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Native California and the Stars

All aboriginal peoples around the world have studied the skies for thousands of years, found stories with in their star patterns, and have learned to recognize, predict, and record celestial events.

In early California, the native peoples developed art, schools of learning, architecture, and tribal histories that wove the stars into their lives as much as the trees, animals, rain, and wind were a part of their life. All around the world early humankind saw the night sky as a miraculous event that was a part of their very creation… and often their home after leaving this life on earth. Their ancestors were seen to dwell in the night sky as did many of their gods, and some of their mythic heroes as well. It was a place populated by beings that were powerful, feared, and admired. It was a place important to understand, come to terms with, and if possible, gain control over.

 

Across the Americas there are stone medicine wheels, elaborate pyramids, ceremonial structures, and observatories where the earliest Americans observed, recorded, and celebrated the changes of the stars that marked the changes in the seasons of every year. In California, on Catalina Island, the Gabrielino shrines encountered by the first Spanish explorers were decorated with sand paintings of the sun and moon, demonstrating that the planets and stars were revered as part of their religious life.

One of the few dateable events among the various records of Native Americans was the 1833 appearance of the Leonid meteor shower. Historically recognized as one of the greatest meteor storms on record, it made a lasting impression among the peoples of North America. This same meteor shower takes place each year around November 17-18th.

Chumash Astronomy

The Chumash are an example of a peoples for whom study of the stars was a special mastery. The early Chumash based their entire understanding of their place in the cosmos on a dimensional astronomical map that had layers of historical reality and emphasized a relationship to the stars. Chumash rock art is being closely examined and it appears likely that there are large cave / cliff side paintings created as maps of the night sky. Chumash carved ceremonial artifacts show images of the placement of stars in the sky as part of religious observations. And the descendants of the prehistoric Chumash have shared their names for the seasons and mythologies about the stars and the supernatural beings believed to reside in the heavens with anthropologists.

 

Astronomer-priests

In the 1910s an anthropologist named John Harrington spent considerable time visiting with Chumash peoples along the California Channel. He gathered notes and made recordings of their stories, beliefs, and practices. His materials are now housed at the Smithsonian, and provide an important reference point to understanding Chumash culture as it was carried on by the elders who had survived European contact. Harrington learned that Chumash villages were governed by a council of 12 astronomer-priests who each had responsibility for specific functions in each village, and each one took on specific religious and social responsibilities one month a year in relation to their observance of 12 month divisions in the year. These astronomer-priests practiced a Chumash version of astrology (astrology meaning a study of the stars, with astro meaning star and logos meaning knowledge ). This group of specialists is called the Antap Cult.

Chumash Astrology

Dr. John Anderson, a Camp Internet Trail Guide, has been studying Chumash astronomy and astrology and has written a book that offers insights into Harrington's recordings about the Chumash interpretations of the heavens, the seasons, and the months of the year that are defined by the appearance and disappearance of heavenly bodies in the sky. We can study Dr. Anderson's research and writings, and the following concepts are interpreted from his work: The Chumash Indians were the largest native population of California, prior to Spanish occupation of its rich coastal lands. The Chumash followed an ancient astrological tradition, based on metaphysical beliefs about the reincarnating soul and its relation with the heavens (before, during, and after life). Like many European theologians, the Chumash philosophers taught that the stars and planets were souls. The brightest celestial objects were believed to be the souls of deities, and weaker lights in the night sky were souls of the previously living humans who had ascended to the heavens. This is a common view held by many prehistoric peoples around the world.

The Chumash referred to meteors as Alakiwohoch, which simply meant "shooting star". They believed a meteor was a person's soul on its way to the afterlife.

the Milky WayIn the Chumash cosmos, human souls were clustered on the Milky Way, believed to be the celestial path of the dead. Chumash theologians taught that these souls completed their celestial journey when they entered a heavenly paradise located in the western sky, and Point Conception was believed to be the gateway through which they passed to begin this journey in the afterlife. Once they reached the heavenly paradise in the western sky, the souls were thought to stay for a period of rejuvenation when they were cleansed and restored until ready to return to earth again by entering the womb a Chumash mother and once again coming to live among their people along the Channel. When a Chumash child was born an official called an Alsuglas was consulted and assigned the newborn a birth name based on the position of the sun, moon and other celestial bodies in the sky at the time of birth, and were also asked to predict the destiny of the child. The Chumash are one of many original Americans who incorporated their beliefs about the sun and stars into their daily life, into their special religious practices, and into the myths and legends they handed down from generation to generation.