The Wonder of the Skies

The sight of a truly dark night sky is simply breathtaking. In the modern world it is denied to all but those who still live, or might occasionally venture, well beyond the glare of city lights and the effects of atmospheric pollution. For people in the past, though, the panoply of thousands of stars was a familiar sight. Some twinkled particularly brightly; others hovered on the borderline of visibility. A few were tinted orange or blue. They formed distinct patterns that moved around but never changed. The Milky Way was a familiar sight to all, snaking across the heavens with its light and dark patches forming recognizable shapes. The sky also contained numerous isolated faint and fuzzy objects (nebulae), fixed among the stars, as well as bright wandering stars (planets), and of course the moon, dominating the night sky, lighting the way by night, and rendering many of its fainter companions temporarily invisible. Added to all this was the occasional appearance of something rare or totally unexpected: a shower of meteors (shooting stars), a lunar eclipse, an aurora (at high latitudes), or—more seldom still—a comet (often perceived as a tailed or plumed star) or a new star (nova).

The exact appearance of the heavenly vault differed from place to place and time to time. Whether it was visible on a particular night was dependent, of course, upon local weather conditions. However, the visual impact of the sky on a clear night was always stunning, and even in the cloudiest and wettest of places there were a good many clear periods. As a result, human communities the world over, and for many thousands of years, have recognized familiar patterns and cycles of change in the skies, as well as unexpected sights and events, and struggled to make sense of them. The inhabitants of the night sky—whether perceived as animals, fantastical creatures, legendary characters, ancestors, or other entities— were ever present. The cycles of their appearance and disappearance provided the basis for, and reinforced, countless creation stories and cultural myths.

The lack of opportunity to experience the true night sky is, for a great many people in the modern Western world, something beyond their control. The same cannot be said, though, of the daytime sky, and yet few people pay much attention to it beyond worrying about the weather. Only a meager proportion—and this does not just apply to city-dwellers—could, for example, orient themselves from the time of day and the position of the sun, or could accurately describe the way in which the sun's daily arc through the sky changes with the seasons.

As a result, it can be difficult for us to imagine just how great an impact the sky, whether by night or day, had upon human cultures in the past. Yet we need look no further than the many indigenous peoples today for whom the sky continues to be of immense importance. In addition to this, certain world religions such as Islam continue to tie daily and annual observances very explicitly to the appearance of the sun and moon (see islamic astronomy). And one only has to talk to some of the older people living in rural areas, even in the world's most densely populated and developed nations, to discover that an immense amount of practical, everyday sky knowledge was possessed even within living memory. Who, sky watchers of the past might wonder, could fail to notice the regular cycle of lunar phases keeping time with the human menstrual cycle? Who could fail to recognize the changing path taken by the sun through the sky, higher in summer and lower in winter? Who, even in an unfamiliar place, could fail to be able to tell directions and hence find their way about by night or day using the sun or stars?

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