I was in Washington, D.C., this week lecturing at Catholic University, and I spent a number of fruitful hours at the impressive National Museum of the American Indian. Among other things, I bought a book on Cherokee astrology: The Cherokee Sacred Calendar by Raven Hail, an elder in the tribe. It seems that Cherokee astrology – apparently based on or descended from the Mayan system, which I wasn’t familiar with – is based on a 260-day Venus cycle. Venus is the morning star for 260 days, then it’s the evening star for 260 days. This 260-day period is divided into 13 periods of 20 signs and 20 periods of 13 numbers. The signs of the Cherokee zodiac are:
These signs run by, one a day, sunrise-to-sunrise, in a 20-day cycle. Meanwhile, the 13 numbers go by in a concurrent 13-day cycle.
For instance (and you need to look at the book’s appended ephemeris to find out where your birthday fits in), I’m a Wolf and a 6. The Wolf, according to Hail, is “a two-way personality – genial to his own kind, but savagely protective against all outsiders. Lover of freedom and the wide open spaces. A ‘don’t fence me in’ character. The paradox here is that he marks his own territory aggressively, fencing others out!” And as a 6, I’m “an incurable romantic, in pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful.” Fair enough.
Let’s try Stockhausen, since he’s on everyone’s mind. Assuming he was born after sunrise, he’s a Flint and a 12. Flint is “a creator, an originator, an innovator. Opener of The Way to new pathways. He has a keen mind and a lively curiosity to explore beyond the confines of the status quo…. He inspires mental expansion in others, and stretches the mind to the outside limits of any capability in physical and spiritual development. He changes the static to the dynamic.” A 12 is one who “spiritually turns on the light, turns up the heat, and starts the motor running.”
OK, pretty cute. But if you know how I think, and know what kinds of things I like to write about here, you can anticipate what intrigues me about this. It’s that idea of conceptualizing time as cycles out of phase with each other, so that a series of 20-day “months” and 13-day “weeks” are interacting and influencing each other as they go by. And on top of that, the 260-day Venus cycle encompassing them is off kilter with the more obvious 365-day sun cycle and 28-day moon cycle. It’s a more strictly numerological system than European astrology, because it reduces to 13 x 20 even though the Venus cycle isn’t exactly 260 days, because there’s a regular daily progression, and there are no retrograde planets. I love thinking of the Cherokees or Mayans having kept track of the passing of time via these overlapping, out-of-sync rhythmic cycles. And since family legend has it that my great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee, I almost wonder if my love of these cycles is sparked by some ancestral memory stored in a bit of DNA. (The story is that my great-great grandfather married a Cherokee woman, and his siblings were so horrified that they came from Arkansas to Oklahoma and kidnapped my great-grandfather so he wouldn’t be raised by an Indian. Family lore, can’t confirm any of it. And my mother’s father was supposed to have been a bank robber in Louisiana, or so Grandmother said.)
If I had run across this information 20 years ago, I’m sure I’d have at least one Cherokee-inspired piece of music based on the 20 x 13 grid by now. I no longer compose so strictly, but I’ll keep the idea in mind.