A Magical Tour of the Night Sky: Use the Planets and Stars for Personal and Sacred Discovery

A Magical Tour of the Night Sky: Use the Planets and Stars for Personal and Sacred Discovery

by Renna Shesso



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578634958
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 12/01/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Renna Shesso brings a life-long study of mystical traditions to her writing. Inspired by her herbalist/astrologer grandmother, she studies mythology and history, archeology, tarot, the vast lore of the Goddess traditions, and many other good mysteries. A longtime resident of Colorado, she is a shamanic practitioner and a teacher and priestess of Wicca. Visit her at: www.rennashesso.com

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A Magical Tour of the Night Sky

Use the Planets and Stars for Personal and Sacred Discovery

By Renna Shesso

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Renna Shesso
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-623-4


The Zodiac—Our Circle of Animals

Are the constellations the first human artworks? We didn't create the stars, but we learned to recognize the patterns they form, connecting the dots to extrapolate specific figures from a bewildering ocean of individual sparks, imaginatively filling in the details that flesh out simple stick figures.

By recognizing patterns in the stars, we remember our ancestors and their stories about how our world was created. In this way, the sky was our original storybook, map, art gallery, and reference library.

When we look at the skies now and scoff—"Well, that sure doesn't look like a hunter (or a bull or a goat-fish) to me"—we're missing the larger picture, in every sense. Pattern recognition is a considerable survival skill. The patterns inherent in flowers and leaves help us separate the edible plants from the poisonous ones. The normal growth patterns of foliage help us notice when the patterns are amiss: Not just shrub! Shrub with hiding lion! Not just tree branch! Snake on branch! Pattern lessons were important in making split-second lifeand-death decisions, and we're here today because our ancestors learned those lessons. So let's not denigrate those survival skills. Who knows if our minds still have the imaginative agility and rock-steady memory power to match those achievements?

One of the earliest patterns to catch our ancestors' attention was the motion of the Sun and the Moon. Although the Moon wanders widely from side to side, the Sun keeps faithfully to its path. The trail markers along the Sun's route are particular groups of stars positioned end to end in a great circular band, like a celestial storyboard. The width of this path is considered to be 20°, measured as 10° to each side of the Sun's own route, the ecliptic. You can roughly measure 20° of sky-space using your hand. Extend your arm, then spread your thumb and pinkie to their full extent (see figure 19). Keep the rest of your fingers up if you prefer; I tuck mine out of the way.

First, get oriented. Stand facing south with your arms stretched toward the horizon on each side. Picture the Sun rising up to meet your left hand, arcing up and overhead during the day, and then sinking into the west past your right hand. Below the horizon line, unseen, the Sun continues its journey, as if moving underfoot. With dawn, it reappears again at your left hand, perpetually inscribing a giant clockwise—"sunwise" or "deosil"—circle. Its route is the ecliptic, the Sun's path through the sky. Yes, we're actually the ones moving, as the Earth orbits the stable Sun, but we need to describe what we see. "Earth turns Her back on the Sun to make darkness" is a much more poetic and accurate description of this phenomenon, but "sunset" is simpler.

The Sun never comes anywhere near most of the eighty-eight official constellations in the sky, moving instead in front of a very specific selection of star groups. Just like Earth, the other planets also orbit the Sun, so they also travel along this narrow path of specific constellations. Over the millennia, our ancestors codified their means of describing the Sun's journey by using these Sun-path constellations, even though different civilizations perceived the star groups differently (i.e., dippers versus chariots). Many traditions recognize twelve ecliptical constellations, but that number can vary from culture to culture. Most of ours represent animals, real and mythic, so they became known as the zodiac, from zodiakos kuklos, Greek for "animal circle."

We use this animal circle as a kind of map to illustrate the narrow portion of the sky shown in an astrological chart, useful for orienting ourselves to the sky. The zodiacal constellations become a twelve-slice pie, generally oriented with Aries just below the left-hand eastern horizon and Libra just above the right-hand western horizon (see figure 20). The circle's top is "up," not "north," as on a road map. The upper half signifies the visible sky, above the horizon. The half-circle arcing below is the non-visible sky, below the horizon on the other side of the Earth. In reality, this circle turns clockwise, as different constellations take turns being at your east-pointing left hand.

Around 2400 BCE, the Babylonians developed celestial and mathematical concepts based on dividing a circle into 360° relating to early ideas about the number of days in a year. Our calculation of a year's length has improved, but we still divide circles into 360°. For astrological purposes, each of the "signs"— the zodiacal/astrological constellations that mark the Sun's path—is allotted an equal 30°. Like the numbering in the tarot's twenty-two Major Arcana cards—0 through 21—the degrees are numbered 0° through 29°.

So far this is an astrological perception of the sky, however. Astrology views the sky through the magnificent lens of the human imagination, with all the creativity and metaphoric symbolism of the ages added to the mix, while in fact our real goal here is to get back to the roots of these stories—ideally by stepping outside and seeing the original illustrations, which is astronomy.

Our vague, in-the-eye-of-the-beholder boundaries between constellations were officially reinterpreted in 1930 when Belgian astronomer Eugene Delporte redrew the boundaries on behalf of the International Astronomical Union (LAU), straightening out earlier curved and diagonal interpretations of these nonexistent boundaries so they could be expressed more precisely, as shown in the illustrations in this book.

Even before Delporte revamped the boundaries, however, another important factor was in play. The constellations of the zodiac actually occupy varying amounts of space along the ecliptic, not identical slices of exactly 30°.

Star Motion

We just talked about circumpolar stars—those that never set. As we look to the zodiac and the planets, we are dealing with celestial bodies that rise and set—that is, they appear in the east and then disappear in the west. Unlike the circumpolar stars, not every star is visible all year long.

Measured against the backdrop of the zodiacal constellations, the Sun shifts eastward in the sky at the rate of about 1° a day, so each star gradually disappears from view. One day we see a given star, briefly visible low in the western sky just after the Sun goes down. The next day, we don't see it at all, because the Sun has moved another 1° eastward, bringing it too close to the star we're watching for us to see it. The last day a star is visible in the west at sundown is called its heliacal setting, from Helios, the Greek Sun god.

Only the brightest stars display this heliacal activity, since they compete with the brightness of the Sun itself, with only the onset of twilight in their favor. The dimmer stars set invisibly between daylight and twilight, but the brighter stars are visible to us in this quick-blink heliacal setting once each year. There's no firm mark-your-calendar date for this moment. Over the generations, however, people developed good knowledge of this based on their own geographic location.

Anything directly in line with the Sun won't be visible for a while. That's called a conjunction—when two planets, or a planet and star, are in line with each other and thereby visually conjoined.

So the Sun moves eastward about 1° a day. As it does, stars gradually reappear just before sunrise in the eastern sky. One day, a given star isn't visible because it's directly in line with the rising Sun and lost in the glare. But a few days later, there's our star—a blink of light!—visible for an instant in the pre-dawn twilight before the rising Sun quenches it. This first reappearance is called the heliacal rising. The next day the star is visible for a moment longer, getting farther ahead of the rising Sun. As weeks pass, the star and its constellation gradually rise long before the Sun, and are visible throughout the night.

With dedicated sky-watching and a stunning awareness of small details and subtle changes, our ancestors paid great heed to heliacal risings, these first-of-the-season sightings. Remember, heliacal risings and settings are momentary occurrences, not leisurely night-long events. Their actual dates are consistent to within two or three days, but that's influenced by visual acuity, weather conditions, and vantage point. Only through acute observation can these occasions be witnessed. And when a star reappeared, it was as if all the energies and associations of that star were symbolically reawakened and reborn.

We'll look more at some heliacal risings in chapter 10. For now, just know that this is how the Sun shifts in relation to the zodiac. When the Sun occupies a constellation is when we can't see that group of stars.

Finding the Zodiacal Constellations in the Sky

The zodiacal constellations help us get our bearings on the rest of the sky and deepen our comprehension of the seasons and of the universe through which we spin. In figures 21 through 33, stars marked by the largest star symbols can often be seen even in a large city's light-polluted sky. Once you learn to recognize their relation to each other, you'll be able to distinguish them earlier in the evening, as they emerge after sundown.

At midnight on the Winter Solstice, you can find the first three signs of the zodiac high overhead. To locate them, find Orion's Belt. Follow its line to the right and up slightly for just over 20° (one hand span) to Aldebaran, Taurus' brightest star and the charging Bull's right eye (see figure 22). Aldebaran means "the follower," since this star follows the noteworthy Pleiades cluster. To find this group, continue to the right and up, to what may look like a small pale smudge. This is the Pleiades. From Aldebaran, go up and left to Elnath, which is brighter than the Pleiades but less distinctive and less bright than Aldebaran. Elnath, the Butting One, is the tip of the Bull's left horn. Note that, in summer, the Sun's path—the ecliptic—is high overhead in the daytime and low toward the southern horizon at night. The reverse is true in the winter. That's because the Earth sits at a tilt. The ecliptical stars visible during the winter months are those riding the higher side of our tilt. This makes for easier and more dramatic viewing of the sky in the winter months.

Returning to the Pleiades, go right 20° to find Hamal, Aries' brightest star, from Al Ras al Hamal, the Head of the Sheep (see figure 22). To Hamal's right is Sheratan, called the Sign because of its old role as the beginning of the zodiacal year, when its rising marked the Spring Equinox.

Returning to Orion's Belt, look up and to the left, a little more than 20° away, to see Gemini's fairly bright Alhena (see figure 23). Another 20° from Alhena, farther up and to the left, are Gemini's "twins," Pollux (south) and Castor (north and slightly brighter). These two are 4.5° apart—a bit more than two finger widths—and, like twins, are so well matched that they quickly become familiar.

On the Spring Equinox, a different zodiac group occupies the midnight sky (see figure 24). Find Leo by using the Big Dipper's pointer stars in reverse. In roughly 40°—two hand spans—you'll be in the mid-zone of Leo (see figure 25). Leo's brightest star, Regulus, is on the right and sits almost exactly on the ecliptic. Regulus ruled the heavens—it was the Babylonian's King Star—as the Lion's heart. The Babylonians anticipated eclipses when the Moon moved across Regulus, since this meant that the Moon was directly along the Sun's path. Among Leo's dimmer stars, Algieba is above Regulus as the Lion's mane; 24° to the left is Denebola, from Al Dhanab al Asad, meaning "Lion's tail." Leo actually looks like a lion, seated in a regal, sphinx-like pose.

Cancer lacks bright stars, so find Gemini's Castor and Pollux, and then find Leo's Regulus. What's in between them is mostly Cancer. Procyon, the bright star in Canis Minor ("the Little Dog"), is another good landmark below Cancer (see figure 26).

To Leo's left is Virgo, the Maiden, occupying the widest space along the ecliptic, about 44°. To find Virgo, look north to the Big Dipper's handle. Follow its curve out in an arc, away from the ladle, to the first really bright star, Arcturus, in Boötes about 30°, or one-and-a-half hand spans, away. Continue this arc for a little more than 30° to the next really bright star, Spica, Virgo's brightest star, the ear of wheat held by this grain goddess (see figure 27).

Midsummer at midnight, the next group of stars rides low along the southern horizon. The easiest star to spot in this group is reddish Antares, Scorpio's brightest. It is named for the red planet Mars— ant-ares means "similar to Ares"— and is considered the Scorpion's heart. Scorpio is long from north to south, but also narrow, officially occupying only about 6° of space along the ecliptic, the least of any of the twelve signs of the zodiac (see figure 28). As with Leo, Scorpio looks like its namesake. The hooked tail is unmistakable, a tall scorpion with its tail dangling low.

There are no very bright stars in Libra, so unless you're in a truly dark location, first find Scorpio's Antares and Virgo's Spica. Libra's brightest star, Zubenelgenubi ("the Southern Claw"), is between them on the ecliptic, 24° from Antares and 21° from Spica (see figure 29). As the name "southern claw" implies, this is Scorpio's claw star within Libra's scales; the fainter "northern claw," Zubeneschamali, is nearby. In some old illustrations, these claws hold the balance pans of the scales, an example of how fluidly our ancestors viewed their constellations—layered and overlapped rather than precisely regimented.

Wedged in on Scorpio's left is Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer (see figure 28). There's more to this tall figure than is shown here, but note that the Serpent Bearer occupies a good chunk of space along the ecliptic, about 19°. Ophiuchus is an example of a topic that puts astronomers and astrologers at odds. The former see the fact of thirteen constellations along the ecliptic, while most of the latter work with the traditional twelve signs.

To the left and below Ophiuchus is Sagittarius, the Archer (see figure 28). Bright stars Nunki and Kaus Australis help to form the Teapot, an asterism within Sagittarius that is easier to locate than the constellation as a whole. From Antares, look left to find the tip of the Teapot's spout 21° away (see figure 30). From a dark enough location, you'll also see the Milky Way running up through Scorpio, Ophiuchus, and Sagittarius.

The Autumn Equinox showcases—quietly—the final three signs of the zodiac, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces (see figure 31). These contain no especially prominent stars, so look high up for the Square of Pegasus, an asterism within the large constellation of Pegasus, and work outward from there (see figure 32). Using the Square's Alpheratz-to-Markab diagonal, head directly out a little more than 20° to Aquarius the Water-Bearer's right-shoulder star, Sadal Melik. Continue along that line to Capricorn.

Returning to the Square of Pegasus, note the angle between Alpheratz and Algenib. Now head to the left across the sky and find Hamal, in Aries. We've come full circle. Using your hand span, find Alrescha, the tip star in Pisces, 20° from Hamal at the same angle as that between Alpheratz and Algenib (see figure 33). Alrescha comes from the Arabian Al Risha, "the Cord," for the starry twine that threads the two Pisces fish together.

Look at figure 34 for some specifics on the zodiac constellations. Note first that the "Sun occupies" dates given on this chart are for the Sun's symbolic astrological position and then the Sun's actual position in the sky. I'm using the modern boundary lines, which aren't what cause the discrepancy between astronomical and astrological locations and dates, as we'll see in chapter 3.

Second, remember that the meridian is an imaginary line running overhead from the northern horizon to the southern horizon. Use a compass to check this, or simply find Polaris and then stand with it at your back, facing south. Two signs can occupy the midnight meridian simultaneously. Refer to the preceding pictures to see how they can overlap.

Excerpted from A Magical Tour of the Night Sky by Renna Shesso. Copyright © 2011 Renna Shesso. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Chapter 0 Following the North Star          

Chapter 1 The Zodiac—Our Circle of Animals          

Chapter 2 The Dance of the Sun          

Chapter 3 The Precession of the Equinoxes          

Chapter 4 The Moon—Queen of the Night          

Chapter 5 Mercury—Magical Messenger and Soul Guide          

Chapter 6 Venus—A Walk with Love, Death, and Rebirth          

Chapter 7 Mars—A Planetary Rebel?          

Chapter 8 Jupiter—King of Many Names          

Chapter 9 Saturn—The Ancients' Final Frontier          

Chapter 10 Some Special Stars, Groups, and Phenomena          

Appendix A: Mercury Elongations 2010–2050          

Appendix B: Venus Elongations 2010–2050          

Appendix C: Mars' Location and Motion in the Night Sky 2010–2050          

Appendix D: Jupiter's Location and Motion in the Night Sky 2010–2050          

Appendix E: Saturn's Location and Motion in the Night Sky 2010–2050          


Selected Bibliography          



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