Star Light, Star Bright: Celtic/Druidic Astronomy For All

20181130 STAR LIGHT STAR BRIGHT

I have always been interested in looking up and the night sky, and pondering. Don’t you find it fascinating and both humbling to look up at the vast numbers of stars in the night sky and see a ‘sea’ that goes on (seemingly) for ever? What is out there? Why does it exist? How is it that we can comprehend it (albeit in part)? What is our purpose? From the time of being a wee lad, I’ve looked up and wondered.

‘Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust,’ said Lawrence Krauss.

Look up!

It was a cold 1st December evening, and I was about seven years old (and so this is a recollection of some years ago). My dad had encouraged me, a budding amateur astronomer even at that tender age, by buying me a telescope the Christmas before, and I treasured it.

And, peering out of the window of my grandmother’s cottage on a freezing, cloudless, clear December evening I couldn’t wait to go outdoors and gaze at the night sky once more.

And, once outside, between them, my grandmother and dad, on that night like many others, would point out the constellations, significant stars and the planets, and I was in awe. They knew so much. They shared so much. And, both of them would turn the event into something that was educational, challenging and fun.

‘Look up there, dear Tadhg, what do you see?’, my grandmother said pointing to the north-eastern horizon. I can remember laughing and saying, ‘I can see ten bright stars and they look like the letter ‘H’, like rugby goal posts’. I was always encouraged to use my imagination.

‘Exactly,’ my dad said, ‘but to some people, to the ancient Greeks, that constellation looked like to men fighting. It’s called Gemini which means ‘twins’. And. as I looked they did look like two ‘stick’ men side by side’, fighting.

Ofcourse, others such as ancient Druids used their imagination and saw something slightly different’, my grandmother said.

She went on to explain that when those ancients looked up at those stats they saw Gwyn and Gwyrthur, the sons of Greidawl who seek the hand of the lady in red, Creudyladd. I looked, and they did look like characters that the ancient Celts talked of.

Look up! Be encouraged to look up at the night sky. If you’re in the northern hemisphere then the constellation Gemini (or Gwyn and Gwyrthur) rise above the north-east horizon at dusk, climbing high in the south-eastern sky ay midnight, during this time of the year.

Interesting isn’t it, that regardless of our faith background and ‘tribe’ we are comfortable with Greek myth, from an astronomical point of view when naming constellations, and yet to many, local and ancient myth seem unfamiliar and odd, and perhaps to a minority to be resisted.

‘Now check that one, son’, my dad asked me as he pointed to another constellation. I knew the constellation he was pointing to. It was Orion. ‘Use your imagination’, he said. And I did. I remember laughing and saying it looked like a butterfly, or a bow tie (not that I had many occasions to wear a bow tie on many occasions as a wee lad – but there were one of two weddings where I did), but I knew it was Orion the Hunter. My dad continued, ‘..and to the ancient Celts and Druids that constellation is Herne the Hunter’.

Many years later I was to find out, born to Euryale, a Gorgon, and Poseidon/Neptune, the god of the sea in the Graeco-Roman tradition.

Did you know, that the earliest depiction of the constellation of Orion is prehistoric? On a mammoth ivory carving found in the Ach valley in West Germany there is the outline of the constellation dating back about thirty-five thousand years ago.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God..’ Psalm 19.1a, The Book

Did you know that Herne is, allegedly, a resident spectre and keeper of Windsor Forest in Berkshire, England, whose most notable feature is that he has antlers. It is said he often appears riding on horseback, accompanied by other wild huntsman.

Look up! If you’re interested in seeing the Constellation Orion (or Herne the hunter), at this time of the year, it will rise above the southern horizon at about 8pm (London time) and climb higher in the south-eastern sky as the night passes. You can’t miss that constellation’s brightest star (infact it’s the brightest star in the night sky), Sirius, which is four hundred and sixty-three light years away. So, light leaving there in AD1555 would only now just be reaching your eyes as you look at it.

It was getting even colder, and I think my grandmother and dad were eager to get me indoors and in the warm, but (even then) my interest was piqued and I could be quite persuasive, and I persuaded them to explore just one more constellation.

This time I pointed out a group of stars unknown to me. My dad explained that that constellation was Perseus. He said that he was one of the great heroes of classical mythology, the son of Jupiter and Danae, and was best known for his killing of the Gorgon Medusa. My grandmother explained, ‘Or, to the Welsh, Perseus was really the hero Llew Llaw Gyffes, who was the child of Arianrhod. He was killed but, at the moment of his death, his soul transformed into an eagle, and he still appears in the night sky for all to see’.

It was now freezing cold, and so we all headed back home, to listen to some more stories by my grandmother at the hearth.

Look up! Persus or Llew Llaw Gyffes can be seen in high in the night sky, now, in the east.

My love for the night sky still persists, and I would encourage you to pause and look up at the night sky…and be in awe. There is great wonderment there, myth, ‘magic’ and great understanding. If we only’ stop and stare’, as the late Welsh poet W H Davies penned. ‘Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.’ Sarah Williams.