Hunting Grounds and Meadows
When I was a child my friends and I spent many daylight hours entertaining ourselves with imagining animals or faces in the clouds. The craggy features of Abraham Lincoln must have appeared more than once, only to segue into a bearded goat.
Surely something of the same imagination was at play 5000 years ago when Sumerian and Acadian shepherds of the Middle East saw the shapes of a heavenly flock in the outlines of the bright stars at night. They were more serious about their imagining than I was: They knew that with those lights they could find their way through their changing years. They called the seven that wandered “sheep.” I think that we should be amazed that they had linked these seven together without knowing as much about them as we do. For them, the brightest of the seven was “the old sheep;” that one was the Sun. The other six wanderers—the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune— were “the old sheep stars.” (Did old sheep tend to wander more than frolicsome lambs? And why were the wanderers confined within so narrow a path in the sky?)
Johann Buhle, “Hemisphaerium Boreale” from Aratus, 1793&1801.
Of course what my friends and I saw in the sky was shapes we were familiar with, and of course that’s always been true for others. The constellation Boötes (the herdsman) was a hippopotamus in Egypt, but in China it was part of a huge dragon. What we (and the Greeks and Romans) call a bear the Inuit call a caribou (Tukturjuit).
With Orion the hunter and Sagittarius (the centaur or archer) in the stars, it’s not surprising that there are also a lot of game animals there. Maybe it’s Sagittarius’ arrow (Sagita) that flies between the little fox (Vulpecula) and the dolphin (Delphinus) in the summer and fall. (While otherwise unspectacular, Vulpecula is the location of M27—the Dumbbell Nebula.) There’s a whale (Cephus) between Cygnus and Cassiopeia, and our Western dragon (Draco) that winds and twists between the two bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor). These are only some of the animals; among the many others are a couple of donkeys, a couple of tortoises, a unicorn, and a gazelle. I’ll let you wonder where they’re hiding, and also add a number of your own.
Being good at tending their earthly flocks, the ancient shepherds/astronomers also tried to take care of the heavenly ones. They gave them a pool (the dark area between Ursa Major and Leo), a manger (Praesepe, more commonly called the Beehive) in the Crab (Cancer), and a river (Eridanus). The Sumerians called one of the very brightest of the stars “the star of the shepherds of the heavenly flock” (Sibzianna); for us it’s Arcturus, “the herder (ourus) of the bear (arctus). The sky as a heavenly meadow is a common image in poetry. Longfellow used it in Evangeline:
Silently one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.
And Virgil gave Aeneas a parting love song for Queen Dido:
As long as the clouds float over the mountain valleys,
As long as the rivers run down to the seas,
As long as the stars feed in the heavenly pastures,
So long will your name and your honor stay with me
To whatever lands I am called.
The old sheep must still be there, along with a goat (Capella) and her three kids, all feeding on forgetme- nots, or the sheaf of wheat (Spica), or on our imaginations.