Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Nightly Game of Celestial Proportions: The Winter Solstice and the Chumash

My research paper for my Ancient Astronomies class was all about the Astronomy of the Chumash Indians of southern California.  I had originally planned on sharing each section of the paper in order here on the blog, but since today is the winter solstice, I thought I would skip ahead a few posts and share a bit about the Chumash in regards to the solstice a little early.  Don't worry, we will come back and revisit it later once we talk more about the Chumash, but for now, here is the excerpt from my paper, slightly edited to make it easier to understand with our current level of knowledge.

One thing that was very important for the Chumash was a nightly game played by several of the celestial beings that were very important to them. The game was called peon, and when played by the two celestial teams, it was a high-stakes game indeed, as the game was thought to affect the “future of the entire biotic world.” One team consisted of Sun and Slo’w (Golden Eagle, Venus as the Evening Star), while the other team consisted of Sky Coyote and Morning Star (Venus when it rises before the Sun), and Moon was the scorekeeper. The teams played each night, and on the night of the Winter Solstice, the scores were tallied to see who won the most. If Sky Coyote and Morning Star won, then the following year the earth would be bathed in rain by the Two Thunders (associated with Venus as the Morning Star), and there would be an abundance of food. However, if Sun and Slo’w won, then the “spoils would be human lives.”

The Winter Solstice was not a fun day for the Chumash. This was the time of year that they believed “Sun was especially angry at them.” Although it does not explicitly say in the text, it seems as if humans would have reason to fear regardless of whether Sun won or lost the peon game. If Sun won, then human lives were forfeit; if Sun lost, then he would probably be fairly unhappy, and might take out his anger upon humans. 

The Winter Solstice was also thought to be a time when the supernatural powers inherent within humans was needed “to aid in the cosmic rebirth of the universe.” The shaman-priests of the Chumash would do their best to make sure that “order and balance” was restored to the universe, and life “for all things” was maintained. Requests and pleas from both commoners and the elite, as well as public and private rituals, were employed to “'pull’ the sun back again on a northward course."

My paper was several pages longer than the maximum requirement, and I had already made the print really small, so I didn't get a chance to go into a little more detail regarding the last line above, where the Chumash would "pull the sun back again on a northward course."  My astronomy professor, John Stocke, described how the Chumash would point ceremonial poles that were perfectly straight right at the sun, so that the shadow left on the ground was a perfect circle, as small as it could be.  Then, the individuals holding the poles would "pull" as hard as they could, trying to pull the sun back up in the sky.  

Happy Winter Solstice everybody, and let us hope that the Sun does not win!

Works Cited

Blackburn, Thomas. "December's Child: A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives." The Journal of California Anthropology. (1975). (accessed December 4, 2013).

Hadingham, Evan. Early Man and the Cosmos. Norman, Oklahoma, United States: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Hudson, Travis, and Ernest Underhay. Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology, and Rock Art. Ballena Press, 1978.

McGinnis, Michael Vincent. "Tribal Marine Protected Areas: Protecting Maritime Ways and Cultural Practices." . (accessed December 7, 2013).

Miller, Dorcas S. Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations. Boulder, Colorado, United States: Pruett Publishing Company, 1997.

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