The Storyteller's Night Sky

Every Monday morning at 6:31 and 8:31, IPR News Radio looks into the night sky with Mary Stewart Adams, former Program Director and founder of the International Dark Sky Park at the Headlands, who has been telling stories of the night sky on IPR since 2013. 

At this unusual moment in history there is an interesting array of celestial phenomena populating the morning sky and stirring the thought life.

To slightly modify the words of English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we're two months before the month of May, and with Full Moon and the direct motion of Mercury both occurring this Monday, March 9th, we’re headlong into the season’s finale!

Until the reign of Julius Caesar in the first century BC, the month of March was considered the first month of the year, with its start date determined by the first visibility of the Moon after its Spring New Phase. The weather and the stars also played a part in helping ancient communities get ready for the Spring, and it was out of this connection to natural phenomena that folk loric ideas arose, like the one that claims that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

Were it not for the significant 16th century event that took place on Monday of this week, then we’d be reckoning time according to a different date come Saturday, which is Leap Day, February 29th, a date that only rolls around once every four years, providing the year is divisible by 400.

This week the Moon will cascade down a stair of morning planets in her silvery gown as the Titan Goddess Selene, sweeping us into the folklore of prophetic morning dreams when she meets Mars on Tuesday morning, Jupiter on Wednesday, and Saturn on Thursday, before she disappears into her dark phase below the eastern horizon and arrives at New Phase again on Sunday, February 23rd.

The Old Testament tale of the prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale is commemorated each year at this time in a three-day fast, while the constellation Cetus the whale just begins to set over the western horizon.

The constellation Auriga is known as the charioteer, and it mounts to the highest place in the sky these nights, bearing its brightest star Capella to the zenith, the northern-most 1st magnitude star in our sky.

Have you been wondering about the news regarding the star Betelgeuse and how it’s inexplicably dimming? Betelgeuse defines the right shoulder of the constellation Orion, a giant in the night sky and in humanity’s cultural history, ranging from associations with the ancient Egyptian God of the Dead to the Old Testament Book of Job to the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.

It’s the third full week of January, and though we are one month past Winter Solstice and the sunlight is growing stronger each day, statistics show that this is the time of year when we actually experience the coldest temperatures.

In ancient astrological wisdom, the influence of Venus and Mars on lovers was considered strongest when they were square to or opposite one another in the sky, and this month they’re setting up for just such a configuration.

There are several traditions that line up on January 6th, making it a unique day in the cycle of the year, including the Ancient Egyptian observance of the birth of Osiris, the Baptism of the Christ, the visitation of the Three Kings, and it’s the birthday of the French patriot and martyr Joan of Arc, in the 15th century.

Just as all our days gather into one final celebration here at the end of the year, so have all the major planets gathered up into one place with the Sun ~ well, nearly all of them.

Though Solstice marks the standing still and ultimate return of the Sun toward the northern celestial hemisphere, there are three further ‘turns’ that occur before what is truly new begins to unfold. These turns are the three “eves” that occur in this season: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and the eve of Epiphany, also known as 12th Night.

The early 20th century Austrian philosopher and scientist Dr. Rudolf Steiner once likened the cycle of the Earth’s year to a breathing process, with an inhalation and exhalation happening in the same rhythmic regularity for the Earth as it does for the human being. The full-in breath he likened to the moment of Winter Solstice, when it appears as though the Sun stands still furthest south on the horizon, and then slowly, by degrees, it begins to move north again, restoring light to the northern hemisphere.

This week the sky is beautifully set up for a tale from Rudyard Kipling “How the Whale Got His Throat”, because the star Mira, which marks the throat of the whale constellation Cetus, comes to its highest place in the sky now.

On Friday, December 6, the red planet Mars will sweep into the scales of Libra, as though he were a right jolly old elf, slipping into position to weigh and balance the naughty and nice on his Christmas list. 

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.

All Summer long the giant planets Saturn and Jupiter stood as guardians on either side of the thickest region of Milky Way stars, where we find the Galactic Center. This week, Jupiter offers his hand to the planet Venus, goddess of love and beauty, so they can make their way through this very region of stars. So what’s the story? 

If ever there was a time to prepare a ceremony of the stars, then this week is it! The Moon is a waxing gibbous through the midnight hour; Venus is putting on her evening gown; and Mars is keeping company with the star of abundance at dawn ~ but that’s not all.

It’s the week of Halloween, a festive and mischievous celebration rooted in the ancient agrarian observance of the Autumn Cross Quarter Day, when stories abound about encounters with supernatural beings associated with fate.

This week marks the anniversary of the death of Tycho Brahe, on October 24 in 1601, the Danish astronomer whose dying wish to his assistant, Johannes Kepler, was something Kepler couldn’t fulfill.

Each year in this season, the Sun moves through the region of Libra stars, and the constellation of the starry crown sets in the west, settling all the mysteries of destiny for the year.

The skies they were ashen and sober; 

the leaves they were crispéd and sere~

the leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year…

So wrote Edgar Allen Poe, poet and story writer, two years before he died in October, one hundred and seventy years ago this week.

The Moon was new last Saturday, which means that this week we get the romance of a waxing crescent moving up the sky over the western horizon all week.

The moment of equinox occurred at 3:50 am Monday, September 23rd, a date on which a new calendar was introduced in France in 1793, and the planet Neptune was  discovered, in 1846.

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