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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.