‘But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.’
– Sarah Teasdale, ‘Winter Stars’ in Flame and Shadow (1920)
Today’s image: the star
Stars brim with allegory, mystery, possibility and promise; from a distance, they have always intrigued. They symbolise purity and good fortune and, laden with spirituality and myth.
Their allegorical imagery can map us across a life-time’s journey. Stars can signify a turning point or change in someone’s life – as in ‘follow your star’ or dreams. As a metaphor, they can stand for seeking, pursuit, and lofty ambition, as in ‘reach for the stars’; also the delivery of direction and guidance, as in ‘guiding star’. And they signify wish fulfilment and heavenly provision, as in ‘thank your lucky stars’. Always the association is positive – or at least, optimistic.
To understand how these giant celestial balls, consisting chiefly of hydrogen and helium, came to be endowed with such spiritual powers, we need, of course, to go back to times when stars were believed to exist on a giant celestial sphere, revolving daily around a dominant Earth. Intangible and unreachable, we turned them into symbols.
And the stars did, in their own way, provide guidance, leading us to discover a deeper learning. Their regular motions gave us a vital calendar for predicting the weather. The ancient Egyptians came to realise that Sirius, the ‘Dog Star’ in Canis Major, rose next to the sun every 365 days, using this to devise the earliest known 365-day calendar around 3100 BCE. Fitting to reflect on this as we near the end of another year. It is likely, too, that Sirius (‘searing’ or ‘blazing in Ancient Greek), brightest in the sky, was the Star of Bethlehem, which the three Magi were said to follow.
One of my favourite tributes in literature is from William Wordsworth’s poem: ‘The stars are mansions built by Nature’s hand / And, haply, there the spirits of the blest.’ It’s because, I think, the poem celebrates the stars’ multifaceted and ethereal beauty whilst also acknowledging the science of their creation.
We celebrate the splendour of the stars, their mysticism, and their religious meaning now as we decorate our homes. The last decoration on the tree each year, poised at the very top to govern dominate over all, is the star. More appear, hanging from fir branches, in strings of lights, and studding garlands. Silver, gold, blue-white, they are light and illusion, solid but fragile.
For all our space-age technology – or rather because of it – light pollution has distanced humans from the stars. We are lucky that in our own semi-rural area, there is relatively little interference from city lights, and we can enjoy the celestial sights. Able to lift our heads to what should be an every-day wonder.
I am no believer in Astrology and its predictive powers. Though I might, out of some child-like habit never shaken off, wish upon an early-appearing star, every now and again. Just in case.
The hold of the stars on our culture is simply too strong to resist.