Navigating by the Stars III: The Constellations


This final article will conclude our series on stargazing and rudimentary navigation using heavenly bodies.  There’s no end to the depth of this subject, though.  From ancient hands we’ve been passed marvelous star lore, intricate treatises on planetary sympathies, and all manner of alchemical, esoteric, and symbolic meanings associated with the stars, the planets, the sun and moon, and the seasons.  Learn on!  And don’t forget to love the dearest globe of stardust we know: the earth.

The Zodiac

The zodiac isn’t much for navigation, but it’s definitely worth mentioning, considering its long history in the minds of our ancestors.  The Zodiac is a ring of constellations which lie on the elliptic, the path of that the sun and moon appear to take in the sky.  If you know your zodiac sign, say Leo, this means that from our humble earthly perspective the sun was moving through the constellation Leo when you were born.  Here’s a diagram:That means that during the reign of your zodiac sign, your zodiac constellation is hidden behind the sun, and it won’t be visible for a few more signs to come.  The entire zodiac moves through the sky each day, but many factors determine which signs you can see on a given night.  Daylight lasts longer during summer, the elliptic is lower on the horizon during winter, etc.  Here’s another way of explaining it from Order of the White Lion:

“If the Sun rises in the East in Aries, it is Aries that is known to be RISING over the horizon at DAWN.

Dawn if the Sun is in Aires

At midday, the Sun (still in Aries) will have moved to its height overhead but, as Aries moves across the sky with the Sun, so ANOTHER SIGN will be rising in the East over the horizon.

Sun in Aires, Midday, Cancer Ascendent

As the Sun moves, so the complete Zodiac moves, and a different Sign will continuously be seen to be RISING in the East. This occurs right up until dawn the following morning.

This whole process then repeats itself again, with the Sun moving approximately 1 degree through the Sign each day until it finally moves into the next Sign after about a month.”

See the pattern here?  Using the elliptic (the course of the sun, see previous article) and the wheel of the zodiac you should be able to fairly successfully predict which zodiac constellations will be visible at any given time of the year.  Then, instead of taking it from paper to mind to sky, you’ll soon be able to take it directly from sky to mind, and determine exactly what time of the year it is by examining the constellations rising and setting at night.  Some of the zodiac constellations are very faint, totally undetectable in areas with light pollution.  Others are fairly easy to spot even in the city.  Get acquainted with their formations and their order, starting preferably in winter when constellations like Gemini and Taurus are easily spotted using the constellation Orion, as we’ll explain below.

Orion and the Winter Triangle

Orion the hunter is easily recognizable, and like Ursa Major the Great Bear has a stunning pan-cultural significance relating to the hunt.  Even cultures which don’t see a giant man outlined in the hourglass figure have seen his famous three-star belt as a string of hunted animals.  The Shoshone have the legend of the three mountain goats, Orion’s sword imagined as an arrow shooting through the center of the three.  The Seri people had a similar legend, calling the belt Hajpi (a name denoting a hunter), although instead of only mountain goats they imagined a mule deer, a pronghorn, and finally a bighorn in procession.  The Rig Veda also imagines Orion as a deer.  Whatever the significance, whether hunter or hunted, humans have been entranced by Orion for ages.

The bright stars of Orion can be used to find many brave flags of the winter sky, including the Winter Triangle, a triad of bright stars whose “triangle” overlaps the band of luminous dust we know as the Milky Way, and others past have known as the great Spirit Road.  The triangle prominently rises almost directly overhead during the winter.  Orion’s top left shoulder, a bright red star named Betelguese, forms one of its corners.  Here’s a diagram to study:

Using Orion to Find Other Constellations

Using Orion to find Gemini, as I mentioned earlier, is a surefire way to start observing the zodiac’s year-clock.  Tic-toc.  When Orion starts breaching the eastern horizon not long after dusk, you’ll know winter is in full swing.  When he stands straight up at his zenith in the sky, his sword points directly south.  The line of his belt points east to west, though not with navigational precision.  Orion is even invoked in the Bible three times, my favorite reference in the book of Amos:

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns blackness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the Lord is his name—
he flashes destruction on the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin.

It reckons Christ’s words in Mark 13:2, “‘Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” Music to my ears, music of wild birds and shimmering leaves.

The Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle

I won’t even try to outdo the well-worded instructions of the Fort Worth Astronomical Society, who created both the diagram below and the Orion diagram above.  Instead, I’ll simply reprint their instructions at length, with heartfelt thanks.  These instructions apply more to the summer sky and use Ursa Major instead of Orion to point out important constellations of this season.  The helpful diagram below is followed by their wonderful pointers.  And I quote:

The Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle

“If you can find the big dipper in the sky, you have a starting point for identifying many other objects in the sky. Learn to use it as a starting point for the finding other constellations.

The Pointers: The two stars forming the front edge of the Big Dipper’s bowl (on the side away from the handle) point to Polaris, the north star, in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear). Polaris is a rather faint star about five times farther away than the distance between the pointers themselves.

If you continue on this line from the Pointers on past Polaris, at an equal distance, and slightly to the side, opposite the big dipper, you will intersect Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia, is a stretched out W-shaped constellation reclining in the starry band of the Milky Way. Cassiopeia is circumpolar, like the Big Dipper, and therefore is a familiar constellation, easily learned, visible no matter what the season of time of night from most of the United States. Cassiopeia may also be found by tracing a line from Mizar (ζUMa) (the second star of the Big Dipper’s handle) through Polaris.

Trace a line from the Pointers of the Big Dipper to Polaris and past Cassiopeia, and you will come to a large, nearly perfect square of four stars (almost directly overhead in autumn) called the Great Square of Pegasus (Pegasus was a flying horse). At one corner of the Square of Pegasus is Andromeda (daughter of Cassiopeia). The constellation Andromeda contains the Andromeda galaxy, also known as M31. The Andromeda galaxy is relatively close to the Milky Way, and is a bit larger than our own galaxy.

“Arc to Arcturus.” Follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle away from the bowl to the fourth brightest star in the earth’s sky, Arcturus, of the ancient constellation Boötes (pronounced “boo-oh-tees”). Boötes is a herdsman, or shepherd, and is found in cave paintings commemorating successful hunts of gazelles, zebras, and giraffes in the Sahara–this constellation was named before the Sahara became a desert. Arcturus is best seen in late summer.

Continue past Arcturus on the same curve away from the Dipper’s handle. After going the same distance again as it took to reach Arcturus, you will come (if it’s not below the horizon) to a bright star of the constellation Virgo called Spica (spy-ka). “Speed on to Spica!” is a handy way to remember this. Alternatively, the phrase “Spike to Spica” refers to Spica’s usual location near the horizon. Spica lies nearly on the ecliptic–the path the Sun follows across the sky. Spica may have an occasional bright visitor nearby–a planet wanderer, not a permanent resident!

Return to the bowl of the Dipper. A line running through the two stars nearest the handle points almost directly to two other notable stars. Pointing down beneath the bottom of the Dipper bowl the line would take you to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo (a lion, whose mane looks like a backward question mark–Regulus is the “dot” at the bottom of the mark).

In the other direction, pointing above the open bowl, the line runs to Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan, which looks like a cross). Deneb is the tail of the swan, which is flying south for the winter along the Milky Way. Deneb, together with two other stars (Vega and Altair) form the summer triangle, an asterism which dominates the night sky all summer long.”

End quote.  Since these instructions also point to Gemini, we’ve come full circle on the year wheel once again.  Corresponding the two diagrams above should allow you to fill out the rest of the zodiac, and any other constellations you pursue through the night sky like Orion the hunter, or the Great Bear and her cubs.  Note that the summer triangle also overlaps the Milky Way, and along wtih the winter triangle they form a very simple duo with which to follow the seasons.

A Brief Introduction to the Planets

The waltz of the planets is far too baffling and sporadic for me to follow or explain with ease.  They’re easy to spot, though.  First of all, they don’t twinkle like stars do.  They give off a rather steady shine.  Venus is easy to locate, being both the morning and evening star (which Bertrand Russell made such a hubub about in his philosophy of language).  Also, they don’t stay in a fixed orbit in the celestial sphere, so they will frequently change position in relation to other stars.

End Notes

These are some basic instructions on getting in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and the significance of cardinal directions by observing the heavenly bodies.  Why?  To move freely without map or compass, by season and sun rather than by signpost and streetlamp.  To remember an era we all share in our souls, of which Chaungtzu wrote, “During that time mountains had no paths or tunnels, lakes had no boats or bridges, all living things lived in groups and felt a sense of connection with their communities, birds and beasts grouped together and vegetation flourished. If someone put an animal on a leash it was merely to take a stroll with them. If the branch holding a bird’s nest was drawn down it would be merely to delight in looking at it.”  Or simply for nothing.  For nothing.

Then what is the answer?–
Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,

and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose

the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted

and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness.
These dreams will
not be fulfilled. To know this,
and know that however ugly the parts appear 

the whole remains beautiful.
A severed hand Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars 

and his history … for contemplation or in fact … Often appears atrociously ugly.
Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is Organic wholeness,
the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty

of the universe.  Love that, not man Apart from that,
or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,

or drown in despair when his days darken.
Robinson Jeffers

I come to realize that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and stars.
Dogen

It is the stars not known to science that I would know, the stars which the  lonely traveler knows.
Thoreau

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