Atacama’s Alternative Astronomy Tour: The Full Moon Ritual in Tulor
The sunset at Tulor was not as spectacular as the one I witnessed the previous evening in the Valley of the Moon. But I was not there for the sunset. This time, I was on a different sort of tour. I had signed up to see the full moon ritual of the Lickanantai, the native people of the Atacama desert. The ceremony site was within Tulor, an archaeological site.
- How I stumbled upon Atacama’s alternative astronomy tour
- My moonrise experience in Atacama
- Learning astronomy from the Lickanantai
- Participating in the Lickanantai full moon ritual
- Lickanantai moon ritual
- The Lickanantai traditional village architecture
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
How I stumbled upon Atacama’s alternative astronomy tour
It all began with a travel fail.
It was a really rookie mistake. One of the things I wanted to do when I came to the Atacama desert, was honour its astronomy associations. I heard that there were astronomy tours, and I meant to sign up for one.
But as I adjusted my Chile travel plans to match flights, and trying to place myself on Easter Island for my birthday, I forgot to double check the dates for when I would be in Atacama. I forgot to check them against the moon calendar.
I realised my mistake the very first night in Atacama. The common room of my hostel was open to the sky, only partially covered by a stretched-out tarp. The nearly-full moon beamed through the gaps.
You can’t see the stars, when there’s a full moon in the sky. I had arrived at the worst possible time for an astronomy tour.
It was the first thing I asked around for, even though I knew it cannot be. But indeed, no one runs astronomy tours during the full moon. I was saddened, but you have to take these mistakes in stride. I had no one to blame but myself.
My travel fail was the best thing I could’ve done
That Sunday, I found myself doing some shopping in San Pedro with a friend I made during the previous two tours to the Valley of Moon and the altiplanic lagoons. Rachel was leaving Atacama the next day, and hadn’t yet booked a transfer back to Calama. She was strongly discouraged against returning with the company she came in with, due to their habitual lateness in picking up passengers, causing close shaves with flights out of Calama.
While Rachel arranged her transport with an alternative provider, I tried not to think of my pre-booked return transfer with that very company, which was apparently highly likely to be late. That’s when I saw a curious sign for a tour I had not seen in any brochure anywhere else in San Pedro de Atacama.
A tour provider who normally ran astronomy tours, was offering an alternative tour for the full moon. There were slots open for tourists to witness a traditional full moon ritual, officiated by a real Lickanantai shaman.
The full moon would be exact that very night – and that’s when the ceremony would be held.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I could probably get an astronomy tour somewhere else in the world. But I would not get another chance to observe a Lickanantai rite. My travel fail was actually perfect timing. I signed up on the spot.
I didn’t even care that the tour was only offered in Spanish. Even if I understood little, at least I would have seen it.
My moonrise experience in Atacama
The ruins of Tulor were of a 2,800 year old Atacama village. I understood that it lay in the territory of the Lickanantai, and was considered to be of historical significance.
There outside the gate of Tulor archaeological site, the sunlight waned further and further. The sun had set below the horizon. Dusk fell over the area, diffusing contrast all around. We were then signalled to turn around, towards the Andes.
I turned around, and there was the distinctive cone of Licancabur volcano. It really is a pretty mountain. Behind it, was a growing yellow light. Although hidden behind the volcano, it was obvious that the light source was extremely bright. The sun is rising, I mused idly.
Confusion kicked in. That can’t be right. I literally just saw the sun set. Then… what is this other sun?
My mind calculated as I gazed at the incandescence behind the mountain, stupefied. I had turned my back to the sunset. I was attending a full moon ritual. A full moon necessarily has the sun and the moon located opposite each other with the Earth in the middle.
I was not looking at sunrise. I was looking at moonrise.
The edge of the moon’s silver disc cleared the side of the volcano. As the orb began to reveal itself, the light grew less yellow, and more silvery white.
In real life it was a crisp curve, impossibly bright. Whereas I only had an iPhone, and though it and I tried mightily, the splendour of the rising moon was impossible to capture.
The poets did not lie.
Moonrise, the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.
In my region, with its constant humidity and hazy skies, with the treeline and the city skyline, the moon is nowhere near as bright. So, I had always assumed that when poets write of the beauty of the silvery moon, they must have taken poetic license and exaggerated.
But I was the one who did not know. And in that moment, I suddenly and truly understood why people might deify the moon:
When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: “This is my Lord”… ~ 6:77
For indeed, I felt like dropping to my knees in awe. In that moment, gratitude washed over me, and my life felt absolutely complete.
Once it had begun, the crossing of the moon’s full orb from behind the volcano was surprisingly swift. It moved at an angle, its orbit inclined in December. It grew brighter and brighter, brighter than I’d ever seen the moon shine, as though it were trying its best to replace the sun. Bright white light spilled around the volcano.
Then, when it was completely clear, its disc hanging in the sky alone, somehow it seemed less intense and more like a ‘normal’ moon. It was very strange. Perhaps the sun was no longer able to pour its whole glare upon it by then. Or perhaps, its reflected light was angled by then, and more diffuse.
…But when the moon set, he said: “unless my Lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.” ~ 6:77
An unexpected interpreter
The shaman’s wife acted as his assistant, fulfilling much of the logistical and hospitality duties. They were both dressed in ‘normal’ casual clothing, for comfort rather than for effect, although the shaman did wear additional Andean articles that looked more traditional, such as a hide poncho.
He was also carrying a sort of rolled blanket. After he unlocked the gate to the main Tulor dig site, tour assistants began moving things into the compound, including stacks of blankets.
Suddenly, a fellow tourist came to my side, a man probably around my age. He had a scholarly way to him. He informed me – in English – that it was time to enter Tulor so that the ceremony can begin.
As we walked, he asked if I understood any Spanish. I said no, but assured him that I knew this gap when I signed up. I just wanted to be present. He told me that the tour people had asked if he could assist me, when they discovered that he was bilingual. “My English is not so good,” he said. “But I will try my best.”
Considering my Spanish was far worse, how could I complain? I was grateful and touched by the gesture. Entering Tulor, he said, “I am Agustin,” and told me he was Argentinian.
Learning astronomy from the Lickanantai
The full moon ceremony did not begin straight away, however. Instead, we were led onto a plank walkway. By quick whispered summaries from Agustin, I learned that below the walkway were the archaeological digs.
I wondered if it were possible to visit Tulor in the daytime, for the archaeology, or whether the area was normally restricted.
The shaman pointed out the long line of the Andes range dominating the horizon before us. I know I must have missed big pieces, since Agustin couldn’t possibly convey everything in real time. But the shaman explained how the Lickanantai people had made the desert their home, and that one of the reasons it was so perfect was how well the Andes served as a calendar.
As the weeks and months pass on, the constellations rise from different parts of the mountain range in succession, allowing the Lickanantai an easy way to mark the passage of time and seasons. The various peaks made a sort of natural scale. It was so near and dear to the Atacameña, the indigenous people of Atacama, that the silhouette of their homes mimic the peaks of the Andes, the conical volcanoes in particular.
Indeed, seeing the desert night sky myself, and how clear the orbit of the moon was when you track it relative to where it rose behind the Andes line, I finally understood astronomy in that gut feel way I never did before.
The Lickanantai star map
The shaman then brought forward the bundle that he had carried into Tulor. We could now see that it was a skin – perhaps a llama or alpaca skin. He unrolled it. On its reverse side were sketches of some kind. It was a traditional copy of the Lickanantai astro map, etched on hide.
I remember it in bits and snatches. I remember the shaman showing how the map corresponded with the constellations in the sky and their Western names. There was the fox, and the shepherd. The llama lay next, with the shepherd in between, preventing the fox from it. He pointed out the Southern Cross, the bird, and the snake.
It suddenly brought to mind the navigation knowledge of the Rapa Nui, which I had recently learned from the museum on Easter Island. And with it, the astronomy myths of Greece and Arabia as well.
From the museum photos, I saw that the Rapa Nui used to teach their astronomy to their children at a very early age. I suppose when it is critical knowledge for people living on the edge, as for desert tribes and seafarers, you can’t start too young.
I have always marvelled at the ability of the ancients to recognise groups of constellations. Personally, I can pick out Orion and maybe Ursa Major by eye, but that’s about it. They don’t really look like bears or archers or whatever, if you ask me. There must have been a lot of idle stargazing and some serious pattern recognition talent, before someone figured it out.
Myth stories sure help remembering what the shapes are supposed to be, I thought idly, as the shaman continued in Spanish.
Epiphanies on the purpose of astro-mythology
Then a thought sneaked into my mind. What if… I got it backward all along? What if the stories were invented first, and the shapes were assigned to constellations to suit? What if in the very beginning, all the astronomy stories were merely made up by the wise ones of the tribes, to make it easier for their people to learn the knowledge, without needing to be as intelligent as they were? Like, as a sort of mnemonic device? I mean, wouldn’t I have done the same?
It takes effort to orally pass down these myths, so that they cut across countless generations. Priest classes might do it just for fun, but they’re nerds. Of course they would. Laypeople need a stronger reason to bother… for example if it helped them do something useful. Like planning hunts and farming, and navigation across hostile environments.
Which astronomy does. It was easy to see how myth stories became cemented as culture, and absorbed into religion. After all, stories have the best potential for passing on human information (albeit not super accurately) than any other medium. So much so that it is a contender as the means for passing on nuclear waste warnings to the future, that is capable of lasting the span of time it would need to.
Modern people look at indigenous culture patronisingly. But all culture is comprised of those beliefs that must be taught to every member, because it is (or was) crucial to the nation’s survival.
The gateway triangle of Aldebaraan
Agustin’s next summary was timely, as the shaman was pointing to a spot in the sky – the star Aldebaraan. He indicated two other stars which, together with Aldebaraan, formed a triangle of significance in the Lickanantai worldview.
According to their origin myth, man was originally a creature from somewhere else, and came on earth from the sky. They also knew where – we came through the space within this triangle.
For this reason, the triangle symbolises a gateway to another world, which is why you see this shape adorning churches and cemeteries in the region – San Pedro, for example.
I was elated to hear an answer to a days-old puzzle. Indeed, I had noticed the triangles along the perimeter wall of the church. There was another long wall along the way from town to my hostel, which was entirely topped by triangles. Later, I checked the online map and confirmed that indeed, it was the town cemetery.
Participating in the Lickanantai full moon ritual
It was time for the full moon ritual. We were led back down from the walkways to open ground. Assistants began laying out the blankets on the ground per the directions of the shaman.
Some of the tourists pitched in. Agustin relayed to me, that we were all participating, and the ritual required us to lie on the ground. Hence the blankets.
Say what? I had assumed we would be observing, not be part of the ceremony. But, with the language barrier, it was tricky for me to find out essential information about what the ceremony entailed.
The monotheism of a Muslim
For the benefit of my non-Muslim readers, I will explain the dilemma. The thing that a Muslim would definitely not do over all else, isn’t something like not drinking alcohol, or eating pork, even though these are among the big things, and are the sorts of things people associate with Muslims. They’re more noticeable only because they represent the most socially incompatible cultural differences between Muslims and Westerners, not because they’re the most fundamental.
Actually, the absolute minimum thing a Muslim does not do, is worship something other than God. Even pretending to, is a very big deal. So, I found myself in a situation where it would be difficult and impolite to withdraw. But at the same time I was not sure I needed to, since I didn’t actually know what the Lickanantai full moon ritual means.
As a seasoned traveller inspired by Ibn Battuta (and who has actually read his entire memoirs), well aware of the code for the traveller vs for those who just stay in their own lands, I am sufficiently knowledgable and quite willing to accommodate some grey area for the sake of common ground. But there is a line I wouldn’t cross.
Happily, as I tried to figure out how I might ask whether the full moon ritual was a ceremony worshipping the moon, Agustin spared me the task.
Lickanantai moon ritual
The Lickanantai full moon ritual, he translated, commemorates the descent of man from the heavens onto earth, whereupon the energies of heaven merged with energies on earth that formed him. The full moon is believed to emanate the heavenly energy, and by lying upon the earth, a ritual mediated by the shaman is supposed to sort of ‘reboot’ the self. Essentially, the world’s energies flow through and cleanse the soul.
I thought for a moment, and decided it was ok. It was not my belief, but since it did not have incompatible theological elements, I could accept playing along. After all, there are lots of everyday things I don’t necessarily believe in, but play along with anyway. Fiat currency, for one thing. Feng shui, sometimes.
Choosing a full moon ceremony prayer
We each took a blanket and sat in the moonlight. The night had begun to grow noticeably colder. I was glad I wore my new alpaca sweater under my heavy windbreaker, but wondered if it would get much colder.
The shaman was at his station, preparing. He knelt before some items he had brought with him and began reciting. He dug two holes in the ground, and buried what looked like herbs in one of them. Then he stood and invited each one of us to come forward to say a prayer of our choice, in the manner of our respective faiths.
I went blank. Geez, I’m totally not prepared for this. What should I do? What should I pray for? Were other people briefed in advance?
As I predictably defaulted to overthinking mode, an elderly Spanish lady went first. I saw her bow her head in silence, presumably praying silently. As she finished, she made the sign of the cross. Probably Catholic, I thought.
And somehow, the sight kicked some sense into me. It was really very simple.
I was the only Muslim present. There was one prayer that only I knew, that was coincidentally exactly right for the ritual. The prayer of those seeking to return Home beyond this world, the prayer that opens the Path to the gateway.
When my turn came, I got up and took the station. I turned – not to the moon – but to the Lord of the moon.
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy! Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, Master of the Day of Judgement. It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray.
The full moon ceremony ritual
When everyone had taken their turn, we lay on our blankets with our feet towards the north.
Since we were supposed to be in a meditative state, I don’t remember very much about this part. I do remember that the shaman passed over each of us, since he jangled bells over our bodies one by one. He rang a little bell for each; the ceremony seemed to involve a lot of bells.
Finally, we were called to rise. We sat up, and faced the moon for the close of the ceremony.
The Lickanantai traditional village architecture
The full moon ceremony tour included a light social at the end. It was held inside a reconstructed traditional adobe house within the grounds, which was a really nice touch.
The shaman’s wife led us through the low entryway, and showed us how the traditional architecture consisted of round rooms connecting to a common room with a fire. If the family grew and needed more rooms, you simply built another common room with its own adjoining rooms, and connect both sets with a corridor.
Pro tip: You wouldn’t think so, but no matter how hot Atacama gets in the daytime, the nights are cold. I wish I had worn some thermals underneath! Dress warmly for nighttime tours. Also, there are no bathrooms at this site, so bear that in mind if you’re lucky enough to get on this tour! Even more incentive not to get cold!
Enjoying Lickanantai hospitality
In one such common room, a fire was already kindled in the pit, bringing in welcome warmth. Some light snacks were served, as well as drinks – pisco sour, or tea from a thermos. I was kindly attended to by the shaman’s wife, and helped myself to some cakes and tea.
Agustin left my side so that he could converse with the shaman directly, doubtless to learn more about the Lickanantai culture. I couldn’t really blame him, I’d have done the same. I thanked him for his generous assistance.
Sighing over my lack of Spanish, I was nonetheless too cold and sleepy to do anything about it. By this time I was hitting my limit for cold tolerance, for the nighttime temperature had kept dropping. The lady who sold me the Rainbow Valley tour spied me, and came over to thank me for telling her about the full moon tour. (Yes, this tour is so obscure that even a nearby fellow tour agent did not know about it).
Once the demands of hospitality were deemed to be met, we were gathered together. We thanked the shaman for the experience, and were shuttled back to our respective lodgings.
Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
I went to Atacama Desert as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Atacama Desert specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Calama via Sydney and Santiago, produces carbon emissions of approximately 15,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $77 to offset this.
What would you have done, if you stumbled upon a tour like this?