For the last two or three weeks I have been making an informal effort – weather permitting – of observing the winter sky at night. I simply go out at night with my little star map that I usually take backpacking and look toward the east to note where the Winter Triangle is in the sky. Somehow, observing these stars and their progressive positions in the night sky makes my position feel very solid.
Sirius is especially fun to watch, since it will be in the opposite corner of the sky when it plays its namesake role in the Dies Caniculares – the dog days of summer. (I love the fact that in Romance languages these days are known as the “Canicule”, ah the march of human linguistic history and its application to the sky.) As Sirius marches across the sky – slowly – my hope for warmer days increases. It will continue its march across the night sky, until it is buried in early evening on the western horizon. Then we will be in summer until it begins to return early in the morning, just before sunrise, to begin the Dog Days.
This has been interesting to trace Orion’s path as he and his dogs move east to west at the same hour each night. It is important to note that this movement was supremely important to many early agricultural societies because they correlated the appearance and disappearance of the sky’s brightest stars with regional floods of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and other rivers in the northern tropics.
Living as we do now, with our precision timekeeping devices in our massive industrial cities it is easy to forget the cycle of stars and their importance to our ancestors. It is also easy to understand the role of astrology among early cultures. The recent nontroversy over astrology being declared “rubbish” by astronomers on British television made me think about my own stellar observations from the end of my driveway. It is easy to find mystic comfort in the cycle of Sirius and its winter partners to the bright stars of the summer sky – Vega, Altair and Deneb. But in our technological society, the same one that provides us with precision timekeeping implements, there should no longer be a need to fall into the false comfort of astrology. It is even funnier that astrology still plays a role at all since almost nobody even takes a second glance at the night sky and even fewer people can actually name a single star (or planet) appearing overhead. After all, the night sky competes with prime time television.