Thursday, February 28, 2013

3 - How the Chumash turned the wayward sun around

Santa Ynez Chumash man
circa 1878
Part 3: Preparing for the Winter Solstice
For the ancient Chumash tribe of Southern California (refer to part 1 and part 2), the progressive movement south of the sun was a bad omen.  It meant shorter days and colder weather.  It meant that the whole community had to band together under the leadership of the Alchuklash, their powerful, omniscient astronomer/priests, to encourage the sun to turn around before there were no more days, only night.

They believed that all things are interconnected and that any action in the heavens affected the earth and humans and actions by humans affected the forces around them.   I am reminded of the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory that stated that if a butterfly flaps his wings in South America, it can affect the weather in Texas -- the idea that small things can influence seemingly unrelated things because of the close connection of all things.  The Chumash and many other cultures then and now believe that if you understand these interactions you can manipulate them to your benefit or, conversely, unwittingly bring about great catastrophes by not heeding or understanding the effects of your actions.

Queen Butterfly of South America

In the fall, the month the Chumash called “Hutash”, the Alchuklash began their preparations for the winter solstice.  They tracked the sun’s progress and kept count of the days so they knew how many days after the autumn equinox they had until the winter solstice.  They would come before the people and announce their prediction and order the preparation of the necessary ritual items needed.  Year after year, their rituals had worked and influenced the sun to come back to them and they dared not alter their actions or, perhaps, the sun wouldn’t turn around.  It was certainly too important to leave to chance.

“Hutash” is a complex word with many meanings but all relate to the “place where you are”.  Hutash is the name of “Mother Earth” who planted the seeds that man sprouted from.  It refers to the “axis of the earth” or the sphere where man resides.   Hutash is the name of the evening star which ushers in the month of Hutash.  It was also refered to as the mirror of the sun and the sun as the mirror of Hutash.

As part of the preparations for the winter solstice in the month of Hutash, the Alchuklash and his 12 helpers brought out a small 18” stick with a round, painted rock affixed to one end.  These “sunsticks” represented the axis of the earth, Hutash, and were an important part of the solstice ceremony.  The rock was tilted at an angle so the the sun would shine directly on the top of the rock.

Here, quoting from "Living the Sky" is an account of the Hutash ceremony, "... the group [Alchuklash and 12 assistants] assembled in mid-morning.  To start the ceremony the old men (antap) brought out several mysterious articles, among which was a whale vertabrae painted with an image of the sun.  Each ray of the sun painting represented one of the twelve months of the year.  After the persons attending placed offerings in several baskets that had been put there for the purpose, one of the old men, who had been sitting on the west side of the room facing east, began to sing three songs of gratitude to the sun as they all waited for the sun to rise symbolically.  A young boy then took the painted sun, which had been lying horizontally on the floor, raised it up with a stick, and held it vertically for all to see.  the sun had risen.  Each woman with a babe still suckling brought him in and held him up to the sun paintings.  Then the leader warned them all to respect Sun and lectured them to follow the proper path and to avoid the dangers to life and property that exist at this time of year.  'None of us in the assembly control our destiny, for we live in the shadow of the sun.'"

Following this ceremony, the Alchuklash priest took on his role as Sun Priest and his assistants became the rays of the sun.  They prepared the people for the coming winter solstice and prepared for the ceremony that would entice the sun to stop moving south and start its movement northward again.

Link to Part 1

-- Courtney Miller

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2 - How the Chumash turned the wayward sun around

Part 2: The Alchuklash

The ancient Chumash Indians of Southern California (see Part 1), relied on their astronomer/priests to guide them in their daily lives and to protect the harmony of their world.  Each village had an astronomer/priest called the “Alchuklash” who possessed the ability to read the sky and make predictions; exert influence over the forces of nature through their connections with the heavens; resolve or preserve the peace among the villages; heal the sick; control the weather; and on and on.  For instance, at birth the Alchuklash would be on hand to name the child based upon the stars.  He had the power to bring rain or turn away storms.  The Alchuklash did this through his knowledge of the stars, sun, and moon similar to the way astrology is used to tell our fortune today.  Their ability and responsibilities gave them great power in their communities.

As Ray A. Williamson put it in his book “Living the Sky”, “The Alchuklash conducted their lives and made their observations of the skies under the basic assumption that the world of humans and everything else in the world were inextricably bound together.  The appropriate human actions could influence the workings of the rest of the cosmos, and vice versa.”

The greatest force in the sky was the sun.  The Chumash name for the sun meant “radiance of a child born on the winter solstice”.  From “Living the Sky, “The sun lived in the Upper World with his two daughters in a house made of quartz crystal.  His wives were the morning and evening stars.  In his daily travels across the sky, he not only carred the sun torch to light the world but also preyed on humans below.  His only clothing was a feather band around his head, into which he would stuff an occasional Chumash child as he traveled.  …  After reaching his house again at sunset, Sun would dine on the humans he chanced to gather up during the day.

“… Sun was a powerful being who brought life in the form of heat and light but could also bring death – presumably to those who deserved it, for he served as a moral symbol as well. ‘Never do anything that is prejudicial or unlawful and think that no one will see you,’ said the Chumash, ‘For while the sun is shining, an eye is here … .’”

The winter solstice was a time of great foreboding for the Chumash as it was for most ancient cultures.  The autumn equinox was a day of perfect balance – the day and the night were of equal length.  But each day after that, night became more dominant and days grew shorter.  Each day the sun traveled further and further south and left in its wake colder and more dreary weather.  Every year the Chumash relied on the Alchuklash to do something to stop the sun from leaving them for good.  They depended upon their astronomer/priests to stop the sun, turn him around and encourage him to start his travels northward again.

In the next segment of “How the Chumash turned the wayward sun around”, we will look at how the Alchuklash prepared for the winter solstice so that they could influence to the sun to turn around.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

1 - How the Chumash turned the wayward sun around

Part 1: The Chumash People of Southern California

From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.  – Chumash saying
For thousands of years the Chumash Indians lived in southern California between present day Malibu and Paso Robles.  At times, the population of the Chumash reached over 15,000 with over 150 independent villages.  Technically, they would be classified as “hunter-gatherer”, but because game and plant-life was plentiful and they had the Pacific Ocean in their back yard, they were sedentary – that is, they didn’t have to move around to find food.
Chumash rock art
at Painted Cave

The Chumash were noted for their fine, highly decorated baskets, wooden plates and bowls, their masterfully constructed wood plank boats, small tools, articles of adornment, ropes, twine, nets,  and their especially well-developed rock paintings.  They painted their rock art almost exclusively on the interior walls of caves or rock shelters so they are well-preserved relatively speaking.  But, perhaps what makes their rock art so impressive is the degree of color and detail.  The site we call “Painted Cave” today contains some excellent examples and when I first saw them, I thought I was looking at a beautiful quilt. 
Chumash rock art
at Painted Cave

The Chumash traded extensively with their neighbors and often used decorative shells almost like we use money today.  As with many of the established, sedentary cultures of the time, the Chumash had a well-developed government and religion.  Like the Cherokee of the east, they were a matriarchal society so that lineage was determined by the mother’s family and chiefs were as likely to be women as men.
Painted Cave from above

Since they were not farmers, they had no need for calendars to tell them when to plant or when to harvest, however, they did develop an elaborate calendar based upon the sun, moon and stars.  As Ray A. Williamson states in his book “Living the Sky”, “… it functioned to support the Chumash desire to understand, predict, manipulate, and control the forces that determined their ‘supernatural’ environment.”

Unfortunately, the mechanics of their calendar is not well-understood today.  The Franciscan priests tried to suppress the “pagan” beliefs and rituals of the Chumash and early researchers often failed to ask the right questions.  But dedicated anthropologists like Travis Hudson and his colleagues and J. P. Harrington of the Bureau of American Ethnology have since managed to piece together a rudimentary concept of their astronomy.

Again quoting from “Living the Sky”, “According to Chumash stories, each night celestial teams led by Sun and by Sky Coyote played a gambling game called peon.  On the night before winter solstice, the winners of each game for the year were tallied to see which team won most often.  Moon keeps score.  Moon’s count is the number of days before or after new moon to the winter solstice.  The consequences of Sky Coyote’s victory would be a rainy year and an abundance of food for humans.  If Sun and his team won the yearly tally, food would be scarce and human lives would be lost.”

Peon is still a popular game among tribes in Southern California.  In the game, there are two teams of two or more players.  Each player hides a short, white bone in one hand and a short, black bone in the other and then the player brings around his hands and crosses his arms.  The opposing team elects a “killer” who tries to determine which hand holds the white bone.  The killer nods right or left to signify which hand he has chosen.  If he is correct, the umpire gives him a “counter” stick.  The teams take turns until one team wins all of the counter sticks (usually around 15).

Next segment will explain how the Chumash astronomer/priests were able to change their fate.

-- Courtney Miller

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Sangre de Cristo Solar Calendar

My house sits on a round hill in the foothills of the Wet Mountains.   This hill is the last vestige of the Wet Mountains and looks out over the Wet Mountain valley.  Across the long, narrow valley, the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise up with many peaks topping 14,000 feet.  The Sangre de Cristo is the longest, continuous mountain range in the Rocky Mountains and stretches from the Arkansas River to the north down to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the south.
Summer Solstice
Equinox sets between 2nd and 3rd peak from left

If I had lived on this spot 1,000 years ago, The Wet Mountains to my east and Sangre de Cristos to the west would have provided me the most perfect solar calendar to track my days, months, and seasons.  All I would have to do is note where the sun rises and where it sets each day for a year and then I would be able to predict the longest day of the year (first day of summer), the shortest day of the year (first day of winter) and the day when night and day are equal (first day of spring and first day of autumn).  Why would I care?  Because planting at the right time is critical.  Knowing when winter is coming is critical. 
Sunset the day before my father's birthday

Every year for Christmas, my sister creates a calendar for me on her computer that notes everyone’s birthday and the holidays.  That calendar sits on my desk and I use it to remember birthdays, plan vacations, observe the holidays, etc.  What would I do without my calendar?  Well, 1,000 years ago, the rising and setting sun would have been my calendar.   Over time, I would come to know that when the sun sets between Crestone Needles and Crestone Peak, it is September 20th, the vernal equinox, the beginning of Autumn.   And when the sun sets in the saddle of Marble Mountain, I had better send my sister a birthday card!
Winter Solstice
Equinox would set on mountain above the "6"

I would know that as the sun continuously set further and further south, the days would grow shorter and shorter and it would get progressively colder.  My greatest fear might be that it would never stop traveling south and one day there would be no more days, just night!  So, around December 20th when the sun sets in the same spot for several days in a row and then starts travelling back to the north, that would be a most significant time and I would want to celebrate – Christmas maybe?

Today, I can take a picture of the sunset and my digital camera will imprint the date down in the bottom right corner of the picture.  Then next year, when the sun sets there again, I can take out my picture and say, “Today is ________”!  The picture to the right is sunrise near the Equinox, note how the shadow points to the spot where the sun will set that evening. 

Well, pre-historic Native Americans (all ancient cultures, for that matter) didn’t have digital cameras so they had to come up with their own methods for remembering the days and following their calendars.  The Plains Indians, for instance, created medicine wheels (see below) that enabled them to line up the sun in alignment with stones they had placed the year(s) before.  The Anasazi built great stone buildings with significant alignments.  At Casa Rincanada, a giant Anasazi kiva, on the equinox, the sun would shine through a small window on the east side of the kiva and light up a small, square cache in the west wall.  At Stonehenge, on the summer solstice, the sun would shine through two pillars and illuminate an alter in the center of the circle of stones.

For as long as man has had the intelligence to watch the sun and stars, he has used this information to help him plan his days.  And, as we know, man is a most creative and imaginative being.  I think this is why I enjoy “Archaeoastronomy”, the study of how the ancients used astronomy, so much and why so many articles in Native American Antiquity are devoted to this subject.  

Well, gotta go, the sun is about to rise and I need to run grab a picture of it!
 -- Courtney Miller