Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Procession of the gods, part two

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The preceding post contained some discussion and encouragement to go out and observe the dazzling lineup of planets now appearing like fairly closely-strung jewels along a beautiful necklace that brings all five visible planets into view in the pre-dawn sky.

At the time of that publication, Mercury was still too close to the sun to really be visible prior to sunrise (that post explained why we always have to look fairly close to the sun in order to see Mercury, visible either just ahead of the sun before sunrise, or just behind the sun after sunset). Now, however, as the swift-footed Messenger of the Gods speeds on his course around the sun, he is reaching the "corner" on his track that brings his "elongation" or distance from the sun as seen by an observer on earth to an angle that is making this small orange-red planet increasingly visible in the morning hours before sunrise (see the diagram in the previous post linked above to see how Mercury's swift path is now taking him to the point of "rounding the corner" where the planet is easiest to see).

In addition to Mercury's becoming visible, another goddess has also entered the picture: the Moon, which is now just passing the point of Full Moon and is presently positioned at the "head of the procession" in the sky, and will begin a stately walk all the way down the line to pass each of the planets in turn.

This will happen because the Moon's orbit around our earth makes her "lose ground" on the sun on each successive night as we go through the month, so that the sun seems to "gain on" the Moon and "pass up the Moon" or "lap the Moon" each month at point of New Moon.

Because of this phenomenon -- of the Moon being "caught" or "passed" each month by the sun, the Moon will be seen to be further and further east at the same time on each successive night, which means that as you go out to observe the five visible planets now lined up in fairly close array (beginning with Jupiter, then Mars, then Saturn, Venus, and Mercury just ahead of the sun), the Moon will be moving along this line beginning with Jupiter and moving towards the rising sun, passing them each in turn.

Right now, the Moon is ahead of Jupiter. On successive nights, she will pass by the rest of them, waning further and further into a crescent until the point of New Moon:

The image above shows the situation at present (note the date-time bar at the bottom right). The nearly-full Moon is just east of Regulus (we are facing South from a location in the northern hemisphere) and ahead of (west of) Jupiter. As we go along at the same time each night (this is actually early morning, prior to sunrise) the Moon will pass by Jupiter, then Mars, then Saturn (already waning to a sliver) and then Venus as New Moon arrives:

Above is an image from before dawn on the 28th of January. The Moon has proceeded to walk past Jupiter (to the east of Jupiter). The Moon is orbiting along a path that takes her towards the sun as she hurtles around the earth (the Moon is flying from right to left on her orbit, as we look at the above image).

Below is an image from before dawn on February 1 -- as the waning Moon passes the planet Mars:

And one more image below, as the Moon (now a sliver) passes just above Saturn on the 3rd of February. Note that the time is slightly later -- allowing Venus and Mercury to both rise well above the eastern horizon before the sun pops up:

So, we can now say that the "procession of the gods" which was discussed in the previous post has grown by two additional deities: Hermes or Mercury (previously not visible prior to sunrise, but now visible if you have a clear view of the eastern horizon, and becoming more and more visible as we move into February) and the Moon, anciently associated with Artemis the twin sister of Apollo (Apollo being associated with the sun, although these relationships and associations were somewhat complicated).

If you have the opportunity to go observe this beautiful and awe-inspiring lineup, and watch as the Moon moves through the procession towards the sun, then it is worth contemplating as you do so some of the characteristics anciently associated with Artemis. In particular, she is a goddess who is supremely devoted to the protection of women and children. She is also closely associated with childbirth and was anciently understood to be the one who permits and presides over every birth.

In the Orphic Hymn number 36, "To Artemis," these aspects of the goddess are expressly evoked:

Hear me, O queen,
Zeus' daughter of many names,
Titanic and Bacchic,
revered, renowned archer,
torch-bearing goddess bringing light to all,
Diktynna, helper at childbirth,
you help women in labor,
though you know not what labor is.
[. . .]
Orthia, goddess of swift birth,
you are a nurturer of mortal youths,
immortal and yet of this earth [. . .]
come, dear goddess,
as savior to all the initiates,
accessible to all, bringing forth
the beautiful fruit of the earth,
lovely peace,
and fair-tressed health.
May you dispatch diseases and pain
to the peaks of the mountains.
translation from the excellent edition by Professor Apostolos N. Athanassakis.

The unwavering consistency with which the goddess can be seen to protect women and children in the ancient sacred myths should cause us to consider how much importance we ascribe to this same consideration.

In particular, when we see the degree to which women and children even (or especially) in the present modern global economy are exploited to provide sweatshop labor in the making of "inexpensive" clothing and many other goods (stories of which are reported again and again through the years, without ever seeming to make much difference -- see for instance here, here, and here among dozens and dozens of others along the same lines), we should ask ourselves why we are not as solicitous and as fiercely devoted to the protection of women and children as the goddess Artemis encourages (and admonishes) us to be.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A procession of the gods

If you make it a habit to go outside to gaze into the night sky -- and I strongly encourage everyone to make it a habit, if it is at all possible to do so -- you will no doubt have been enjoying the glorious spectacle of Orion, huge and very visible at this time of year, rising up towards the highest part of his arc across the heavens during the "prime-time" viewing hours between sundown and midnight.

Due to the progress of the earth's journey along its orbit around the sun throughout the year, Orion rises a few minutes earlier each night (about four minutes earlier), causing him to be further and further across the sky on successive nights (not much further each night, but even in the course of just one week he will be noticeably further along).

This nightly western progress means that new constellations begin to rotate into view each night, rising up a bit earlier above the eastern horizon on each successive night -- and for the past few weeks, the majestic form of Leo the Lion has been looming up above the eastern horizon during those "prime time" star-gazing hours, getting higher and higher each evening.

This means that if you step outside at 10:00 each evening (or 22:00 if you are using the 24-hour method), Leo will be a bit higher each night that you step outside at 10. And, as Leo gets higher in the sky, if you have been going outside around 10:30 or certainly 11 pm, you cannot have failed to notice the brilliant orb of an extremely bright planet rising just below the stars of the celestial Lion (visible by 11 pm for most readers, even if you have a fairly high horizon skyline when you face to the east).

Now that we have access to the web at all times, it is pretty easy to look up any of a number of websites to tell you the name of the planet whose golden beams of reflected light you are enjoying in the east in the vicinity of Leo. But, if you had lived thousands of years ago, prior to the invention of networked information-bearing devices, how might you have identified this planet?

First, as you become more familiar with the night sky (which will happen over time, especially if you make it a habit to go out at about the same time each night, every night or nearly every night), you would immediately realize that this glowing light is not always visible in Leo, and hence it is not one of the "fixed stars." Thus, you would realize that it is a planet, a term whose name means "wanderer," because the planets travel through the different constellations (always roughly along the same ecliptic path that the sun and moon travel, and hence always through the constellations in the zodiac band).

Second, as you become more familiar with the five visible planets, you would realize that this glowing sphere presently seen below Leo (it's actually at the top of Virgo now, following just behind and a little below Leo in the turning zodiac band) must be either Jupiter or Venus, just by its brightness and its brilliant golden light.

The warm golden glow of this planet is not characteristic of either Mars or Saturn, both of which are dimmer when seen from our planet's surface, and give off a slightly different color and feeling (both are considered "less benevolent" than Jupiter or Venus). Mars, of course, gives off a reddish light when the sun's rays reflect back to us from its surface, and Saturn gives off a darker yellow tone. Mercury gives off an somewhat deep-orange hue, but is very small and difficult to spot and cannot possibly be mistaken for the planet we're discussing near Leo either.

Thus, knowing that this planet must be either Jupiter or Venus, you would have to know something about the orbital paths of our solar system's planets in order to determine which one it could be. Because this planet is rising (in the east, where all celestial bodies including the sun are seen to rise, due to the fact that our earth rotates towards the east) so late in the evening, long after the sun has disappeared below the western horizon, we can conclude that it must be Jupiter and cannot be Venus. 

The reason for this is fairly simple, if you think about the fact that Venus follows an orbital track that is interior to the earth's orbit, relative to the sun: the path Venus follows stays within the near-circle of the earth's path at all times. Thus, in order to see Venus, we will always have to look generally towards the sun, although when the sun is up it will be extremely difficult (and usually impossible) to see Venus, so it is best to observe Venus just before the sun rises or just after it sets. 

Venus will be visible above the western horizon after the sun goes down, if Venus is at a point on its orbit that causes it to "trail" the sun from the perspective of an observer on earth. Venus will be visible above the eastern horizon before the sun comes up, if Venus is at a point on its orbit that causes it to "lead" the sun from the perspective of an observer on earth. More detail about where Venus would have to be in its orbit around the sun in order to appear to be either "trailing" or "leading" the sun can be found in this previous post

But the main point is that, due to the fact that its interior orbit will always make it so that we have to look generally in the direction of the sun in order to see Venus, the planet appears to be "tethered" to the sun (albeit by a fairly long "tether"), and thus Venus will always be seen above the same horizon that the sun is also about to "rise out of," or above the same horizon that the sun just sank beneath.  Venus will never be seen to rise above the opposite horizon from the sun. 

Above is a star chart showing the night sky looking due south, from the perspective of an observer in the northern hemisphere at about 35N latitude. Some of the brightest constellations and celestial features are outlined for you, including Orion (who so dominates the night sky at this time of year that you will immediately see him first when you step outside), Canis Major (containing bright Sirius, following just behind Orion in the sky), Canis Minor and the Twins of Gemini (part of what is known as the "Winter Circle" of bright stars visible at this time of year), Taurus (with its "V-shaped" Hyades, above and just east of Orion's outstretched arm holding the bow), the Pleiades (part of Taurus, but well above the Hyades), and on the other side of Orion from the Pleiades and Taurus, the zodiac constellations of Gemini, Cancer, and of course Leo.

Jupiter is indicated by a large purple arrow, below the outline of the Lion.

Now, all five of the visible planets are now in a fairly close line, from the perspective of an observer on earth. Jupiter is in fact leading a glorious procession of gods, in this order: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, and then the sun itself. 

Mercury is presently very close just ahead of the sun (like Venus, Mercury's orbit is interior to the earth's, only even more interior than the orbit of Venus, and thus Mercury is extremely closely "tethered" to the sun in the pre-dawn or post-sunset sky), and thus Mercury is not really visible (by the time Mercury clears the eastern horizon just prior to sunrise, the sun is so close behind that its rays lighten up the sky too much for Mercury to be visible).

However, the other four planets can be seen, if you either stay up late enough or rise up early enough and know where to look.

Following Jupiter in the current lineup is the planet Mars, visible above the eastern horizon after about 1:00 am, although you may need to wait another hour for the planet to rise far enough to clear the horizon, depending on the terrain or foliage where you live. As you can see from the chart below, Mars is following in a line behind the brightest star of Virgo, the zodiac constellation who follows Leo the Lion (giving rise to myths all around the world in which a goddess is pulled in a chariot by a lion, or else rides on the back of a lion herself, or sits in a throne flanked by lions).

The brightest star in the constellation Virgo is the star Spica. The easiest way to locate Spica (in my opinion) is to follow the line formed by the "beak" of the constellation Corvus the Crow, who appears to look directly towards that bright star). From there, Mars will be seen glowing with a strong red glow in the sky (you may even be able to see Mars and Jupiter glowing through nighttime fog, mist, or thin cloud cover, even if all the stars including Spica are not visible).

Then, if you want to see the next two planets in this glorious procession, you can either stay up all night, or rise early and go out to look east in the pre-dawn sky, where you will find Saturn located to one side of the rising form of Scorpio, coming up out of the eastern horizon as the sky begins to grow lighter before sunrise. 

Rising just behind Saturn is the brilliant planet Venus, by far the brightest of our visible planets, and the planet usually referred to as either the morning star or the evening star (depending on whether Venus appears to be "ahead of" the sun from our position on earth, or "behind the sun"). 

The January 15 - 23 edition of "This Week's Sky at a Glance" over at Sky & Telescope gives you some good pointers for seeing both Saturn and Venus in the early morning pre-dawn sky.

The screen-shot below (from the excellent open-source planetarium app Stellarium) shows all five of the visible planets, stretching in a long line from Jupiter through Mercury, followed closely by the sun (about to rise in the image below, which simulates a time of about 7:10 in the morning). 

This time, in order to keep it a little less "cluttered," I have not drawn in outlines for the various constellations, but the previous two charts show the constellations in the vicinity of Jupiter and Mars, and as you can see from the "sunrise" chart with all five planets, the great band of the Milky Way galaxy is rising up across the portion of the sky containing Saturn and Venus right now. This part of the Milky Way band -- its widest, brightest, and most visible section -- is the part which goes past Scorpio and Sagittarius. Saturn and Venus are also presently between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

Again, Mercury is not quite visible due to the proximity to the sun, and the fact that the sun will make the sky to bright to see Mercury, by the time Mercury clears the eastern horizon. However, Mercury is presently located in the vicinity of Sagittarius, close to the "feather" that can be envisioned as an ornament worn on the head of the Archer constellation.

If you want to know where on their orbits these planets are, in order to be visible in a line like this from our location on earth, there are several excellent resources on the web which enable you to view the planets circling the sun on their various orbital tracks. One such resource is the SkyMarvels site of Gary M. Winters, found here, which contains a variety of tools for visualizing the present locations of each planet, including a 3D "Solar System Scope" which enables you to change the position and angle of your viewpoint relative to the solar system's orbital tracks and the planets on those tracks.

Another is the Planets Today website, which also contains visualization tools to see where the planets are on their different orbits, as well as the astrological signs through which they are passing. The site enables different perspectives on the planets. One perspective is shown below:

As you can see, this version of the chart shows the circular tracks of the planets drawn in an "equidistant" fashion, which will introduce some inaccuracies in the perspective versus a more "to scale" version, but there are trade-offs in any type of model which tries to depict our vast solar system in a format that can be shown on a screen. 

This chart does do a good job of giving the general position of each of the planets on their orbital tracks. You can see that Jupiter, Mars and Saturn (the visible planets whose paths are exterior to the orbit of earth around the sun) are at points on their orbits which are not opposite to the earth from the sun. That's why we can see them all in the beautiful line described above.

To see Saturn, for instance, we are basically looking "across the sun" right now in order to see Saturn (visible just before the earth turns far enough to bring the sun over the curve of the horizon to an observer on the surface of the earth).

If Saturn were instead on the opposite side of earth from where it is located now (near the top of the circle, for instance, at what we could call the "12 o'clock" position on this chart), then we would be able to see Saturn at midnight instead of at sunrise, but then we would not have the same fairly closely-grouped line of planets that we have now.

Thus, you can see that the lineup we are enjoying presently is a fairly special occurrence, at least in terms of the relatively close spacing of all five planets.

I hope that you will have the opportunity to see this majestic procession of the planets in person.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


to one who clearly knew the stars are the windows to spiritual reality

and that human life is one of cycles of endlessly variegated incarnation

I was honored when talented musician and DJ, John Gibbons, chose the above song -- Starman -- as the outtro to our first interview on Alchemy Radio back in 2014

and an almost-award-winning folk duo from New Zealand demonstrated the truth that David Bowie can deliver inspiration from the other world . . . to almost anyone

and will continue to do so

abide in peace

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

To Leucotheia: Epiphany 2016

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In the Odyssey of Homer, Odysseus is frequently saved by divine intervention, often by a goddess (Athena especially), but in one important instance by the goddess Leucothea (or Leukothea), a sea goddess who was once a human woman.

Having, by the intervention of Athena, been released from his many years' captivity on the island of Ogygia, Odysseus makes his way across the sea in a raft he has fashioned himself -- but he doesn't get far before Poseidon notices him and, infuriated, sends a mighty storm which churns the waves into mountains and unleashes powerful winds roaring from all directions.

Odysseus is washed from his deck and nearly drowns, but the poem tells us that someone noticed him:
Ino, a mortal woman once with human voice and called
Leucothea now she lives in the sea's salt depths,
esteemed by all the gods as she deserves.
She pitied Odysseus, tossed, tormented so --
she broke from the waves like a shearwater on the wing,
lit on the wreck and asked him kindly, "Ah poor man,
why is the god of earthquakes so dead set against you?
Strewing your way with such a crop of troubles!
But he can't destroy you, not for all his anger.
Just do as I say. [. . .]
Odyssey 5. 367 - 376, translation of Professor Robert Fagles (discussed here).
A shearwater is a long-winged ocean bird: the goddess is compared to a shearwater two times in the Odyssey, once in the passage cited above, and again in line 389 when after speaking with Odysseus (presumably in the form of a woman, as she gives him her scarf to tie around his waist for protection), she again disappears into the storm-tossed seas, in the form of a shearwater.

In light of the fact that Leucothea is a goddess who was once a mortal woman, it is extremely interesting that she is described as appearing to Odysseus in the form of a bird. 

In the New Testament accounts of the event known as the Epiphany (celebrated after Twelfth Night, and discussed in this previous post from a year ago), the divine nature of the Christ is revealed in the form of a dove, at the moment of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.

The Epiphany is a recognition of the divine hidden nature -- the goddess Leucothea was once a mortal woman but is now a goddess. 

The symbolism in each case involves a bird and the immersion in water (or the pouring of water upon). The parallels are striking, and argue that the same celestial pattern is being clothed in different metaphors in the different cultures or sacred traditions. The celestial foundation for the Baptism in the Jordan are discussed in the post linked above from a year ago -- and the celestial foundation for the Odyssey event likely involves many of the same figures.

In the Orphic Hymns, ancient mantras for the invocation of the divine, used by those initiated into the Orphic Mysteries, there is a hymn to the goddess Leucotheia (Hymn 74). Each Orphic Hymn specifies the type of incense to be used when meditating upon that particular hymn and the divinity who is the subject of the hymn -- in the hymn "To Leucotheia," the incense to be used is "aromatic herbs."

In the excellent translation of Professor Apostolos N. Athanassakis, Hymn 74 (which he spells "To Leukotheia") reads in part:
I call upon Leukothea,
daughter of Kadmos, revered goddess,
mighty nurterer
of fair-wreathed Dionysos.
Hearken, O goddess,
O mistress of the deep-bosomed sea,
you delight in waves,
you are the greatest savior to mortals [. . .]
The hymn proceeds to make specific requests to the goddess, to come to the aid of all those upon the sea -- but note that in the passage cited above, she is addressed as "the greatest savior to mortals" without qualification (the hymn does not say "to mortals who venture out to sea" or "mortals who sail in ships" -- it says "to mortals"). 

Later on, the hymn describes her as a savior especially of those at sea, but the hymn begins by calling to Leucothea as the greatest savior to mortals without qualification -- and I believe that is because the sea was anciently used as a metaphor for this incarnate life (when we are plunged down into a human body which is, as we are frequently told, made up primarily of water, and when we cross the lower region of the great cycle, the realm of the lower two elements, massy earth and salty water, as opposed to the realms of air and fire above through which the sun, moon and stars travel and were used by the ancient myths to convey truths about the realm of spirit).

Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who wrote at length regarding the metaphor of the sea as the incarnate condition, through which we toil (a "crossing of the Red Sea," he called it at more than one point), argues in Who is this King of Glory (published in 1944), that the name of the New Testament character Pontius Pilate (under whom the Christ suffered) is suspiciously similar to the Greek word pontus, meaning "sea" (as in the Hellespont). He argued that the name originally came from words meaning "dense sea" -- the dense "sea of matter" in which we are immersed when we come down from the realm of spirit to inhabit a body. 

This connection has been vigorously disputed by those who reject Kuhn's proposed origin of the name of Pontius Pilate, but the linguistic similarity, at least, does seem difficult to dismiss entirely, and conceptually the idea appears to be worthy of at least some consideration.

In his discussion of the significance of the sixth of January (as the day of the revelation of the divinity hidden in the incarnate Christ) beginning at about page 250 of that book (in the original pagination), Kuhn discusses the possible symbolism of the day, and then beginning on page 252 begins to explore the significance of the crossing of the Great Deep. He argues that this is how we should understand the phrase in the Apostles' Creed:
"he suffered under the dense sea, was crucified, dead and buried." "Dense sea" would have been merely a euphemism, familiar to all in Mystery Ritual custom, for "he suffered under the limitation of dense matter" -- a shorthand expression in Mystery language. 253.
Note also that in artistic representations of the Baptism of Christ (shown in several examples in the blog post on Epiphany linked above), the hand gesture that the Jesus figure is almost invariably depicted as making is one of "palms together" -- the very mudra (sacred hand gesture) used in India and other related cultures and traditions for the namaskaram or namaste greeting, a greeting which literally means a recognition of the divinity in another person, and in oneself. 

It is also the same hand gesture which is traditionally used when saying Amen, a word which is also the name of the Hidden God in ancient Egyptian sacred mythology: Amun or Amen.

And note, of course, that in virtually all of those depictions of the baptism scene, in which that hand gesture is used, the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove is shown at the top of the painting. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Jesus figure in the paintings almost invariably wears only a sash around his waist.

Which brings us back to the scene in the Odyssey, in which the goddess rescues the long-suffering Odysseus, as he crosses the stormy sea. It is only by her aid that he is able to survive the storm. 

This tells us something about our own present condition: in fact, I believe that all these incredible details in the inspired ancient wisdom imparted to humanity in the form of myth were put there to teach us, not about the adventures of a cunning warrior returning from the Trojan War (as fascinating as his story is) but about the adventure of each and every human soul in this dual material-spiritual cosmos in which we find ourselves right now, in this life.

Leucotheia is a goddess who was born a mortal woman. The myths are in fact filled with stories designed to show that, although we do not realize it, we all have a divine component within us. And Odysseus cannot negotiate the Great Deep of this incarnate life without the help which comes from somewhere beyond the material realm, and to which (as he demonstrates throughout the epic) he has unique access.

But, as the Orphic Hymns show us, we also at all times have access to the same infinite realm. The Orphic Hymns typically begin with a call to the god or goddess in question to come and be present, and that is not just a literary device but a request that was made with the expectation that it could be instantly granted.