September 16, 2021

August's Night Sky: The Hero’s Journey

An age-old lesson on entering darkness and conquering fear, courtesy of the stars
By Mary Stewart Adams | July 31, 2021

It’s said that wishing on stars began in ancient ages, on account of Claudius Ptolemy, a 1st Century Greek astronomer who explained that occasionally, out of curiosity or boredom, the gods would look down to the earth from between the planetary spheres.  Sometimes a star would slip through the gap, and because the gods were already looking earthward, if you were lucky enough to see the falling star and cast your wish to it, it was more likely to be granted.

This is lucky for us as we make our way through the month of August, when everybody’s favorite meteor shower comes to peak activity. Known as the Perseids, this shower begins as early as July 17 each year, and extends to August 26, with its peak activity overnight Aug. 11–13.

The rule of thumb for catching the most falling stars during a meteor shower is to know when the “radiant” of the shower is highest in the night. The radiant is the central point from which it seems the stars fall through the sky. And because astronomers will name a meteor shower according to the radiant location, which in this case is the constellation region of the mighty hero Perseus, knowing when Perseus is highest will set you on the right path for seeing as many falling stars as possible.

Perseus mounts into the night from the northeast — riding along the Milky Way just beyond Cassiopeia — brandishing his trophy, the head of the Medusa with its twinkling demon star, Algol, marking her eye. 

This whole region of sky is linked through ancient mythology to the deeds of Perseus, who is a son of Zeus and an interesting precursor to contemporary understanding of our celestial environment. It is said that Perseus was born from the union of the mighty Olympian god Zeus and Danaë, a mortal princess, whose father had locked her up in a brass vault inside the earth to preclude the prophecy that she would have a child who would slay him. But her father, King Acrisius, either out of compassion or naiveté, had left the vault open to the sky above. When Zeus happened by, he transformed himself into a shower of golden stars so he could rain down upon Danaë, who thereby conceived Perseus, whose name means “son of Zeus.”

In characteristic Greek fashion, a great deal of drama ensued, which ultimately resulted in Perseus being sent on an errand to slay the snake-haired gorgon Medusa while she lay asleep with her sisters in a dark cave. The one who had sent Perseus on this mission hoped he would be turned to stone by the Medusa’s gaze, overlooking the fact that Perseus was the son of an Olympian, which translated into his having friends in high places.

Perseus used the reflection in his shiny shield to enter the cave where the Medusa slept and succeeded in lopping off her head before she woke. He took the head as his trophy, then mounted the winged white horse Pegasus and flew off into yet another drama taking place in the sky. (Seems that Queen Cassiopeia was bragging about her good looks, trumpeting that she was more beautiful than even the daughters of Oceanus. She should have known better than to consider herself superior to the divine; Oceanus sent a terrific storm to the shores of her kingdom and demanded Cassiopeia sacrifice her daughter Andromeda to his ocean beast, Cetus, the whale. So poor Andromeda was chained to a rock to await her fate of being devoured by Cetus.) 

Here’s where we start to bump into contemporary astronomical thought: Cetus was described as a devouring beast born out of the Pontus region of the Black Sea, which the Ancient Greeks described as a dark and dangerous vortex of water out of which devouring monsters were born and from which nothing could ever escape.

Fast-forward to the 20th Century, when astronomers began describing certain regions of space as “black holes,” dangerous, voracious places in the universe from which nothing that passes by can ever escape, not even light. Astronomers have observed that black holes appear at the center of galaxies and that galaxies collide with one another. It is predicted that our Milky Way galaxy will eventually collide with the Andromeda galaxy — much like it was said by the Ancient Greeks that Cetus would devour Andromeda.

But the Ancient Greeks had in their story something that is not so evident in contemporary astronomical thought: the intervening hero of the human spirit, Perseus. By reflecting on his role in the mighty events happening around him — remember, he used the reflection in his shield to take action against the Medusa — he is able to overcome the immobilizing fear (i.e., turning to stone in the face of danger) of what might come to pass.

That’s the first step of any initiation: overcoming fear. Then, taking the fruits of his labor out into the world, he recognizes that he can bring assistance where it’s needed, and that’s step two: recognizing that we have the resources we need to help one another.

In the myth, Perseus happens upon the scene where Cetus is about to devour Andromeda, and swooping down in front of the beast, brandishes Medusa’s head, stopping Cetus in his tracks and turning him to stone. This allows Perseus to free Andromeda, and they get married to live happily after — steps three and four: freeing the beloved and entering into the sacred marriage. This doesn’t necessarily mean “getting married” in the legal sense, but rather, indicates that through the heroic acts of overcoming fear and trusting in one’s ability to help others, one’s own higher nature is awakened. This can be referred to as the higher self, or the soul-spirit nature, and its awakening within the self is always referred to as the mystical union, or the sacred marriage.

Perseus, like all of us facing our fears, is on a quest to unite with his true, higher nature. And when the predictions of doom and gloom are overcome, the narrative ends — not in devastation, ruination, or random collision and devouring black holes, but in a fruitful and productive happily ever after. Knowing we are a consequent part of the narrative is key to success here, that our deeds and actions, no matter how great or small, have an effect in the grand scheme and may inform the outcome. 

It might seem a leap, but from the perspective of the cultural arts of humanity, this is where dark-sky advocacy steps in, ensuring that we are neither cut off from the consistent experience of natural darkness, which stirs the imagination, nor from the awesome beauty of the star-filled night sky, which has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration throughout human history.

Entire civilizations have been built out of a striving to harmonize with the rhythms of the night sky. Magnificent works of art, architecture, and literature have inspired centuries of humanity with their emulation of the harmony of our cosmic environment.

But here in the 21st Century, most of the civilized world lives where it is not possible to see the Milky Way, nor even most of the stars in the night sky. Artificial light at night that is not conscientiously used spills up into the sky, inhibiting our opportunities for naturally experiencing something higher, greater, and more beautiful than ourselves or the terrestrial world we know. In addition, protecting natural darkness in those places where it can still be found is synonymous with protecting habitat, with being better stewards of our energy resources, and with sustaining healthy human circadian rhythms. Artificial light at night can interrupt healthy sleep patterns and, given that sleep disorder is connected to every major illness that plagues our population, it becomes evident that protecting the night sky is about much more than just being able to see the stars or meteor showers or northern lights.

In August, it’s easy to take our cue from Perseus. Despite the darkness, he mounts up into the night, casting a stream of falling stars through the sky like a mighty invitation for us all, willing us to take the hero’s path in the battle against our own fears and reminding us that we have the resources necessary for good deeds on behalf of one another, so the happily ever after we all long for can be realized.

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