Posts Tagged ‘star’
Mankind has always had a special relationship with the stars. In the modern world we explore them scientifically: searching for the answers to the Big Questions regarding the origins of life and the extent of the wider universe around us. We look up at the stars through veils of ambient electric lights and smog, wishing upon them still. We escape to the countryside to truly see the stars as best we may, watching them in place of the television sets which usually fill our nightly vision.
And in so doing we are continuing a bond man and womankind has had with the stars from the very beginning. For much of the time mankind has walked the earth, we did not know the stars as we know them to be today: huge balls of plasma energy strung out in space billions of light years away. Instead, we held them on high as something else, something magickal. In ancient societies, when the sun went down, there was the vast illuminated landscape of a starry sky lurking above them: mysterious and constant. It was a distinct part of their cultural worldview; its placement in the heavens and its occasional idiosyncrasies explained as part of ancient mythologies and religions. Imagine their wonder looking up at the night sky and imagining it looking right back at them.
And bear in mind, that without electric lights to dim the view, the night sky would have been distinctly brighter and filled with finer textures and gradients of colors and lights. The Milky Way not a slightly filmier band across the sky but a broad avenue of swirling colors stretching across an upside down starscape: a fitting pathway for the gods or divine river among the cosmos.
Shooting stars in particular hold a special place with the cosmic mythologies of most ancient civilizations. For the falling star represents an interaction between man and the divine. It represents something moving from a heavenly cosmic plain to the mortal, earthly world. It was probably with some surprise that upon tracking the falling place of a “star” to earth, they would discover a small crater filled with a glassy rock, which, today of course, we call a meteorite. Many cultures venerated meteor rocks as powerful magickal talisman, sent from the sky gods to the denizens of earth. The ancient Greeks believed that finding one would bring you a year’s worth of good luck and a wish; and it is from them that we have ultimately inherited the idea of wishing upon a star. Native American medicine men have been known to wear them as protective amulets, passing them down through generation after generation of shaman as symbols of their power. And temples throughout the ancient Mediterranean were in possession of meteorites, likewise holding them as sacred objects. Even in the modern world, a meteorite is one of the most venerated objects in contemporary monotheistic religious practices: the Black Stone of the Ka’baa. Believed to have been sent from God to Abraham and then passed down to Mohammad, the Ka’baa stone is technically a relic of all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and is the centerpiece of the holiest of holy Mosques in Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia, a former temple to the local Moon/Water God.
Falling stars have traditionally had a myriad of metaphysical and spiritual meanings behind them as well.
Stars are, in particular, frequently associated with the idea of the human soul. In the Teutonic mythology of central Europe, it was believed that every person was represented by a star which was attached to the ceiling of the sky by the threads of fate. And when Fate ended your story on earth, she would snip the thread attaching your star and it would fall, presaging your death. In Romania, there is a belief that the stars are candles lit by the gods (and later the saints) in honor of each person’s birth and that the brighter the star the greater the person. The falling star represents the soul’s final journey to the afterlife as it is being blown out and across the sky by the divine candle keepers. In these and other cultures, falling stars and meteor showers were celebrated ~ they honored the ancestors who had come before them, and in particular the newly deceased who were joining the ranks of the highly venerated generations who had come before.
Even in the Middle Ages after the triumph of Christianity, the pagan equation between shooting stars and the movement of souls could not be snuffed out entirely. And so it was vilified; the shooting stars were cast as the souls of evil and impious men being cast out of heaven and down into the bowels of the earth.
Shooting stars have and always will hold a special amazement to those viewing them. For their beauty alone they are worth staying up for. And if you’re ready for the long haul tonight or tomorrow night (August 12th and 13th respectively) and you live in the Northern Hemisphere~ you’re in luck! It’s the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower. Every year between August 9th and 14th, the Earth bumbles through the trail of rocky and icy debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle: creating one of the most dependable and spectacular arrays of shooting stars on earth. It has, undoubtedly, been witnessed by man for millennia; though the first recorded instance of it did not occur until 36 AD in China; with the first official scientific description of the shower occurring almost 2000 years later in Belgium in 1835.
The Perseid meteor shower is named after its seeming origination in the nightsky from the constellation Perseus, itself named after the Greek hero of the same name. The stars which make up the constellation of Perseus have their own elaborate mythologies. In particular the star Algol; which, due to its variable eclipsing nature and unpredictable level of brightness was known first as the Gorgon’s Head after Perseus’ arch-nemesis the Gorgon Medusa, and then the Demon’s Head until it was simply just the Demon Star or the Ghoul Star (algol= al-ghoul). The shower was also later referred to in a more saintly manner. In medieval times they were called the Tears of St.
Lawrence in consideration of the fact that they would fall around his feast day on August 10th.
So if you can ~ go out late tonight or tomorrow night and watch the Perseids. Watch them and remember all those who have come before you to watch them down through the millennia. Watch them in honor of the souls they were said to represent. Watch them simply for the thrill of watching something so beautiful and cosmic and so beyond the human ken. Make some wishes. Catch one in your mind’s eye and never let it go.
Burke, J.G. 1986. Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History. University of California Press.
Magickal Traditions Hidden In the Mundane
It’s really rather pleasantly shocking how many customs with pagan or magickal roots are tucked amongst the seemingly Christian holiday season cheer. Indeed the entire premise of the Christmas holiday is deeply indebted to the ancient polytheistic festivals which could never quite be stamped out. And with mainstream Christmas upon us, I thought we might take a quick look at the continuing magickal trends you might not have noticed going on today and indeed throughout the holiday season and into the New Year ahead.
This Christmas, the story of the birth of the Christian semi-god Jesus Christ will be reenacted in churches and schools all over the world as part of the Nativity play. But did you know that this classic tale is actually a re-working of an even older myth concerning the Eastern deity Mithras, who also had a birthday on December 25th? The Apostle Paul, who’s version of the birth of Christ is the most heavily relied upon for the traditional Christmas story, hailed from Ephesus- a center of worship for Mithras in the later Roman Empire. His writing was highly influenced by his surroundings and thus incorporated several of the elements of the Mithras cult and birth story into his telling; including both the idea of the virgin birth and visit of the three wise men to his birth site (in a cave vs. a stable). Indeed it is likely that the early church fathers cast Jesus’s birthday in the winter to take advantage of the pre- pagan winter festivities in the first place.
The Eastern Star associated with the Nativity story, and its derivative decorative value over the holidays is likewise an element of older cults which was refashioned to suit monotheistic needs. Intriguingly, some of its greatest usage is attached to ancient mother goddess cults, including that of the goddess Asherah: the oft forgotten wife of the god Yahweh ~ the original version of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim God celebrated on Christmas. Many other nature symbols, like snowflakes and poinsettias, which are also associated with the holidays were likewise used in older pagan cults. None more so than mistletoe. Added into the Christmas mythos through its Germanic and Norse usage during winter festivals, it is linked inevitably to the Norse gods through its appearance in the myth of Baldr, the dying god of Viking myth. Following a prophecy detailing Baldr’s impending death, his mother extracts promises from all of the plants and creatures of the world but forgets about the lowly mistletoe tucked up in the oak trees. And so when the mistletoe is unwittingly tricked into stinging Baldr at the behest of the trickster god Loki, the sting is fatal and Baldr is committed to the Afterlife until the end of the world (Ragnarok) when he will emerge to lead the new world order. The theme of the dying god appears over and over again throughout world mythology, indeed the story of Jesus Christ itself represents a ‘dying god’ myth. The re-use of mistletoe as part of the Christmas festival is therefore most fitting indeed.
Also stemming from northern European pagan traditions are the Yule log and Christmas ornaments. The giant Yule log was traditionally chosen to be burned on the Winter Solstice, the darkest and longest night of the year. The cheerful fire of the long burning log was intended to ward off the evil spirits that lurked in the dark. Families would gather together on this dark night both in fear of the darkness and in celebration of the upcoming new year ahead. The winter holidays were highly important in the pre-scientific world. In a time where you cannot fathom the astrological and natural reasoning behind the turning of the seasons, when all the plants die and the weather gets bad ~ you want to do everything you can to encourage a better season to come round.
Christmas ornaments, however, are perhaps the most gory of modern holiday traditions. Rumor has it that Germanic warriors would hang the heads and saddle gear of conquered foes on trees near their residence as trophies of their battle. These dark prizes eventually transitioned into more metaphorical baubles which in turn were placed on the first famous Christmas trees popularized by the Germanic Prince Albert at the court of Queen Victoria in nineteenth century England. Decorated vegetation was not however limited to Northern European traditions, decorated boughs of a variety of plants were common features of ancient Roman and Greek festivals, and were intended to both encourage the future bounty of the crops and protect the house from evil spirits.
Other household holiday decorations possess further overlooked magickal significance. Have you ever noticed how many anthropomorphic figures there are around Christmastime? Gingerbread men, snowmen, figurines of angels, the nativity characters and Santa and his crew: there are hundreds of thousands of little simulacra of people associated with the holidays. And while such representations of humanity may seem commonplace in today’s society, for thousands of years and indeed still in some cultures such things were and are forboden. From the ancient so-called Venus figurines of prehistoric Europe to the statues of the classical world, the recreation of the human form was considered sacred and powerful. Perhaps the most well known remnant of this concept are the voodoo dolls of Santeria and other Afro-Caribbean traditions. Their Christmas cousins may be just as powerful. From the helpful elf who watches over children’s good behavior to the angels atop the tree: these personifications of the human soul and spirit are no less powerful if one chooses to believe in them.
And finally, let us consider the concept of the infamous Santa Claus himself. The story of Santa is ripe with magickal elements. Ultimately, he is a semi-deity who lives in a magickal dimension on the northern fringes of the human world accompanied by a bevy of miraculous toy-making beings and flying creatures. And though the tradition of Santa is not very old in and of itself, the idea of powerful house spirits who bear gifts and good fortune goes back to the very beginning of time in almost every culture. In some cultures, particularly in Eastern Europe and Japan, these house spirits are still widely venerated in the modern world.
Ultimately, though Christmas is a monotheistic holiday. Its modern celebration is chock full of symbolism and traditions which hearken back to earlier times and brighter pagan customs. One needs only look closer to find them and celebrate their wonder.
Each year on the seventh day of the seventh month, the stars Vega and Altair are allowed to cross the Milky Way and spend the night together: the original, and literal “star-crossed lovers.” It’s not astronomy however, its mythology. Of the oldest, most romantic, and well celebrated kind.
In Japan, it is commemorated with a festival called Tanabata (“Evening of the Seventh”). In Vietnam, it is Ngày mưa Ngâu, aka ‘Continual Rain Day.’ And in China, it is called the Qixi festival, (“The Night of Sevens”). And though the fetes do not share nomenclature and have varying forms of celebration in the modern world, they share the myth around which the festival is based, and potentially a common ancient origin therein.
At the heart of story, which has over 20 variations, there is a cowherd who falls in love with a weaver. In some versions they are faeries, in some they are gods, but more often than not they are humans who become entangled in the affairs of the divine. For their is love is tragically not to be. And they are kept apart by malevolent parental units (or local lords or gods) for political reasons or else to keep them productive because being together has caused both of them to falter at their assigned tasks.
And to divide them, they are set in the sky; separated by the expanse of the Milky Way for all but one night a year: July 7th. For on this one night, (if the skies are clear of rain) the gods and faeries relent, and all the magpies of the world unite to create a bridge across the Milky Way for the lovers to reunite upon. The names and level of divinity of the main characters changes regionally, as does the particulars of the sub-characters, for instance sometimes the weaver has a collection of faerie sisters, or sometimes they have children who likewise are put up in the sky alongside their father and like him are only united with their mother on the one night a year. In China the most popular names for the celestial Romeo and Juliet are occupational: Niulang and Zhinu, the ‘cowherd’ and the ‘weaver-girl.’ While in Japan, they most frequently retain their starry titles of Orihime and Hikoboshi, the local names for the stars the western world calls Vega and Altair which represent the figures literally in the heavens above.
Despite the extreme variations between versions of the story, the sheer antiquity of the tale is evident in terms of its explanation of potential astronomical phenomenon, but more so in its use of the characters very specific occupations. The cowherding young lad is representative of the rise of the domestication of animals and the subsequent restructuring of society that most likely occurred following its discovery. Those without land and farms of their own would have suddenly been able to eke out a living raising animals, allowing them greater social mobility and the potential to find mates higher up the societal ladder. Weaving, likewise would have been an innovative practice which created a major shift in society; and allowed women, particularly unmarried women, a skill of their own to ply.
The modern festival takes many beautiful forms, but its primary drive is to request skills from the gods; in fact its earlier name in Chinese, Qi Qiao Jie, translates literally to ‘the Festival to Plead for Skills.’ The crafts of the household and skills in agriculture are likely to be particularly granted, but the festival has significantly expanded over the centuries so that all sorts of requests are likely to be made. The desire for a mate is a particularly frequent wish made ~ given the romantic nature of the story around which the festival is based.
A primary feature of the festival is the writing of one’s wishes on brightly colored strips of paper (called tanzaku in Japan) and then hanging them from trees (particularly bamboo), paper lanterns, kites, and other decorations. Writing the wishes in ink made from the dew left from that morning’s dawn makes for particularly effective wish-making. The decorations and prayer strips are subsequently burned or allowed to float away in water the night of the festival or the next day as a ceremonial release of the requests to the elemental spirit realm. Where ever you are in the world, Tanabata can be easily celebrated through an easy variant of this ritual. Write out your wishes on strips of colored construction paper. This evening, put them up outside, perhaps on a wind-chime, hanging plant or on a tree in your yard. Round midnight or the next morning re-collect the tanzaku and carefully burn them.
Recently the festival has taken on new elements. In honor of the festival’s celestial background, the 2008 G8 Summit in Japan not only invited the world’s leaders to participate in the festival and send out wishes of peace to the cosmos; it also invited the citizens of Japan to turn off its lights between ten and midnight. This promoted the summits environmental agenda, but more importantly allowed those participating in the festival to stargaze at the Milky Way with greater clarity and purity.
So tonight, if you get a chance, celebrate the stars. Turn out your lights and commune with the Milky Way and its celestial denizens. And don’t forget to make a wish!