Inuit are an indigenous people traditionally inhabiting the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and parts of Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Across this vast region, Inuit society, while not entirely homogeneous either culturally or linguistically, nevertheless shares a fundamental cosmology, in part based on a common understanding of the sky and its contents. Traditionally, Inuit used prominent celestial objects—the sun, moon, and major circumpolar asterisms—as markers for estimating the passage of time, as wayfinding and directional aids, and, importantly, as the basis of several of the foundational myths and legends underpinning their society’s social order and mores.
Random inquiries on Inuit astronomy made by European visitors after initial contact through the mid-18th and early 20th centuries were characteristically haphazard and usually peripheral to some other line of ethnological enquiry, such as folklore or mythology. In addition, the early accounts of Inuit star lore were often prone to misrepresentation due to several factors, including European cultural bias, translation inadequacies, a deficiency of general astronomical knowledge on the part of most commentators, and, most significantly, a failure—sometimes due to lack of opportunity—to conduct systematic observations of the sky in the presence of Inuit knowledge holders. Early accounts therefore tended to diminish the cultural significance of Inuit astronomy, almost to the point of insignificance. Unfortunately, by the time systematic fieldwork began on the topic, in the mid-1980s, unalloyed information on Inuit astronomical knowledge was already elusive, more and more compromised by European acculturation and substitution and, notably, by light pollution—a consequence of the increasing urbanization of Inuit communities beginning in the late 1950s. For the residents of most Arctic settlements, street lights reflecting off the snow have virtually eliminated the evocative phenomenon of the “polar night.”
For several reasons, the role of planets in Inuit astronomy is difficult to determine, due, in part, to the characteristics of the planets themselves. Naked-eye differentiation between the major visible planets is by no means straightforward, and for observers living north of the Arctic Circle, the continuous or semicontinuous periods of daylight/twilight obtaining throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall effectively prevent year-round viewing of the night sky, making much planetary movement unobservable, far less an appreciation of the planets’ predictable synodic and sidereal periods. Mitigating against the significant use of planets in Inuit culture is also the principle that their applied astronomy, along with its cosmology and mythologies depend principally on—apart from the sun and the moon—the predictability of the “fixed stars.”
Inuit of course did see the major planets and took note of them when they moved through their familiar asterisms or appeared, irregularly, as markers of solstice, or harbingers of daylight after winter’s dark. Generally, however, planets seem to have been little regarded until after the introduction of Christianity, when, in parts of the Canadian eastern Arctic, Venus, in particular, became associated with Christmas. While there are anecdotal accounts that some of the planets, again especially Venus, may have had a place in Greenlandic mythology, this assertion is far from certain. Furthermore, reports from Alaska and Greenland suggesting that the appearance of Venus was a regular marker of the new year, or a predictor of sun’s return, need qualification, given the apparent irregularity of Venus’s appearances above the horizon.
A survey of relevant literature, including oral history, pertaining either directly or peripherally to Inuit astronomical traditions, reveals few bona fide mention of planets. References to planets in Inuit mythology and astronomy are usually speculative, typically lacking supportive or corroborative information. It can therefore be reasonably inferred that, with the qualified exception of Venus, planets played little part in Inuit astronomy and cosmology despite their being, on occasion, the brightest objects in the Northern celestial sphere. This being the case, there is a certain irony in NASA’s recently bestowing Inuit mythological names on a group of Saturn’s moons—Saturn being a planet the Inuit themselves, as far as can be determined, did not note or recognize.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
During the last three millennia before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples living in the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and the northern part of Central America evolved into complex societies with a number of common characteristics, which define the cultural area known as Mesoamerica, and are expressed in technology; forms of subsistence and government; architecture; religion; and intellectual achievements, including sophisticated astronomical concepts. For the Aztecs, the Maya, and many other Mesoamerican societies, Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies. Not only were they aware that the brightest “star” appearing in certain periods in the pre-dawn sky was identical to the one that at other times was visible in the evening after sunset; they acquired quite accurate knowledge about the regularities of the planet’s apparent motion. While Venus was assiduously observed and studied, it also inspired various beliefs, in which its morning and evening manifestations had different attributes. Relevant information is provided by archaeological data, prehispanic manuscripts, early Spanish reports, and ethnographically recorded myths that survive among modern communities as remnants of pre-Conquest tradition.
The best known is the malevolent aspect of the morning star, whose first appearances after inferior conjunction were believed to inflict harm on nature and humanity in a number of ways. However, the results of recent studies suggest that the prevalent significance of the morning star was of relatively late and foreign origin. The most important aspect of the symbolism of Venus was its conceptual association with rain and maize, in which the evening star had a prominent role. It has also been shown that these beliefs must have been motivated by some observational facts, particularly by the seasonality of evening star extremes, which approximately delimit the rainy season and the agricultural cycle in Mesoamerica. As revealed by different kinds of evidence, including architectural alignments to these phenomena, Venus was one of the celestial agents responsible for the timely arrival of rains, which conditioned a successful agricultural season. On the other hand, the planet also had an important place in the concepts concerning warfare and sacrifice, but this symbolism seems to have been derived from other ideas that characterize Mesoamerican religion. Human sacrifices were believed to be necessary for securing rain, agricultural fertility, and a proper functioning of the universe in general. Since the captives obtained in battles were the most common sacrificial victims, the military campaigns were religiously sanctioned and the Venus-rain-maize associations became involved in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. These ideas became a significant component of political ideology, being fostered by the rulers who exploited them in order to satisfy their personal ambitions and secular goals. In sum, the whole conceptual complex surrounding the planet Venus in Mesoamerica can be understood in the light of both observational facts and the specific sociopolitical context.