Sunday, January 26, 2014

Columba, the Dove

This is an excellent time of year to look for the constellations beneath Orion, because Orion is now arcing highest across the sky in the hours before midnight, allowing viewers in the northern hemisphere especially to gaze at some of the constellations beneath his feet which are not easily visible during other parts of the year.

In particular, the constellation Columba the Dove is a rare treat for star-gazers this time of year, and one with important connotations.

To find Columba, the method that I use is to start from Canis Major, the Big Dog.  Canis Major is very easy to locate because it contains Sirius, the brightest "fixed star" in the sky.  For greater appreciation of the profound importance of Sirius, see the fascinating information discussed in this and this previous post.  Sirius, or Sothis in the Hellenized version of the Egyptian name for this star, was associated with the goddess Isis, the consort of Osiris, and Osiris was associated with the constellation Orion.  Sirius is very easy to locate near the constellation of Orion, following the line of his brilliant and easily-recognized belt towards its "lower" edge as it sits on his body -- for some directions, see this previous post or check out the star chart below, which shows Orion and Canis Major, as well as the location of Columba in relation to them:

Sirius is sitting on the upper shoulder of the Dog, and the four brightest stars of the constellation itself form a long rectangle which is the easiest way to trace the rest of its outline.  The lower two stars of this bright rectangle of Canis Major point right to the fainter stars of Columba the Dove.

Another landmark which can help you locate Columba the Dove is the constellation Lepus the Hare directly under the feet of Orion.  I personally do not really like the way it is outlined in the chart above: the way I prefer to outline it in my mind when I look at the sky is shown in the red lines in the chart below:

Not only is this outline much easier (for me) to trace in the sky, but it also really resembles the "Set Beast," whose distinctive shape is discussed in this previous post.  That post also includes some discussion of the theory advanced by Jane B. Sellers in Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt, in which she provides compelling arguments that the head of Lepus resembles the Set Beast and that its location under the feet of Orion corresponds to an ancient Egyptian myth regarding the judgment of Set by the Ennead of Egyptian powers.

As Lepus is outlined in the red lines of the chart above, his snout-like face is looking down towards Columba: specifically, directly towards the distinctive "triangle" of Columba which you can see in the chart above and which contains Columba's brightest and most important star, Phact (or alpha Columbae).  Using the two guidelines just described (the line drawn by the lower two stars of the rectangle in Canis Major, and the direction of the gaze of the "Set Beast" of Lepus located below the feet of Orion), you should be able to easily spot the triangle of Columba containing the star Phact.

Actually, there will be two "triangles" in the region of Columba if you are able to locate it in the sky.  Those two triangles are shown in the star chart below, where I have indicated them using blue lines to show you what you are most likely to see in the night sky when you go out to try to find the constellation Columba:

Columba is a very faint constellation, and very low in the sky for stargazers in latitudes above about 30 degrees in the northern hemisphere, so you may need to get away from any light pollution, even if you live in a very small town.  Your best bet is probably to drive out to where there are farmer's fields, if possible, and try to go after 9 pm, when Orion and Columba are heading towards their highest point in the heavens, which they reach right about midnight during this time of year.  In fact, as we will see in a moment, the "culmination" of Phact, when it reaches its highest point, takes place at midnight every year on one day in the current epoch, and that day is January 26th (today!), according to the Richard Hinckley Allen book cited below (with links).

The faint constellations below Orion are just about impossible to see except at the time of night at which Orion has gotten high up on his arc across the heavens; if he is lower on his arc (either on his way up from the eastern horizon or back down towards the western) then the constellations below his feet will be more likely to be below the horizon, or washed out by any glow near the horizon caused by electric lights from cities and towns.  Since Columba is below Lepus, and Lepus itself is below the feet of Orion, this means that it is really only during this time of year that northern hemisphere viewers have much chance at all of seeing Columba and Phact.

Columba is often described as a "modern constellation," since it was not included in the forty-eight constellations discussed by the extremely important ancient astronomer Ptolemy in his Almagest. The importance of the forty-eight constellations of Ptolemy is touched upon in this previous post on the "macrocosm" and "microcosm."  The importance of Ptolemy's work for deducing the existence of a far more advanced understanding of precession by ancients who lived thousands of years before Ptolemy is touched upon in this previous post.

While Ptolemy may not have mentioned the Dove, that does not necessarily mean that Columba was not an ancient constellation, however.  For example, in his 1899 publication Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, talented polymath Richard Hinckley Allen (1838 - 1908) discusses Columba on this page, where he notes that the important esoteric philosopher Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150 - AD 215) mentions a constellation which he calls Columba and associates it with the Ship.  In fact, Columba is very close to the mighty constellation of Argo Navis (the Ship Argo), which is located below Canis Major and standing somewhat vertically, so that it is mostly below the horizon for northern hemisphere viewers unless they are further south than 30 degrees north latitude.

This association with the Ship constellation brings up the fact that a Dove-Ship combination features very prominently in ancient myth-cycles from multiple cultures.  The most obvious of these include the Dove that helped guide the Argo with Jason and the Argonauts (in Greek legend) through the Clashing Rocks of the Symplegades.  This important myth is discussed in Hamlet's Mill page 318, where the authors hint that the Clashing Rocks represent the March equinox, and that the voyage of those on the Quest for the Golden Fleece defeating the Clashing Rocks represent the movement of the Sun into a new "gateway" for the equinox: in other words, the dawn of a new precessional age (in this case, probably the Age of Aries, since the Argonauts were questing for the Golden Fleece of a Ram).  This connection between the Symplegades and the new equinox gate is discussed in conjunction with other myths of the same nature in Chapter Four of my 2011 book, The Mathisen Corollary (on page 85).

Another important ancient Ship which is clearly associated with a Dove is, of course, the Ark of Noah. Both of these prominent Ship-Dove combinations should be decisive proof that the ancients knew of the constellation we today call Columba, that they saw it as a Dove, and that they paired it with the Ship constellation, which is right next-door to Columba.

These ancient connections should be enough to get you excited about going out to look for Columba yourself, if you can possibly do so.  But there's even more!  In his 1940 book Lost Light: An Interpretation of Ancient Scriptures (discussed in this previous post, which also contains links to enable you to read the whole thing online), Alvin Boyd Kuhn discusses the spiritual significance of the symbol of the dove, and connects this discussion to the constellation Columba and specifically the star Phact (alpha Columbae). 

Noting that in the New Testament, the Holy Ghost is described as descending upon the baptism of Jesus (which he explains on page 395 to be "in itself a complete representation of the incarnational experience"), Kuhn writes:
Then the immersion took place.  And it was at the conclusion of the rite that the spirit from heaven descended upon him in the symbol of the dove.  This bird, sharing the role with the hawk and bennu or phoenix, emblemed primarily the life-giving power of the third element, air (mind).  Dove is traced to "Tef," the breathing force.  It stands in general for the divine energy of the soul.  In the planisphere another star beside Sothis, somewhat farther south, stood in position to announce the coming of the solar year and the sun-god.  This was the star Phact, the Dove.  The hawk, allied to the dove, was the divine symbol of Horus.  When divinized Horus received the hawk, Jesus the dove.  Horus rose as the dove as well as the hawk; for he exclaims: "I am the Dove; I am the Dove!"  396.
Note that in the Richard Hinckley Allen book linked previously, the discussion by that author of Columba and the star Phact includes the following interesting paragraph:
Although inconspicuous, Lockyer thinks that it [that is, Phact] was of importance in Egyptian temple worship, and observed from Edfu and Philae as far back as 6400 BC; but that it was succeeded by Sirius about 3000 BC, as alpha Ursae Majoris was by gamma Draconis in the north.  And he has found three temples at Medinet Habu, adjacent to each other, yet differently oriented, apparently towards alpha [Phact], 2525, 1250, and 900 years before our era: all these to the god Amen.  He thinks that as many as twelve different temples were oriented to this star; but the selection of so faint an object for so important a purpose would seem doubtful.
In that paragraph, Allen is commenting upon (and disagreeing somewhat) with the findings of the famous mathemetician, scientist, golfer, and lover of poetry, Norman Lockyer (who is credited with discovering helium, and who was also an early and influential archeo-astronomer).  Allen argues that so faint a star as Phact would hardly be the object of as many temple-alignments as Lockyer ascribed to the star by the ancient Egyptians, but the passage from Alvin Boyd Kuhn cited just before may argue otherwise.  

Note Kuhn's extremely interesting assertion that our modern English word "dove" is etymologically related to the ancient Egyptian word "Tef" (note that "t" is an unvoiced "d," and "f" is an unvoiced "v," so that the words "Tef" and "dove" are really linguistically close relatives, and nearly linguistically interchangeable).  The Egyptian goddess Tefnut was the twin sister of Shu the air, and the mother of Nut the starry sky and Geb the earth.

For all these reasons, it is important to become familiar with this fascinating (if somewhat difficult to locate) constellation, and the next few weeks will be some of the best times all year to go outside and appreciate it for yourself.