The Headless Horseman on Thanksgiving Night: this week on the Storyteller's Night Sky

Nov 25, 2019

In this image of the evening sky on Thanksgiving night, Venus and Jupiter can be imagined as Katrina and Brom from Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" racing over the dark rift of the Milky Way as if it were the sleepy hollow itself. Image from MSU's Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar.

This week the sky sets the perfect stage for one of America’s best-loved stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, written by Washington Irving in 1820, and it’s the perfect time for sharing it aloud around a cozy fire, as the horse constellation mounts to the zenith and the crescent Moon races past Venus and Jupiter in the deep rift of the Milky Way. What’s more, this week marks the anniversary of Washington Irving’s death, on November 28 in 1859.

Irving describes the setting where the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is chased away from his pursuit of the lovely Katrina Van Tassel by the legendary headless horseman as a place where, “the whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the night mare, with her whole nine fold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.”

The “night mare” we will imagine as the horse constellation Pegasus, which can be seen directly overhead, nearly reaching the zenith around 8:30 pm.  With four bright stars marking its body, Pegasus easily fits the imagination as the steed ridden by the headless horseman!

And looking southwest about an hour after sunset on Thursday, the crescent Moon will be spectacular sweeping past Venus as the love-interest Katrina, and Jupiter as her brute of a suitor, Brom Van Brunt, whom Irving joyfully described as being “broad shouldered, double jointed, with short curly hair and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance.”

Find Washington Irving’s story in the stars, and in his statement that “He is the true enchanter whose spell operates, not upon the senses, but upon the imagination and the heart.”

Find the text of the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" at this link.