Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The gorgeous night sky of June and July -- and mythical links from Greece to Kauai

This time of year provides some of the most dazzling star-gazing opportunities and some of my favorite scenes that can be seen in the infinite heavens during our annual circle. I would strongly encourage making the effort to get outside to a relatively dark location, away from city lights, in order to see it for yourself, if at all possible.

The diagram above, which is based on a screen-shot from the outstanding free and open-source planetarium app Stellarium, shows the view facing south for an observer in the northern hemisphere (in this case, at about latitude 35.6 north), at about 10pm. The outlines of the constellations as suggested by H. A. Rey (with some modifications of my own) have been added for some of the most prominent constellations, and simulated horizon has been added with a heavy green line.

Right now, the full length of the glorious constellation Scorpio can be seen stretched out near the very top of its arcing path between the eastern and western horizons during the prime-time viewing hours after sunset and before midnight. 

Note that Scorpio in the sky will look absolutely enormous -- far larger than it appears in the screen-shot above. Stellarium alters the size and shape of the constellations to simulate the "curve" that you are able to see when you step outside, "wrapping" the sky so that those constellations you will see when you turn to your left or right (outdoors) can be seen on the flat screen. In doing so, the program causes the constellations on the left and right edges to appear larger, and those in the center to appear smaller (as if farther away, so to speak). Thus, in the image above, Scorpio appears smaller than Leo -- but if you go outside and look at them, Scorpio will actually appear much larger in the sky than Leo. 

Also, Leo will be arcing steeply down towards the western horizon at this time of night and this time of year. That's why I drew-in the horizon line for you in the above diagram: if you imagine that horizon as being level all the way around (instead of "wrapping" upwards towards the upper left and right corners of the image), you will realize that Leo is actually angling downwards towards the horizon, head-first, in the image -- just as Leo is doing in the night sky.

The full body of Scorpio is visible above the horizon for most viewers in most latitudes, depending on the skyline to your south (if you are observing from a point in the northern hemisphere). This allows a beautiful view of the entire breathtaking constellation. Below is a closer view of Scorpio, also taken from Stellarium, which may give a better impression of the size and beauty of this amazing -- and mythologically important -- zodiac constellation:

Can you trace the line of the sinuous body of the Scorpion, which makes a shape like a large letter "J" in the sky, beginning at (or one star above) the bright red "heart" of the Scorpion, Antares? Above Antares, the constellation branches out into multiple "heads," and below Antares it follows a graceful curve down and then back up to the close-together stars of the "Cats' Eyes," then a sharp angle down to the "barb" of the Scorpion's tail.

Below is the same image, with the outline of Scorpio ("multiple-head" version) drawn-in:

When you go outside, you may only be able to make out the brightest three "heads" of the Scorpion (indicated by the largest-sized dots in the star-chart above). These give the constellation a real "T" shape at the top (or capital "J" if envisioned with a wide cross-bar at the top of the "J"). You can also envision these brighter stars as forming the claws of the Scorpion. 

In any case, you can no doubt see why I believe that the sinuous form of this constellation forms the famous fish-hook of the great Maui in the myths and sacred stories of the cultures of the Pacific. I have also explained in various places (including in my latest book, Astrotheology for Life), that there are traditions in the Pacific which describe Maui as having eight heads (which is why he is cast into the ocean by his parents, in some versions of the legend) -- no doubt because of the multi-headed aspect of the constellation Scorpio, which is positioned below the constellation Virgo in such a way as to appear to be a child to whom Virgo has just given birth.

In order to see why, look again at the "full-sky" star-chart at the top of this post, and find Virgo. Then, go out into the night sky and find Virgo (assisted by the fact that the brilliant planet Jupiter is presently moving through the constellation), and you will see that the effect is even stronger when looking at the actual stars themselves than it is when viewing a star-chart on a screen.

Directly above the stars of Scorpio is the towering figure of Ophiucus.

Ophiucus is a very satisfying constellation to identify in the sky, but it can be a bit challenging if you are not yet very familiar with its outline. This previous post gives some pointers on locating Ophiucus in the sky. Right now, Ophiucus will not be seen to be standing "straight up" in the hours before midnight -- at this time of year, Ophiucus is still rising from the horizontal position it assumes as it clears the eastern horizon towards the vertical position it makes when it crosses the midpoint of its arc (due south line, for viewers in the northern hemisphere). If you look back to the top star-chart and remember that the green horizon line "wraps" upwards to the left and right -- but that this is a convention of Stellarium to simulate the horizon to your left and to your right when you are outside, and that the horizon will actually be "flat" in real life -- then you will be able to see that Ophiucus is still largely "horizontal" in the image above (still mostly parallel to the eastern horizon, although starting to straighten up as it arcs upwards on its journey to the west).

Ophiucus can be seen to be "standing" on the head (or "heads") of the gigantic form of Scorpio -- and this fact points us towards some of the important myths which make reference to this relationship between Scorpio and Ophiucus.

Perhaps most notably, there is a famous verse in the text of Genesis in which the LORD is pronouncing judgments upon the serpent, the woman, and the man after the tasting of the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden, and just prior to the expulsion from Eden. In that verse (Genesis 3: 15), the LORD says to the serpent: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

We just saw that some myths envision the constellation Virgo (the woman) as giving birth to a figure associated with Scorpio (such as in some versions of the Maui cycle of myths). However, this passage from Genesis shows that Virgo can also be envisioned as giving birth to the figure of Ophiucus. In Genesis 3: 15, the text says there will be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, and the seed of the woman will bruise the head of the serpent, while the serpent will bruise his heel. It should be fairly clear that this is referring to the relative positions of Ophiucus and Scorpio in the sky -- with Ophiucus being described as the seed (or offspring) of the woman:

In the image above, I have highlighted in red the part of the sky in which Ophiucus can be seen to be "bruising the head" of Scorpio, while Scorpio reciprocates by "bruising the heel" of Ophiucus.

This same distinctive aspect of the relative positions of Ophiucus and Scorpio can be seen to play an important role in other myths from around the globe -- showing yet again that all the world's ancient myths and sacred traditions are in fact using a common system of celestial metaphor, and that the stories in the Bible are without doubt part of that ancient world-wide system.

For example, in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice from ancient Greece, the beautiful Eurydice is bitten on the foot by a poisonous adder on the day of her wedding to Orpheus -- setting the stage for the story of the unsuccessful attempt by Orpheus to rescue his beloved from the land of the dead, which is an example of a myth-pattern that is extremely prevalent around the world and which is discussed at some length in Astrotheology for Life (and which I also mentioned in the presentation I gave last weekend at the Summer Solstice Celebration at the Great Serpent Mound).

The fact that Eurydice is bitten on the foot by the serpent in the various versions of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice shows that she is almost certainly associated with the constellation Ophiucus. Skeptical readers may object, saying that we might expect snakes, which live on the ground, to bite maidens on the foot, and that this aspect of the story does not necessarily indicate that Eurydice is connected to Ophiucus. This objection is a valid one, and in the book I give some other reasons for suspecting that Eurydice (at least before she descends to the underworld) is associated with Ophiucus in this myth. The strongest argument for an association of Eurydice with Ophiucus (besides the fact that she is always described as being bitten in the foot) is probably the fact that we can see Orpheus himself immediately above, in the celestial figure of Hercules. Hercules often plays the role of a divinely-skilled player of the harp or the lyre -- because the constellation of Lyra the Lyre is located immediately adjacent to Hercules: you can see it in the night sky now, marked by its very bright star Vega.

Of course, once Eurydice descends to the underworld, Orpheus goes down to try to retrieve her -- and when he does so, I believe he moves down to the position of Sagittarius for that part of the story (when he is leading her out of the underworld, with the strict admonition that he must not look back). Sagittarius is just now beginning to rise up from behind the eastern horizon in the hours before midnight -- you can definitely make out the brightest stars in the constellation, which form the shape which is often referred to as the "teapot" (also discussed in the video above from my talk last weekend).

Between Scorpio and Sagittarius you can see the dazzling band of the Milky Way, arching across the sky. It too is still somewhat "horizontal" to the eastern horizon, but throughout the night it will rise towards a vertical orientation as it crosses from east to west -- and over the coming weeks it will start out further and further along until we will see it in a fully vertical position during the prime-time viewing hours before midnight.

You can also make out both of the "enormous birds" who fly towards one another in the Milky Way band at this time of year: Aquila the Eagle and Cygnus the Swan. Because the Milky Way is still somewhat horizontal, you may notice that the wings of Aquila are pointing up-and-down, with the body of the Eagle basically pointing left-and-right, parallel to the horizon. Between the two great birds, you may also be able to make out the form of Delphinus the Dolphin, swimming along just below the band of the Milky Way between the two of them.

There are literally hundreds of other important myths which refer to the constellations in this part of the sky, and right now (and the weeks ahead) are some of the best times during the entire year in which to go out and view this beautiful celestial region, if possible.

The connections between the Genesis passage cited above and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice provide further evidence that the world's ancient myths are all built upon the same worldwide system -- a system which appears to have been given to humanity at an extremely remote date, a system which is shared by virtually all cultures on our planet, and which should thus be seen as uniting us, because we all share this incredible common inheritance.

It is also a system which I believe was intended to convey vital and powerful truths for our benefit during this incarnate life, using a sort of "language" or "code" in which certain parts of the sky indicate certain points on the various heavenly cycles, corresponding to certain aspects of the interplay between the Visible and Invisible realms.

The constellations and celestial features (such as the Milky Way band) which are now coming into view form an extremely significant region of the sky. I hope that you will have an opportunity to go out and see them for yourself, if at all possible, and to contemplate the profound teachings which that extremely ancient source of the world's traditions connected to this specific part of the sky for your benefit and blessing.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).