Friday, June 10, 2011

Mars, Venus, and the Pleiades

Right now, early in the morning, there is a planetary conjunction taking place, the implications of which are truly remarkable and even breathtaking.

Very low in the sky, about an hour before sunrise, Venus is within five degrees of the Pleiades, and Mars is eight degrees above and to the right of Venus (for observers in the northern hemisphere).

Because the planets all travel along the ecliptic path (the same path that the sun travels as well), the rising points of Mars and Venus will be in roughly the same area of the eastern horizon from which the sun will rise an hour later. Specifically, Mars will rise at 4:11 am on June 11 at an azimuth of 67o for observers at latitude 35o north. Venus will rise at 4:45 am on June 11 at an azimuth of 65o for observers at latitude 35o north.

Like Orion, the Pleiades are an extremely important group of stars (they are not, strictly speaking, a constellation), and one that is associated in our epoch with winter, because that is when they can be found high in the night sky. However, right now they rise above the eastern horizon very early in the morning before being blotted out by the sunrise. On June 11, the Pleiades rise at about 4:34 am in the same vicinity as the planets just mentioned (the Pleiades are located on the ecliptic, and so they are often visited by planets).

The Pleiades are incredibly beautiful and unforgettable. They are located in the constellation Taurus, and appear to the naked eye as a tiny sparkling cloud studded with six blue stars. As can be seen in the NASA image above, there are actually many more than six stars in the Pleiades cluster, and in fact they are associated with the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the nymph Pleione (hence they are sometimes called "the Seven Sisters"). Their names are Maia, Electra, Celaeno, Taygeta, Merope, Alcyone, and Sterope.

But it gets better . . .

The fact that Venus and Mars are close to one another in the pre-dawn sky and close to the Pleiades recalls a famous myth recounted in the Odyssey during Odysseus' visit to Phaeacia, in the court of king Alcinous. There, we are told, the bard Demodocus sings for the assembled guests the "irresistable song" of "The Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with Flowers."

Ares, of course, is the Greek name for Mars, while Aphrodite corresponds to Venus. In Hamlet's Mill, as we have already seen, the scholars Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend put forward the startling argument that the stars were not named after the gods, but rather that the gods were named after the stars (see this previous post). The planets are the active powers among the heavenly objects, moving among the background of the fixed stars and constellations. The ancient people encoded and preserved their knowledge of these movements in the myths that they wrote, myths so "irresistable" that they have in fact survived to this day and are still fairly well known many thousands of years later.

In Chapter 11 of their far-ranging treatise, de Santillana and von Dechend point to a perceptive ancient writer who explained this very thesis almost two thousand years ago:
Lucian of Samosata, that most delightful writer of antiquity, the inventor of modern "science fiction," who knew how to be light and ironic on serious subjects without frivolity, and was fully aware of the "ancient treasure," remarked once that the ludicrous story of Hephaistos the Lame surprising his wife Aphrodite in bed with Mars, and pinning down the couple with a net to exhibit their shame to the other gods, was not an idle fancy, but must have referred to a conjunction of Mars and Venus, and it is fair to add, a conjunction in the Pleiades.

This little comedy may serve to show the design, which turns out to be constant: the constellations were seen as the setting, or the dominating influences, or even only the garments at the appointed time by the Powers in various disguises on their way through their heavenly adventures. 177.
This revelation is stunning, and it is completely defensible from the myth itself, as we shall see in a moment. It is all the more stunning in that this very conjunction is taking place right now! Why this is not front-page news is either a testament to the rather low opinion we have of the scientific knowledge our very ancient predecessors, or to the fact that the true meaning of these encoded stories have always been jealously guarded from the masses, who were not intended to understand them.

Let's examine the story of Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaistos in greater detail, using the superlative translation of the late Professor Robert Fagles:
now the bard struck up an irresistible song:
The Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with Flowers . . .
how the two had first made love in Hephaestus' mansion,
all in secret. Ares had showered her with gifts
and showered Hephaestus' marriage bed with shame
but a messenger ran to tell the god of fire --
Helios, lord of the sun, who'd spied the couple
lost in each other's arms and making love.
Hephaestus, hearing the heart-wounding story,
bustled toward his forge, brooding on his revenge --
planted the huge anvil on its block and beat out chains,
not to be slipped or broken, all to pin the lovers on the spot.
This snare the Firegod forged, ablaze with his rage at War,
then limped to the room where the bed of love stood firm
and round the posts he poured the chains in a sweeping net
with streams of others flowing down from the roofbeam,
gossamer-fine as spider webs no man could see,
not even a blissful god -- VIII.301-318
Homer goes on to explain that, having set the trap, Hephaestus pretended to head off on a business trip, in order to give his wife and the god of war the opportunity to fall into it. Sure enough, no sooner has he departed than Ares strides in, grasps her hand, and leads her off to bed, where they eventually fall asleep. The cunning chains then descend over them, and the Sungod, who has been keeping watch for Hephaestus, sees the two, and notifies the angry husband. Hephaestus comes limping in and begins to roar with anger and sorrow, summoning all the immortals, who gather around and begin to laugh at the hapless couple, pinned down by the net in their bed of love.

Now that we have been alerted to them, the celestial elements of the story could not be more clear -- note the important role played by the sun, who is twice mentioned as the one who spies Venus and Mars as they are lingering together. Note that Venus (and Mercury) make their orbits closer to the sun than does earth, so that in order to see them from earth one must be looking generally towards the sun. That's why they are either seen around sunrise or sunset, and not long before or after the rising or setting sun (Venus for this reason is alternately the Morning Star and the Evening Star). They will never be seen arcing across the night sky -- if we were to spot one of them high in the sky at midnight (when we are facing away from the sun) that would mean they were suddenly orbiting the sun outside of earth's orbit, but because that will never happen we will never see them out there. Thus, to have a conjunction in or near the Pleiades, the Pleiades themselves must be located near the horizon around sunrise or sunset -- and from the context of the bard's song, we can see that we are talking about a sunrise, when Helios comes upon the two lovers.

Some of the jests made by the other immortals as they laugh at Ares and Aphrodite in their predicament point out how the speedy god Ares has been caught by the slow, crippled god Hephaestus: no doubt a reference to the relative speed of orbit of Ares (the closest of the planets that is outside of earth's orbit, and hence the fastest of the planets that cross the entire night sky) and Hephaestus, whom de Santillana and von Dechend elsewhere explain (with arguments that go far beyond the scope of a single blog post, and almost beyond the scope of a single book) is associated in a mysterious way with Kronos-Saturn (as is Prometheus), the furthest of the visible planets beyond earth and one with a much slower orbit (for more on the importance of Saturn, see this post).

The implications of this little-understood connection between myth and science are very deep. This discussion is almost certainly related to the subject we discussed in the previous post entitled "God and the gods."

This very myth is now being played out in the early morning sky (while Venus and Mars are not precisely within the Pleiades right now, they are close enough to illustrate the story). Don't miss it!

note: there are several websites that will show you the relative locations of the planets in the morning -- Venus lowest, Mars above and to the right (for viewers in the northern hemisphere), and Jupiter above and right of that (all arranged along the ecliptic path). This website includes a video that shows their positions before dawn.