History in the Night Sky

Night at Kenmore

A lantern shines brightly in front of Historic Kenmore

The night sky is the astronomer’s workspace, the explorer’s final frontier, and, perhaps surprisingly, the historian’s library of epic tales, myths, and legends.  This library of stars connects us to the cultures and civilizations of our past in a uniquely special way.  The Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, British colonists of the 18th century, and even George Washington himself all looked up at essentially the same night sky we can see two centuries later.

Inspired by stories, myths, and legends, our ancestors gazed into the sky and connected the stars together into patterns they imagined were familiar objects, fierce animals, great heroes, or powerful gods. We call these patterns ‘constellations’ and the stories or ‘star lore’ they tell are as old as humanity itself.

Imagine a clear, crisp early November night.  George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis are walking home from a nearby tavern.  George is enjoying another of his occasional visits with his sister and her husband in Fredericksburg.  During their journey home, the two men’s path is lit only by the small flame in the glass lantern they carry. Once in a while, they see a feeble candle through a house window.  Otherwise, the Fredericksburg they walk through is far darker than we could imagine today.  Consequently, George and Fielding see millions of sparkling pinpoints of light over their heads.

As educated men, George and Fielding could identify and name numerous constellations created by these pinpoints of light.  On their imaginary November walk, the two men no doubt spotted Orion, Cassiopeia, Bootes, and, of course, the distinctive Big Dipper pattern that forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or “The Great Bear.”

Great Bear Big Dipper

This map of the constellation Ursa Major. the “Great Bear,” highlights the asterism known as the Big Dipper. An asterism is a star pattern that can be found within an officially-recognized constellation. So, technically, the Big Dipper is not actually a constellation but is simply part of the Ursa Major constellation. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially designates which star patterns are constellations. Map by Rursus, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plough_big_dipper.svg.

They would have known the Greek myths attached to each of these constellations.  For example, the myth behind the Great Bear says that the goddess Hera turned Callisto, a maiden desired by Hera’s husband, the god Zeus, into a bear.  Zeus then lifted the bear into the sky by its tail, causing the tail to stretch. The three stars of the dipper’s handle represent this elongated tail.  Another Greek tale says Hercules threw a troublesome bear into the sky by grabbing its tail, swinging it above his head, and flinging it up to join the stars.  Probably even more familiar to plantation owners like George and Fielding was the idea – common throughout Britain – that the stars of the Dipper actually form a plow.

In the basements, attics, and kitchens of some of the houses George and Fielding passed, enslaved men, women, and children slept. Literally brought in chains from their African homelands, they looked up at the night sky above the land of their enslavement and were reminded of home by the constellations they saw.  Some of these Africans may have seen what they termed “The Drinking Gourd.”  Indeed, there is speculation that our common use of the Big Dipper as the name for this distinct pattern comes directly from the African idea that the stars form a hollowed out gourd used for collecting and drinking water.  In the 1800s, the drinking gourd formed the basis of the African American folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which, it is claimed, contained thinly veiled instructions for slaves to follow when running north to freedom.  The Dipper pattern can assist someone navigating by stars to find the North Star.

Before George, Fielding, and their slaves lived in Fredericksburg, Native Americans occupied the land along the Rappahannock River.  Interestingly, like the Greeks, certain Algonquian-speaking nations, also saw the Big Dipper as a bear.  Instead of a long tail, however, the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were three hunters who chased the bear across the sky.  This chase lasted until autumn when the hunters killed the bear and its blood fell to Earth and caused the leaves to change color.

It is increasingly difficult for today’s Americans to see the library of epic tales, myths, and legends in our night sky.  The glow from streetlights, security lights, lighted signs, and other outdoor lighting is blotting out the stars from view.  Indeed, 2/3 of Americans – over 200 million people – can’t see the Milky Way from their own homes.  In 1994, an earthquake knocked out all the power to Los Angeles.  Many anxious residents phoned authorities to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky.  They were seeing the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.

Light pollution

Milky Way from Mount Saint Helens with light pollution from Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ray Terrill, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayterrill/9230199139

If we can’t see the stars, we may ultimately forget the stories they tell and even more tragically our ancestors – the Greeks, Africans, and Native Americans – who created those stories.  More and more, we are no longer looking up at the same night sky that George and Fielding beheld on their imagined walk home from the tavern.  The same sparkling stars are still there.  We just can’t see for the light.

On Friday, November 13, learn more star lore during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Families and visitors of all ages can experience Kenmore lit only by methods available in the 1700s and witness a theater scene showing how enslaved people used their night hours to catch up on personal chores. Glenn Holliday from the Rappahannock Astronomy Club will share tales of great discoveries from astronomy’s past. Children may make a paper-bag ‘tin punch’ luminary and cookies and cider will be served to all! Please bring a flashlight to use in select activities.

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 4-17, free ages 3 and under.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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