Gazing into the sky, we’re always alone. Make no mistake. Even if there are one hundred or more heartbeats surrounding us, the connections we feel with the night sky remain a solitary one. Before us is a starry pin-pricked universe. Deep in our hearts, we know we belong intimately to the stars. And when we are truly alone, not a soul for miles around, looking up, we are embraced by a celestial extravaganza.
A Passion for the Night Sky
We’ve always had a close relationship with the stars. It makes sense. A recent study from NASA found that we share about 97 percent of the atoms and other elements of life with our galaxy’s centre. We share with our universe something so integral to who we are as humans. It’s very humbling.
From our earliest moments on this earth, we’ve been entranced by what lay in the skies above. Millennia ago, our forebears in Greece brought us the patterns named according to legends. Orion, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, and Virgo were amongst the 88 constellations named. And it’s believed astrology’s origins emerged from the Sumerians. That may be so. Although, it’s possible the origins of these storied beliefs depicted as the constellations of Aries, Cancer, and Capricornus and more were from a much deeper past.
Possible Origins of Astrology
In Lascaux, France, a group of curious schoolboys happened upon paintings of animals hidden in a cave. Dating from the Upper Palaeolithic, the scenes appeared to depict hunts and so it was regarded as a snapshot of life at the time.
More recently, researchers decided to look again at the images. When they did, they came up with a far different explanation. It was one that demonstrated that around 40,000 years ago, our forebears were also acutely bound to the skies above. The researchers believed the pictures were not of a mere hunt. Rather, they were astronomical illustrations, maps for the heavens above.
Photography of Lascaux animal painting (Source: Wikipedia).
In the 2018 article in the Athens Journal of History, Martin Sweatman and Alistair Coombs explained their case. Using advanced software, they were able to indicate how the depictions mirrored actual constellations. Extending their explorations, they compared constellations with animals appearing on the cave walls in France, Spain, Germany, and Turkey.
Were the images on the caves in the various countries the true origin of astrology? If the knowledge of Sumer made its way to Greece, is it not possible the knowledge of astrology journeyed a greater distance through time from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Sumerians? In any case, simply in the naming the stars, we’ve continued to express the inherent bond we have with the mysteries of the nightsky.
Various Cultures and Their Ties To the Night Sky
Our cultures have demonstrated their ties with the stars in other ways. Maes Howe in Orkney is dated around 2,700 BC1. It is the largest and most intricate chambered cairn in Orkney. It was certainly built to be a presence in the landscape, visible for miles around.
The architects of Maes Howe took great care in the construction of the cairn. During the darkest time of the year, leading up to winter solstice, the ebbing rays of the setting sun are permitted to shine through the entrance passage of the chambered cairn, piercing the darkness.
Maes Howe (Source: Wikipedia).
It is a bond with the sun, one filled with a comforting knowledge the darkness of the midwinter sun will soon give way to a resurgence of the light. This was a relationship on which the people strongly depended. It too signified an intimate tie with the skies above.
There are numerous monuments where the tale is the much the same. For instance, at Stone Henge, the structure of the stone circles is in accordance with both the summer and winter solstices. For the winter solstice, in particular, the monument appears to have been constructed in order to point towards the winter solstice sunset.
On the other side of the Atlantic in Mexico, the Mayan pyramid Chichen Itza stands. It’s one of seven structures where the building itself features in the winter solstice. For instance, at Chichen Itza, visitors are in awe as they watch the dawning summer solstice, climb the temple stairs.
A Closer Examination of the Night Sky
All of these instances are indicative of a unified and harmonious affinity with the stars above. People have been closely examining the movement of the sun and the planets for millennia. Certainly included are the people of Greece and Rome who gave us the legends on which astrology plays a central role.
Others included Copernicus. He completed the first manuscript of his book, “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”) in 1532 and published it eleven years later in 1543. His was a radical interpretation of the sun. He argued the sun, a heliocentric view, rather than the earth, a geocentric conception, lay at the centre of the solar system.
This set off a barrage of criticism from quarters as an earth-centred understanding of the solar system had been the norm since ancient Greece. It accorded with the religious views that demanded we be at the centre of the cosmos. It would take another century for the heliocentric or sun-centred solar-system to be adopted. In the meantime, the works of Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton would all go on to broaden our understanding of the night sky.
Awe for the Night Sky
Elements of the night sky have had us spellbound for millennia. There are no doubt moments when we’ve actually entered close to a meditative state while pondering the night sky and its denizens. In any case, our mind and body are able to slow down. And when we’re distracted by the awesome vista before us, the difficulties we may have been experiencing miraculously slip away.
One can simply imagine the people in awe silently watching the winter solstice cast a light into the passageway at Maes Howe. And tens of millennia ago, the men and women looked up into the nightsky and beheld creatures that no doubt held some sort of reverence in their own lives. Likewise, people nowadays are exhilarated by the sight of a meteor shower or eclipse.
In each case and more like them, we have found elements of wonder and reverence hidden from us in our daily lives in the skies above. Illustrious and magical, they are visions that for a moment can set our spirits free.
Byrd, Deborah 2020 “Celebrate solstice sunrise at Stonehenge live online” https://earthsky.org/earth/gallery-the-summer-solstice-as-seen-from-stonehenge/
Dobrijevic, Daisy 2021 “Geocentric model: The Earth-centered view of the universe” Space https://www.space.com/geocentric-model
Greenspan, Rachel E. 2019 “Here’s Why Stonehenge Is Connected to the Summer Solstice” https://time.com/5608296/summer-solstice-stonehenge-history/
Historical Astrology 2022 “Sumerian Astrology” http://www.historicalastrology.com/sumerian-astrology/
Harvey, Ailsa 2022 “Heliocentrism: Definition, origin and model” Space https://www.space.com/heliocentrism
Howell, Elizabeth 2017 “Humans Really Are Made of Stardust, and a New Study Proves It” https://www.space.com/35276-humans-made-of-stardust-galaxy-life-elements.html
Impey, Chris 2011 “Copernicus and the Heliocentric Model” Teach Astronomy https://www.teachastronomy.com/textbook/The-Copernican-Revolution/Copernicus-and-the-Heliocentric-Model/
My Modern Met 2022 “10 Legendary Constellations and the Stories Behind Them (According to Greek Mythology)” https://mymodernmet.com/famous-constellations/
Newby, Gregg 2020 “Were Paleolithic Cave Paintings Actually First Star Maps?” https://medium.com/the-collector/were-paleolithic-cave-paintings-actually-the-first-star-maps-88584cd31c0
Rituals 2020 “How stargazing is good for your health and well-being” https://www.rituals.com/en-us/mag-spirituality-benefits-of-stargazing.html
1This may be even earlier, as exact dating is not possible. The surrounding ditch was dated, although it may post-date the actual construction of Maeshowe.