Monday, March 4, 2013

The Beehive and its significance

The next several nights are excellent for viewing the night stars, with a host of bright constellations wheeling overhead in the hours after sunset.  

With the moon not rising until well after midnight (and getting later every night), the gorgeous constellations of Taurus (with the Hyades and Pleiades and the brilliant golden planet Jupiter spending time in the vicinity as he has for the past several months), Orion (the constellation with the most bright stars in the sky and one of the most important of all the constellations in terms of ancient myth) and the rest of the stars of the "Winter Circle" which includes Castor and Pollux of Gemini, and Leo now rising in the east ahead of Virgo and Saturn lower towards the eastern horizon, it is a spectacle not to be missed.

As this week's SkyWeek (above) makes clear, this is an excellent time of year to locate the breathtaking Beehive Cluster, also known as the Praesepe and as Messier 44.  The Beehive is a gorgeous cluster of stars in the zodiac constellation of Cancer.  Cancer is located along the ecliptic between Gemini (ahead of it in the march of the stars from the eastern horizon towards the western horizon) and Leo (behind it, closer to the eastern horizon and trailing Cancer in the march from the east to the west).

The Beehive can be located by following the line from the brilliant and colorful duo of Castor and Pollux (in  Gemini) towards the majestic outline of Leo with his red star Regulus.  It is almost exactly halfway to Regulus from Castor and Pollux, but not quite halfway.  With binoculars, the Beehive is very easy to spot along this line -- nearly straight up around 10pm.  Be sure to aim your binos towards the level of the sky occupied by Castor and Pollux (they are pretty high up) and then proceed towards Leo until you see the beautiful and unmistakeable cluster of the Beehive.

While the video above makes it sound as though the ancients did not think of the Beehive as a cluster of stars (because with the naked eye it appears only as a milky glow), there is strong evidence to suggest that they not only knew it as a "swarm" of stars but also as a Beehive!

In the ancient text of Judges (in the Old Testament), there is the well-known story of Samson, who slew a Lion on his way down to Timnath, and then found a Beehive (actually, a "swarm of bees") on his way back up from the same journey.  By the way, his trip down to Timnath (upon which he encountered the Lion) was to meet a beautiful "woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines" (Judges 14) -- in other words, a Virgin.

This account from Judges 14 is precisely the correct order for the zodiac constellations, as you can see by going outside in the evening after sunset on any of the next several nights.  A traveler on his way down to meet the Virgin (low in the east) would first encounter Leo, and on the way back up would pass again through Leo before crossing the Beehive Cluster (high in the night sky now, on the way to Gemini and Orion).

As Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend make very clear in their magnum opus Hamlet's Mill (1969) the entire story of Samson incorporates unmistakeable astronomical references.  They devote an entire chapter to the importance of Samson (Chapter 11, "Samson Under Many Skies").  However, they never really come out and state very plainly what they are talking about, and so they only hint at the  reference to the Beehive (this is typical of Hamlet's Mill, which can be somewhat difficult to read at first, but which opens itself up to the reader after several re-readings).

Elsewhere in that work, again without drawing out all the connections for the reader, de Santillana and von Dechend point out (in two different places) that the ancient Babylonians referred to the constellation Cancer as "the Carpenter."  For example, on page 314, they write:
And along with this consideration, the proper attention will have to be paid to the Babylonian name of Cancer, namely Nangar(u), "the Carpenter."  This is essential, because in the twelfth tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, preserved only in Sumerian language, Gilgamesh complains bitterly of having lost his "pukku and mikku," instead of having left them "in the house of the carpenter," where they would have been safe, apparently.

This clue is intriguing, as the Beehive was known to the ancients by another name -- Praesepe.  Praesepe, as the video above points out, means "the Manger."  Now, it is extremely interesting that the cluster known to the ancients as "the Manger" is to be found in the house of "the Carpenter."

Clearly, the Beehive had tremendous ancient significance, encoded in ancient myth stretching back to very distant times.  Be sure to take a pair of binoculars outside on the next several dark nights, and marvel at this beautiful and important celestial grouping.