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. 

Once upon a time in the stars

Mar 9, 2015

Once upon a time with Orion

Very few constellations are visible all the world over at the same time, but in the month of March, we have just such a phenomenon.The constellation in question is the mighty giant Orion, with his very famous belt of three stars. Because these three stars are positioned almost directly along the celestial equator, the imaginary line that divides the northern and southern celestial hemispheres, it means that every year, as we draw toward Equinox, Orion can be seen at night in the skies over both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In the world of the storyteller, Orion and the stars around it can be easily linked to the well-known tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk." Jack and his mother live in very poor conditions, and are forced to sell even their milking cow, their one last source of food. Jack sells the cow for a handful of beans, much to the dismay of his mother.   When you look into the night sky, you can imagine that Orion is the surly giant that Jack encounters at the top of the beanstalk, and Orion's famous belt of three stars represent the three treasures that Jack must retrieve from the giant: the hen that lays the golden eggs; the two bags of gold; and the singing harp. The milking cow that Jack traded? That's the constellation Taurus, the bull, which appears above and right of Orion in the sky, where you can also find the handful of beans, also known as the star cluster of the Pleiades. If you're looking at Orion in the sky, and you follow his belt of stars down and to the left, you see the brightest star in our night sky, which is the star Sirius. In the tale, Sirius is the fairy who sets up this challenge for Jack, to determine whether he has the courage and capacity to overcome the giant and to restore to himself his father's treasures.  Fortunately because it's a fairy tale, there's always a happily ever after. So if ever you feel you've sold your cow for a handful of beans, perhaps you can find solace under the stars of Orion throughout the month of March. Link to the story "Jack and the Beanstalk" from Andrew Lang's Color Fairy Books:

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

Mar 2, 2015

The month of March used to mark the beginning of the New Year, and in many religious traditions, it still marks the beginning of the spiritual new year.

The month of March gets its name from the Roman God of War, the planet Mars. Mars was not only a defensive warrior, he was also a god of aggression, and taking action, so he is also associated with the beginnings of things, so when his month came 'round, that was the beginning of the new year. Also in the month of March, we have the first day of Spring, which is known technically as the Vernal Equinox. Equinox is the point where it appears to us that the Sun comes to the Celestial Equator, and begins to move into the Northern Celestial Hemisphere. This marks the point in the cycle of the year when, in the Norther Hemisphere, we begin to have greater sunlight. This time of year is also the 'trigger' for when it's appropriate to celebrate the Spring festivals of renewal, including the Passover, the renewal of fire, or the Easter Festival.  We can still 'hear' March as the beginning of the new year when we listen to the names of the calendar months that are still in use. September is the seventh month from March; October is the eighth month; November the ninth month from March; and December is the tenth month. The other interesting thing about March is that it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. This isn't just a reference to the weather; it's a reference to the stars that are rising and setting at this time. The constellation Leo, the Lion, is rising up in the East at sunset, while the stars of Aries, the Ram or Lamb, are starting to be swallowed up in the light of the Sun looking West at sunset.  By month's end, the stars of Aries will 'go out' with the Sun, so we can truly say the March brings in the Lion, and goes out with the lamb. 

Star Kings and the Plain of Wonder

Feb 23, 2015

There are a lot of astronomical kings hidden in the night sky, and this week they're getting active. Right now the Sun is in the region of the constellation Aquarius, while on the opposite side of the sky, the planet Jupiter is in the region of the constellation Leo. When constellations are 'opposite' one another, it means they appear on opposite sides of the Earth from one another, so when one constellation is rising, the other is setting. In Aquarius, the brightest star has a name that means "the lucky one of the king", and other stars that are associated with luck, like "the lucky star of hidden things and hiding places." But because the Sun is in this region of the sky right now, we're not able to see these stars~we just have to know that they're there, hidden in the light of the Sun. On the opposite side of the sky, there stands Leo, with its brightest star, also a "king star", Regulus. Regulus means the "little" or "hidden king". And Jupiter is right nearby. This configuration in the sky, with Sun in Aquarius and Jupiter in Leo, is a perfect set up for the tale from the Celtic Creation Myths about the King of the Plain of Wonder.  Every year, the King is bound to put on a disguise and go out among his people seeking good or ill at every turn. This is a classic "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" myth, for the King is hidden, but he always has a witness. The witness ensures that every deed is repaid in kind. That 'witness' right now can be imagined as the planet Jupiter, standing close by the 'hidden king' Regulus, and opposite the lucky kings in Aquarius, now hidden by the Sun.

Are Venus and Mars all right tonight?

Feb 16, 2015

It will be two years before the planets Venus and Mars come as close to one another as they will this weekend, Saturday, February 21st. In many ancient cultures, Venus and Mars were typically regarded as lovers,so you would think that when they come closest together, that's when they would impart the strongest influence for love. However, this was actually regarded as the time when love was weakest.  The story of Venus and Mars is somewhat of a compromise. Venus is married to Vulcan, the metal-smith of the gods.

Friday the 13th and Valentine's Day

Feb 9, 2015

It's Valentine's Day this week, but will the omen of bad luck associated with Friday the 13th cast a shadow over opportunities for a weekend of romance?

Casting a celestial shadow

Feb 2, 2015

This week the story in the sky is all about casting shadow.

February 2nd marks the halfway point in the Winter season and is known as a ‘cross quarter day.” Technically this means the Sun is closer to Equinox, or the first day of Spring, than it is to Solstice, which was the first day of Winter.

And at this time of year, the Sun is brilliant in clear blue skies, casting long shadows across the snow-covered Earth by day, while at night, the Winter Moon does the same.

Further, the Winter Moon will be Full on Tuesday this week, right next to the bright planet Jupiter. So Sun, Moon, and Jupiter are all conspiring to cast shadows across the Earth by day and by night this week.

In the United States, if the Ground Hog emerges now and sees his shadow, then we are cursed with six more weeks of Winter, even though seeing one’s shadow means skies are clear. This is an odd contradiction.

But there’s something behind the celebration of Ground Hog’s Day that suggests a deeper mystery of the Earth in its celestial environment.

Consider, the light and warmth radiating from the Sun toward the Earth doesn’t just bounce off the Earth, rather it’s ‘absorbed’ by the Earth. And when the Sun appears furthest from us, during the Winter months, then we have to rely on this inner light and warmth that was absorbed during warmer, brighter seasons.

Now, if the Ground Hog emerges from his den and sees his shadow in this season, before the light has regained dominance over the season of dark, it just might mean that the sunlight stored within has escaped too soon, and the cold will hang around for longer than it would otherwise.

The sun will rise at 8 am in the East Wednesday morning, just as the Full Winter Moon is setting with the bright planet Jupiter in the West. Make plans now to get out and find your own celestial shadow.


January and the season of growth

Jan 26, 2015

This week the story in the stars in not about what we can see, but what we can know.

We're just about halfway through the Winter season during this last week of January, and it's at this time of year we can begin to consider the 'mystery of agriculture' as it was practiced and understood by ancient cultures.

We have to bear in mind that agriculture, the art of planting seeds into Earth that would then take root, sprout, and eventually bear fruit, was regarded as a sacred practice that could only take place during the proper season.

If we set aside for a moment that Copernican though the Earth is not at the center of our planetary system, then we can begin to imagine what motivated ancient practice.

For thousands of years the understanding was that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that in certain very specific seasons, forces would stream toward Earth from the spiritual cosmos that would instigate growth forces to rise up out of the Earth.

So when would this kind of encounter take place between Earth and its celestial environment? Around the time of the last week of January. Astronomically, here's what's happening:  The Sun, appearing to move around the Earth, is almost halfway through the season, which means days are growing longer. The Sun came to its standing still moment furthest below the celestial equator at Solstice, which marked the beginning of Winter. 

In several weeks, it will arrive at its Equinox moment, the first day of Spring, when day and night are of equal length.  And just prior to the halfway point on this journey, this period of time occurs, or so it was anciently held, when all the growth forces for the coming seasons had finally arrived at Earth.

Looking into the sky this week, we can see the brilliant planet Venus in the West, about 45 minutes after sunset. Then turning to face East, the spectacular planet Jupiter is rising up over the horizon at the same time. Watch these two as they move closer and closer together throughout the coming weeks and months, until they meet in the West in the evening sky, right at the beginning of Summer, in late June.

The poetry of the night

Jan 19, 2015

On cold clear nights the stars are so brilliant it’s as if they were speaking. But if they could speak, what would they say?

The Moon, New on Tuesday morning, will take a spectacular walk through a garden of planets this week, tiptoeing past Mercury and Venus Wednesday evening; then, grown a little bolder, the waxing crescent will meet the warrior planet Mars on Thursday.

It’s easy to imagine that this is the kind of celestial scene that inspired the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge with the words: The moving Moon went up the sky and nowhere did abide. Softly she was going up, and a star or two beside…

But while Coleridge wrote beautifully about the stars, Ancient scholars trained themselves to understand what the stars themselves were speaking. They referred to this as the astro-logos, literally as star words, which we experience in a much diminished form today as ‘astrology.’ Astrology or the ‘speaking of the stars’ is remarkably different from ‘astronomy’, which is the contemporary science of the stars.

For the ancient readers of the starry script, the fixed points of light we know of as the still stars were like the consonants in the human language. And in the rhythmic sweep of the Moon and planets they discerned what we consider vowels ~ the letters that give motion to spoken words.

Each night this starry speaking sweeps into a new expression as the Moon and the planets slowly change their positions against the background of fixed stars.

Watch the Moon as our poetic scribe this week, looking slightly south of west about 45 minutes after sunset, and find your way to the poetry of the night.

Finding Native New Year in the stars

Dec 29, 2014

Is it possible to find the moment of New Year just by knowing the stars?

The star cluster known as the Pleiades comes to its highest place in the sky this week. You can find it looking high in the East at 8 pm.

The Pleiades are the most storied about group of stars around the world, and in the tradition of people native to the upper Great Lakes region, they were used as a calendar to mark the New Year, long before the Gregorian calendar came into use in the 1700s.

Local legend holds that the Pleiades were the children of a local tribe who danced up into the sky while trying, without permission, to imitate the ceremonial practice of their elders. Their fateful dance took place at the darkest time of the year, while their parents were fast asleep. When the elders finally did awake, they followed the sound of their children’s song, only to witness the children ascending into the sky.

Then a voice was heard saying: “Do not grieve too much. We are on an endless journey, a trail of dance and song. In summer watch us coming by way of the south to the setting Sun. In the winter you will see us coming by way of the north toward the rising Sun. When we are directly overhead, observe the ceremonies.”

Each year at this time, the ceremony of the New Year was held when Pleiades is highest in the sky, but not until five sleeps after the Winter’s New Moon.

This week, the waning gibbous Moon will guide you to Pleiades, looking north and east about an hour after sunset on New Year’s Eve. The star cluster will carry us all across the threshold of night and into the New Year, only setting with the Moon at 4:45 am on January 1, 2015.

The 12 Days of Christmas

Dec 22, 2014

The season of Advent comes to a close this week, and now begins the 12 Days of Christmas.

So here’s how it works: There are 12 days between the festivals of Christmas, December 25, and Epiphany, January 6.  We’ve just had the darkest moment of the year at Solstice.  Now we celebrate he return of light, also known as as the sacred birth that takes place three days later, atmidnight between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Finding Ourselves in the dark at Solstice

Dec 15, 2014
Rod Cortright from his Wildwood Obersvatory, Boyne City, MI

Does being in the dark give us greater awareness of ourselves?

The Earth is tilted from its plane of orbit, so as we move through the cycle of the year, it looks to us like the Sun is moving above and below our equator.

When the Sun is furthest below, there’s a period of a few days when it seems to stop.  This ‘stop’ is called Winter Solstice. Solstice means the standing still of the Sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, this marks the darkest time of the year.


Dec 8, 2014

When you’re wishing on a star, does it matter if it fell from a comet or an asteroid?

This weekend the Geminid Meteor Shower comes to its peak. Most meteor showers are caused by comets, but the Geminids are mysteriously caused by an asteroid.

It’s like this: Asteroids are usually found in the asteroid belt, a region between the planets Mars and Jupiter where there are millions of space rocks; Comets, on the other hand, fly in toward our Sun from well beyond the furthest reaches of our solar system.

Asteroids are made up of metals and rocky material, so they’re solid, even when they’re near the Sun. Comets are made up of ice, dust, and rock. That might not seem like a big distinction, but when comets get close to the Sun, they burn up. And it’s this burned up stuff that causes meteor showers.

Then there’s asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the parent body of the Geminid Meteor Shower. It’s an asteroid not a comet, so it remains solid and doesn’t leave a trail, even when it’s near the Sun.

Still, 3200 Phaethon mysteriously causes one of the most prolific meteor showers of the year.

Astronomers call 3200 Phaethon a ‘rock comet’, a rare form of celestial object that isn’t vaporizing and leaving a trail of dust like a comet, but nonetheless is triggering a meteor shower here on earth. 

Unlike its namesake Phaethon, who took off with his father’s chariot of the Sun and fell to his death, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon appears somewhat defiant, producing a lively meteor shower every year, with 120 to 160 meteors per hour at its peak.

Look for the Geminid Meteor Shower overnight this weekend, from Saturday to Sunday~and let the mysterious nature of 3200 Phaethon infuse your holidays with magic.

Was there really a Christmas Star?

Dec 1, 2014

Was there really a Christmas Star?

The star Mira in the constellation Cetus means “Star of Wonder”. This star is visible over the horizon in the south every year at this time.

Mira is the star of wonder because it has been known, since ancient times, to be a star of great variability. They call it that because sometimes it’s invisible and sometimes it’s the brightest star in the sky.

In ancient times, it was believed that each human being comes from a particular star, that souls on Earth were equal in number to the stars in the universe. Each soul was connected to a star.

Then, the fact that the Star of Wonder grew brighter or dimmer every few months meant something unusual was about to happen in this soul/star connection, that perhaps a significant birth was about to happen.

The ancient sages would read the stars patterns, and this is how they knew if a significant birth was going to take place.  When Mira starting pulsing toward greater brightness they knew it was time to make ready.

Mira continues to impress astronomers to this day, since it is the only star known that has a comet-like tail, which suggests that there’s something even more unusual about it. 

Find Mira looking south about an hour after sunset. It appears in the region of the sky where there are great superclusters, the largest structures known in the observable universe~as though they were souls, waiting their turn to come to birth.

Benjamin Franklin and the Stars

Nov 24, 2014

With Thanksgiving happening across the country this week, it’s time to consider one of our most pervasive cultural myths: Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the turkey as the national emblem of the United States.

This cultural myth is based on a letter Franklin wrote in 1782 to his daughter Sarah about the eagle as the national emblem. In the letter, Franklin wrote: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. …while the Turkey is in Comparison, a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…”

Unfortunately for the turkey, it has become much preferred as table-fare rather than as enduring emblem, which might be due to the fact that there are no turkeys represented in the star patterns overhead.

What we do have overhead is the star pattern of the eagle, recognized throughout history and across cultures as the constellation Aquila. And despite Franklin’s opinion of the eagle as a bird of bad moral character, many cultures, from the Ancient Greek to the Native American and even to the International Astronomers Union, have all recognized Aquila as the eagle constellation. Sometimes, different cultures see different creatures in the star patterns, but the fact that so many see the eagle in the constellation Aquila lends itself to the fact that the eagle is regarded as one of the most sacred creatures in the world, perhaps even making it too sacred to eat.  

So as you’re settling in for traditional fare this Thanksgiving, look to the West, where you can find Aquila the eagle setting into the horizon, its star Altair the brightest object in that region of the sky this Thanksgiving week.

Damp drizzly November in the stars

Nov 17, 2014

Looking south toward the horizon after 9 pm this month, there is an unmistakable single bright white star: Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut marks the mouth of the constellation of the southern fish. And it’s also the guide to what’s known as the ‘watery region” of the sky, because there are several other water-related constellations here, like the starry whale and the waterman.

This grouping of water-related constellations is prominent every year in November, and lends itself to an interesting bit of history that unfolded under these stars one Autumn nearly 200 years ago.  

American History in the stars

Nov 10, 2014
Mars and Pluto among the stars of Sagittarius, from the app StarWalk, available here

There are two ways to find history in the stars this week: First, in the position of the red planet Mars; and second, in the Leonid Meteor Shower, which rains down overhead from now until the end of the month.

Orion and the pearly gates

Nov 3, 2014

The first week of November is the halfway point in the season, which is technically called “cross quarter”.  It means that we are now closer to the onset of Winter than we are to the onset of Autumn. 

In many cultural traditions, this particular cross quarter signals the time for celebrating the lives of loved ones who have died. In different traditions, these celebrations occur either over a few days or a few weeks, as in the Mexican ‘fiesta’ known as the “Day of the Dead”, or the Native American tradition of “Ghost Suppers”.

In November, one of the world’s most well-known constellations rises up over the eastern edge of the northern hemisphere: the constellation Orion. Looking back into ancient Egyptian culture, we find that the region of Orion in the sky was linked to their god of the dead, Osiris.

One of the easiest ways to identify the constellation Orion is by his tell-tale belt of three stars.  The central star in Orion’s belt is named “Alnilam”, which means ‘string of pearls’.  Ancient Egyptians believed Alnilam portended fleeting public honors to those born under its influence, but we may also find here the source for references to the “pearly gates” that the dead pass through from this life into the next. It was as though the dead traveled into the afterlife through the region of the Orion constellation, where they met the god of the dead, Osiris, and passed through the string of pearls at the center of his belt.

One of the few specific references to known constellations that occurs in the Bible appears in the Old Testament Book of Job, in which God admonishes Job with the question: “Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?” Job is being asked whether he has the power loose the bands of death.

The presence of Orion was a comfort to ancient cultures, and the association of its rising with remembrances of the dead continue into our own time. Watch for Orion and his tell-tale belt of three stars rising in the East after 9 pm.

Mars and the social media mania

Oct 27, 2014

The planet Mars has been in the news a lot lately, and this week it will be visible crossing the path of Milky Way stars, accompanied by the Moon in the southwest Tuesday night.  More than any other planet, Mars has been at the center of the most extraordinary examples of the mischievous effects of social media.

In 2003, Mars came as close to Earth as it had in recorded history, leading to the erroneous and annually repeated internet legend that the red planet will appear as large as the Moon.

Nearly 80 years ago this week, 23-year-old Orson Welles and his colleagues broadcast a radio rendition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds reciting events in the novel as if they were a real news broadcast. The idea that aliens were invading from Mars caused mass hysteria. That was October, 1938, nearly 40 years after HG Wells originally penned his novel The War of the Worlds, a scientific romance written in response to several significant events in the 1890s.

In 1894 the scientific community was excited about Mars’ close approach to the Earth. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing ‘channels’ on the surface there.  Because it was commonly held then that Mars was an old and exhausted planet that had once sustained life, it was not unusual for scientists to seek there for evidence, just as NASA’s Curiosity Rover does today. 

Then came increasing militarization in Europe and the cataclysmic eruption of Mt Krakatau. These events fueled the hyper-realism behind HG Wells’ writing style, and the possibility of invasion by aliens caused Mars-mania to reach fever pitch.

Interest in life on Mars sustains into our own time. Over 200,000 people have already applied for a one-way trip to the desolate planet.

Given the enduring interest and mischief stirred by our red neighbor, perhaps the question we need to ask is not “is there life on Mars?” but rather, “What does Mars stir to life within me?”

Partial eclipse in the land of story and stars

Oct 21, 2014

On Thursday there’s a partial eclipse of the Sun, visible from Northern Michigan starting just before 6 pm. The Sun will set about 45 minutes later, while 10% of it is obscured from our view by the disc of the Moon. But be careful~though the eclipse is occurring around sunset, it is not safe to look directly at the Sun. Protective eye gear is needed.

Mercury and the dawn

Oct 13, 2014

This week the action in the sky is not something that’s visible to the naked eye observer. It’s a phenomenon known as the ‘inferior conjuncton’ of Mercury with the Sun, and it happens on Thursday. 

Uranus and the Lunar Eclipse

Oct 3, 2014

There’s a Total Eclipse of the Moon Wednesday morning, visible throughout Michigan and across North America. This eclipse, which is the second in a rare series of four Total Lunar Eclipses, begins at 5:15 am eastern daylight time. Two and a half hours later, the Sun will rise in the East, and the Moon, on the opposite horizon, will set, still in Eclipse phase for Northern Michigan viewers.

During Wednesday’s eclipse, the Moon will appear to move through the region of the Pisces Fishes, and will appear just half a degree above and right of the planet Uranus.

Uranus was the first planet discovered with the use of a telescope, in 1781. It is just barely visible to the naked eye, and is better viewed with binoculars or telescopes. If the Moon were not being eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow Wednesday morning, it would be too bright, and Uranus would not be seen.

Let’s consider Uranus a little further. In ancient Greek culture, the name Uranus is associated with the primal god personifying the sky. Uranus was born from chaos, the primal force of the universe, and had no father or mother. His name is sometimes interpreted as ‘rainmaker’ or ‘fertilizer.’ He came every night to cover the Earth and mate with Gaia, but he hated the children she bore him. These were the six sons and six daughters known as the Titans, as well as three one-hundred-handed giants, and the one-eyed Cyclops.

Uranus banished his monster children to the underworld, but was eventually overcome by one of his Titan offspring.  He became the vanquished god of an elder time, eclipsed by successive generations which he had brought forth into the world. In this way, Uranus became associated with the type of change that heralds the future.

When Wednesday’s Eclipsed Moon reaches greatest totality at 6:55 am, look for Uranus, just below and left of the darkened Moon.

Mars and Antares for Northern Night Sky

Sep 26, 2014
Astronomy Magazine

On Sunday and Monday, the waxing crescent Moon will sweep past a dramatic encounter of ancient rivals in the evening sky: the red planet Mars; and the red supergiant Antares, the star at the heart of the Scorpion.

There’s no distinct mythology regarding this rivalry, but the star-name “Antares” means, “anti-Ares.” “Ares” is the Greek name for the Roman god Mars, god of war. The region of the Scorpion, on the other hand, is always related to the Underworld.

Autumn Equinox

Sep 19, 2014

Autumn Equinox is next Monday evening, September 22nd. Equinox, from the Latin, means “equal night” and is the time when it appears that the Sun crosses the plane of the Earth’s equator.

But how do we know it’s Equinox? Who’s measuring, and how do they do it?

Measuring time and our place in the universe is an ancient task. Many areas of our world are populated with the ruins of what can rightly be called “astronomical observatories”, designed specifically for timekeeping. Think of StoneHenge in England or the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Andromeda and Pegasus

Sep 12, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storytellers’ Guide to the Night Sky.”

Because there are not a lot of stars in the region of the sky appearing overhead this week, it might seem like there’ s not a lot going on up there, but with the right imagination, you can find one of the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose unfolding overhead, hidden in the constellations Andromeda and Pegasus. You might know Andromeda as the ‘woman in chains’, while Pegasus is the winged white horse.

Harvest moons, asteroids and the watery region

Sep 5, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky.

Every year, the full moon that appears closest to Autumn Equinox is given the title Harvest Moon. It can come in either September or October. This year's Harvest Moon will appear on Monday in the southeast part of the sky.