Deep Sky Zodiac

May 19, 2013

Astronomy, History

The beaten path that the Sun appears to trod on its yearly trek among the stars is the oldest known method of mapping our way around the sky. So the Sun was the center of celestial attention even before people promoted it to admin of the solar system. That makes a lot of sense to me. I could argue (without much effort) that out of all the thousands of gods that people have ever prayed to for a little help, the Sun is the one that delivers the most tangible and useful contributions to our lives.

Meanwhile, for all of tribal humanity and throughout all of history the stars along the Sun’s path are the great clock that ticks away the spans of our lives. In a fundamental way, the zodiac represented time itself to ancient peoples. Many tribes even blamed the Dragon, whose stars form a lever attached to the celestial pole, of applying the force that set the zodiac in motion, of starting the sky to spin, thus creating time. And it is time that kills us. Quickly or slowly, time conquers us all. Draco is the ultimate nemesis. To stop the sky and freeze the motion of the stars is to live forever.

Hey, it's just circles, within circles, within circles, within circles. And ellipses. And ok I'm going to need some scratch paper.Some of the most persistent and culturally dominant starlore in the world today comes from the ancient Babylonian worldview, which began at its earliest to describe the entire zodiac as one long constellation known as the “Furrow.” The story described a sort of narrow ditch that is carved out by a big ox dragging the Sun around the sky like a plow, a giant glowing hot nuclear plow but whatever. The planets all float and flow on some sort of sky-water in this trough, which more or less explains the odd bobbing and occasional eddy motion of those bodies, which is nice.

Dividing the sky into “The Furrow” and “Not the Furrow” doesn’t help the average farmer with the “when” of the spring planting of the barley or the fermenting of the winter ale. Still, I’m sure the average farmer could look up and see that certain patterns in the stars were a sure sign of winter. Another sure sign of winter is that it gets really cold and snows and stuff.

Somewhere around 7000 years ago the furrow was broken down into smaller, more user-friendly groups, including some that we use today. Some of the names are based on a connect-the-dots allegory, but most of them are named for other reasons. This taxonomic subdivision happened slowly, over the course of thousands of years before the full Latin collection of zodiacal names and figures finally approximated much of our current (western) conventions about two thousand years ago. The furrow itself shrunk down and survived for awhile as the stars now known as Virgo. It’s appearance in the spring is a sure sign that you will soon run out of beer if you don’t plant more barley.

Please note, like most historical facts, these claims I make may or may not be true. Your mileage may vary.

What follows is what I like about some of the “show-ier” deep sky objects in each stellar region of the zodiac, and the starlore I tend to recall as they rotate into the range of my telescope each year. I’ve divided the list the way star hoppers mostly do, by their appearance in the seasons of the night, rather than the stations of the Sun.

Carpe Noctem
In the beginning there was only Tirawahat, which is the Universe and everything in it. ~ Skidi Pawnee Indian

Skidi Pawnee Starmap on elk skin c. 1700.
Seasons of the Night

Winter Beast
Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer

Spring Thaw
Leo, Virgo, and Libra

Summer Swelter
Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Sagittarius

Autumn Bliss
Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, and Aries

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