Among the Chinese a knowledge of astronomy existed at a very early date. The Shoo King or the Historical classic is justly regarded as being the most ancient authentic record of the annals of the Chinese Empire. This was complied by Kung-fu-tze (Confucius) about the year 500 B.C. from materials which existed in the temples in his time. In the year 220 B.C. during the reign of Che-hwong-te, all the books in the empire were ordered to be burnt and the literary men buried alive, a proceeding which caused as great a loss to the Chinese civilization as the destruction of the Alexandrian library several centuries later caused to the West. Fortunately this sanguinary monarch was succeeded by one of a different character. In 178 B.C. Wan-te ascended the throne, and his first effort was to restore learning. As no copy of the Shoo King was to be found, he had recourse to an old man of ninety years, who in the reign of Che-hwong-te had been one of the chief literati, and who to escape death had put out his own eyes and feigned idiocy. (1) This sage had the Shoo King so firmly imprinted upon his memory that he was able to repeat it word for word. A scribe was appointed by the emperor to take it down, and thus the sacred book was recovered. A remarkable confirmation of the accuracy of Fuh-Sang occurred a few years later, when the residence of Confucius was pulled down and a copy of the Shoo King was found hidden in the wainscot, written in the ancient character, which copy was almost literally the same as the book then in use.
The Shoo King is an authentic history of China, commencing with the reign of Yaow, B.C. 2356. It is a sober, careful narration of events, and bears internal evidence of its truth. According to this, Yaow was a wise and meritorious sovereign. He appointed two officers of state named He and Ho to superintend the calendar and astronomical instruments and make known the time and seasons. In the words of the text, "he then commanded He and Ho in reverent accordance with the motions of the expansive heavens to arrange by numbers and represent by instruments the revolutions of the sun and moon and stars with the lunar mansions, and then respectfully to communicate to the people the seasons adapted for labor. He then separately directed He's younger brother to reside at Yue, where he might respectfully hail the rising sun, adjust and arrange the eastern or vernal undertakings, notice the equalization of the days, and whether the star culminating at nightfall was the middle constellation of the Bird in order to hit the center of mid-spring. He further commanded He's third brother to reside at the southern border and to notice the extreme limit of the shadow when the days attain their utmost length and the star in the zenith is that denominated Fire, in order to fix the exact period of midsummer. He also commanded Ho's brother to dwell in the West and notice the equalization of the night, and see whether the culminating star was Emptiness (Beta in Aquarius) in order to adjust mid-autumn. And he directed Ho's third brother to dwell in the north and see whether, when the days were at the shortest, the culminating star was the White Tiger (Pleiades), in order to adjust mid-winter."
It has been estimated that the Bird (or Cor Hydra) really did appear on the horizon at night-fall of the vernal equinox in the time of Yaow, and that by the precession of the equinoxes something more than 4000 years would be required to bring this star into its present position, thus verifying the accuracy of the Shoo King. The close of Yaow's reign was B.C. 2254, which added to 1889 would be 4,143 years.
Without going into further details, of which a great deal more is given in the Shoo King and other Chinese canons, sufficient has doubtless been given to prove that astronomy was actually in use at as early a date as 2350 B.C. The lunar zodiac of 28 houses is often referred to in the classics. (2)
It may also strike the investigating reader that these astronomical references in the Shoo King are given, not as something new at that epoch, but as something that was well understood, as already existing, and as a part of the ordinary business of the realm. If that be so, and we find astronomy already brought to some degree of perfection in China two thousand years before Christ, the question naturally arises, — how long previously was the human race in discovering the principles that govern the heavenly bodies? How many thousands of years were passed in acquiring even that degree of knowledge, in growing up from savagery and absolute ignorance to a condition of comparative civilization? These are questions which are necessarily embarrassing to the bigot. Formerly it was customary for religious writers to claim that Man was endowed with scientific knowledge by the Deity which made him, but the discovery and subsequent adoption by intelligent people generally of the law of evolution rendered that assertion no longer valid as an argument. The disposition now among the clergy is to ignore all chronology, or to treat it as a non-essential. They certainly will not discuss it with any degree of fairness or honesty, I will therefore only add, in passing, that the period comprised in the books of the Shoo-King, commencing B.C. 2,356 and running down to B.C. 769, covers the time to which is generally referred the Flood of the Hebrew Scriptures. Assuredly there is no mention of the Flood in the Shoo-King. And all passages which have been quoted by Christian writers as corroborating the Biblical narrative are certainly references to what were merely local inundations.
Hence there is only one conclusion: that the generally accepted date of the Flood 2348 B.C. is erroneous. There is one other reflection that inevitably occurs to every thinking mind in this connection, and that is that, at this date, besides the presumably ante-diluvian nomadic tribes mentioned in the book of Genesis, there were vast empires, densely populated and brought to a fair degree of civilization, which appear to have already run their cycle of greatness and to have begun their decline. These nations were all proficient in many features of the science called astronomy, and certainly they all employed the symbolic figure of the heavens known to us as the Zodiac.
Hindu astronomy has found numerous commentators, mostly critical, in the West, but it can afford to wait in patience for a recognition of its just claims. Perhaps the best example of the Hindu Zodiac is that one found in the vault of the pagoda of Salsette (Elephanta), the construction of which dates back to 1192 B.C. The Zodiac itself, however, far antedates the temple, and although numerous attempts have been made by European astronomers to discredit its antiquity, none of these have yielded satisfactory proofs. There is no denying the stubborn fact that the summer solstice is marked as occurring in Virgo, which by easy calculation can be shown to have been the case nearly 20,000 years ago. (3)
From time immemorial the Brahmins have been acquainted with the precession of the equinoxes, and even calculated the rate at 54 seconds per annum, which was very close. And as for the Zodiac itself, they even gave the signs the same names which we now employ, and arranged them in exactly the same order. But that is no more surprising than the fact that the Hindus have the same period of the week that we have, divided into seven days, dedicated to the same planets, and in the same order as ours. When these awkward coincidences were discovered some years ago, it was claimed that the Hindus had copied from the Greeks, and much ado was made over the claim that Alexander the Great had carried astronomy into India at the time of his invasion. Now, however, there are few Western scientists, even among the professed champions of orthodox religion, who care to repeat that threadbare tale. The lunar zodiac of 28 mansions undoubtedly gave rise to the division of time which we call the week, or one-quarter of the moon's journey, and the lunar zodiac is universally allowed to have preceded the solar zodiac by many ages. Although there may be no means of knowing just what tribe of the human family first produced the zodiac, it is a fair hypothesis to suppose that the Aryans were the inventors, as they and their descendants, even down to the Americans of the nineteenth century, have always shown the greatest versatility and capacity for progress. Let us now turn to Chaldaea, where, according to Josephus, the wandering Sheik Abraham was instructed in astronomy and astrology, which he subsequently taught to the Egyptians. Here we are on even more solid ground. The labors of George Smith, Layard, Lenormant, Rawlinson, and others have opened up to us a long vista of history which was formerly classed as prehistorical. Following is the text of one of the creation tablets as given in the "Beginning of History:"
"Excellently he made the mansions, twelve in number, of the great gods.
He assigned them stars, and he established fixedly the stars of the great Bear.
He fixed the time of the year and determined its limits.
For each of the twelve months he fixed three stars
From the day when the year begins until its end.
He determined the mansions of the planets to define their orbits by a fixed time
So that none of them may fall short and none be turned aside.
He fixed the orbits of Bel and Ea near his own.
He opened also perfectly the great gates of heaven,
Making their bolts solid to right and to left:
And in his majesty he made there himself steps.
He made Nanna the moon to shine, he joined it to the night.
And he fixed for it the seasons of its nocturnal phases which determine the day, etc."
The above tablet, according to a further inscription, was the property of Asser-bani-pal, the Sardanapalus of the Greeks, who reigned 670 B.C. It was undoubtedly a copy of an earlier inscription, probably Accadian, which descended along with other legends of the Creation, from the most remote times. It is sufficient to show that astronomical knowledge existed among the Chaldeans at a vastly ancient period. Many of these cuneiform inscriptions date back to more than 2,000 B.C., and they show a surprising degree of knowledge to have been common long previous to that period. In George Smith's "Chaldaean Account of Genesis" it is stated that, judging from the fragments discovered, there were in the Royal Library at Nineveh over 10,000 inscribed tablets, treating of almost every branch of knowledge existing at the time. These inscriptions, being traced upon clay tablets which were then baked, formed a record which outlasted all other methods except monumental, of perpetuating human thought. The letters could not be effaced by time, although, as unfortunately happened, the tablets were liable to be broken.
About 2,000 B.C., there was a famous monarch in Babylon called Sargon. He was a patron of learning as well as a conqueror. He established a great library at Agane, and caused a work in astronomy and astrology to be compiled which remained the standard authority on the subject up to the end of the Assyrian Empire. It was called the "Illumination of Bel," and was in 72 books. The Izbudor Legends, containing the story of the Flood and the history of Nimrod, were probably written at least as early as 2,000 B.C. These legends were in 12 parts corresponding to the 12 signs of the Zodiac, and, in fact, are supposed to have described allegorically the passage of the sun through the Zodiac, just as the adventures of Osirus in Egypt and the labors of Hercules in Greece depicted the same idea. At any rate it is a natural question for us to ask; if the Chaldaeans 2,000 years B.C. were so enlightened and amassed such enormous libraries, how many thousand of years before that were they employed in laboriously achieving this literary eminence? Knowing how gradual were the changes in national thought in those earlier ages, we can hardly estimate too long a time for that process of self-evolution.
Among other interesting mementoes of long by-gone ages, there is preserved in the British Museum the fragment of a celestial planisphere whereon may be read "Month of arahshannan, star of the Scorpion." Not less positive evidence is the astronomical inscription which makes the "star of the Goat" preside over the month of tobit, and the "star of the Fishes of Ea" over the mouth of Addar. (4) Macrobius is authority for the statement that, according to the Chaldee astrologers, at the very day and hour when the motions of the heavenly bodies began the Sun was in Leo. Now, the very latest date when the position was attained at the vernal equinox was 10,000 years ago, and the entire circle of precession might have been travelled around many times previously for all that we know. Whether or not the chronology of the Chaldean priest Berosus was correct cannot of course be determined. He enumerates the following:
Antediluvian period 432,000 years. Reigns of Evechvos and Chomasbelos 5,100 " First Chaldaean dynasty 34,080 " Latan dynasties 1,758 " 472,938 "
The planisphere at Dendera, Egypt, has been much discussed, and many astronomical writers who should know better have claimed it as a comparatively recent production. Yet here is the translation of the inscription on the temple: "King Thothmes III has caused this building to be erected in memory of his mother, the goddess Hathor, the lady of An. The great ground plan was found in the city of An, in Archaic drawing on a leather roll, of the time of the successors of Horus; it was found in the interior of the brick wall on the south side of the temple in the reign of King Pepi."
It is evident from this inscription that the zodiacal architecture of the Dendera temple originated in the remotest antiquity, as it was only unearthed in the reign of King Pepi of the sixth dynasty, being at that time an object of antiquarian interest. Subsequently in 1600 B.C. Thothmes III restored the temple, and Ptolemy in 120 B.C. again restored it, and doubtless at that time introduced the Greek characters which have proved such a stumbling-block to modern investigators. (5) Regarding Egyptian history Dr. Brugsch, one of the most careful of commentators, says: "Only of late have the monuments, once again brought to light and awakened to new life, torn aside the deceitful veil revealing the truth, and furnishing the evidence, that in the times of classic antiquity the history of the ancient Egyptians was already an uncomprehended book like that of the seven seals. The "table of Kings" of Sagguarah and Abydus, both containing a selection of the Egyptian monarchs from the first Pharoah, Mena, onwards, give us the most authoritative evidence, now no longer to be doubted, that the primeval ancestors of the Egyptian dynasties, the Pharoahs of Memphis, must be recognized as real historical personages, and that King Ramses II, about 1350 B.C. the Sesosttris of the Greek falulous history, was preceded by at least 76 legitimate sovereigns; that is to say, in other words, there were so many generations of men who lived during a space of time which was greater than the sum total of the years that have elapsed from Ramses II down to the present day." (6)
Nor does this include the dynasty of the gods which preceded the Kings. Previous to the reign of Menes, the Papyrus of Turin and other documents assign a period of 5613 years to twenty-three reigns, to which is prefixed a still further period of 13820 years during which the later Egyptian gods figured as rulers.
Gerald Massey says: "When first seen, Egypt is old and gray, at the head of a procession of life that is inimitably vast. It is as if it always had been. There it stands in awful ancientness, like it own pyramid in the dawn, its sphinx among the sands, or its palm amid the desert. (7)
Bunsen, in his great work, "Egypt's Place in Universal History," arrived at the conclusion that the earliest zodiac in use in Egypt was at the time when the sun was in Scorpio at the vernal equinox. By a simple computation we learn that that position was occupied by the sun about 17,000 years ago.
He also gives the following table as representing the first cycle of history:
Appearance of mankind in Central Asia 20,000 B.C. Inorganic language formed 15,000 " Catastrophe in Central Asia 10, 000 " Separation of East and West Asia 5,000 " Era of Babylonia Empire 3,784 " Era of Uenes 3,059 "
Lest all the above evidence be rejected too hastily by those people who are inflexible in their determination to record the year 4004 B.C. as the date of Creation, I will close this necessarily brief summary with a reference to the geological testimony of the antiquity of man. In an interview held only a few weeks ago with Sir Richard Owen, that distinguished scientist is reported to have said: "My own opinion is that the oldest evidence that bears upon the question of man's antiquity dates back his existence to the Tertiary period, 18,000 years ago. Weapons and the like have been found. There is no method of authoritatively interpreting what might seem to be older evidence. I have spared no pains to justify this opinion by personal inspection." We see here the effort of the scientific writer to be conservative in his statements. He regards the date of 18,000 years ago as settled by satisfactory evidence; beyond that there are many indications of man's existence, but the exact data are still wanting. Sir Charles Lyell in his "Antiquity of Man" hesitated to name any exact dates: he assigned his specimens of human bones and weapons to certain geological periods in the remote past. Yet in regard to the Natchez skeleton he admitted that it might lead to the conclusion that America was peopled more than a thousand centuries ago by the human race. In another work he remarked that "if all of the leading varieties of the human family sprang originally from a single pair, a much greater lapse of time was required for the slow and gradual formation of such races as the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro, than was embraced in any of the popular systems of chronology."(8)
Prof. Agassiz estimated the age of the skeletons found in the coral reef of Florida at 10,000 years. The skeleton beneath the fourth cypress forest of New Orleans must, it is said, have been buried there at least 50,000 years ago. (Dowling). Works of Egyptian art have been dug up from soils which must have been submerged 30,000 years ago, and bricks are found 60 feet deep under layers which would require 14,000 years to cover; yet, says Lesley in his "Origin of Man," "these are mere modern matters in comparison with the diluvium of Abbeville. My own belief," he says, "is but the reflection of the growing sentiment in the whole geological world, that our race has been upon the earth for hundreds of thousands of years." In his chapter on "Early Races of Mankind," Edward Clodd estimates the rate of growth of the stalagmites in the Torquay caverns to be one foot in 44,640 years. As some of these are five feet in thickness, they would require 223,200 years to acquire their present state of formation. Yet underneath those, there is a layer of charred wood, called the "black band," which yielded hundreds of flint tools, a bone needle, burnt bones, remains of hyenas, oxen, bears, etc. There is the cave-earth with relics of a like kind, and then we come to the lower bed of stalagmite, which contained bones of the cave-bear only, and which is in some places more than double the thickness of the upper bed, and requiring at least 500,000 years for its formation. It is underneath these that in the solid mass called breccia there were found, mingled with immense numbers of teeth and bones of the cave-bear, Hint implements which without doubt were shaped by the hand and skill of man."
In the light of these astounding results of scientific investigation, the chronologies of Berosus and Syncellus in Chakkea, and of Simplicius, Laertius, and Capello in Egypt do not appear so mythical as they have been heretofore generally supposed.
And if we take an enlightened view of the subject, we must see that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years must have been required by the human race in the process of its evolution from the lower types to even the most ancient of civilized races, even if only to the point where a knowledge of the motions of the planets through the Zodiac was first acquired. And we know that many thousands of years have since then elapsed.
1. The Shoo King, Translated by W. H. Medhurst, Shanghae, 1846. (return to text)
2. Note — It is fully established that the Chinese possessed a lunar year which they regulated by the solar year of 3651/4 days (Ideler,214). Regarding their mythology, the tradition is that Pu-an-Ku, the primeval man, came out of the mundane egg and lived 18,000 years. Then came the reigns of heaven, the reigns of earth, the reigns of man during myriads of years; and it is said that Sui-Shin, one of these old rulers, discovered fire, took observations of the stars, and investigated the five elements. (Bunsen, Vol. IV.) (return to text)
3. Note — The process of calculation is as follows: We know that at the present day the sun is in the constellation Pisces at the spring equinox (March 21). As there are twelve signs of the Zodiac comprising the entire circumference of the heavens, and the sun makes the whole circuit in one year (viz: the earth goes round the sun in that time), it follows that he apparently passes through one sign each month. Hence he must be in the constellation Gemini at the summer solstice (June 21) corresponding to the sign Cancer, which is usually given in the almanacs. But in the Salsette Zodiac the sun is represented as being in Virgo, which is three signs distant, and, according to the rate of precession of one sign in 2156 years, there would be required 6,480 years to arrive at this position. (return to text)
4. Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, Vol. III. (return to text)
5. Note. — Sir William Dummond made a minute examination of the zodiac at Esne, Egypt, and calculated from the vernal equinox being between Gemini and Taurus, and therefore giving a retrogression of three signs from their present places, that the age of this zodiac would be 6450 years from the time he wrote or 6528 years from the present time. (return to text)
6. History of Egypt under the Pharoahs. (return to text)
7. A Book of the Beginnings, by G. Massey, London, 188; 2 vols. (return to text)
8. Principles of Geology, page 600. (return to text)
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