Volume 9, No. 1

Book Review:

Helaine Selin, ed. and Sun Xiaochun, assoc. ed., Astronomy Across Culture: The History of Non-Western Astronomy, Science Across Cultures, The History of Non-Western Science I. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers: 2000. xxiii. 665 pp. ISBN 0-7923-6363-9.

Lester Ness

Helaine Selin’s Astronomy Across Cultures is an outstanding reference book which ought to be in every public library’s and university’s ready reference department. In six hundred some pages it gives reliable information on astronomy in seventeen different societies. For some of them, this may be the only convenient information source on their study of the sky. Certainly there is no competitor bringing so many different approaches to astronomy together into one volume.

The essays are arranged, not in alphabetical order, but roughly geographically and also from less familiar to more familiar. The first, “Sky Tales and Why We Tell Them” is necessarily speculative, while the second, “Astronomy and Prehistory,” is also based on little evidence, much interpretation. The third essay, “Astronomy and the Dreaming” dealing with Australian Aboriginals is on firmer ground. It is followed by essays on Polynesian astronomy in general (“Ancient Astronomical Monuments in Polynesia”), Hawaiian (“Useful and Conceptual Astronomy in Ancient Hawaii”) and Maori (“A Polynesian Astronomical Perspective: the Maori of New Zealand”) astronomies in particular. The articles include useful discussions of Polynesian celestial navigation and of archaeoastronomy.

The seventh (“The Inca: Rulers of the Andes, Children of the Sun”), eighth (“Mesoamerican Astronomy and the Ritual Calendar”) and ninth (“Native American Astronomy: Traditions, Symbols, Ceremonies, Calendars and Ruins”) essays deal native American societies, in the Andes, Mesoamerica, and North America. Ten, eleven and twelve move on, to India (“Birth and Development of Indian Astronomy”), Indo-Tibetan astronomy (“Remarks on the Origin of Indo-Tibetan Astronomy”) and Indo-Malay astronomy, including Indonesia (“Indo-Malay Astronomy”), all related. The thirteenth (“A Cultural History of astronomy in Japan”), fourteenth (“History of Astronomy in Korea”) and fifteenth (“Crossing the Boundaries Between Heaven and Man”) essays also deal with related societies. Sixteen (“Astronomical Practices in Africa South of the Sahara”) is about astronomy in sub-Saharan Africa, while the seventeenth essay (“Astronomy in Ancient Egypt”) brings us to more familiar territory. The last four essays bring us to the Semitic language astronomical tradition, one of the major ancestors of modern international astronomy. Eighteen (“Babylonian Astrology: Its Origin and Legacy in Europe”) is explicitly about Mesopotamian astronomy. Essay nineteen (“Hebrew Astronomy: Deep Soundings from a Rich Tradition”) brings us to the Rabbinic tradition of astronomy while twenty (Mathematical Astronomy in Islamic Civilization“”) and twenty-one (“Islamic Folk Astronomy”) give us two versions of Arabian language astronomy, learned and folk varieties.

I have called this a reference work and so it is. Yet the essays are not the typical brief bloodless entries written by beginning students of many reference works. Each is a fully developed article, with bibliography, often with excellent illustrations (no notes, however). Any of them could have been an article in a learned journal or a conference volume. All are well-written and surprisingly readable, considering the wide-variety of societies and writers and the technical nature of the subject. It is impossible for me to judge the scholarship of each author, but when I can, they are always first-rate scholars doing first-rate work. Sun Xiaochun’s essay on China, for example, “Crossing the Boundaries Between Heaven and Man: Astronomy in Ancient China,” is probably the best brief introduction to Chinese astronomy, Chinese cosmology, even Chinese fortune-telling, available. Daniel Varisco, author of “Islamic Folk Astronomy” is a well-known anthropologist who did fieldwork in Yemen.
To summarize, this is a first-rate work on world astronomy, quite readable, and I recommend it to every library, as well as to readers interested in astronomy.