Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?
The Star of Bethlehem? No, it's Canopus, 2nd Brightest Star in the Sky and a Specular Stand-in. 310 Light Years Distant. Image by D. Pettit taken from the ISS. Photo: NASA
This is a story that starts in the wrong place. They’re my favorite kind. And the wrong time. That’s even better. A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting. There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.
This story does not have those disadvantages. Some people have believed it was true. Others believed it was false. Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative. For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle. Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance. For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.
All of this, while true, is not the start to which I was alluding.
The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. It is Procyon, 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf. 11 Light Years Distant. Photo: NASA.
First, Some Historical Background
The Babylonian Cosmos. Image Courtesy: Gavin White. From: Babylonian Star-Lore, 2008. Click on the image for a larger version.
Around nine to ten thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem. It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that is very hard to read. White (2008) in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, suggests that Babylonian astrology began as early as 15,000 years ago, although he states that the practice of astrology was quite different than the modern version. It relied on mathematical calculations written on clay tablets and the earliest tablets have been dated to the 7th or 8th Century, BCE. So, I’ll suggest ten thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery. The problem was the Earth. More specifically, the ground.
At this point I need to dispel one very important misconception: the fallacy of modernity. The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans. Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ. Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, or that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out.
This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive. Got that?
Back to our discovery. At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky. This was not a “well, duh,” moment. It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens. The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it. This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.
The Sky is a Problem, a Big Problem
If This was the Bethlehem Star, it Would Have Really Gotten Everyone's Attention. It isn't. This is Wolf-Rayet 104, a Totally Strange Double Star, But This Time, Both Stars are Massive. 8000 Light Years. Photo: NASA/Keck Telescope, Hawaii
Stuff comes out of the sky. Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs. Some of those things are good, even edible. Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.
Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach. The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars. Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail. And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared. Or every once in a while there was an unexplainable event in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing. The same thing happened to the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.
The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in. We live on the ground. We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds. We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery. Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground. Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive. Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that, too, is secondary to our discussion.
On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.
From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology. The problem was, earth and life were tangible. The sky, however, was a complete mystery.
What was the sky?
Supernova AD 1054. Chaco Canyon Petroglyph. Photo: Richard Goode, Porterville College, Calif.
Yes, that was the question: What was the sky? What were the lights in the sky? The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different. Why was that? Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West? But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set? For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south. Of course, there were to main players in the diurnal cycle.
The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness. At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons. The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling. Our ancestors had figured out that part even before the start of our story.
The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely. Still the phases of the moon was so reliable that as humans began to cultivate their food, not just gather it, the Moon’s monthly journey and phases became an essential resource for the planting, growing and harvesting the crops.
The Dilemma of the Wandering Stars
Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars? The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings, at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light every two annual cycles. A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night. Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations. And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights. Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine but not twinkle like the others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?
Milky Way Band. Photo Courtesy of John Gleason/NASA
What was the sky? Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night? What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon? What was the force or cause of their motion? What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?
One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out. Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and recurring risings and settngs as the year progressed from the shortest days to the longest. On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and motions. What they decided those observations meant and what caused them, was another thing altogether.
The First Astronomers
Sunburst Petroglyph, Chemehuevi People, near Lanfair, CA. Photo Courtesy: Donald Austin & NASA
To explain the sky, both day and night, these earliest of astonomers drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both. Those were the things they would touch. They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were. They couldn’t have been more wrong. At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.
I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive. The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access. We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths. That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant. It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and forces of nature and life.
The Aztec Creation Story: Mother Sun Dismembered
The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:
Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of Morning Star & Wind
The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.
Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.
One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.
Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors
From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.
The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives. Source: James W. Salterio Torres.
The Sumerian Creation Myth: The Mother Goddess Gets Dismembered
Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:
Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.
And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,
And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
He cut through the channels of her blood,
And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.
Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.
Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.
Two creation stories, having so many parallels even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.
The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world. Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed. The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.