Ruler of the Celestial Sea
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
If you have followed this column over the past months, you have become
acquainted with most of the constellations of the zodiac, the ones the Sun
migrates through in its annual trek around the starry heavens. Beginning last
month, we entered the celestial sea, a group of constellations symbolizing the
great waters of Earth and the relationships people of old saw in the circulation
of water from heaven to Earth. This month we find ourselves right in the center
of this ocean of heaven, at the constellation Aquarius, the Water Carrier.
It seems ironical to find that the constellation once conceived to rule the
celestial waters consists of very dim stars. Indeed, Aquarius is one of the most
difficult of all constellations to locate and recognize. It consists entirely of
dim stars, none of which pop out to the unaided eye to make a conspicuous
figure. In spite of this, the constellation was once thought to govern not only
the surrounding heavenly sea, but to govern the flow of water on Earth as well.
The reason for this is that when the constellations of the zodiac were invented
Aquarius marked the region the Sun passed through at winter solstice. These dim
stars rose with the Sun at the time when the Sun rose as far south as it ever
did, when days were shortest and weather nasty and cold. In those ancient times
it was feared that the Sun might possibly keep right on moving south until it
vanished entirely. As winter solstice approached, darkness seemed to be
overcoming light. People huddled around fires, worrying about reserves of food.
When the Sun reached Aquarius, they engaged in rituals designed to help the Sun
turn northward so that longer days would return. These ceremonies were for the
purpose of strengthening the forces light to overcome the dreaded darkness and
associated cold that threatened life.
Whatever those people did to turn the Sun, it always worked. When the Sun
reached the solstice, it always stopped, then people waited and watched to be
sure it started back north. When it became apparent that the Sun did move north
again and that days began to lengthen, a celebration went out from the Northern
Hemisphere of Earth to issue in the springtime.
Thus, in those days, when the Sun reached Aquarius, it was noted that the
weather changed. Winter did not suddenly abate: indeed it tended to worsen for a
spell. The greatest storms often occurred following the winter solstice. Water
poured out of heaven in the form of snow and rain to cover mountains, flow down
canyons, flood plains and move toward seas and oceans. This, then, is the
probable reason that the dim stars marking Aquarius became the "Water Carrier."
The figure of the constellation, superimposed over those stars, was imagined to
be that of a man with an upside-down water jar upon his shoulder, water pouring
out of the jar into the celestial sea. From there, of course, it could trickle
down out of the sky onto the ground with all of its nourishing results. This
Water Bearer in the sky, then, has both forbidding and praiseworthy aspects.
While it heralds the most dreaded part of the year, it also signals the most
joyous. Such are the contrasts of life.
Aquarius was imaged on stones in ancient Chaldea as a man pouring water from
a bucket. In old atlases of the sky the water flows along a chain of dim stars
right into the mouth of a fish, the constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern
Fish. Chaldeans visualized the water as splitting into two streams, symbolic of
the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In Egypt Aquarius was said to
dip the bucket into the waters, as the constellation disappeared in the west,
causing the Nile to flood forth its life-giving fluid. In Greece, Aquarius was
once a symbol of Zeus, pouring out the waters that brought forth life. As time
went on, however, and the winter solstice moved out of Aquarius, this dim region
of the starry sky lost its vitality to the Greeks and became confused with
Ganymede who acted as cupbearer to the Olympian gods. By this, Aquarius was
reduced from controller of the waters of earth and sky to celestial
When you go out and look around to find Aquarius in the sky you might have a
difficult time locating it, and I do not know how help you much with words upon
a page. The stars of Aquarius are dim and located in a dim region of the
heavens. It is desirable to know other stars nearby in order to be sure that you
have found Aquarius. I suggest that you begin by locating brilliant Jupiter,
currently east of south at eventide. As the sky darkens, Saturn, dimmer than
Jupiter, will clear the horizon just north of east. Jupiter is in Capricornus
(our topic last month) and Saturn is in Pisces (our topic next month). Aquarius
is between Capricornus and Pisces. Thus, look midway between these two bright
planets to find the dim stars of Aquarius. As it gets dark, about 8:30 p.m.,
look directly south to find Aquarius. Brilliant Jupiter will be a ways to the
right (west) and Saturn will be to the left (east). One more bright feature
might help: the star Fomalhault, mouth of the Southern Fish, will be low in the
south. Of all the brighter stars of the sky, Fomalhault is the most ignored. You
seldom hear much about it. The dim stars going upward from Fomalhault represent
the water streaming out of Aquarius' jar.
For many years I have tried to concoct a figure that I could easily remember
among the stars of Aquarius. Only a few weeks ago, as I was presenting these
stars to students in a planetarium, did a figure pop in my mind. Those dim stars
can be pictured as the Anasazi/Pueblo figure of the hump-backed flute player.
The flute is toward the east and the bent back to the west. This works well
enough for me, although I doubt it will for many others. I can even make a vague
connection with old ideas about Aquarius, for Navajo people referred to the
flute player as "Water Sprinkler."
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