Cities gather us in different ways, we dwell them, walk around its streets and avenues attending our own eagerness. Many cities have rise over us with huge buildings that show the ability of societies to overcome our scale, and so in a display of phenomenal energy, cities keep moving.
Now days, electric light seems to be a primary need for todays society. Cities and their lights shine over the night sky, blinding our eyes of the ordinary exercise of looking to the starry night that practice our ancestors. Those who have been in the Atacama Desert know that once is late night, looking at the stars there is a different experience, from the one we are used to when we look at the stars from our “shining” cities. This thought becomes most significant while we start to think about our everyday experience. Have we lost something in the way?
Our culture as human beings, have always been related to the night sky observation. Today, new planetary systems are discovered weekly, observation tools and instruments are increasingly sophisticated; we can look at the origin of the Universe and make an image of it. We live in a fast and fascinating era in which we can dazzle with images of supernova’s explosions, nebula clouds and faraway galaxies. The understanding of what “surround us” changes radically and Astronomy raises new questions, challenging the limits of our comprehension. Now we can look farther and farther and so wider the horizon becomes.
Facing this prospect, we propose to add different points of view. Contributing to the astronomical reflection from different angles, being the scientific perspective one in many others possible. Because we are interested in poetry, music, art and design, also in casual conversation, laughter, awkwardness and contradictions, in things that move and those who stay quiet, we are interested in large and small questions of humanity.
This first edition of Galatic Magazine is the number cero and has as main subject the Birth, the origin of things and also the origin of this project. This is a starting point of a conversation that we hope will spread in time, and so will convene many voices and many views.
In modern astronomy, new planets circling distant stars are being found almost every week. Studying them can teach us much about the origin of planets, and eventually about our own origins. Throughout history, people have always believed that gazing the stars can teach us about ourselves and the world we live in. For ancient cultures, astronomy had three different roles: Time keeping, predicting the future of kings or normal man, and illustrating the tales of heroes and gods.
Even today, we often use the sun to estimate the time of the day. Perhaps it is not so surprising that we find examples of Sundials around the world. An example from this continent are the Intihuatanas, found in Inca ruins. These big ritual stones were most likely used, either as a calendar or as a Sundial. When there is no sun, people used the known positions of stars instead. Catholic monks and Muslims alike used the stars to determine the hours before sunrise, to know when it was time to pray.
Most stars cannot be seen all year round. The first day of the year on which you can briefly see a specific star appear above the horizon, just before sunrise, is called the heliacal rising. Ancient Egyptian texts refer to the heliacal rising of the brightest star in the night sky, the Dog Star (Alfa Canis Maioris), or Sirius as we call it today. This first time that Sirius appeared above the horizon was coupled to the yearly flooding of the river Nile, which in turn fertilized the land. Therefore, the rising of Sirius told the Egyptians that it was a good time to sow.
Around the same time as the Egyptians learned to use Sirius, the Babylonians wrote down astronomical events, either regular, or out of the ordinary. They watched for omens, which could affect the life of the king or the country as a whole. Especially solar and lunar eclipses were believed to be bad omens. They had very detailed tables from which they could predict the month within which the following eclipse would occur. To avoid the evil that came with this eclipse, the king was often advised to switch place with a farmer. This would hopefully direct the wrath of the gods towards the substitute king, and save the real king. After the astronomical event, this substitute was put to death, together with his substitute queen and substitute court. However, instances are known where the farmer did not give the power back. Hence, evil did happen to the (previous) king during the month of an eclipse.
It was the Greeks that popularized the predictive role of astronomy and invented astrology that claimed to do predictions for everyone. In this new purpose for astronomy, the position of the stars and planets during birth, influenced the life of the newborn. Modern day astronomers often do not like to be reminded of this practice that appears to mock everything that we consider to be scientific. However, the truth is that astrology has been a big motivation to watch the stars and planets, and to write down what was observed, throughout the centuries.
The most charming role for astronomy in ancient cultures is perhaps the one it played in the many stories about heroes and gods. The six faced Hindu god Karttikeya (Murugan in Malaysia) was raised by six Krittikas, who later become the Pleiades. In Greek mythology, the same star cluster is formed from the daughters of Atlas. After Atlas is condemned to carry the heavens, the giant hunter Orion takes his chance to chase the Pleiades. Zeus hears their father’s pleas and turns the Pleiades into a group of stars in the sky, saving them from Orion. The handsome hunter then goes to Crete, to hunt with the goddess Artemis. Together, they threaten to clear the entire Earth of wildlife. Mother Earth, or Gaia, does not like this prospect and sends a giant scorpion to kill the hunter. After the scorpion succeeds, Zeus decides to honor Orion, and gives him a place amongst the constellations, where once more, he can continue chasing the Pleiades.
The Incas reserved a special chamber for the Pleiades in their Temple of the Sun, according to the 16th century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega. They considered the “seven stars” to be the handmaidens of the moon, which in turn was the sister and wife of the sun. Since the Incas were the direct descendants of the sun and the moon, most of their stories concern these celestial bodies. De la Vega tells one where a fox fell in love with the moon. This love gave wings to the fox, with which he flew to the moon. Ever since the eternal embrace of the fox, dark spots appeared on the surface of the moon, which we can still see today.