Space and Practice II

In the space that was the Chumash Homeland, there existed the practice of 'antap manifested by a shamanic society of Chumash astronomers and magicians who cured the sick, attempted to control the weather and believed that their rituals maintained the cosmic balance.

At Burro Flats, a Chumash rock art site in Simi Valley, there is a shallow cavern that functions as an astronomical device. A few moments after the first light of winter solstice falls on a rock painting within the cave, a small luminous triangle fills out to become a finger of sunlight pointing at the center of a motif that features five concentric rings. This is the work of 'antap. (Echoes of the Ancient Skies, E.C. Krupp, Dover, N.Y., 2003).

Like the rock art sites at Vandenberg, and most notably the Coso Rock Art Monument at China Lake (Things fall Apart), Burro Flats is preserved within the web of defense installations that cover the state. At the Simi Valley site, the 'antap pictograph has been protected by Rocketdyne who built test beds within a few hundred yards of the rock art and upon which the space-shuttle engines were originally tested some three decades ago. As at Vandenberg, (where there are curious parallels between the ascension of Chumash souls at Point Conception and the secular, heaven-bound activities of the Air Force), these may be instances of the defense industry locating their facilities in vortices of power similarly identified and marked by Native Americans.

For the 'antap were all about power. They were a shamanic cult with its members spread across the villages of a political province exercising an overlay of control, primarily through their direction of ritual and the making of astronomical predictions, that transcended the independent powers of village headmen.

Membership in the 'antap was hereditary and based on a family's economic and political power. This aristocratic caste stabilized the otherwise nucleated power structure of Chumash society. While the members of individual villages did not think of themselves as belonging to a shared culture, the 'antap did, in fact, establish a coherent cosmology throughout the area we now think of as Chumash. It is thus more compelling to speak of a Chumash astronomy than of a Chumash people.

The 'alchuklash, the dedicated astronomers of the 'antap cult, believed that their ritual magic ensured the orderly progression of the celestial bodies they observed traversing the deep ebony velvet that was the pre-modern night sky. Discrepancies in this synchronization were portents of cataclysmic events. One such anomaly, a solar eclipse on November 24, 1677 became enshrined in the Painted Cave in the Hills beyond Santa Barbara (Bingo) where a black disk represents the sun and the two red disks below indicate Mars and Antares.

While the 'alchuklash regularly identified stars of fourth magnitude brightness (for their names were recorded by Harrington) and these minor celestial objects were woven into stories and a kind of astrological system used for divination and the naming of children, the moon - the dominant object in the night sky - was treated as a familiar, and in their legends functioned as a referee of the celestial battles in which animals stood in for asterisms and constellations. (December's Child, Thomas C. Blackburn, U.C. Press, 1975)

I was reminded, in this week of the Taurus full moon, of how essentially terrestrial is this natural satellite. The 'alchuklash certainly seem to have intuited that the moon was of a different order to other objects in the celestial sphere that formed the tapestry of their night. It was intimately associated, Harrington's informants tell us, with people's health and was considered to be, like the Earth, female: mother moon, mother earth.

A world away, in the Wesak Valley high in the Tibetan Himalayas a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha accompanies the eight minute apogee of this month's full moon. Sometimes called the Buddha moon, or Wesak Moon, it is considered the most auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar. Like the 'antap winter solstice ceremony or Kakumupmawa, it is a day to celebrate continuity, humankind's union with nature and the cosmos and an acknowledgment of our place in the cycle of life.

The moon is a pale, watery reflection of the great solar driving force of our planet. It is a domestication of the fearsome sun; the earth's satellite a lantern and a clock. For the 'antap it was both of the earth and of the heavens, an intermediary and an agent of intercession; and a referee of the cosmic gambling game of peyon (Living the Sky, Ray A. Williamson, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984)

In our world, shaped as it is by the energy derived from fossil fuels, petro-chemicals and the technologies and politics surrounding them, it is easy to dismiss the ethereal sources of power pursued by pre-modern peoples; but Chumash culture, as Harrington's record of the 'antap illustrates, was highly politicized precisely because of the reality of these sources of power - the effectiveness of the supernatural was manifested in the network of control the 'antap imposed on a fragmented people.

The cosmic, astrological and space/time vortices of power these 'antap shaman accessed, are, I believe, an enduring aspect of our world. Sometimes, (and this week as the Buddha moon shone in to the bedroom window was one such), I believe that this supernatural energy can still be harnessed to our human purposes.