471. The Stars from our Neolithic Perspective

March 31, 2015

Some migratory birds may use the stars to navigate by. And we humans have long relied on the stars to guide our travels at night. We are born to them, after all, to the sky at night as well as the day. Once we escape the glare of city lights, what else is there to see at night than the moon, planets, and stars?

We may not be taken by individual stars so much as the luminous array stretching across a dark sky. Who (in the northern hemisphere) has not oohed and aahed at the sight of Orion in winter months or the Milky Way spread overhead in summer?

Our primal relation to the stars is demonstrably preverbal. We utter appreciative noises that hint at the awe within us as we lift our eyes to them, but words generally fail us, as they fail astronauts gazing down on Earth from their capsules, shuttles, and stations in near space.

It’s not so much that stars have no meaning as that we aren’t accustomed to grandeur on so vast a scale. There’s nothing else like them. The stars may be remote, but the feelings they engender in us are at the core of our being aware. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Navigators, of course, have long steered by the stars. And along with clouds, winds, currents, and waves, have used them to populate remote Pacific islands. Astronomers make a living trying to understand the stars, along with astrophysicists and cosmologists. Tell an astrologer your time and place of birth, and he or she will plot the positions of sun, moon, and planets against the twelve houses of the zodiac, producing a horoscope that is yours alone.

Imagine modern life without images provided by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, or many orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope. I have to admit to being star-struck as a kid, ogling meteor showers, passing comets, and, lower down, displays of green and sometimes red auroras borealis.

I am struck by fireflies, too, and glints off the water, but anything to do with lights in the sky at night commands my attention, including airplane lights and sun-glinting satellites. The cosmic aesthetic may be ethereal, but it is compelling nonetheless.

Too, we are all born to the lore of the constellations that guided early explorers on their far travels across deserts, snowfields, and oceans alike. When we peer at the stars, we subjectively group them into familiar patterns, whose names we then cast onto the heavens. The constellations are in our minds more than in the stars, but we use them nonetheless to map the skies at night as seen from our respective locations on Earth.

From my perspective in midsummer Maine, Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre are high overhead amid the sweep of the Milky Way. Whether seen as bear or dipper, Ursa Major and Minor round the (north) pole star through the course of a year. Sagittarius the archer (or teapot) is more to the south in summer. On maps of stars of the Southern Hemisphere, I find Horologium the clock, Sextans the sextant, Musca the fly, Telescopium the telescope.

Constellations are a cooperative venture between meaningless stars and the pattern-seeking minds of humans on the lookout for meaning by projecting recognizable shapes onto the heavens. Even the patterns are illusions in being made up of stars distributed in three-dimensional space (not spread thinly across the supposed “dome” we make of the celestial regions). In that we do violence to the stars for the sake of making them conveniently familiar and comprehensible.

Seeing a parade of godlike figures along the zodiac is no different. All of astrology is in human heads, along with the naming of planets after ancient gods, envisioning the stars as circling the Earth in twenty-four hours, and the sun as gliding through the twelve constellations of the zodiac in a year’s time.

Such doings illustrate our human yen to engage the stars to discover their meaning. If we don’t find it there, then, well, we make it up to suit our needs at the time. We’ve been doing just that—and then painfully trying to undo it—throughout the course of recorded history. It is one thing to see what we see; something else again to take responsibility for our part in the process of putting mind and night image together as if they were one and the same.

That is a profound lesson the stars have to teach us because we now know there are no actual groupings of stars such as the houses and constellations we chart on our maps of the heavens. As I personally know that the figures I project onto the wavering filaments of the northern lights are a result of my mind doing its best to find familiar shapes where no such disciplined forms actually exist.

It might seem like our home planet is at the precise center of universal goings-on, but that is a story told by our Neolithic perspective, which gives no account of galaxies, arms of galaxies, minor suns in the arms of galaxies, or of minor planets circling such stars—of which we now know there must be billions.

It only strikes us that we occupy the center of the Great All because our minds are trapped in their black boxes in our heads, and that’s what we make of the puzzle of the outside world in a kind of grand guess about what may be out there in clear view above the horizon of what our naïve minds have any chance to understand.

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