The stars that we are born to in the twenty-first century are not that different from the stars our ancestors have been born to for hundreds of generations. But the cultural setting within which we view those stars today is entirely new in the history of the Earth.

Both our perception of the stars and the ways we think of them within our various fields of understanding—astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, theology, mysticism, art, and so on—vary from place to place, time to time, so that stars have a very human history culminating in the mind of each person living today.

Consciousness is as much a matter of cumulative life experience as it is of perception and memory. Our personal experience is influenced by our natural experience, as well as our cultural, communal, and familial experience.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night conveys some small part of his personal experience of the stars. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope details other aspects of the stars that most of us have never personally experienced or imagined. Perspectives available to us today simply did not exist only a few decades ago.

Yet we are the progeny of stars themselves, and cannot be anatomically, physiologically, or psychologically separated from their influence on our innermost mental and physical being. We are born of the stars as well as to them. In a very real sense, the stars ‘R us. We are star stuff up and walking around, ogling our extended family spread through the universe.

That is no poetic dream. The atoms we are made of were forged in supernova explosions that cast those atoms into space, where gravity took over and condensed those same atoms into a mass so dense that they ignited to form a new stellar system, together with a retinue of planets that included what we now call Earth, our home in space for all the days of our lives.

It is fitting that throughout history every tribe and people has paid homage to the stars. The Sumerians did it according to their lights in Mesopotamia, Plato did it his way in Greece, the Neoplatonists in Alexandria, and now NASA, a governmental agency, spends billions of dollars in paying homage to the stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and meteors of today.

The meaning that every generation projects onto the stars is a salute to our origins as couched in the meaningful terms of the day. The stars have always had place on the leading edge of human understanding. The stars have not changed all that much, but our understanding is now undergoing an exponential growth spurt that leaves our past understanding lagging far behind.

We used to put haloes around the heads of our saints to signal their divinity (connection to the stars). We built Gothic cathedrals to seat our bishops that had stained-glass windows dedicated to the zodiac, and mechanical clocks with rotating symbols of the twelve zodiacal houses, again to show honor to the stars as we interpreted them in Mediaeval times. Those cathedrals served as models of the supposed celestial hierarchy worked in stone, with their vaults shining down on the seat of the bishop below, and those assembled around him, as if that seat were the throne of reason, order, harmony, truth, and beauty on Earth.

As Chartres Cathedral was abuilding in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote (in Latin) of the stars: “Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God.” The prime mover that drove the universe was as alive in our formative era as it had been in the days of Pseudo-Dionysius, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato and, before him, the Sumerians.

What all that effort achieved, rather than making a place for humanity in the stars’ cosmic scheme, was assign them their place in our psychic scheme, so having us ride our own coattails round and round, as if tied to a peg driven into the ground, setting us back for well over five thousand years in solving the world puzzle from inside our respective black boxes.

But that peg in the ground has been yanked up by a succession of new thinkers: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Einstein, and many others who have built the new cosmology of today that recognizes the stars for what they are in themselves and not merely the due we thrust upon them out of our own needs.

The idea of binding our lives back to the orderly motion of the stars is one of the most profound realizations that the human mind has ever entertained. We have evolved to appreciate the patterns, brightness, and motions of the stars at night; that should suffice. We need not look for a message coming from them any more than we look to a mockingbird or giraffe for truth. If we truly honored the stars, we would celebrate their gift of light and energy, so receiving them as they give themselves to us without overlaying our psychic needs on their radiance.

We don’t look for messages from baseball or Roget’s Thesaurus, yet we freely engage with them as valuable aspects of our experience. Why impose such a burden on the stars in order to fit them into our scheme of things? Instead, we should do everything we can to live in harmony with the natural world, of which stars are one of the highest and most eminent expressions.

At this point I can hear my Quaker friend Ken Doyle stepping in to tell his joke about the three baseball umpires being interviewed by a reporter after the big game. How do they go about making such difficult and often controversial calls as their duties require them to?

The first umpire says, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” The second says, “I calls ‘em as they are.” The third umpire says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”

Each umpire does the job his own way in light of his personal belief, as each player plays, and each fan roots, everyone in the stadium giving as he or she is able to give, and receiving a like gift from everyone else.

Like the three umpires, artists, scientists, and theologians see with different eyes. As do the young, the mature, and the elderly. The Sumerians saw the stars their way, Plato saw them his way, Pseudo-Dionysius his way. It is unrealistic to sort through them in trying to decide which is right. They are all right and all wrong in some respects.

But under the circumstances, they each were true to their perceptions, judgments, actions, and life engagements—to their minds and personal experience. Our predecessors have borne witness to the stars as only they could at that time in that place. What more could we ask? It is now our turn to see them through our own eyes. That, now, is something to celebrate. As well as an obligation to right the wrongs of the past.

Tomorrow: photos of the heavens from our modern point of view, so ending this review of human engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and most recently, the stars.

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.