A Fine Whine

Starry Blight

How a bunch of peasants in Mesopotamia ruined the night sky.

The night sky
The night sky

Photograph by Thinkstock.

There’s a cabin in the Catskills where I’ve spent some quiet weekends at the edge of the woods. I know it’s a privilege—one really shouldn’t complain—but even up there, among the daisies and the fireflies, a man-made blight oppresses the mind. On an otherwise clear evening, whatever the season, a smog of Bronze Age graffiti sweeps across the glittering dome and stains the heavens with crude shapes and stick figures—the doodles of a primitive mind. Snakes and scorpions, shepherds and fish, cups and spoons—no image is too dreary or mundane so long as it reflects the anxieties and preoccupations of a life spent farming in Mesopotamia or trawling the ancient seas. These connect-the-dots are among the most heinous affronts to nature ever devised, a witless miscalculation that has corrupted our landscape for thousands of years and ruined a billion nights. If only there were a way to shake the heavenly Etch-a-Sketch and make them all disappear! If only we could erase the constellations!

Surely there’s a special place in hell for that starry prick Orion. If it weren’t for his lurid shape, the three stars at his waist—among the easiest to spot in skies of the Northern Hemisphere—might inspire some genuine imagination and delight. Are they part of a bowtie? A satellite dish? A Millennium Falcon? No, I’m sorry to say they are not. A passing cloud can be whatever you want it to be, but the constellations are governed by a schoolmarm’s rules, passed off from one civilization to another since around the time that we invented the hoe. Whatever joy one might hope to find in the stars was hijacked long ago by the primal fools whose prefab shapes and ready-made meanings carry on today. We’re locked into their flights of fancy. Why should Orion be a hunter, and not a bus driver, or a civil-rights lawyer, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Because he’s always been a hunter. Quod erat demonstrandum.

I’d like to say we could all ignore Orion until he fades into the speckled backdrop, but having learned the template at a tender age I just can’t make him go away. That belted asshole haunts my winter nights. Same goes for his hunting companions, the dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor, who force themselves into my head according to the same goony, Babylonian logic. The smaller one comprises just two stars—Procyon and Gomeisa. That’s not a dog; it’s a line. (At best, a dachshund.) If my imagination weren’t enchained by so much witless tradition and conformity, I might tag this segment to some more majestic and impromptu pattern of my own devising, one that reaches clear across the ecliptic. Alas, I’m stuck with the celestial bitch.

It would be easy to forgive these caveman cartoons if they gave us a useful taxonomy for the stars—if we could apply them to the heavens in the way a field guide can be applied to the plants and animals in a national park. But there’s no science in the constellations, just coincidence. If a bunch of Fertile Crescent yahoos chose to lump together Procyon and Gomeisa, it’s because those stars happen to line up in two dimensions when viewed from the surface of the Earth. Otherwise, they have nothing in common. Procyon is a binary system; Gomeisa isn’t. Procyon is a near neighbor (11 or 12 light years from the Sun); Gomeisa is more than 10 times that far away.

Go ahead and defend the bear, if you must. It’s true that some of the stars in Ursa Major form their own cluster, but I’m telling you that’s the exception, not the rule—and it leaves aside the more important question of whether any of our constellations look like what they’re supposed to. A more honest reading of Ursa Major, for example, would have it as a three-legged horse, yet somehow no one feels the need to explain the bear’s missing paw or its swishy tail. Cross-cultural studies do provide an interesting data point: The same smattering of dots takes an ursine form in the ancient traditions of both Asia and North America. That doesn’t mean it looks like a bear (clearly it does not). Rather, it suggests the existence of some Ice Age killjoys, a clan of Ur-astrologers who seeded their love for large, toothy mammals around the world like a pandemic flu.

There’s a second form in the body and tail of Ursa Major, in the stars of the Big Dipper. This ambiguity only hardens my heart. The dipper may resemble a long-handled pot or, fine, a drinking gourd, but so do lots of other constellations. Boötes, the plowman, might as well be a saucepan, and Lyra, the musical instrument, looks to me like a fry basket. What about Delphinus, the dolphin that’s shaped like a measuring spoon? Perhaps that’s why one piece of named dishware wasn’t enough for those agrarian twits. They’ve given us the Big Dipper and a little one, too, a matching pair of ladles that swing through the cosmos like cast-off wedding presents. Ursa Major, Ursa Minor—they’re both a pain in my ass.

I’ve said my piece about the Sumerian stargazers who littered the atmosphere with their glitzy clip art. But the Greeks and Romans are no less deserving of scorn: It was they who assembled all this hateful knowledge, and tiled the heavens with some additions of their own. By 300 or 400 B.C., the northern stars had been parsed from top to bottom, and each insipid image was assigned its own childish myth. So we learn of Orion’s love for the seven sisters of the Pleiades (of which it’s said that only six are visible, another constellation boner), and his death from the sting of Scorpius—a tedious and confusing tale that should not have spent a thousand years in the making.

If there’s one villain here, one man who did more than any other to contaminate the night sky, it’s the Greco-Egypto-Roman scholar Claudius Ptolemy. In around A.D. 150, Ptolemy published his Almagest, an astronomical treatise that laid out a useful if wrong-headed kludge for calculating the celestial orbits. It would take another 1,400 years for Copernicus to correct one of the book’s major errors and put the Earth in motion around the Sun. But there was never any rebuke to Ptolemy’s star charts and the four dozen figures he jammed into the night sky. Those foul constellations live on today, having persevered beyond all utility or decorum. If I could travel back in time, like in an episode of Quantum Leap, I’d hop to the second century and burn every one of his quills.

At this point, I’m afraid there’s little to be done. Only one group has the authority to wipe the slate clean and erase the skies, but its leaders have already failed us. In the late 1920s, the International Astronomical Union—that same cabal of scholars who stripped Pluto of its planetary status in 2006—voted to merge the Ptolemaic figures into a standard set of constellations (the original 48, plus 40 more to describe the southern skies). In a confounding legalism, they declared that these 88 names would refer not to the stars themselves, but to the area around those stars, as if to gerrymander outer space with a set of astronomical ZIP codes. And what of the more familiar shapes, the bears and dogs and dippers? These were downgraded to lowly asterisms.

Whatever we call them, the mindless billboards still muddle our grade-school curricula. Teachers make lesson plans to cloud young minds with the doctrine of constellations, and bury them in the rubble of an ancient pseudoscience. Patterns in the stars once helped us through stormy seas and marked the changing seasons, but so did sextants and sundials. It’s a testament to human ingenuity that these methods are defunct. Over the past 3,000 years, we’ve freed the skies from their earthly purpose and left the stars to gleam according to their own, unknowable logic. That’s something to celebrate. So the next time your son or daughter points at the heavens and tugs your sleeve to ask, What is it?—just do the kid a favor. Don’t say a word.