Bringing the Sky Down to Earth

Anthony Aveni explains how the people planning great monuments and cities, many millennia and thousands of miles apart, so often sought the same inspiration – alignments with the heavens.

The Pyramid of the Sun and the Street of the Dead at TeotihuacanStonehenge, Teotihuacan, Beijing, Washington DC: far-flung places spanning 5,000 years of history but, with many others across the world, sharing a common origin. Their placement, their arrangement, their very existence, was mandated in the cosmos.

People who live in close contact with nature commonly believe that the gods are our ancestors. Creation stories often suggest that, having made the world fit for people, the gods retreated to heaven where they live, regulating the climate cycle, moving the sun, moon, planets and stars in their orbits. They can give us indications about the future, so we look to them for answers to life’s questions, and make sacrifices to them to pay our debts. The gods speak through omens that can be interpreted by those appointed to watch the sky. The channel of communication is the temple.

For hunter-gatherers, sun-watching shrines can be modest: lodges, grottoes, hilltops, bends in rivers, wells or special places by the sea, whatever offers awe-inspiring access to the sky. As people band together to form semi-sedentary societies, they have time to construct more elaborate temples. They might build altars in a sacred cave whence their ancestors came, or on a sacred rock; or construct a house of the sun, perhaps a pyramid, next to the sacred mountain that gives access to their gods. As permanent habitation results in growing social specialization, the conduct of ritual is delegated to a priestly class. The place of worship becomes still more elaborate, to serve a multitude of needs. Clans meet in the inner sanctum to bond, not just by worshipping the same gods in the same manner, but also by sharing food and trading goods. An excellent example of such a place can be found in southern Britain

It is mid-winter’s night on Salisbury Plain, 4,500 years ago. People have come from miles around to celebrate the ones in heaven who have sustained them, the gods of nature – the sun, and the moon.

The rites begin when the full moon rises along the main accessway of the monument we call Stonehenge (‘hanging stones’ or ‘stones on edge’); the people know precisely when it will appear in the 5m (16ft) high stone gateway 100m (320ft) northeast of the circle. They are aware that the midwinter full moon (the one nearest the solstice) will rise opposite the setting sun, providing ample light for a night-long ceremony to honour the celestial deities come to earth.

Today only the right-hand standing stone of the 4,500-year-old gate, the Heelstone, remains, but the midwinter moon still keeps its ancient appointment. In the opposite season of the year, on midsummer’s day, the sun rises over the heelstone, marking its other extreme or standstill point on the horizon.

The earliest stage of Stonehenge (before the stones themselves were erected) dates to approximately 2950 bc, probably erected by several extended families each consisting of fifty to a hundred people. Although their descendants mismanaged their environment, denuding the landscape of trees, the sun- and moon-watching tradition would continue here for over 1,500 years. Over that time Stonehenge would be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. First came the ditch-and-bank structure containing fifty-six ‘Aubrey’ holes, likely timber settings later used as offertory pits, and the solstice gateway. The earliest structures were probably of wood. At that time Stonehenge may have been a simple place of assembly, with a built-in solar clock telling people the best time to gather.

By 2500 BC, the population tended towards pastoralism and intensive farming. These cultures, which erected the huge trilithons that marked the lunar and the solar standstill positions at the horizon, must have been highly stratified, with specialized groups each assigned their own role in the project.

Of all the aspects of Stonehenge, the astronomical tradition captivates the most interest today. How could people have set up precise seasonal markers without instruments and advanced technology? Watching and marking the moving sun and moon with the degree of detail implied in the alignments at Stonehenge would have constituted a full-time job. The orientations could not have been laid out without a lifetime or more of observation and staking. These early astronomers were engineers of a sort who must have spent much time laying out the alignments, correcting, updating and improving their precision. Whoever conceived this way of monumentalizing certain aspects of their society can be compared to the architects of the pyramids of Egypt or of the cathedrals of medieval Europe.

Stonehenge should be thought of as a setting for a social gathering, for religious assembly, a cultic centre, an economic centre, perhaps a place of fortified habitations, a celestial temple, an observatory – but above all as a theatre designed to dazzle those who entered its inner sanctum. It encapsulated a multitude of functions in the single monument, all grounded in the template of the sky.

According to Spanish chroniclers in the sixteenth century, the ruling Aztecs of Mexico City believed that Teotihuacan, the city some 40 kilometres to the northeast, built a few centuries before the time of Christ and already abandoned for several centuries, was the birthplace of the gods:

Offerings were made at a place named Teotihuacan. And there all the people raised pyramids for the sun and the moon; then they made many small pyramids where offerings were made. And there leaders were elected, wherefore it is called Teotihuacan [city of the gods]. And when the rulers died, they buried them there. Then they built a pyramid over them. The pyramids now stand like small mountains, though made by hand. There is a hollow where they removed the stone to build the pyramids. And they built the pyramids of the sun and the moon very large, just like mountains. It is unbelievable when it is said they are made by hands, but giants still lived there then. (Sahagun, 1585)

Teotihuacan was a great city whose grid structure was carefully planned; it was intended to be as much a holy place as a centre of civic activity. Seen from above, the rectilinear plan appears defiantly stamped upon the environment. The city is twisted out of line with the lay of the land: the river that runs through it was canalized to conform to the skewed grid. A northern extension of Teotihuacan’s main axis, the Street of the Dead as the Aztecs would name it, leads to the base of the great mountain on the north, Cerro Gordo. The ‘street’ is really a series of gradually elevated platforms that terminates in the Plaza of the Pyramid of the Moon. At the midway point, and on the east side of the Street of the Dead, lies Teotihuacan’s largest structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, its summit positioned due south of its lunar counterpart and in line with the distant mountain, Cerro Patlachique. From its adosada or frontal platform, the east-west street (less obvious in the plan) defines a perpendicular axis to the grid that envelops the ethnic barrios that make up the perimeter of the 8 sq km (3 sq mile) urban zone. The compound of the Citadel is positioned further south and also on the eastern side of the Street of the Dead, its recessed ‘negative’ space seeming to balance the protruding Pyramid of the Sun. Within that compound lies the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, with its splendidly decorated façade.

The builders of Teotihuacan began laying out what would become one of the Americas’ first great cities more than 2,000 years ago. It would come to house more than 100,000 permanent residents. Like Stonehenge, its plan and arrangement were mandated in heaven. In the stucco floor of a building located on the Street of the Dead, just south of the Pyramid of the Sun, lies a clue to the course taken by Teotihuacan’s planners – a petroglyph in the shape of a double circle centred on a cross. This design closely matches another carved on a rock outcrop 3km to the west. In the 1960s archaeologists discovered that a line between this pair of architect’s benchmarks lies almost exactly parallel to the east-west street of the ancient capital. A third marker high on a mountain to the north overlooking the city, along with a fourth on the south, may have marked out other significant geographic directions.

Someone standing over the petroglyph 2,000 years ago and looking out along the east-west axis of Teotihuacan toward the marker on the west at the correct time of year would have seen the Pleiades setting over the mountains. Why align a city with the Pleiades? First because they passed directly overhead in the latitude of Teotihuacan, thus signalling the important fifth cardinal direction. And second, the reappearance of this star-group in the east, after having been lost in the light of the glaring sun for forty days, happened on the very day the sun also passed the zenith.

Here was a visible, convenient mechanism to signal the start of the year. Tying the sun to the stars was different from commencing the calendar at one of the solstices, which mark the sun’s most northerly or southerly passage. The Pleiades, being both prominent and in the right place at the right time, would have been the ideal asterism for the daykeepers who advised the rulers of Teotihuacan, and this determined the orientation of the whole city. But the orientation of Teotihuacan may have been a natural choice because of another curious coincidence. The intervals of time marked out by its axis were ideally tuned to the base-20 body-count (fingers-and-toes) which was in widespread use throughout Mesoamerica. By accident of its location, forty days, or twice the body count, separate sunrise along Teotichuacan’s axis and sunrise on the day of solar zenith passage. Who put this heavenly ordained plan into action, when, and why? What sequence of events led to the arrangement of an entire city according to heavenly dictates?

Great significance would no doubt have been attached to nature’s signals at the moment of initiation of the earth’s cycle of fertility. In the vicinity of the Valley of Mexico the first thunder is heard in the time leading up to the first overhead passage of the sun. Even today, around  May 1st dark clouds gather in the east over Mt Tlaloc, home of the Aztec rain-god. They built a shrine at its summit where they offered human sacrifice in the form of young children, whose tears were thought to bring rain. The appearance of the dark clouds heralded the coming of the green-wet season to replace the brown-dry season. In symbolic terms, the vertical rays of the tropical sun coincide with the start of the vertical descent of nurturing water.

Early settlers at Teotihuacan may have tried to demonstrate the relationship between their city and the gods although evidence of early shrines has long been erased. However, recent excavations of the Pyramid of the Moon show that the 15°28’ east-of-north orientation of the east-west axis of the grid was established in stone as early as the third century bc. Teotihuacan skywatchers discovered how to set the urban backdrop for their seasonal rituals in harmony with the workings of the cosmos. They chose the obvious indicators in the sky over their city to signal the time to initiate the planting season. The Pleiades, the setting sun and the body count all conspired to convey the message to the people that Teotihuacan’s grandeur was ordained in the heavens.

Teotihuacan’s rituals probably invoked the pan-Mesoamerican origin myth of multiple creations, the most recent of which resulted from the sacrifice of the gods to start the sun in motion. A sacrifice performed before the community of the faithful became a re-enactment of what had happened at the time of creation. At that time all lay in darkness, so said the Aztec priests, until the bravest of the deities made the supreme sacrifice, throwing himself into the flames of the pre-dawn fire that would become the sun. Thus the mandate: ‘let us die so that the sun may be revived’ was passed on to the Aztecs, inheritors of Teotihuacan’s tradition of human sacrifice.

The Teotihuacan grid plan was copied all over Mesoamerica long after the city’s sudden and inexplicable fall in the sixth century ad. Cities such as Tenayuca in the valley of Mexico and far-away Copan (in Honduras) even have their high mountain on the north, just like Teotihuacan. Dozens of petroglyphs resembling the Teotihuacan pecked circles have been discovered at sites from the far north of Mexico (one located precisely on the Tropic of Cancer) to the remote Maya ruins in the southerly Guatemalan rainforest. Images of war and sacrifice are seen on buildings at many of these sites. The Maya habit of conducting wars and raids based on the favourable positions of celestial bodies, especially Venus, probably originated in the city of Teotihuacan. The Aztec reverence for Teotihuacan, home of the gods and the place where time was born, is as justified as our gratitude to Rome and Athens for the gift of the Classical tradition that shapes our Western identity.

Deserted sites such as Stonehenge and Teotihuacan can inform us only via archaeological evidence. The lack of a written historical record prohibits our understanding of the details behind the motives for cosmic alignment. However, cities with long written histories – like Beijing – provide us with some unanticipated connections.

The written legacy helps us understand the reasons behind the desire to orientate one's capital to the stars. A strong bond existed between astrology and good government: a mandate from heaven underlay all Chinese dynastic ideology.

Chinese society has always been bureaucratically organized. Family histories contain lengthy chapters on astronomy, with data such as where and when celestial objects appeared or disappeared, their colour, brightness, direction of motion and their gathering together in one place. These histories also suggest implications that such data might have on family affairs: thus one Chinese historian and court astrologer explains that when planets gather, either there is great fortune or there is great calamity. He knows this because when they gathered in Roon (Scorpio), the Zhou dynasty flourished, but when they gathered in Winnowing Basket (Sagittarius), Qi became the emperor.

The Chinese called their constellations the ‘heavenly minions’. But when they looked among them in the north they saw not a pair of wheeling bears flanked by a dragon as we do, but rather a celestial empire. Which constellations did they recognize and what do the Chinese stars tell us about their ideas concerning rulership and the orientation of the city? Confucius compared the emperor’s rule with Polaris, the north star: just as the emperor was the axis of the earthly state, so his celestial pivot was the polar constellation. The economy revolved around the fixed emperor the way the stars turn about the immoveable pole. According to one legend, the Divine King was born out of the light radiated upon his mother by the Pole Star. Four of the seven stars in what we know as the Little Dipper, plus two others, constituted the Kou Chen or ‘Angular Arranger’ of the Chin Shu dynasty. These stars made up the great ‘Purple Palace’ and each of their celestial functionaries had its terrestrial social counterpart. One member of the group was the crown prince who governed the moon while another, the great emperor, ruled the sun. A third, son of the imperial concubine, governed the five planets, while a fourth was the empress, and a fifth the heavenly palace itself. When the emperor’s star lost its brightness, his earthly counterpart would sacrifice his authority, while the crown prince would become anxious when his star appeared dim, especially when it lay to the right of the emperor.

The four surrounding stars of the palace proper are Pei Chi, the ‘Four Supporters’. On Chinese star maps they appear well situated to perform their task, which is to issue orders to the rest of the state. The ‘Golden Canopy’ is made up of seven stars, most of them corresponding to the pole-centred stars of our constellation Draco. It covered the palatial inhabitants and emissaries. Beyond them lay the stars of the Northern Dipper. More concerned with realizing celestial principles in the earthly realm, these ‘Seven Regulators’ are aptly situated to possess the manoeuvrability to come down close to Earth so that they can inspect the four quarters of the empire. According to one version, the Big Dipper is the carriage of the great theocrat who periodically wheels around the central palace to review conditions. Its stars are the source of Yin and Yang, the two-fold way of knowing what resolves the tension between opposing polarities: male and female, light and dark, active and passive. Yin and Yang wax and wane with cosmic time and make up the potentiality of the human condition. For every affair of state the starry winds of good and bad fortune blow across the sky.

Why this royal fixation with the stars of the north? Like the power invested in royalty, they were eternally visible, never obscured by the horizon. Indeed in temperate latitudes the stars that turn about the pole are raised quite high in the sky. The fixity of the polar axis is a cosmic metaphor for the constant power of the state.

Given the close parallel between the events surrounding the palace economy and the celestial arrangement, it seems logical to enquire whether Chinese royal architecture, like that of Stonehenge and Teotihuacan, is also situated in perfect harmony with the land- and skyscape.

To harmonize the arrangement of the royal capital with the local contours of cosmic energy, the king would call in a geomancer to perform the art of feng shui. This expert would decide where to select and how to arrange a site. His sources of cosmic knowledge were the local magnetic field, the paths of streams and the land forms; he might also consult oracle bones, engraved pieces of bone and shell used in divination. Sometimes workers would need to remove vast quantities of boulders or plant forests of trees to regulate the disposition of Yin and Yang energies passing in and out of the site.

There is an account of the foundation ritual associated with the city of Lo-yang of the Zhou dynasty at the close of the second millennium bc. On the second day of the third month:

Diog-Kung, Duke of Zhou, began to lay the foundations and establish a new and important city at Glak (Lo) in the eastern state. The people of the four quarters concurred strongly and assembled for the corvée ... In the second month, the third quarter, on the sixth day in the morning the King walked from the capital of Diog (Chou) and reached P’iong (Feng). The Great Protector preceded Diog-Kung to inspect the site. When it came to the third month ... on the third day the Great Protector arrived at Glak in the morning and took the tortoise oracle as bearing on the site. When he had obtained the oracle, he planned and laid out the city. On the third day the Great Protector and all the people of Yin began work on the public emplacements in the loop of the Glak river.

The attention to detail regarding place and time suggests that acquiring proper urban form depended on getting things right with nature – especially the cardinal axes. If it were to function properly, the city needed to be accurately partitioned into its quarters.

Beijing still preserves its ancient cosmic plan. If you stand in Tiananmen Square you can line up the Bell and Drum Towers, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong on a perfect north-south axis. Continue that line and you’ll discover that it runs through the gates of the old city. Today the cosmic axis is defined by a marble pavement that marks the imperial meridian. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which houses the emperor’s throne, lies at its northern terminus; this symbolizes the circumpolar region where the earth meets the sky.

Beijing offers a lasting reminder of the cosmically ordained duties of the emperor. He had to perform a specific task at the beginning of the first month of each season, these being determined by the court astronomers who followed the course of the moon and sun and the five planets across the lunar mansions of the Chinese zodiac. The emperor would go to the eastern quarter of his domain to start the new year every spring equinox to pray for a sound harvest; then, followed by his ministers, he would plough a ceremonial furrow in a field. At the other seasonal pivots he would visit the other quarters of his city.

This calendar would have been familiar to any farmer, for it was based on what he could see in the sky. At the beginning of summer Antares lay due south at sunset, while on the first of winter the Tristar of Orion’s Belt took its place. Of course, farmers knew well when they could plant, but they needed to be aware that the official time to do so occurred when the handle of the Dipper pointed straight down, for then was it the first day of spring – the time for the king to come forth and speak to the people about the new year’s harvest.  

The keeping of the observations and the preparation of the calendar resided in the state observatory. This institution lay hidden within the bowels of the Purple Palace. The importance of astronomical observing in the world of politics made secrecy a necessity. One directive issued by a ninth-century Tang Dynasty king reads:

If we hear of any intercourse between the astronomical officials or of their subordinates, and officials of any other government departments, or miscellaneous common people, it will be regarded as a violation of security relations which should be strictly adhered to. From now on, therefore, the astronomical officials are on no account to mix with civil servants and common people in general. Let the Censorate see to it.

And so the astronomers, spurred on by their government, performed their appointed task: to give the correct time so that the affairs of state might be properly conducted.

Of founding a community, the nineteenth-century French historian Numa Fustel de Coulanges wrote in 1864:

We are not to picture ancient cities to ourselves as anything like what we see in our day. We build a few houses; it is a village. Insensibly the number of houses increases, and it becomes a city; and finally, if there is occasion for it, we surround this with a wall.     With the ancients, a city was never formed by the slow increase of the number of men and houses. They founded a city all entire in a day; but the elements of the city needed to be first ready, and this was the most difficult, and ordinarily the largest work. As soon as the families, the phratries, and the tribes had agreed to unite and have the same worship, they immediately founded the city as a sanctuary for this common worship, and thus the foundation of a city was always a religious act.

At the heart of religion lie the sky-gods. Archaeology and history together provide strong evidence about how and why our predecessors brought the sky down to the earth. Whether village, monumental place of assemblage or metropolis, in Asia, Old World or New – their pre-planned designs all share one basic motive: to provide a backdrop for the great dialogue with the transcendent.

The Stonehenge chieftain, Teotihuacan daykeeper and Chinese feng shui expert all used their accumulated observations of nature to dare to read the minds of the gods. These specialists were charged with the responsibility of seeing that sites established on earth would offer humans entry into the realm of the future – a future that could only be gleaned through celestial omens decipherable in a sacred environment patterned on heaven itself. Beneath the structure of practically every city we find not only motives of convenience but also a shared communal ideology. And if we dig deep enough we discover that many modern cities are no exception.

Washington DC too was designed with the cosmos in mind. A 1792 piece in a popular magazine described its recent laying out:

Mr Ellicott drew a true meridional line, by celestial observation, which passes through the area intended for the Capitol. This line he crossed by another, running due east and west, which passes through the same area.

The technique of drawing a line from the median position of Polaris perpendicular to the sun’s daily path and extending it to the south is exactly the method used to construct ancient Beijing. Washington is the quintessential planned American city, a product of the French Enlightenment. Conceived by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, its grandiose design was intended to rival the great cities of Europe. Washington is laid out in the form of a perfect square ten miles on a side, with its points aligned to the cardinal directions. The US Capitol replaces the pyramid or ziggurat that stood at the centre of the ancient city.

Whether monarchy or democracy, every government must establish its connection with the gods, wrote Rousseau. And Washington’s spoked wheel with overlying rectangular grid evokes in the pilgrim – today’s tourist – a sense of the national mythology. The city’s processional way from the Capitol to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, and its inviting line of sight from the Washington Monument along the Mall to the Capitol, mimic the ancient custom of laying out ceremonial ways and pilgrimage routes, like Teotihuacan’s Street of the Dead or Stonehenge’s causeway. Washington presents itself as a centre of power, a junction-point of sacred and secular space conceived in the Age of Enlightenment – a place that imitates the geometry of the universe and the harmony of the worlds. As ancient Beijing was to the Chinese and Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, Washington is every American’s city in the sky.

Anthony F. Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University. He is the author of People and the Sky: Our Ancestors and the Cosmos (Thames & Hudson).