By Mary Plumb | June 10, 2013
On Saturday night the skies were clear and dark; the New Moon is optimal for stargazing, and I went for the first time to the local astronomer’s group. In a large field with good views of the horizon, there was not a bad seat in the house. (Although I did arrive early, I was so excited to be there; clouds had obscured other planned events.)
What a glorious night! Right after sunset in the western sky, we could see Venus (Jupiter and Mars are too close to the Sun), and a bit later, Mercury.
Venus remains as the visible evening star throughout most of this year, but Mercury is fleeting. Mercury is slowing down before turning retrograde on June 26. I also saw Mercury through a telescope for the first time: you could see a slight crescent shape as he is in the gibbous phase, i.e., not quite full. (1)
(As the evening came on, Castor and Pollux, the twins in the constellation Gemini, stood out too, but that’s another story.)
Part of Mercury’s mythos is as the god of crossroads, thresholds, in-between states, and the one who accompanies travelers. As I spent time with him in the sky, that meaning came more viscerally alive.
Now, Mercury is in the sky at dusk, the twilight, the transitional time between day and night. His visibility is relatively brief; he quickly disappears as he sets behind the Sun. He moves quickly (only 88 days to go around the Sun) but never goes too far from the Sun. Even with perfect weather and horizon conditions, we can only see Mercury at a maximum of two months out of a year.
If you can find a good view of the horizon and a clear evening, do go out and commune with Mercury yourself. He is slowing down, getting to the edge of his distance from the source of life, soon to turn and move back to the light of the Sun. (2) We can actually see the guide between worlds now. Feed your intuition and seize the moment!
Hermes, the Greek god identified with the Roman Mercury, is the protector on the journey as well as the guide between the worlds. The age-old practice of leaving an offering at points along the road beckons back to Hermes as guardian of travelers.
In the last few years, in the places where people walk a lot around Ashland (e.g., mountain trails, in Lithia Park, around the lake) there are offerings of rock formations, flowers, and leaves, etc., little altars built along the way. They are always changing, added to, fall down, and reappear somewhere else.
This ritual, conducted by random invisible walkers (I’ve never seen a person actually placing a stone or adding to the pile), is recreating our ancestors’ practice of adding stones to the piles along the way and leaving food as a petition to Hermes for blessing us with a safe journey. (The name Hermes derives from herma, a stone, roadside shrine or boundary marker.)
In the northern sky, I was completely thrilled to see Cygnus the Swan, gliding southward. This is a huge constellation, visible all summer in the Northern Hemisphere, that I had only seen in pictures. Although this constellation is easy to find, I had never really seen the swan before. And there he was, gliding across the sky right across the Milky Way. What a beautiful sight! The Alpha star in Cygnus is Deneb, at the swan’s tail, is an exceptionally bright star, very easy to find with the eye. It is a super-giant star, more than 100 times the diameter of the Sun. “Its name comes from dhanab, the Arabic word for ‘tail’.” (3)
But we looked through the telescope, and I really flipped. The star at the swan’s head is called Albireo (the etymology of which is convoluted, and by the accounts I read, meaningless). It is apparently faintly visible to the eye (I couldn’t see it), but through the telescope you see a brilliant sapphire blue star and a gold star right next to it. There are two stars in Albireo; they looked like two eyes. (4)
There are many myths about the swan in the sky, but I am now most moved by a story told by Ovid. Cygnus was Phaeton’s friend, the son of Helios who drove his chariot too close to the Sun and fell into the river Eridanus. Cygnus lamented the loss of his friend and traveled the river unexhaustedly looking for his friend’s body. The gods were moved by his grief and transformed him into a swan whose long neck allowed him to dive deeply into the water on his search. (4)
Seeing those dazzlingly bright blue and yellow stars on Cygnus’s head gives me a new image for the deep diving into the emotional realms that the current planetary emphasis on the water signs seems to be bringing. (I had calls from two friends this weekend, essentially saying the same thing: What is going on? I am crying all the time!)
Have a good week, everyone. Enjoy the skies overhead.
(1) I don’t understand the astronomy well enough to explain it (but I did see it). Here’s an explanation: Free Astronomy Lesson by Dr. Jamie Love.
(2) Gary P. Caton wrote a great blog for TMA: The Mercury Elemental Year 2013in which he describes Mercury’s pattern: The degree of the greatest elongation is very close to the degree of the interior conjunction, and the degree of the maximum longitude in the morning sky when he will be visible in the morning sky again. (This summer, the maximum elongation on June 12 is 17° Cancer. Mercury, while still visible — weather and horizon line permitting — turns retrograde on June 26. The interior conjunction with the Sun is on July 9 at 18° Cancer and the Mercury’s appearance as the morning star will be around July 30 at 19° Cancer.)
(4) Apparently this absolute wonder at Albireo’s beauty is a common experience among stargazers. “Albireo, designated Beta Cygni, is a celebrated binary star among amateur astronomers for its contrasting hues.”