Over the circling years, I have come to realise two things: the first is that size doesn’t always matter; the second is that shape always does. I will admit that I wasn’t convinced of geometry as the axis upon which the earth turns when I was at school. But I have become so.
Still, I can’t deny that I must be slow on the uptake because this idea that configuration is meaningful is foundational to human culture. I guess that’s why we argue about it. Take the shape of the earth for example: haven’t we ever argued about this?! Shape really matters here! Various ideas are floated. One comes to us from Ancient Greece where the earth is pictured as a disc adrift on primeval waters. Not too dissimilar to this is the notion of a hollow earth which is something like an amethyst geode within which life passes a gloomy subterranean existence. Then there’s the inference drawn from the Biblical Revelation (7:1) that the world is square and has angels posted as the Royal Stars of Persia to guard its four sharp corners. But the majority of us have finally resolved to agree that the world is a sphere. True that even in agreement there remains dissent on the central point of whether our whirling progress happens in the centre of the universe or at some forlornly forgotten outpost. But, still, the fact remains that the world is to most of us a spherical gyroscopic spinning top.
So our earth turns widdershins on her unique axis once every 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds. Within the daily round, she spins to the east and the sun, moon and starry backdrop circle towards the west and, accordingly, our world organises chaos. But, above us, at the two poles, circle a species of celestial life that is, symbolically, immortal. These are the circumpolar stars which neither rise nor set.
The name and number of these circumpolar stars depends on individual latitude. As an incomplete list, at 51 degrees 27 minutes north, I have the best part of Bootes always in the heavens, plus Auriga, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, Draco too and, of course, Ursa Minor. If your northern latitude is lower, you will have more circumpolar stars than me because a greater number will never reach the horizon. If you have southern latitude, then the water snakes of Hydra will encircle your zenith. But, wherever you are, if you find your celestial pole, north or south, you will be gazing at the axial point of steady stillness on which the world turns. This axial point is the bottomless well of eternity…or, at least, that’s the story.
Finding the northern pole is easy on a starry night. All you need to do is locate the two ‘pointer stars’ of the Big Dipper, Merak and Dubhe, and follow their line into Ursa Minor, to Stella Polaris. This great star marks absolute north or, at least, almost absolute north, since its latitude is +88°8 (maximum latitude, or declination, is + or -90°). The constellation, Draco the serpent, coils around this because he, in never setting, never sleeps either. For a good long time it has been his job to guard eternity from those whose hearts, when weighed in the balance, are found wanting.
But finding the Celestial South Pole by way of the stars is harder. It’s easy enough to find the general area since it, too, is surrounded by serpents – those of Hydra and Hydrus – and the actual star to look out for is Sigma Octantis, in the modern constellation, Octans. The trouble is that this star is 25 times dimmer than Stella Polaris so that, even despite its very close proximity to the pole, Sigma Octantis is a useless navigational star. Instead, it’s left to the Southern Cross, or Crux, to point seafarers into the Southern event horizon of a gaping eternal void that is the black Coalsack Nebula.
As an aside, I would avoid the colonialist crime of reading the universe in exclusively western terms by pointing out that the ‘Crux’ is obviously a western name and concept. The indigenous Australians don’t see a cross here. What they see, instead, are various animals offering useful cues to foragers. For instance, they make out the head of the Emu in the Sky in the Crux and Coalsack while our Milky Way is its body. It is important to note that this difference of opinion doesn’t undermine the sign. It just tells us that signs are only universal in a wholly standardised world. In anything less, the sign requires a contextual purpose like, for instance, a seafarer seeking a beacon as opposed to a forager requiring a tip-off to say that emu eggs could possibly be on tonight’s menu.
Be that as it may, back to the celestial poles and the fact that, despite symbolic appearances, these don’t actually possess the geometric properties for timeless eternity. What they do, instead, is provide the coordinates of the aeons. This is because, rather than being permanently fixed against a set backdrop of stars, the poles of our gyroscopic earth trace out celestial circles of 25,700 years in circumference which we call Great, or Platonic, Years. Within a standard solar year, of course, there are 12 months. In just the same way, there are twelve Platonic Months in a Great Year and these are around 2160 years in length with each one amounting to an astrological age. It is mooted, of course, that we are on the cusp of the Aquarian Age having now left the Piscean Age through which we have travelled since Classical Antiquity.
And what this means is that, as the poles plot their circles, so the proximity of the stars alter in respect of them. We’ve turned upon Stella Polaris since Late Antiquity but, come the 22nd century CE, this ‘ship-star’ of ours will lose its compass and drift for an entire Great Year before finding its moorings as the Lodestar again. In the meantime, Samsara will prevail as a ceaseless round of stars take turns on the world axis. And, sometimes, there will be no guiding northern star at all just as there is presently no real southern star – as there was nothing on the northern celestial pole during Classical Antiquity after Thuban in Draco abandoned its post.
So cutting to the chase and speaking of being firmly guided after a period of making our own way, it occurs to me that Stella Polaris’ credentials as a candidate for the Star of Bethlehem aren’t terrible and actually have merit. This theory of mine could only come from an astrologer since it requires no small amount of post hoc analysis! But, never mind that, hear me out:
Before the Common Era, Stella Polaris was nothing more than Kynosoura to the Greeks – their “Dog’s Tail”. Sure it shone brightly in the ancient world, and offered much as a navigational star too, but it was one amongst many. However, in the second century Kynosoura found its way into the stellar catalogue of the second century astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, and, lo and behold, a new star had risen: gone was Kynosoura; in its place was the pole star, Stella Polaris, the first amongst equals!
By this time Christianity was a star in the ascendant too. For the first century or so following Christ’s crucifixion it was on a low, slow burn but then a milestone was reached in 312 when Emperor Constantine converted. A year later he used the Edict of Milan to legalise Christianity. A hop and a skip after, Emperor Theodosius the Great made it the Roman state religion. Thus, the Classical Roman religious world was transformed because, thereafter, the countless little tutelary spirits and gods who, until then, had rustled every leafy tree and grass and flower were progressively swallowed into the belly of the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths. Hence my thesis:
When there was no pole star in the northern hemisphere, pagan religions abounded; the rise of a powerful pole star brought a jealous god which led to one faith and; since the south has no bright pole star, the conversion of that hemisphere into northern-themed religiosity has gone unchecked.
Truthfully, I’m not expecting to receive academic honours on the strength of this thesis so it really doesn’t matter if you can’t swallow the notion of steady Stella Polaris as the wandering star leading the Magi to Jesus. But, anyhow, the Piscean Aeon of Eternityis either drawing to a close or has already ended. For the record, I don’t think the Age of Aquarius is actually with us yet because Stella Polaris has yet to perfect her conjunction in declination with the Celestial Pole. But, be that as it may, it’s star like all others and must submit to the wheel of Samsara and eventually fade.