Friday, February 14, 2014

The Big Dipper and the Lion

This is a terrific time of year to view the majestic pairing of the Big Dipper and the zodiac sign of Leo the Lion, two constellations which are actually "paired" in the sky.

Right now, in the hours between sunset and midnight (prime viewing hours for those who keep rather "normal" sleep schedules), the almost-universally familiar form of the Big Dipper is standing almost vertical when viewed by observers in the northern hemisphere (see diagram above).  

The constellation of Leo the Lion is actually "geared" to the Big Dipper as shown in the diagram, such that the bottom of the "spoon" of the dipper is roughly parallel to the back of the Lion: they look almost like the coastlines of two continents which are now separated by the Atlantic Ocean but which once fit together, having drifted apart as described by the theory of gradual "continental drift" or by the far more-likely hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown.  

Of course, I am not suggesting that continental drift also took place in the heavens and that the constellations of the Dipper and the Lion were once joined together!  This is just a metaphor to describe the nice parallel "fit" and relative positions of the two groupings of stars, and to help the skywatcher to think of the two constellations as part of the same heavenly mechanism.

Those who may be familiar with the Big Dipper but not as familiar with the figure of Leo the Lion can find tips on locating Leo in previous posts such as this one and this one.  Also, as beloved author H. A. Rey describes in his wonderful and essential guide The Stars: A New Way to See Them, the rear two stars in the cup of the Dipper can be used to point an arrow directly to Regulus, the brightest star of the Lion (see diagram below).  Of this brightest star in Leo, H. A. Rey writes:
The brightest one, REGULUS, is easy to find when the Big Dipper is high up: use the two stars of the Dipper's bowl next to the handle and draw a straight line toward the Bear's paws and beyond; it will first hit the star in the Lion's shoulder and then Regulus.  Bluish-white Regulus is the faintest of our 1st-mag. stars but even so it shines about twice as bright as Polaris.  It is about 80 light-years away and over 100 times as luminous as the sun.  34.

The Big Dipper, of course, revolves rather closely around the north celestial pole, that point in the heavens around which all the northern hemisphere stars revolve.  In his wonderful and essential guide The Stars: A New Way to See Them, H. A. Rey describes the north celestial pole using the metaphor of the central point in the middle of an opened umbrella (page 22).  The central point is the north celestial pole (marked in our current epoch by the "North Star," Polaris), and the inner surface of the opened umbrella is the night sky.  

If you revolve the umbrella by turning the handle (you should turn it counterclockwise if you want it to revolve in the correct direction around the north celestial pole), you will see the constellations inscribed on the inner surface of the opened umbrella rotate the way the constellations in the night sky rotate around the North Star.  The Big Dipper would be rather close to the North Star, rotating around it each day as the earth revolves on its axis (the axis points to the north celestial pole, which is why the sky seems to revolve around that point).  The stars of the Dipper, in fact, are among the "imperishable" or "undying stars," the name the ancient Egyptians gave to those stars which are close enough to the celestial pole that they never drop below the horizon (the way the stars farther out towards the edges of the "umbrella" do plunge below the horizon at the end of their circuit to the west).

Because the Dipper and the Lion are "geared" together as shown in the diagram above, as the Dipper rotates upward it "drags" along the Lion across the sky.  When the Dipper is rising vertically in the east, as it is doing now in the hours before midnight, the Lion is also rising mostly vertically in the east (as depicted in the diagram).  As the sky continues to revolve (or, more precisely, as the earth itself revolves on its axis through the night), the Dipper continues upward and the Lion proceeds across the sky, as if propelled by the turning of the "inner gear" marked by the Dipper's circle.  

Of course, during some parts of the year, the Dipper is on the lower half of its turning during the nighttime hours, so the Lion is below the horizon during the nighttime hours, and is washed out by the sun during the daytime hours when he is above the horizon.  During those months, the Lion is not visible at night.  Right now, however, he is coming into the best time of year to view his form in the night sky.

(For the next few days, the moon is traveling into the constellation of Leo, and it will be a full moon tomorrow night, so the moon will interfere with an observer's ability to see all the stars of Leo clearly, but after the moon reaches full it will begin to wane and become less and less of a dominant presence in the night sky, on its way to new moon; the moon will also continue to move through the constellations and out of Leo into Virgo after a couple of days).  

The turning motion of the seven stars of the Big Dipper (which are, properly speaking, not a complete constellation but an "asterism" within the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great bear) was invested with great spiritual significance by the ancient sacred traditions found the world over.  In his masterful 1940 book Lost Light: An Interpretation of Ancient Scripture (discussed in this previous post and available to read online via links in that post), Alvin Boyd Kuhn writes of the Big Dipper:
Neith is Hathor, the Egyptian Venus, the mother of life, twofold in character as liquid and aeriform.  Her celestial representative was Ursa Major, the Great Bear (or Bearer, suggests Massey), the great dipper in which the water of life was held, and from which, as it turned around the pole, it was periodically poured out and again dipped up! [. . .] So this great sidereal directory of the heavens became the greatest of astronomical symbols to the ancients, dramatizing the seven great elemetary mother powers of nature that periodically arose out of the waters of life.  Operated by its handle of three stars, typing the solar triad of mind, soul and spirit, it caught up the living waters in its four-starred cup, the fourfold physical basis of all things.  272.
This explication of the Big Dipper, with a three-fold handle that represents the trinity of mind, soul, and spirit, operating a four-fold cup that cyclically pours out and dips up again (representing successive incarnation in the material realm of the four-fold cross of matter, discussed in this previous post and in the numerical system of the ancient Pythagoreans) is amazing and profound.

A lion and a bear are common elements in heraldry and other iconography, and it is more than likely that their pairing originates from the close pairing of the constellations of Ursa Major and Leo the Lion in the heavens.  The connection is further cemented by the frequency in which a single star is paired with the bear in the depictions, whether the bear is by itself (such as in the California flag) or whether the bear is with a lion (such as can be seen, for example, in the logo of the Firestone Walker Brewing Company, here).  The close association of the bear and star symbology no doubt is a direct reference to the close association of the heavenly Bear (and its Big Dipper) with the North Star.

But regardless of its use in earthly symbology, the profound spiritual message of the endlessly revolving Big Dipper, with its seven stars grouped into a handle of three and a cup of four, is even more universal and can be claimed by all human beings.  Over the next few weeks, you may want to spend some time enjoying the glorious sight of the vertical Big Dipper and the companion constellation of the regal Lion, if you are able to do so.