Astronomical animals such as the lion, bull and scorpion date back as early as 4000 BC
Nov 12, 2020 at 10:40 AM in Explore
With all that has been happening in the world these past months, we could do as the ancients did and look to the night skies for answers. Many cultures, in fact, continue traditions, founded in millennia, of turning to the heavens for guidance.
“Early studies of the sky provided stability and structure to social and political organizations,” Dr. Edwin C. Krupp, a preeminent “archaeoastronomer,” was quoted as saying in a Nautilus magazine article. “A perfect example of this is the emperor in ancient China, who was regarded as the primary intermediary between Earth and the divine force in heaven. The emperor is sacred, and that stabilized and protected the way that the Chinese culture allowed itself to be governed, he continued.” The Map Geek has recently become hooked on the Netflix series “The Crown,” which infers a similar connection between the sovereign and the divine. If you were to look at pretty much every culture throughout the ages, you’ll find some measure of desire to link themselves with heaven.
Whether it be in the form of a map, a monument, the simple act of looking at the night’s sky or some other manifestation of interest in what would become known as astronomy, people have exhibited a propensity to establish a connection with the earth, moon, sun, stars and planets since Prehistoric Man. Think of Incan temples, Stonehenge, the ceiling of Grand Central Station in New York City–there’s more to the celestial universe than what meets the eye.
Indeed, for everything that ever mattered, people have drawn a correlation between the night sky and what is happening on earth. Whether it be when to plant the crops, how to hunker down for winter, how to navigate the seas (by following the North Star, for example) or some other notable piece of information that could affect their lives, our ancestors looked at the sky for guidance the way most of us read a newspaper or a social media post online today.
The universe also assures order, mathematically and otherwise. Man naturally seeks systems and ways of organizing information. Calculating distances from one place to another is also of primordial importance and you don’t have to be a Map Geek to recognize that! Modern maps have been largely based on photographic observations taken from earth-based and spacecraft equipment and instruments. Most of these maps are based on a system of coordinates similar to geographic latitude and longitude.
But how did the ancients map out the night sky? By keen observation! Paintings of constellations, or groupings of stars, have been found in Egyptian tombs, although these works along with other celestial representations on vases from Babylonia as well as other ancient vestiges are not considered to be bona fide maps. The first real mapmakers of the night’s sky were astronomers. Telescopic astronomy led to the discovery of an abundance of stars and by 1515, impressive maps of the heavens were being drawn up. As the centuries passed, maps filled in more and more stars, then dark and bright nebulas and, of course, all kinds of planets and other astronomical features of significance. By the twentieth century, astronomers divided the sky into 88 areas or constellations. They also developed an international system of naming the stars and star patterns based on traditions that began during prehistoric times.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: Of the more than five thousand stars visible to the naked eye, only a few hundred have official names (many of which of Greek or Arabic origin). Only about 50 of these stars are commonly used by astronomers and navigators. Note also that a complete mapping of the sky includes the brightness, color, position and movement of the stars. There’s so much to know; as you can tell, this story barely scratches the surface!
And what about the whole storytelling/entertaining aspect of stargazing? Astronomical animals such as the lion, bull and scorpion date back as early as 4000 BC. ”Because sources of light are indicative of power, celestial objects were assigned a divine character,” says Dr. Krupp. “They became gods whose behavior bears watching because they are either a power source that affects things on earth or they signal what’s taking place on earth.”
Hmmmm. No wonder famous people are referred to as stars. And it’s no wonder that certain world leaders–political or otherwise–are often considered to be divine beings, whether warranted or not.
But for us humble folk here on earth, the Map Geek wishes that you’ll find a nice Dark Sky locale, whether it be at a national park or in a plowed field in the middle of nowhere and ponder the universe above. There is so much to glean from a quiet moment spent contemplating the heavens. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even see a falling star. Be sure to make a wish!
The year is going to end with some pretty exceptional events in the night sky, including the best meteor shower of the year peaking on December 13, a total solar eclipse on December 14 and the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on December 21. Check out this Smithsonian Magazine article to find out more.
Many old celestial charts rank as supreme works of art. You can view some spectacular ones in this Library of Congress blog, entitled Constellations in Bronze. The effect of printing these engraved works with bronze powder on a black background is magnificent.