Taking a break
from vertebrate paleontology today, as we dive into pre-history and astronomy.
you are home with loved ones or traveling to visit them.
Recently I heard an interesting story
about the three stars that create ‘the belt’ in the constellation of Orion: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. As the three stars rise in the evening sky of December 24th, they were supposed to point to the dawn on the morning of the 25th, three days after the Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Thus in both pagan lore and Christmas stories we have a rising sun, three days after a dying sun, that gives hope to the world that everything is going to be okay: we’re going to have another growing season and harvest. More importantly, the three stars were sometimes known to the ancients as ‘The Three Kings‘ part of the elusive and enigmatic “Star of Bethlehem” legend of the Christmas story. For some historians, these all seems to tie in with actual, and therefore verifiable astronomical events. Let’s see if the do.
in the days before light pollution and television, people sat around the campfire at night telling stories to their children about their favorite stars and constellations. Some of these random star patterns represented heroes, like Hercules. Others were sea monsters, like Draco. Ultimately the study of astrology, and then the science of astronomy, arose from these legends about the constellations and predictions arising about the movement of the sun, moon, planets and occasional comets and meteor showers, among them all. There are 12 months and 12 zodiac constellations, not quite 12 revolutions of the moon (close, but no cigar). Every science has its own infancy, and that’s how astronomy had its own genesis.
Curious about the veracity of ‘the three kings’ claim,
I opened up a free constellation program, Stellarium, set the Earth location for Tel-Aviv in Israel, and checked out the star alignments for 2018 (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, the stars of Orion’s belt do not align with the rising sun. They do point straight down as they rise, but the belt line points way too far East of the rising sun of December 25th.
Remember, this old story supposedly took place 2018 years ago…
and there is this thing called precession of the equinoxes that cycles every 26,000 years, moving the constellations around the sky relative to the sun.
Resetting the sky for the year zero,
provides a closer approximation for aligning the belt of Orion with the rising sun (Fig. 2), but still, no real match here. The belt stars of Orion still align too far East relative to the rising sun three days after the Winter solstice. Apparently the legend of ‘the three kings’ did not arise from this era.
Resetting the sky for the year 3000 BC
(5000 years ago) finally aligns the stars of Orion’s belt with the rising sun (Fig. 3). For a bonus, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is also aligned and peeks up over the horizon just before sunrise. Now, that’s a story you can tell your prehistoric kids and grandkids!
So, about 1000 years before
Wikipedia reports the study of astrology had its genesis, and coeval with the construction of Stonehenge, five important stars were in close alignment on a very important day to our forebearers. That was an event that lasted for several hundred years and came to be legendary long after the stars had drifted East of the rising sun. We still tell the story about the evening those three kings came out of the East to celebrate the rising sun that would give hope for all humanity, year after year.
Happy Holidays everyone!