Over at aeon, Ross Anderson has written a gorgeous piece about Star Axis, an enormous art installation and observatory that has been slowly evolved, over 40 years, by the sculptor Charles Ross. Star Axis is located somewhere in eastern New Mexico, on a mesa whose location remains secret. It’s out there in Comanche country. Deep into the essay, Anderson observes:
We know the sky has always had a profound effect on the human mind, partly because it has always been a source of physical danger. Ever since our days on the savannah, the sky has menaced us with sunburn and thirst, and storms that pour out of its clouds without warning. It has also sent explosives to the Earth’s surface, in the form of comets and asteroids, and inflicted blindness, on those who dare stare into the retina-ruining sun. But it is not these hazards that give the sky its most potent psychological power over us. We tremble before the sky for deeper, more philosophical reasons. We fear it because, more than any other natural phenomenon, the sky offers us a direct experience of the unknown.
In the next paragraph, Anderson supports these psychological observations and seemingly universal emotions with some philosophy:
‘One may try to look at the sky,’ the scholar of ancient philosophy Thomas McEvilley once wrote, ‘but in fact one looks through it … for no matter how deeply one sees into the sky, there is always an infinite depth remaining.’ When we peer into the sky’s abyssal recesses, its blank blues and deep starlit voids, we catch a glimpse of infinity, and, as McEvilley says, ‘the finite mind has difficulty processing infinity.’ The psychology of this phenomenon was described best by Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician who said the starry sky made him think of time’s crushing enormity. It made him see that human life is a microsecond, beset by two eternities, past and future. ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,’ he said. And who can blame him? To look at the sky is to be reminded that oceans of space and time lie beyond the reach of our minds. Who can help but feel small under it? By showing us the true scope of the unknown, the sky forces us to confront the mysterious nature of human experience. It puts us face to face with the most basic of truths — that we are all, in some sense, existentially adrift.
This is all well and good; many of us have felt and experienced something similar. It is important to note, however, that this disorienting or bewildering sense of the heavens has a history and that history is modern (i.e., post-Neolithic). These are not universal feelings and are not characteristic of hunter-gatherers. Anderson seems to sense this, for in the next paragraph he states:
Humans have devised several strategies to tame this unnerving quality [of the heavens], none more popular than worship. It’s easy to see why. Making the sky into a human-like God is a shortcut to making it legible. If you believe that there is a man in the sky, you can interpret its unpredictable cinema, its colour shifts and stormy whims, as symbolic messages, communications from the cosmic creator. You can graft human traits and desires onto the sky’s impenetrable infinities, and soothe yourself with the comforting notion that the great unknown resembles you in some important way. This philosophical trick is hard for the order-seeking mind to resist, because it leads to a coherent picture of the world. And so, since antiquity, sky gods have gushed from the human imagination, and several of them survive to this day.
This anthropomorphizing of the heavens is characteristic of early agricultural societies such as those that developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Where we find agriculture, irrigation, and city-states, we also find sky gods. We will also find elites and astronomers. The whole idea of heavens as infinite void or endless expanse has its origins here, as does the sky’s association with fear and angst. It’s truly rare to find any of these ideas among hunter-gatherers. Most conceived of the sky and stars either as something familiar or unknowable. They certainly were not vexed by it.