Last Update: January 18, 2014
While they don't get much love from their academic peers, amateur history detectives believe the Maya and other ancient cultures were aware of an astronomical quirk known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. This 26,000-year cycle represents the time it takes for Earth to wobble completely around on its axis, causing the zodiac constellations to recede backwards in the night sky a full 360 degrees. According to a theory offered by two history of science professors in 1969, ancient civilizations used the cycle to predict periodic mass extinctions on Earth.
According to the hypothesis, the 12 zodiac constellations act like gears on a very slow-moving clock. (Actually, there were originally 13; the forgotten one is Ophiuchus). From our perspective on the ground, these star clusters -- named after animals or characters from myths -- follow the same path across the sky at night as the Sun traverses in the daytime. Astronomers call this route the ecliptic.
To be more precise, it's the Earth that's moving, not the Sun or stars. It takes 26,000 years for the projected north and south poles to trace an imaginary route, as illustrated in the yellow oval above. As a consequence, the constellations we see along the ecliptic plane (i.e. the blue oval) are said to precess, or move backwards, at a rate of one degree every 72 years.
To better grasp the concept, find a top and give it a spin. As the top slows down, gravity pulls its axis downward. This makes the top wobble like a drunken sailor, but in the opposite direction of the spinning. In Earth's case, it's the gravitational pull from the Moon and Venus that causes the wobble. Luckily, the backward movement is both measurable and predictable, and slow enough so we never feel it. If you've already noticed that the stars on the ecliptic show up a little later than expected each night, this is not the same thing.
The earth's orbit around the sun also causes a yearly migration of stars, which is something much different from precession. Astrology uses this short term cycle as the basis for its monthly assignment of signs - Aries, Pisces, Leo, etc. The longer range-based Precession of the Equinoxes is responsible for astrological ages, each of which lasts a couple thousand years. In the next century, for instance, the current Age of Pisces will transition to the Age of Aquarius. At that time, when the sun rises Aquarius will be sitting in the night sky directly behind it on the vernal (i.e spring) equinox.
Astrological ages are also assigned according to the zodiac constellation aligned with the Sun as it rises on the morning of the vernal equinox. One age lasts about 2,160 years, the equivalent of 30 degrees of precession. Thus, if you look at the sky at dawn where the Sun comes up next March 21st, you will see the constellation Pisces. This type of alignment is known as a heliacal rising.
You may recall that Jesus is often associated with the symbol of Pisces, the fish. That's because his birth more or less coincided with the beginning of that constellation's alignment on the Vernal equinox. Past ages include Taurus, the bull (4300 to 2150 BC.) and Aries, the ram (2150 B.C. to AD 1). It turns out, many of the megalithic monuments built during those time periods feature the appropriate constellation animal or character for the time period. The phenomenon underscores the universality of astrology as an anchor of human culture. (It also makes the task of dating ruins a lot easier for archaeologists.)
So what does all this have to do with mass extinctions? While such an infinitesimal creep of the stars has no real impact on the day-to-day life of our planet, the implications may be profound when it comes to longer range calculations. At least, that's what Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend argued in an obscure, but groundbreaking book Hamlet's Mill, published in 1969.The two claimed creation/destruction myths of the world's oldest cultures contain embedded codes referring to the Precession of Equinoxes.
When the first cuneiform tablets were found in Babylonia and dated to 3000 B.C., it was evident that astrology was already an age-old practice. Many past civilizations saw time as a series of cycles connected to the orbits of heavenly bodies. According to the Emerald Tablet of alchemy, the secret of the cosmos is found in the simple dictum, "As above, so below." Although we still don't know how they did it, our forbears in antiquity managed to acquire the capacity to measure the orbits, movements and alignments of planets and stars.
Just as monthly astrological signs and ages were determined by heliacal risings, so too were many ancient religious holidays. In Egypt, for example, many temples dedicated to Isis were built with their front doors aligned to the helicacal rising of Sirius, the star associated with the goddess. On one morning of great fanfare and ritual every year, the sun at dawn would cast a beam of light down the center aisle leading up to the altar.
It's generally believed that since simple astronomical observation required too many generations to note any precessional motion, that shamanism, clairvoyance and other occult arts must have accompanied the development of astrology. Equally remarkable, many ancient cultures appear to have developed a proficiency in interpreting soundwaves, energy fields and electrical currents. Such advanced pursuits may explain in part the ancients' obsession with planetary alignments. In western civilization, it was Pythagorus who tied the planets to our musical scale, the octave, based on harmonic frequencies. Johannes Kepler would later tackle the hard science underpinning the alchemy in his book Harmonices Mundi (Harmonies of the World).
Alchemy's view of harmonics in relation to the planets is a core concept of ancient science. Click here to view a larger image.
There's likewise plenty of evidence to suggest the Egyptians, Chinese, Mesomaericans and other cultures all built what might be called "oracle centers", locations thought to possess beneficial magnetic fields and acoustical properties. For example, the maps of Medieval mariners, (which often drew on much older maps) depict the Great Pyramids along what in those long-ago days was considered Earth's Prime Meridian. Today, we use terms like chakras, harmonics, longitudes and GPS to describe various aspects of this incredible expertise.
Most history books, however, don't give the ancients much credit for intelligence. Invariably, the orientation of monuments and ruins are attributed to neolithic cultures who could not otherwise anticipate the start of a rainy season, the new year, or even the right time to stockpile provisions for winter. By constructing two columns, a stairway, an arch or a shaft in a specific place, the builders made sure the Sun would line up exactly within the prescribed parameters on an equinox or solstice.
At top, the principle Stonehenge ruins. Archaeo-astronomers speculate that the multiple outer circles around the monument may have been the site of additional henges. The distances have been measured, and appear to correspond to the relative location of the planets. The photo below shows two sun "daggers" lining up with a petroglyph on the winter solstice at Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon.
In the American southwest, the massive Chaco Canyon ceremonial complex has marveled and confounded researchers for decades. In particular, several slabs of rock at Fajada Butte were placed over two petroglyphs to refract sunlight like a dagger. (See photo above.) If the superimposed light didn't line up correctly over the spiral glyphs, it might indicate that the axis of the planet had shifted, presaging a doomsday event in the works.
This intriguing, if not hair-raising interpretation of the daggers was discussed in a recent episode of the History Channel series Ancient Aliens. Built by the Pueblo Indians around 900 A.D., Chaco Canyon is thought to have been laid out with the Sun and the Moon in mind, as well as constellations like Orion (which is not on the ecliptic). No one really knows the reason why Native Americans picked such a desolate site to drop anchor, since Chaco Canyon has no water source. Pueblo legends suggests the culture was guided to the spot by "guardians of the sky".
The Mayans also used sunlight and shadow to keep tabs on the Earth's axis. At the pyramid of Kukulcan, in Chichen Itza Mexico, you'll find the shape of a snake undulating down the steps at dawn every spring and fall equinox.
Pyramid of Kulkulcan as seen in Chichen Itza on an equinox. Notice the carved stone head of the snake at ground level and the slithering body created by the sunlight.
On the Trail of An Assassin
The fact that disparate cultures spread around the globe engaged in detailed discussions of the cosmos in their myths and legends has always amounted to a huge headache for modern scholars. Few historians and folklorists have any astronomical training, making their interpretive efforts of the material tough sailing. But the authors of Hamlet's Mill did their due diligence, and found widespread evidence that precessional calculations were deliberately transmitted down through the generations by way of each culture's creation/destruction myths. The professors theorized that the ancients had deduced something we're not even aware of today — that the Precession of the Equinoxes is linked to a recurring geologic catastrophe on Earth, and can therefore be predicted.
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"Hamlet's Mill." Attributed to Dr. William Sullivan. From Secrets of the Incas.
"2012 Precession of The Equinox- from Darkness into Light." By Timothy Connolly. Shift of the Age 11/2/09.
"A Primer on the Evolution of Astronomical Calendars" by Bryan C. Bates
"A View of Hamlet's Midnight." By Mather Walker.
Windows to the Universe (University of Michigan)
Ancient Observatories (The Exploratorium)
Fingerprints of the Gods (1999) by Graham Hancock. Text available online.
Hamlet's Mill (1969) by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. Text available online.
The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt (2003) by Jane B. Sellers.
Homer's Secret Iliad (1999) by Florence and Kenneth Wood. (Based on the research of Edna Leigh.
TV Programs and DVD's
"Closer Encounters." Episode from the Ancient Aliens series (2010) by the History Channel. YouTube
The Mystery of Chaco Canyon (1999) Narrated by Robert Redford.