Thursday, July 7, 2011

Speaking of the Stars....

Some comments in the Fellowship of Isis group on Facebook got me to thinking about the stars and constellations, and our relationship to the skies in the modern Western world. We have done many things that have ultimately disconnected us from a sense of the natural movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars, but one of the most devastating has been our "blinding of the night," a phenomenon that astronomers refer to as "light pollution." With 4 out of 5 of us now living in urban or suburban environments, most of us never look up at night and see anything but the Moon and a really bright star or two—we've lost the sight of the many stars and how they relate to one another.

If you spend the night out in the country, or in a wilderness area away from the lights, you will suddenly be confronted with a vast multitude of stars, bright, medium, dim, and what looks like "star smears"—typically parts of the Milky Way. These are the constellations that our ancestors viewed, named, and told stories about, and the ones that we encounter in Lady Olivia's star dramas.

In the West, most of the names we have today for both constellations and stars have passed down to us from the Arabs of the Middle Ages, who preserved Greek philosophy and lore, and added their own. We are learning from archeology, and particularly from the field of archeoastronomy, that almost all ancient civilizations had their own configurations of stars (which is what "constellation" means, "with stars") that tied into their moral stories, the timing of events in their environments, and the movements of the Sun, Moon, and planets.

Seven planets (which means "wandering stars") are visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, along with the Sun and Moon. Mercury is very difficult to see, as it never gets more than about 30-degrees away from the Sun, and will always be low on the horizon in the twilight glow. Venus, on the other hand, gets up to 45-degrees away from the Sun, either as the morning or evening star, and is the brightest object in the sky other than the Moon. As a result, Venus has often been a highly significant object to ancient peoples—but not always as a signal of femininity or love as from Western culture; the Maya, for example, used the transitions of Venus from morning to evening and back as a timing signal in their inter-city warring.

Jupiter is nearly as bright as Venus, and can be anywhere in the sky along the Zodiac when it is visible; it is a bright golden star. Saturn is also golden, but dimmer than Jupiter and a bit harder to see. Mars, as you may already know, is a rusty red color, and fairly bright, especially at opposition, when it will be overhead at midnight.

Stars themselves come in many colors and brightness variations. Sirius, which is visible at night from mid-October to late March, is a bright, clear blue. It was considered the star of Isis, or sometimes of Anubis, by the ancient Egyptians, and is the brightest star in our sky. It is also one of the closest stars to us here on Earth, being only about 8 light-years away. (For those of you who don't know, a light-year is the distance it takes light to travel over the course of a single year.)

In the middle part of the year, from about April through November, another bright blue star can be seen high overhead at night. This is Vega, which the Egyptians considered to be "the Star of Ma'at." It is interesting to speculate on the meaning of that, because Vega is one of the stars around which the north pole in the sky circles over its 25,000 year precessional course, and was last our pole star towards the end of the last Ice Age, 12,500 years ago.

Another star of considerable significance to the ancient Egyptians was Canopus, a bright golden star located in the southern reaches of the sky. It is just visible from the southern parts of the US and, of course, is a northern star to all our members south of the Equator. <grin> Canopus symbolized the headwaters of the Nile to the ancient Egyptians, and is the origin of the term "canopic jars" that housed the internal organs of the mummified dead.

There are many more colorful stars—red Antares, in Scorpio; red Betelgeuse in Orion; red Aldebaran in Taurus; golden Arcturus, Regulus, and Capella; blue Spica and Rigel; and others. There are double stars, such as the middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper—which used to be used as a test of eyesight—and nebulae like the one at the end of Orion's sword, where new stars are being born. Orion, a constellation near Sirius, was considered a form of Osiris resurrected, to which the souls of the dead journeyed in the afterlife to be reborn—surely it's a coincidence that there is a baby-star factory located there? <grin>

I hope to continue talking about the stars as we go forward. They have been mankind's long companions in our journey to Today, and their rising, setting, and shimmering overhead have informed many cultures of the times and seasons of their lives. We live so much by the clock in the modern world that we may forget our connection with the lights in the sky entirely, but they are still there, patiently waiting for us to remember them.

The Rt. Rev. Michael A. Starsheen, Archpr. H.

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