Elymians). Alas, we don't know much about the language of the Sicels - it seems we have reason to think they spoke some Italic language, but this is not established for certain. We do not know the exact meaning of Sicel (or Zikeloi, as the Greeks rendered their name), but there doesn't really exist any linguistically sound reason to posit that it means anything along the lines of "sun". A claim such as the one she's making does require some kind of backing up - reference to an etymological dictionary, a paper on the meanings of names of locations, or anything really along those lines. Woodard says:
The name assigned to the language, Sicel or Siculan, is that given by Greek colonists to the native peoples of Sicily whom they there encountered in the eighth century BC.[6, p. 6]
The etymological dictionaries I've been able to access provide no further indication as to the meaning of this name (Σίκελος, zíkelos). However, sun was sóh₂wl̥.in Proto-Indo-European, and for that to turn into zikelos in some derived language would require quite unusual sound changes (although not impossible ones. Fortition is not an entirely ruled-out change. However, considering that h₂ was lost rather early in all Indo-European languages (only Hittite being attested to have retained it, a language that had been extinct for some time by the point the Greeks encountered the Sicelians), fortition thereof to /k/ is rather unlikely. Sicily's actual etymology any further than that is, alas, unknown - a fact which Acharya would have been much more honest to point out.
It is clear from ancient and modern sources alike that this celestial and nature worship dates back many thousands of years. It is a tremendous pity that this absorbing and important knowledge has been so suppressed and ignored, as not only would it have brought joyous enlightenment but it also would have alleviated and prevent much suffering, including the destruction of cultures and endless genocide worldwide, based on the religious divisiveness of the past millennia. [1, p. 38-39]
By repeated statements like the above, Acharya portrays herself as some kind of envoy of peace or whatever,. whose scholarly claims are done out of love for mankind or something. Cultural destruction has been driven just as much by economy, areligious arrogance, and competition between European powers that had a shared religion.

Omissions of facts are made everywhere:
As can be seen, mathematics too was a large part of the revered astral science. The number 360 also constitutes a sacred number, representing the days of the year in the ancient calendar, as well as the degrees of the zodiac.
"The ancient calendar"? Which one of them? There is not just one of them, there are several ancient calendars. A year length of 360 days is not universally shared by all of them.

From its evident zodiacal representation, a disk from Bulgaria called the "Karanovo Zodiac" demonstrates that such knowledge is at least 6,000 years old. The zodiac of Denderah in Egypt depicts the circle as it appeared around 10,000 years ago, although the artifact itself and the building where it was found are only about 2,000 years old. [1 p. 42]
Actual astronomers have concluded that the sky depicted on the Denderah Zodiac fits very well with the age of the building.
Why did the Egyptians go to so much trouble to create this sky map? Cauville reckons the solar eclipse must have occurred in Alexandria at around the same time that Ptolemy Auletes died. So Cleopatra had the Zodiac created to "inscribe for eternity" the moment of his death, or to be more precise, her own rise to power.
"It's a shame that so many fanciful things have been written about the zodiac," she says. "The astronomical reality is so much more beautiful." [5] 
Astronomers of the 19th century, though, lacking the modern tools we have, may have had occasional problems with it. Regarding both the Karanovo and Denderah Zodiacs, these claims are sufficiently special spheres of knowledge that sources would be expected.

Apparently relying upon the famous Babylonian epic the "Enuma Elish" Berossus engages in further astrotheological discussion beginning with a "woman named Omorka," who is Thalath in the Chaldean and Thalassa in the Greek, a word meaning "sea" and equivalent to Mare or Mary. [1, p. 45]
Why a Hebrew / Aramaic name would have such a Latin etymology is never elaborated on.
"Bel also created the stars and the sun and the moon and the five planets." The "five planets" are those known to the ancients and represented by the days of the week: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.[1, p. 45]
Here, an important thing to point out is how the Jewish week seems to have been a kind of inversion of the Babylonian week: the Sabbath is a day of joy, the corresponding Babylonian day a day of bad omens - a simple calendarical shibboleth perchance? (See, e.g. Leofranc Holford-Strevens' The History of Time, a Very Short Introduction, Chapter 5.)
Although Berossus speaks of the "disc of the sun," the historian's moon is not a flat disc but a round sphere, which indicates that ,contrary to popular belief, at least some of the ancients knew the spherical nature of the earth, moon, sun and other planets - facts, then, not "discovered" but rediscovered in the West during the Christian era.[1, p. 46]
The myth that medieval European scholars believed the Earth to be flat is a classic canard. I will not even provide "proper" sources for this one, but rather give you a few links to go by:
Reviews, naturally, are just reviews. The book reviewed by Tim O'Neill is well worth reading.

It is well known that the ancient Greeks not only knew the Earth was round, but also calculated its size surprisingly well. Enough ancient literature regarding this remains that we even know some of the methods by which a good approximate value for the circumference of the Earth was calculated. Appendix I, "On the Measurement of the Earth" in Duane W. Roller's commented translation of Eratosthenes' Geography provides an overview. Trigonometry is the main tool he uses, but he also uses an average of the travel time for camel caravans between two cities in order to obtain the distance.
As can be seen, the world's cultures have for millennia revolved in large part around the astrotheological interpretation of the cosmos. Astrotheology has been the principal religious concept globally since the dawn of human history. As will be further demonstrated, it continues to be the basis of the world's reigning popular religions.[1, p. 53]
This assumes some kind of fallacy along the lines of  the Ship of Theseus. Is a religion still astrotheological if its astrotheological bits are no longer understood that way? Is it astrotheological if the bits have been replaced by non-astrotheological bits? Even then, the assumption that all the bits are astrotheological has not been solidly shown, no matter Acharya's claims to the contrary.

Regarding euhemerism, she writes
As abundantly shown, many ancient authors correctly identified astrological and natural entities and forces. Obviously, these perceptions are confused and contradictory. The knowledge that the gods were in reality the sun, moon, stars, earth and natural forces thus became hidden under long, rambling and irrational screeds, making this fact a secret or mystery. ... [1, p. 54] 
Yes, let us not even check whether these sources are confused or contradictory - let us just assert it!

A fair number of accurate statements do occur throughout the chapter - but these can be found in any non-partisan book on church history or history in general that is well-researched. Why one would read a source that adds fabrication, quote-mining and distortion to that is beyond my understanding.

[1] Acharya S, Suns of God, Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled, 2004.[2] Katzner, Kenneth, The Languages of the World, 2002. [3]
[6] Woodard, Roger D., The Ancient Languages of Europe, 2008.


  1. Miekko, I've read your critique of Suns of God, and found it extremely thin. You adopt a patronising tone, and fail to respect that Suns of God is arguing a case for the systematic evolution of supernatural myth out of natural observation. I checked a few of your assertions, which you throw off with such condescension as supposedly putting Acharya beneath contempt. What a surprise, your claims turn out to be empty. states "Early Human Settlement of Near Oceania
    The oldest known occupation sites are radiocarbon dated to ca. 36,000 years ago (the late Pleistocene), on the large island of New Guinea and in the adjacent Bismarck Archipelago [and] ... would have required open ocean transport, suggesting the presence of some form of watercraft." Now you may say Acharya was talking about Polynesia, but this quote on the settlement of New Britain and Bougainville can reasonably be considered the beginning of the long Pacific voyages. states "the Island of the Sun was Sicily... [a view] taken as standard in the 1959 Atlas of the Classical World." Again, this is contestable, but you make it sound like Acharya plucked it from thin air.

    When you put out such easily corrected howlers, even though admittedly the detail is contestable, you destroy your credibility.

    Your conclusion of hostility to astrotheology is just ignorant. You appear to have opened with prejudicial assumptions, and the case you have constructed to support your first impressions is weak.

  2. Since she did not provide a primary source for the claim of Sicily, I could not find that source. Thanks for pointing it out to me. However, this does point out that she should be more careful about providing sources for her claims, as I've been tracing all claims in her book that I question as far as possible - in some cases to the third source in a chain of sources.

    However, your defense of the claim is a quote-mine. It says the Island of the Sun was Sicily, but not that Sicily per se "means" the island of the Sun. There is a rather important difference there.

    The early settlers of Papua New Guinea are not generally called Polynesians in literature on the matter.

    Still, there's too much contestable stuff in here to consider the book entirely credible. However, further work is happening slowly, as I do check her sources rather carefully.

  3. Agree Robert.....wholeheartedly.