Monday, July 18, 2016

The predictive power of the Star Myth system

image: Hydria (water-jar) with image of Heracles wrestling Triton, c. 520 BC, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; photograph by the author.

One of the strongest tests for a hypothesis or theory is whether or not it has predictive power. 

If a theory or hypothesis is trying to explain how a system works, and if that theory or hypothesis is correctly describing the underlying "rules" (or principles) of the system, then it should be able to make predictions based upon the understanding of the way that system operates (based upon the "rules" that have been discovered and categorized), and those predictions should be able to be borne out with new discoveries which confirm that the system being explained is in fact operating according to those principles.

For example, if you develop a better and better model for understanding the system which produces (or produced) the oil or the gold or the coal or the diamonds which are found within our earth's crust, then eventually you should be able to look at a map of an entirely new part of the globe which you have never examined before, and (based on the principles of your hypothesis) accurately predict the locations that are most likely to contain the oil or the gold or whatever it is whose underground system of creation and distribution you have been modeling. To date, the systems which produce or produced oil and gold and the others are not completely understood (they are very complex systems), but it is probably safe to say that they are understood more accurately than they were even fifty years ago.

Recently, a young teenager in Canada caused quite a stir by predicting -- based on his hypothesis that ancient Maya cities seem to reflect constellations in the heavens above -- where a previously-unknown or forgotten ancient city might be lying underneath the jungle growth of the Yucatan Peninsula. He based his prediction based on alignments he surmised between known Maya cities and actual stars, and then suggested looking at a site that would appear to line up with a star in the same constellation where no city or development had yet been reported. When satellite imagery was consulted, sure enough formations were detected which suggested significant development might be lying in wait of rediscovery right where predicted -- leading to a flurry of excited news stories.

Since then, a number of naysayers have come out to cast doubt on the hypothesis and to say that the possible discovery -- even if borne out with further exploration and excavation -- might not confirm the theory or its alleged "predictive power." This article in National Geographic, for example, calls the  prediction itself and the early excitement it generated a "very Western mistake" and features confident proclamations by an academic who has declared that "the idea of a map as we know it, as a scaled representation of geographic reality, is a modern Western concept." He does concede that the ancients could follow general patterns but not to the degree of precision assumed in the fifteen-year-old's model.

Another person cited, who has received grants from the National Geographic Society, states that undiscovered Maya sites "are all over the place" and that anyone can basically put their finger on a map and find one (this is almost a direct quotation). The first expert goes on to say that looking at star charts and seeing patterns is "an interesting Western fantasy" and that "we tend to look at these modern star maps and see things the way we might see patterns in clouds."

That's a lot of scorn to aim at this young man's theory (of course, both are quick to praise the lad for his "independent" thinking, even while they imply that it is totally mistaken). He might point out as a partial rebuttal that the creators of the mysterious "portolan" maps described by Charles Hapgood and other researchers (see blog post here from about five years ago), whose origins appear to be quite ancient, might disagree with the experts who call "scaled representation of geographic reality" a uniquely "modern Western concept." 

He might also point to evidence found literally around the globe which suggests that numerous cultures patterned their sacred landscape after the heavens (previous posts discussing this evidence -- which conventional scholars apparently still dispute to some degree -- can be found here, here, here, here, here and here, for instance). There is also the extensive work Graham Hancock has done (sometimes with fellow researchers or co-authors such as Robert Bauval) documenting extensive construction along just such celestial nodes in places such as Angkor and Giza. 

Note also that Angkor and Giza are situated at a very significant number of degrees of longitudinal separation, indicating plenty of precision that belies the dismissive proclamation that the ancients could only follow rough patterns but that the idea that those patterns could line up with anything precisely is a modern "fantasy." One of the links above in the preceding paragraph also leads to the research of Jim Alison, who has found evidence that ancient sites worldwide appear to be located on "great circles" on our earth's surface: a great circle is a circle on the surface of a sphere the center of which is also co-located with the center of the sphere, which means it will be as large of a circle as can be drawn on the globe's exterior (i.e., the equator is a "great circle" but the Arctic circle is not). Such placement, if true (and numerous maps are provided on Mr. Alison's site to back up his arguments), would be evidence of an extremely high degree of precision, as well as (almost certainly) an ability to produce pretty good maps (or "scaled representations of geographic reality").

The critics of this young man's model also throw in the old "see patterns in clouds" criticism, which is a way of saying "seeing things with your imagination that aren't really there." There is an impressive-sounding word for this concept (which, admittedly, is an important concept), which is pareidolia, which Carl Sagan made a central pillar of his criticism of what he saw as unscientific thinking, in an essay entitled "The Demon-haunted World" which grew into a book.

The importance of prediction is illustrated well by the "seeing patterns in the clouds" metaphor. The young man from Canada who predicted the location of the Maya ruins might ask his critics to clarify whether he is "seeing patterns in clouds" or whether his analysis might not be better described as predicting what the next cloud's shape would look like! If someone works out a theory that enables them to tell you what shape the next cloud to appear will take on, and then the next cloud after that one, and the next one after that, then they might have a hypothesis that accurately describes the complex system at work.

Of course, doing it just once could be ascribed to coincidence (as the other person quoted in National Geographic was quick to point out, saying uncharitably that anyone who jabs their finger at a map in that region could be expected to stumble on a significant Maya ruin -- which is equivalent to the old saying, "even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while" -- but Maya ruins are not acorns, and if this young man's constellation theory can be used by himself or by other Maya scholars to find some other ruins, then that should quiet down those people who say finding previously-unknown Maya ruins is so easy that it's almost impossible not to do it a couple times before breakfast).

Personally, I don't know if the constellation theory for Maya settlements is accurate or not -- although (as shown above) I believe there is plenty of other evidence around the world which would argue that it could be correct, and I also believe that the criticisms offered in that National Geographic article are fairly spurious, based on the evidence that the ancients could make very precise maps and scaled representations of both the earth and the heavens, and what is more that cultures all around the world can be shown to have been positively in the business of creating representations of the heavens here on the earth's surface. 

However, I am not at all an expert in pre-columbian Maya structures or ruins in the Yucatan, and so this debate over the above theory is mainly offered as an example of the importance of predictive ability in a hypothesis. In fact, well before I ever heard of the prediction of this young man, I was using the metaphor of "predicting where an ancient door might be in the jungle" as a way of explaining what I was experiencing as the outlines of the system of celestial metaphor (reported by many previous "explorers in the jungle" of the connections between stars and myths) began to take shape to a greater and greater degree. And so the above discussion is really a preface or a parallel to what can actually be shown to be taking place in the myths of the world, which really do reflect the patterns of the stars to an astonishing degree -- and which can be shown to do so in so many hundreds of examples that it can hardly be dismissed as either pareidolia or coincidence. 

In fact, the hypothesis that the myths of the world are built upon a common system of celestial metaphor can be shown to have predictive power -- and I have personally experienced that predictive power for myself many times at this point in my research of the connections between the myths and the stars.

For example, when I set out to research and write Star Myths of the World and how to interpret them, Volume Two (examining almost exclusively the myths of ancient Greece), I already suspected that the Greek god of Death and the Underworld might be associated with the constellation Ophiucus, based on the analysis I had already done which told me that Yama, the god of Death and the Underworld in the Vedas and Sanskrit epics of ancient India, almost certainly corresponds to Ophiucus (most notably because he carries a dreaded noose with which he pulls souls down to the Underworld -- see for example discussion and diagrams in previous posts here and here).

My examination of various myths involving the god Hades or Plouton convinced me that in fact, this third brother of the trio of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades does indeed correspond to Ophiucus, which is one level of confirmation of a prediction. The interested reader can see some of that discussion and analysis for yourself in Volume Two.

More significantly, however, during the same period of research for Volume Two, I found extensive evidence that the various wounds delivered to fighters on the battlefield of the Trojan War and described in the Iliad actually vary based upon which constellation that battlefield warrior represents -- and that the system holds true whether the wounds are received by a human warrior or by a god or goddess (gods and goddesses occasionally venture out upon the battlefield in the Iliad, and sometimes they are wounded and have to retreat from the fray in order to heal). 

Based on the system that I had discovered, I predicted that if the dread god of the Underworld ever actually appeared on the battlefield in the Iliad and received a wound, it would be consistent with the location of wounds typically received by Ophiucus-figures on the battlefield (whether human or deity, since Ophiucus and the other constellations can and do play the role of both at different times). Sure enough, the Iliad does contain a passage which recounts a wound delivered to the god of Death himself. 

Hades does not actually receive the wound in the action of the Iliad -- we find out about it when Aphrodite is wounded by one of the Achaean heroes while she is fighting on behalf of the Trojans, and when she retreats in pain from the battlefield, Aphrodite's goddess mother comforts Aphrodite by recounting other times that mortals have wounded the gods, including the time when the hero Heracles shot an arrow and hit Plouton in the shoulder (exactly where the system would predict, for a figure associated with Ophiucus -- see pages 384 - 388).

This kind of predictive power indicates that the connection between the stars and the myths is not a case of "seeing faces or shapes in the clouds" -- and in fact, there are dozens and dozens of examples in the Star Myths books which show that ancient artists would very frequently depict gods and goddesses and heroes in postures or activities which clearly correspond to the very same constellations predicted by the system of Star Myth analysis!

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which is an absolutely amazing museum and one I will try to write about more in future posts. Although I was seeking out some specific pieces which I knew were on display there (one of them in particular which is featured in Star Myths Volume Two and which was really the main purpose for my visit to the MFA that day), I also encountered some ancient pieces which I had never seen before, neither in pictures nor in person.

Not surprisingly, these pieces would frequently depict well-known figures -- and they would do so in postures which demonstrate unmistakeable correspondence to the constellation that they "should" look like, according to the principles of the system of celestial metaphor which has been taking shape over the years as I study the myths of various cultures around the world (including the myths of ancient Greece).

One beautiful and notable example is the water-jar or hydria pictured above, showing the mighty hero Heracles wrestling with the sea-deity Triton. 

I personally had never considered this particular wrestling match as depicted in ancient art or seen a depiction of it in person, but the above hydria is a particularly fine piece of ancient art (it is specifically a piece of art which uses the "black-figure" glaze technique, which is typically a little older than the "red-figure" technique, and which can be more difficult for the artist to achieve fine detailing lines than is possible in the red-figure method, because the black-figure method requires the artist to "scrape off" material to make lines in the black figure, while the red-figure method allows the artist to "paint on" material to make the lines, allowing for more variation and finer curves etc). The vase is thought to date to about 520 BC and is attributed to an artist who is known to modern scholars as "the Chiusi Painter."

What is most striking to me is the way that the ancient artist has included very specific details to make the Heracles in the wrestling scene correspond to the constellation Hercules as we see it in the night sky.

Below is the same hydria by the Chiusi Painter from 520 BC, with a star-chart below it showing the outline of the constellation Hercules, using the outline method proposed by H. A. Rey (which happens to perfectly correspond to the ancient myths and artwork of the Star Myths of the World, however he managed to achieve that with his system of envisioning the constellations). If you look closely at the ancient artwork, and trace out the figure of Heracles (not easy to do, because he is entwined with the massive form of Triton), you will see that it clearly corresponds to the outline of the constellation -- exactly as we would predict, if the ancients were using the system of celestial metaphor which I (and other researchers down through the centuries) describe:

Note well the extended "rear leg" of the constellation and of the figure of Heracles on the ancient hydria: this is one of the most distinctive features of the Hercules constellation, and it will almost always be present in artwork depicting a "Hercules figure" (whether that figure is Hercules himself, or another hero or heroine or god or goddess who corresponds to Hercules -- because female characters do indeed correspond to the Hercules constellation too, in some cases).

Another very distinctive feature of the constellation Hercules, of course, is the hero's mighty club, which can be seen raised menacingly over his head in the outline as envisioned in the night sky (bottom image). However, in the wrestling match depicted on the ancient water-jar by the Chiusi Painter, Hercules is not using his club (that wouldn't really be fair). Nevertheless, the artist has included a feature in the composition of the artwork to correspond to the shape that the part of the constellation we usually envision as the upraised club. Can you see it in the image on the hydria?

That's right -- it's the massive arm of the sea-deity (the arm that would be Triton's right arm, which is on the left as we face the picture above). Part of the arm goes behind Triton's crowned head. 

What is perhaps most interesting in this ancient artwork, in addition to the very clear correspondence to the outline of the constellation Hercules (which is exactly what we would predict in a depiction of the hero Heracles, who usually -- but not always -- does correspond to the constellation that bears his name in the night sky), is the long sinuous form of Triton, with upraised tail and fin (or flukes).

Note that in the star-chart shown below the hydria (in the picture above), the shining column of the Milky Way can be seen to rise up directly adjacent to the athletic form of the constellation Hercules. This relative positioning never changes: the actual constellation Hercules is always located at the "top" of one of the brightest portions of the shining column of the Milky Way (at the top of the part that rises up between Scorpio and Sagittarius, in fact -- which is now coming into clear view during some of the best hours for stargazing, after sunset and prior to midnight, for those who don't want to stay up until the wee hours of the morning).

Can you see how the shining column of the Milky Way, to the "left" of Hercules in the night sky (actually, to the east of him, which is left if we are looking generally towards the southern horizon, which is where Scorpio and Sagittarius will be seen for viewers in the northern hemisphere) exactly parallels the location of the long scaly body of Triton in the hydria, which stretches out in its folds to the left of the hero in the artist's conception as well?

In fact, the upraised tail with its two large tail fins or flukes happens to correspond quite well to another bright constellation in the general region of the sky where the artist has placed the tail in this ancient artwork. Can you guess which constellation it is? A hint is that it is not usually envisioned as a "fishy tail" -- but it is in fact positioned at about the same level or elevation as Hercules is, near the top of this bright part of the Milky Way band.

If you guessed either of the two magnificent "birds" of the Milky Way, Aquila the Eagle or Cygnus the Swan, I would agree with you! In fact, I would favor Cygnus the Swan, based on the shape and position of Cygnus, although Aquila would make a pretty good tail that would correspond fairly well to the art as composed by the Chiusi Painter as well. Cygnus is higher in the Milky Way and just above Hercules -- and the tail of Triton in the artwork is about that high also:

I believe it is also likely that most of the rest of Triton in the artwork shown corresponds to the outline of Ophiucus, especially to the two "serpent halves" carried by Ophiucus (the "Serpent-bearer"). Note how the body of Triton actually "humps up" in the middle, which may correspond to the right half (his head), the center (the humped-up second coil of his serpent body), and left half (the tail portion on the left side of Ophiucus, and then continuing upwards following the line of the Milky Way to Cygnus) of Ophiucus.

The center coil of Triton, in other words, follows along the "top" outline of the tent-like central portion of Ophiucus (in green), while Triton's head corresponds to the serpent-half on the right of Ophiucus, and his tail corresponds to the serpent's tail on the left, continuing into the Milky Way and up to either Cygnus or Aquila.

Note also that Triton is wearing a crown in the artwork, and that the Northern Crown (Corona Borealis) is in fact located just above the "serpent head" on the right side of Ophiucus. This is not a definitive connection, but it is certainly possible and I think perhaps likely.

The real point is that, if you were to have told me that there was an ancient depiction of Heracles wrestling with Triton, and then if you had asked me prior to my ever seeing this particular hydria if I could describe what body posture Heracles would probably take in the artwork, I would have described something like the constellation Hercules, with the extended and flexed "rear leg" and the forward-bent front leg, just as we actually see on the ancient pottery -- because the Star Myth system shows us in many places that the hero Heracles almost always corresponds to that particular constellation (which, in his case, also happens to bear his name, although this is only the case for Hercules, Perseus, and a few others).

These are just a few examples of the "predictive power" of the Star Myth system -- but there are many others.

Who knows -- maybe the fact that the ancients can be positively shown to have fashioned their artwork (as well as their myths) to conform rather precisely to the "maps" or "scaled representations" of the constellations in the night sky will help the young fifteen-year-old who proposed the same thing for ancient cities and citadels in the Yucatan to defend his thesis against those who say that the ancients couldn't really conceive of maps, and that he is indulging in a typical "modern Western fantasy" and seeing the equivalent of "patterns in the clouds."

In the meantime, he can take inspiration from Heracles and Triton and realize that, when it comes to offering new approaches to the investigation of a mystery, it turns out that "it's a pretty fierce wrestling-match out there!"