March 13th, 2012 Comments Off on Constellations

Ursa Major, Detail from a 1490 English MS copying Alfonsine Astronomical Tables | Pen and ink, brush and pigment on vellum | British Library - Arundel MS 66

From dot to dot to dot. Each dot has a letter or number by it, and the child is asked to draw lines from 1 to 2 to 3 and so on, until an object, character, or scene emerges on the paper placemat or in the puzzle book. It works in that it keeps children engaged and quiet. It’s not an imaginative exercise, but it does teach numbers and letters and there is something satisfying about seeing a subject appear.

The constellations are drawn with imaginary lines connecting the stars into animals and characters. The kind of imagination necessary to come up with these framework lines was of the collective kind, spanning a great arc of time. There’s a German  natural scientist who believes he’s recognized a 32,000+ year old mammoth ivory, unearthed in Germany, and incised with the constellation and figure of Orion. This January there was news of an incised ivory board with signs of the zodiac, used for the divination of horoscopes. It had been found in the 1990s in a Croatian (Illyrian) cave, and is said to date from the 4th century BCE, the earliest object of it’s type. (Reading about the cave find led to an entertaining article about the earth’s wobble and its throwing off astrological “profiles” by a month.)

I can’t pretend to know even one entire constellation. The best I can do is draw an imaginary line through the three stars of Orion’s belt, and the seven stars of the big dipper part of Ursa Major. The Greek vision of the constellations was widely adopted, becoming the standard, but the bright and distinct stars of the big dipper are seen in different ways depending on culture. In Italy it’s called the cart, in England it’s known as a plough, the Maya saw it as a parrot. Looking at the stars is like looking at the hearth–something quaint to remember as one sits by a backlit screen.





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