Eclipse News

2017 Total Solar Eclipse: Roaming the Land of the Ancients


I usually imagine ancient peoples confronted by a total solar eclipse as going completely off their rockers, sacrificing away to appease their angry deities who just upended their world.  The tattooed priest with the gnarly ear spools and nose bones from Apocalypto usually comes to mind, holding up the heart of his sacrifice as the eclipse drives the people to madness.  Not a pleasant scene.

Hollywood fiction aside, what is known about the Mayans and many civilizations before them is these humans possessed a deep understanding of astronomical cycles and rhythms and a close relationship with the sky above.  This awareness was enshrined in monumental architecture and expressed in the beliefs that guided their day-to-day lives. 

Ancient Wisdom

Among the remains of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza stands El Caracol, a rather large structure looking much like a modern observatory.  The building’s layout and the spiral staircase under the “dome” mark celestial events and the passing of the seasons, in particular risings and settings of sun and moon at the solstices and equinoxes.  El Caracol also marks long and complex cycles in the rising and setting of Venus, an example of the sophistication of Mayan astronomy.


Chichen Itza 4.jpg
By Daniel SchwenOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The Anasazi people of the American southwest built their structures aligned with the heavens as well, more or less a thousand years ago, co-existent with the Mayans of the Yucatan further south.  The mysterious and beautiful Chaco Canyon in New Mexico was a religious center for the Anasazi, ceremonial kivas and structures of intricate design and architectural detail lining the low, sprawling canyon.  Their Great Houses marked the cardinal points of the compass and the major astronomical events of their passing year, including long, repeating cycles in the rising and setting points of the moon.  Massive buttes rise from the canyon floor and one of them, Fajada Butte, is home to the rock slabs and spiral markings of the famous Sun Dagger.  Their intricate system of roads also work into this complex schematic of human ingenuity enshrining the wheel in the sky.

And to think, they did it all without any help from those pesky aliens.


        Photograph by Crawford MacCallum, copyright The Solstice Project 1990  

Modern Progress

The steady march of science in the centuries since Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler has given us modern folk a framework and concept of our place in the universe that our forebears could not have envisioned.  Science and technology have produced instruments and insights of tremendous power.  We have The Hubble.   We have discovered a couple thousand planets orbiting other stars.  We understand and can account for the intricate motions of moons, planets, stars and galaxies.  We can predict eclipses of all types, whether they occurred under Mesopotamian skies of the third millennium BC or will occur when Kirk and Spock go where no one has gone before.

Us modern folk are not as concerned with solstices and equinoxes as those less modern, other than to know when to change our clocks (more likely, make sure GPS did it for us) and check our fire alarms.  We do not rely upon these natural cycles to know when to plant or sow, prepare for the coming winter or gather offerings for the godsWe have, in large measure, lost touch with these universal rhythms and the clues they leave behind in the sky above.  We do not rely upon them as much as we once did.

On Monday, August 21st, when you are enveloped in the moon’s shadow and gaze up at the sun and moon aligned with you, earthly concerns will melt away for a few minutes and the universe will make sense and be draped in mystery.  Perhaps we have more in common with Mr. Bone in the Nose than we thought.

And to think, all this without any sacrificin’.



Now we fumble in the darkness,                                                      Where once there was light,                                                         Roaming the land of the ancients.

Sandy Denny, “One Way Donkey Ride”, Rendezvous, 1977                                                     © CONEXION MEDIA GROUP, INC                       












Astro Flag Gallery
Visit Gallery
Birdies Gallery
Visit Gallery
HDR Gallery
Visit Gallery
Nightscapes Gallery
Visit Gallery
Astrophotos Gallery
Visit Gallery