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Guest Blog: John North (excerpt)

A funny thing happened at the beginning of the trip. Mark bought a new course book for all the students (and one for me as well), since he discovered it after the initial course books had already been ordered and figured it would be easier just to procure them instead of having the students do it last minute. At the airport in Boston, he distributed the books to everyone, and I decided to take mine on the plane, so I could get ahead on the reading. The title, Stonehenge, by John North (which is also in my sidebar), is a discussion of astronomy and the alignment of ancient monuments and barrows not only to the sun and moon, but also to particular stars at particular times of year, accounting for the precession of the equinoxes (or the movement of the earth's rotation that accounts for the change in angles at which the stars appear over thousands of years). When I opened my copy to begin reading, however, I discovered not an investigation into alignment and ancient thought, but a novel of the same name by Bernard Cornwell. This, of course, was not entirely helpful (although possibly a more lighthearted read!). Some bookseller stuck a copy of the novel inside the jacket of the nonfiction title and thought all would be well -- but of course, it was not. We spent a good chunk of our first day in London tromping around to every esoteric book store (and several major chain stores here) in our general area trying to track down a copy of the North book to replace my novel. We didn't find one until the second day, when I poked my head into a store called Atlantis expecting the same result of "not in stock, but we can order it for you." Instead, the bookseller showed me to the section where she thought it would be, and lo and behold, there was a copy!

After I purchased it, one of the students asked, "So, did you check to make sure it's the right book inside the jacket?" Doh! I hadn't, but it was, indeed, the right book. I'm still catching up on the reading, having lost the flight and part of my opportunities on the first day to get some reading done, but at least now I have it. The excerpt below is from North's apologetics section -- he speculates quite a lot in his book, but comes to some pretty reasonable conclusions that support his hypothesis of star alignment, which he backs up with some interesting numbers. This has less to do with myth directly than most of my guest blogs do, but it gives you a taste for what we're discussing in the course these three weeks, and also offers a peek into what might have been important to people thinking inside a mythic consciousness.


It should now be clear that there are very many different types of initial assumption. A skeptic might argue thus, taking fairly wide limits for the ranges mentioned: 'I do not believe that long barrows were placed in relation to the stars. If I were to drop a typical long barrow on the landscape at random, the chances are eight in ten that I should be able to find a date within a plausible period of prehistory at which your roughly opposed lines of sight would align accurately on bright stars'. ... Following this line of argument in a very crude way, and multiplying probabilities, the chances of finding solutions for two barrows would be 64%, of finding three 51%, of finding seven 21%, and so on. One might reduce still further the chances that the claims against which the unbeliever is arguing are illusory--for instance, by appealing to multiple solutions for the same epoch (usually in close agreement with radiocarbon dating), especially solutions paired at right angles, and having relations with the surrounding landscape--but all this is unlikely to convince resolute skeptics, who are used to having figures in millions quoted against them.

So much for the 'generic barrow on the landscape'. A more reasonable approach is to take a single known long barrow, say Wayland's Smithy, and to ask about the likelihood of finding a solution by chance. It may be supposed, for example, that the long barrow is placed at random on the landscape, with appropriate closely limited characteristics. ... What then are the chances of finding a precise solution involving bright stars in both directions between 4000 BC and 3000 BC?

To take this specimen case, even after adding five more bright stars ... to the previous list, there are only three distinct solutions, each with two orientations (interchanging rising and setting), making six in all. Without giving the lengthy calculations, one can say that for the opening decades of the period, the barrow could be dropped into one of only six narrow sectors of the compass, each covering about 1.4 degrees and 3 degrees. with time, those sectors drift somewhat ... and one pair eventually ceases to be useful, but another takes its place. The details are not important, but it can be said that at a very generous estimate, the barrow could have been assigned an azimuth falling within sectors totaling 54 degrees of the whole compass. In short, a randomly placed Wayland's Smithy has a three in twenty chance (15%) of accommodating a pairing of bright stars in the way explained in the present chapter. This is generous, and on another count far too generous: the thousand years could have been narrowed down appreciably, greatly increasing the odds against finding a random solution. And even with odds of 15%, to find seven solutions--if they happened to produce the same odds, which of course they would not--would mean odds of less than two in a million of finding the whole set of solutions by chance. ... The odds against consistently hitting a solution by chance are very great indeed, and the conclusion must be that astronomical activity at the long barrows is not an illusion.

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