|Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey
Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art
Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay
The authors’ purpose is to explain, as best they can, some of what people were thinking and
experiencing in California before the Spanish arrived.
In this book, the Chumash observe a world teeming with beings that move over the surface of the earth,
beneath it, and in the sea, and see skies full of birds. In the upper reaches they similarly observe entities
moving day and night, and see that many of them affect events on earth through such phenomena as
rain, wind, and temperature changes which vary with the position of the sun. They logically conclude
that the upper reaches of the sky world are thus also filled with living, intelligent beings.
Among these are the sun, moon, stars, and planets, all of whose roles are addressed in the book.
Chumashian elites employ their wits, knowledge, experience, and skills to influence external forces and
to maintain good relations with the entities who ultimately control them, including those in the sky, by
such means as proper rituals and ceremony, prayers and offerings, and the use of devices. One such
device to which the authors give special attention is an implement containing a disc painted with lines
corresponding to the angles of the sun on the horizon at sunrise and sunset during the solstices.
A secret society of intelligentsia serves as the repository of detailed knowledge about the sky realm. Its
members’ observations, insights, and knowledge affect ritual and ceremony, stories and songs, dances
and paintings, regalia, and daily life. The celestial canopy has its own geography and includes features
familiar on earth, such as celestial springs, mountains, ravines, and rocks. The Sky entities maintain lives
similar in many ways to human lives on earth. The enjoyment of a happy life requires maintaining good
relations with powerful entities in the celestial realm, and other realms.
The biological world is an endlessly recurring cycle of reincarnation in which matter is neither created
nor destroyed, but is transformed. After corporeal existence, the human soul attempts to ascend to the
sky, visiting important places along the way such as the Land of the Widows, a pair of enormous rocks
that crash into one another, ravens who peck out the aspiring soul’s eyes, a vast body of water which only
the righteous can cross without falling in, and ultimately Shimilaqsha, the home of successful human
souls in the sky world. In Shimilaqsha the soul awaits eventual rebirth on earth. Stars, then, are places
that people visit incorporeally. Celestial geography helps explain life and death and the nature of
existence, and reading the sky is part of the fabric of culture.
The elites maintain a twelve month calendar which functions as a zodiac. Each month has a name and
is associated with characteristics found in the environment. Elite councils recalibrate the calendar
roughly every five years in the course of conducting diverse business.
Early in the book the authors give a fair amount of attention to matters of the Spanish contact. Upon
arrival, the Spanish encounter trading and manufacturing capitals with populations of a thousand or
more. Each exerts political, commercial, and cultural influence over a number of other, smaller
The Spanish establish missions very near to such capitals. Early Spanish visitors remark at the beautifully
carved and polished wooden bowls, fishing and hunting implements, and well-crafted canoes of the
Chumashian peoples, but do not inquire into or concern themselves with local conceptions of the
universe. Their goal is to expand the Spanish Empire. Colonization is not only about occupying land,
but about occupying the mind, and no one stands more obviously in the way than the elite visionaries
and seers who are the repositories of local lore. The authors present some of their thoughts about how
the colonization unfolds and about how people react to it, before moving strictly into a treatment of
The authors discuss how the universe came into its present form through a great flood, when the First
People were transformed into the present birds, animals, plants, and inhabitants of the upper sky. They
address the role of the cardinal directions, and of the different roles of the earth, the sun, the moon, and
planets as divine actors. They discuss key festivals, such as after harvest and at winter solstice, and color
associations, and provide some information about how and where rituals are performed.
There is a good amount of discussion of the role of avian entities, and in particular Eagle’s association
with the sun and spirits of the deceased. The authors discuss bird sacrifices and conclude that unlike
elsewhere in the region, they are not part of Chumashian traditions. The book contains far more
information than it would make sense to mention here. These, however, are some of the topics to which
you will be exposed as a reader.
This is a work of careful scholarship drawing upon material in linguistics, history, ethnography,
archaeology, and comparative astronomy, but the authors readily acknowledge that it barely scratches
the surface of many of the topics addressed. It is a mixture, on the one hand, of careful, educated
guesses and, on the other, of conclusions that seem as if they really must be correct.
The authors focus primarily on the relationship between Chumashian elites and the sky, but in the course
of their work also mention many other California Indian societies. Among these are the Pomo, whose
languages are different but some of whose conceptions are nearly the same. Also mentioned to some
degree are Yokuts, Western Mono, Acjachemen, Payómkawichum, Kitanemuk, Tongva, Kumeyaay and
- Glenn Anaiscourt
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
|by Glenn Anaiscourt