A Brief History of Skywatching

Thousands of years ago our ancestors all around the world were fascinated by the beautiful and mysterious night sky. Each culture invented different star stories about gods, goddesses, heroes, villains, monsters, maidens, and animals from their particular location.

The Beginnings in the Middle East

The ancients of Middle East Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) saw the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn move across the sky among the fixed stars of the constellations. They called these the planets, a word derived from the Greek for “wanderers”. Most cultures considered these 7 objects as gods and goddesses that ruled our lives.

The sun’s apparent path across the sky, the ecliptic, is actually a result of our planet earth’s path as it travels around the sun. The planets and the moon do not move in the sky exactly as the sun does, but are found in a band called the zodiac, from the Greek, “circle of the little animals”. The zodiac extends 8 to 9 degrees north and south of the ecliptic in the sky.

The Constellations

The western world got its constellations from the Romans, who got them from the Greeks, who borrowed them from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia. Other cultures have their own unique and original mythologies as well.

Using the Night Sky

Farmers, travelers, sailors, and herdsmen all used the changing night sky for their benefit. It provided them with a means of survival. Looking up at the clear dark desert sky at night, stargazers were able to make nightly observations of the celestial objects and track their paths through the seasons. The night sky was a clock, compass, calendar, weather forecaster, and farmer’s almanac that allowed people to predict what event would happen next in the yearly cycle around the sun. The changing moon, full 12 or 13 times a year, helped to divide the year and let us understand its changes more easily.

The Birth of Astronomy and Astrology

Later, predictions were made from celestial alignments of the heavenly bodies that applied only to kings and the nation as a whole, not to individuals. The stargazers were what we would call today both astronomers and astrologers, complementary disciplines that worked together, but today are quite separated.

Astrologers fixed 12 signs of the zodiac from the original 12 zodiacal constellations which remain today unchanged thousands of years later. However, the sun can also be found in the constellation Ophiuchus, and the moon is also found in Cetus and Orion. The zodiac also contains small pieces of about a dozen other constellations. The size of the zodiac constellations differs as well, so today’s zodiac is quite different from that of thousands of years ago.

Astrology and Astronomy Today

Astrologers and Astronomers are “divorced” today, but both have contributed to the richness of our culture over the centuries. Astrology today is folklore, quasi-religion, and even a form of psychoanalysis to many even though it has no known physical basis. It has not changed much since the earth-centered universe. Astrology does not really look at the night sky any more. Most of it is based on symbolism, ancient geometry, and discarded ancient scientific beliefs. A few astrologers do account for precession and recognize Ophiuchus as a sign.

Astronomy is a science that uses the scientific method to question ancient knowledge and accept only that which can be verified with controlled observations. It is constantly being revised. Astronomers are today probing the universe to its edge, finding hundreds of planets revolving around other stars, adding dozens of moons to our solar system (some larger than planets) and finding that the matter we see is only about 5% of all mass-energy in the universe.

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