In his first chapter, author Anthony Aveni describes how both the scientist and the artist rely on imagination, that is, the ability to juxtapose two unlikely images and find their similarities, to create in their respective fields. Unfortunately he uses the apocryphal tale of Isaac Newton’s intuiting the nature of gravity from watching an apple falling from a tree to illustrate the point.
Sometimes the ideas that arise from the synthesis of the disparate images or ideas are brilliant and life-changing, but sometimes they’re just wrong. Aveni cites an example of this 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler’s quest to fit the orbits of the five (then) known planets into the five sacred shapes. That he was wrong is of less interest to the author than is that the mental process of discovery has not changed.
The chapters are titled and organized around the idea of what different cultures do with the mental “image” of the planets. After explaining what he proposes to look at in the book, the author offers a quick primer on naked-eye astronomy. He then discusses various world mythologies and how they related to practical predictions about the sky. As expert in Mesoamerican astronomy, Aveni describes how the Maya came to associate the appearance of Venus with the rains.
One of the constant refrains the reader hears is that modern people are not wiser for living after the Enlightenment, nor are the ancients foolish and superstitious for having lived before the Enlightenment. By and large, they were in tune with their natural surroundings in ways we are not. With this, I have no quibble. In pre-industrial societies, one’s survival is dependent on being able to know what’s in the wind.
We have depersonalized Mother Nature, convinced ourselves that the material world exists and behaves strictly in its own interest. But we are beginning to pay the price of living in a motherless world. We have become the outsiders, onlookers who can only helplessly watch the interactions among forces and entities that have neither care nor cause for us. We have become bewildered by a universe that we still want to regard as nurturing, yet one we see filled with so much violence, unpredictability, and chaos—a universe as fickle and uncaring as Ishtar the morning after. (p .219)
Aveni also brings up the Gaia hypothesis, that is, the idea that earth functions like a living being. He quotes James Lovelock, who formulated the hypothesis, as saying that Gaia’s “unconscious goal is a planet fit for life.”
While I enjoyed the author’s prospective on history and his lessons on naked-eye astronomy—which I hope to put to use someday maybe in the desert—I can’t quite agree with his desire to reanimate the inanimate world. Respect nature? Of course. It’s powerful.
There is a great deal to chew on this book for those interested in the topics, but probably most general readers will probably not be as interested in the book.