Monday, May 14, 2012

Scorpio rising into prominence in the late evening sky

The beautiful and distinctive constellation of the Scorpion is one of the landmarks of the summer sky.  In the northern hemisphere, the Scorpion makes his way across the southern portion of the sky, with most of the constellation below the plane of the ecliptic, which itself is below the celestial equator at night (and above it during the day for observers in the northern hemisphere between the March and September equinoxes -- see diagrams and discussion here).  This southerly position means that for observers in the mid- to upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere, the Scorpion stays low in the south and never gets very high above the southern horizon, even at his highest point during the night.

The constellation Scorpio (or Scorpius) is not difficult to find, following in a line behind Virgo (there is another zodiac constellation between Virgo and Scorpio, the faint but interesting constellation Libra, which we can ignore for this discussion, because you have to really be looking in order to find it).  To find Virgo, see this previous post.  Virgo follows directly behind the unmistakable and majestic constellation of Leo, which is currently high overhead after sunset and still graced by the presence of the red planet Mars (no longer in retrograde and now heading back towards Virgo), easily visible with the naked eye.  For a post discussing the important connection between the Lion and the constellation Virgo, see here.

The constellation Scorpio is described in this previous post, which contains an embedded video with gorgeous high-definition time-lapse photography of the night sky as it circles through the night (due to the rotation of the earth), much of it featuring the brilliant and sinuous form of the Scorpion.  It is easy to spot, currently rising up vertically from the eastern horizon beginning about an hour or two after sunset.  

About a third of the way down the Scorpion's long body (before the amazing hook of the tail) is the bright red star Antares (the "anti-Ares" or rival to Mars, presumably because of its dazzling red color), shown on the diagram above as the largest circle connected by the lines that form the constellation.  Antares currently rises above the horizon shortly after 9 p.m. for observers in the northern hemisphere at latitudes around 35 degrees north.  By the time Antares is above the horizon, the forward part of the constellation (including the formidable claws, which really look something like an arcing bow, as you can see from the diagram above)  should be clearly recognizable if you know what you are looking for and where to look.

As that previous post with the time-lapse video explains, scholars Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend -- the authors of the influential and controversial Hamlet's Mill (1969) -- found connections in the Scorpio legends stretching from ancient Sumer and Egypt all the way across the oceans to the Native Americans of both North and South America, and then across the Pacific into Polynesian legend as well.

They note that ancient sources including Orphic and Pythagorean tradition and the writings of Macrobius all attest to a belief that the souls of the dead travel across the sky in the Milky Way before being reincarnated (at times it is also explained that they are given a drink of forgetfulness either as the enter the Milky Way or before they leave it to return to a new incarnation).  Because the Scorpion is located at one of the "gates" of the Milky Way (the southern gate, the northern being located near the Twins and the "Gate of Cancer" -- see discussions here and here), various mythologies and traditions from around the globe seem to have a scorpion goddess who greets the souls of the departed as they enter the next world.  

De Santillana and von Dechend identify the goddess Ishara (found in the Gilgamesh series of ancient Sumer and Babylon) with this tradition -- she was a love goddess as well as a goddess of the underworld, and she was associated with the constellation of the Scorpion.  The Egyptian goddess Selket or Selqet (also Serket or Serqet) was also clearly associated with this tradition according to evidence cited in Hamlet's Mill.

Interestingly, de Santillana and von Dechend also cite Maori tradition of the souls of the dead entering the Milky Way on one end and emerging on the other, as well as Native American traditions from widely separated geographical locations.  The direction of travel sometimes varies (either south to north or north to south), but the role of a scorpion goddess who receives the souls of the dead or nurses them before they are reincarnated is a motif that resonates across many cultures around the world.  They explain:  
Among the Sumo in Honduras and Nicaragua their "Mother Scorpion . . . is regarded as dwelling at the end of the Milky Way, where she receives the souls of the dead, and from her, represented as a mother with many breasts, at which children take suck, come the souls of the newborn." [H. B. Alexander, Latin American Mythology (1916), p. 185.].  Whereas the Pawnee and Cherokee say [S. Hagar, "Cherokee Star-Lore," in Festschrift Boas (1906), p. 363; H. B. Alexander, North American Mythology, p. 117]: "the souls of the dead are received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way, where it bifurcates, and he directs the warriors upon the dim and difficult arm, women and those who die of old age upon the brighter and easier path.  The souls then journey southwards.  At the end of the celestial pathway they are received by the Spirit Star, and there they make their home."  One can quietly add "for a while," or change it to "there they make their camping place."  Hagar takes the "Spirit Star" to be Antares (alpha Scorpii).  243.
On the next page, the authors also make note of the tradition of the "Old goddess with the scorpion tail" among the Maya, and her similarity in role to Selket-Serqet of ancient Egypt (244).

All these traditions regarding the constellation Scorpio and the Milky Way as the pathway of the dead may have arisen in complete isolation among the ancient Orphic and Pythagorean traditions (which many astute analysts have shown to have strong hints of Egyptian ancestry) and the pre-Columbian cultures of the "New World," as conventional historians are bound to insist, but the harmonies between them are extremely strong.  

Nor are these parallels the only data points which hint at an ancient connection between cultures separated by the world's mighty oceans (or perhaps between some unknown forerunners of those cultures).  For other startling connections between the traditions of the Maya and the events of the Gilgamesh epic, see this previous post, and for a list of numerous other pieces of evidence suggesting ancient contact not acknowledged by the conventional narrative of human history, see this previous post.

In light of the above discussion of the widespread tradition of the scorpion goddess as the one who receives and nurtures the souls at the gate of the Milky Way, the image below of the gold-covered statue of Selket guarding the burial shrine that contained the nested mummy cases that held the body of Tutankhamun is significant.  Note the scorpion on her head.  This intimate location nearest to the body of the departed king surely is important confirmation of the themes discussed in Hamlet's Mill about the importance of the constellation of the Scorpion.