March 3, 2024

October Sky

Your guide to the story of the autumn stars above
By Mary Stewart Adams | Oct. 10, 2020

The moon. What can be said about it that hasn’t been said already by millennia of poets and dreamers, or even scientists and astronauts? To the Ancient Greeks, she was Selene, the Titan goddess who, casting her light into a cave one night as she glided over the sleeping world, espied the shepherd Endymion, and fell so deeply in love that she begged Zeus to grant Endymion eternal sleep, so they could meet each night in dream.

In the Buddhist tradition, the moon is the sphere of the bodhisattvas, beings on their way to nirvana who yet remain embodied to alleviate a suffering humanity.

For Neil Armstrong in 1969, the moon became the site of the most dramatic step ever taken by a human being. 

I have always felt that the moon belongs to me, and when I ponder this childlike feeling of possession, it occurs to me that this is what makes us most human on the Earth, this intimate sense of connection with Earth’s closest celestial companion: They belong to one another, and we belong to them.

The moon casts such an astonishing, unflinching, and synchronous gaze in our direction that we will only ever know one side of her many faces from our perch here on Earth. The moon gives ebb and flow to our waters, lends herself to lunacy in human behavior, and, as Romantic poet John Keats described, is a thing of beauty that will bring joy forever; its loveliness increases, and it will never pass into nothingness. 

Because the harvest full moon occurred on Oct. 1, we will have two full moons this month, which means the second full moon is the blue moon — and it falls on Oct. 31, Halloween. Halloween is the eve of the halfway point in the season, traditionally called the “cross-quarter.” The autumn cross-quarter is celebrated in most cultures as the time for sacred remembrance of loved ones who have died, and the eve of cross-quarter, or All Hallow’d Eve, is a time for mischief and merrymaking by the ghosts and goblins that are set free in the long shadows cast into the night by a world bathed in moonlight.

To add to the mischief, both the planets Mercury and Mars are in their retrograde motion right now. Mercury takes this backward step about three times each year, bringing out everyone’s inner astrologer to placate the frustrations caused by communication breakdowns.

Mars, on the other hand, only makes a retrograde motion once every two years. The peak of the cycle occurs when Mars reaches its opposition with the Sun, which happens on Oct. 13. From then on until the end of the year, the red warrior planet is our constant nighttime companion. When Mars is making its retrograde loop, it sweeps closer to Earth than at other times, and it appears brighter and brighter to us in the sky, even outshining Jupiter this month.

In astrological terms, the retrograde is the best time to change one’s use of the warrior’s energy, and it is believed that knowledge and wisdom can at last be realized by the confrontation caused by the biennial Mars opposition. 

You can find Mars all month, rising in the east as the sun sets in the west, or, conversely, setting in the west at dawn, especially Oct. 13, when Mars guards the western gate of the world for his beloved Venus, our morning star, where she appears in the East, bathing in the twilight with her sister goddess, the waning crescent moon.

Now that the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn have resumed their direct motion, now’s the time to begin your countdown for their "Great Conjunction" coming in December. According to the folks at Michigan State’s Abrams Planetarium, Jupiter is only six degrees from Saturn at the beginning of October, and only four degrees away at month’s end. By the time we get to Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, they will appear only 0.1 degrees apart, their closest approach since Galileo’s time 400 years ago, in the 1600s.

This month, Jupiter and Saturn are traveling over the horizon in the south-southwest among the stars of Sagittarius. The moon will catch them up on Thursday, Oct. 22, as though rolling out the red carpet in a dress rehearsal for their big show at year’s end.

Not to be outdone, the giant Orion casts his meteor shower into the night throughout October. The Orionids are caused by the trail of stuff left in the wake of Halley’s Comet, and are active from Oct. 2 to Nov. 7 each year, with peak activity occurring overnight Oct. 20-21. The Orionids are a medium-strength shower producing only 10-20 meteors at peak activity, but they’re giant on beauty. The radiant of this meteor shower, or the point from which the meteors seem to fly through the sky, is in the region of the constellation Orion, where the giant hero holds his club in his raised right hand. The higher this region of sky is over the horizon, which is usually after midnight, the more meteors you are likely to see.

Orion is one of only very few constellations mentioned by name in the Bible, appearing in Chapter 38 of the Book of Job, where God is admonishing Job and asks, “Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion?”

My star lore investigation reveals that the Pleiades are included in the creation myths of most cultures around the world, while Orion, at least for the Ancient Egyptians, bore association with Osiris, their god of the dead. The question put to Job seems to be one of whether he has the capacity, as a mere mortal, to call something forth into life, from Pleiades, and see it across the threshold of death, beyond Orion. Indeed, the star at the center of Orion’s belt, probably the most popular asterism around the world next to the Big Dipper, has the name Alnilam, which means string of pearls, suggesting the pearly gates.


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