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An Astronomer's "Favorite" Constellation

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

"Do you have a favorite constellation?"

Years ago someone asked me what mine was. Can you imagine the frustration such a question could spawn in the mind of one who has spent most of his life falling in love with the sky? Astronomers, people who look around in all directions, wanting to know every portion of the universe, become so enamored with so many things in the heavens that it would be very difficult to make such a choice. So, when that situation came to me I experienced a moment of panic, then, back in control again, responded, "Bobcat. Yes, that is my favorite constellation."

I gave the same answer when someone asked me what my astrological sign was. Remember, please, that asking an astronomer about astrology can heat up the conversation about as fast as applying a torch to dynamite. Astronomers generally do not take kindly to astrology. I have learned from considerable experience that it is generally futile to argue over astrology, so I thought I did pretty well in avoiding confrontation when I said, "Bobcat is my astrological birth sign." I enjoyed the air of puzzlement as my interrogator walked away, scratching her head.

I hope these two individuals attempted to identify the constellation of the Bobcat. If I could remember who they were, I would send them copies of this article, for I am about to identify the Bobcat in the sky for anyone who might be interested. As an aside, let me say that there is another constellation known as "Lynx:" dim stars stretched out between Ursa Major and Gemini, but this is not the one I refer to here. Please be patient, I will get to Bobcat, but first I want to provide a proper introduction.

Readers of this column might remember that I have strong interest in the Pawnee Indians. One of four bands of the Pawnee, the Skidi Band, possessed beliefs that put them into unusually deep association with the cosmos. They viewed themselves as having descended from the sky, offsprings of the Morning and Evening Stars and the Sun and Moon.

The Skidi had a wonderful artifact that symbolized much of what was important to them. It was an animal skin, oval in shape, with stars painted on one side. Actually it had been made as the wrapping for a small bundle and it was said that a meteorite had been kept inside, enshrouded, as it were, in the stars that had particular relevance to the Skidi people.

On the eastern side (right side of the photograph) there are red and yellow bands representing the colors of sunrise, with Morning Star shown as the large star at the east center of the chart. Morning Star and the Sun are the cosmological fathers of the Skidi people. A yellow band on the west end represents sunset, and just to the east, below the horizontal center of the chart, is the crescent Moon. Evening Star is to the upper left of the Moon. These two are called "Mother" by the Skidi.

Running down the middle of the chart many dots represent the Milky Way, the path traveled by spirits moving from this world to rendezvous with the Death Star in the south. At the top left there are two stretchers, each consisting of seven stars. These illustrate how to transport the sick and dead: four stars mark the pallbearers at the corners; the medicine man and mourners follow behind. These are the stars known to the world as the great (top) and small (bottom) dippers. The bottom stretcher ends with the chief star (North Star), shown larger than the others. This is the Star-That-Does-Not-Move, setting the example of stability for the people, as any chief should. Below the Chief and slightly east, on the west side of the Milky Way, at the center of the chart, an oval of stars is known as the Chief's Council, the subject of my column on May 26. Below the Chiefs, at the bottom center there is a string of stars, the snake. Just above the bottom of the snake, in the left edge of the Milky Way, a pair of bigger stars represent the Swimming Ducks, stars that set the Skidi ceremonial calendar as discussed in my column on February 11.

Back to the center of the chart, just right of the Milky Way, we find the Bow, given to the people so that they could get meat and protect themselves. The close cluster of six stars below center right is the group we know as the Pleiades, and just to the lower right of these, in a V- shape, are the Deer, probably stars in our constellation Orion.

There is much more that should be said about this wonderful artifact, but this is sufficient for me, finally, to introduce you to the constellation of the Bobcat, one which I am willing to call my favorite, or even to think of as my astrological symbol. Newborn Skidi children, when placed upon the cradle-board for the first time, were wrapped in the skin of a bobcat. This was equivalent to saying, "I wrap the child in the heavens," for the wildcat skin represented the sky and stars. Thus, for the Skidi, the North American Bobcat, with its spotted skin and nocturnal habits, represented all of the stars in the heavens.

If I am pressed to accept a constellation as my favorite, I identify with the Skidi people. In my mind, the Skidi chart of stars shows this constellation. The Bobcat, the largest possible constellation, composed of the entire sky with all of its stars, is the appropriate choice of preference for an astronomer.

Copyright 1999-2004 The Clark Foundation.
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