Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings by E.C.Krupp

Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings by E.C.Krupp

I was sur­prised to find I haven’t already put up a page say­ing how good this book is, so I’ll cor­rect that now. This is one of the best books you can get on archae­oastro­nomy, and it’s also one of the more affordable.

One of the big attrac­tions of the book is that not only does he answer the ‘how’ ques­tion but also the ‘why’. The book starts with a dis­cus­sion of the centre of the world which, depend­ing on your myth­o­logy, can be found at Delphi, Beijing, Chaco Canyon or sev­eral other places he men­tions. The point he makes is that if the uni­verse revolves around you, then you must be a spe­cial kind of per­son. The rest of the book is an explor­a­tion of how people con­nec­ted them­selves to the stars.

The meth­ods aren’t simply by align­ing stones. Krupp is one of those people with a very wide geo­graph­ical grasp of his sub­ject which means he can draw on eth­no­graph­ies from around the world. Along with the usual sus­pects in any pop­u­lar archae­oastro­nomy book, you also get Mongolians, San bush­men and Chumash sham­ans. He shows that while the meth­ods might vary around the world, there was a uni­ver­sal con­cern in hav­ing the heav­ens on your side. This isn’t simply about time­keep­ing or mys­tic har­mony. This is also about the dis­play of power.

Silver Four Ladies of Hollywood Gazebo.
Photo (cc) Floyd B. Bariscale.

The book opens with the chapter on The Center of the World, and pulls from a diverse pool of examples includ­ing Hopi set­tle­ment, Evenki drums and a gazebo on the Holloywood Walk of Fame to illus­trate the concept of world quar­ter­ing. This tends to be the divi­sion of the world into the car­dinal dir­ec­tions in the Old World, and pos­sibly the quar­ter­ing of the sky between sol­sti­cial sunrise/sunset pos­i­tions, or the path of the Milky Way in the New World. Krupp uses this as an intro­duc­tion that order was seen as being inher­ent in the cos­mos, rather than some­thing imposed on it. In fact the word cos­mos ori­gin­ally meant order, rather than universe.

Chapter two is about Plugging into Cosmic Power and the meth­ods of doing that. Celestial con­cerns are accessed via sham­anic ritual, pos­sibly with some chem­ical assist­ance. The aim may be to reach to the stars, but Krupp keeps an eye on the fact that these prac­tices were earth-bound. The Centers of Creation and Mother Earth chapters look at birth, cre­ation and renewal, with Agents of Renewal giv­ing more details on how people dropped the hint to the uni­verse that fer­til­ity was a good idea.

The chapters on Shamans, Chiefs and Sacred Kings and Celestial Empires talk more about the con­sol­id­a­tion of power with Enlightened Self-Interest and Ulterior Motives examin­ing how that could be sub­ver­ted. Of course there’s no point in hav­ing power if you don’t let people know you have it, which is the topic of It Pays to Advertise. All of this then gets pulled together in the con­clud­ing chapter Upward Mobility, which draws the threads of the argu­ments con­nect­ing astro­nomy and power together.

If you’ve read his Rambling Through the Skies column which used to be in Sky and Telescope, then you’ll know Krupp has a neat turn of phrase and an eye for an arrest­ing ana­logy. As an example in It Pays to Advertise, he com­pares the astro­nom­ical imagery found on sham­anic cloth­ing with the icons found on super­hero cos­tumes. Just as Batman, Spiderman and Green Lantern show the sources of their power, so too ancient peoples used sym­bols related to the sky to emphas­ise their abilities.

If there is a cri­ti­cism to be made of the book it’s that Krupp picks up and drops examples within a page or two, so the reader is whisked from one corner of the world to another and bat­ted between cen­tur­ies. It’s all con­nec­ted with the point Krupp is try­ing to make but it can be dizzy­ing on occa­sion. Possibly fewer and more rooted examples would have helped. This wouldn’t have affected the impres­sion of uni­ver­sal­ity of astro­nom­ical sym­bol­ism and power which he argues for.

That is a rel­at­ively minor cri­ti­cism, and the main reason for mak­ing it is just to demon­strate I have read book. It is a great tour of the archae­ology and anthro­po­logy of astro­nomy. It was afford­able when I bought it and, if you pick it up from the right shop, it’s even more so now. If you’re look­ing for more than a super­fi­cial intro­duc­tion to the diversity of archae­oastro­nom­ical evid­ence then it’s a great place to start.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. June 5, 2009

    […] week I put up a review of Ed Krupp’s Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings, which was a book about archae­oastro­nomy around the world. Next week or the week after, I hope, […]