Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Libra And The Alchemical Sky

This summer I’m going to focus my astronomy time on open clusters and colorful double stars. Now that I’ve observed the Beehive cluster in the constellation Cancer, what’s next?

Next I’m going to focus on observing the constellation Libra

I’ve never observed Libra before, but this is probably the perfect time of year to check out Libra. And I’m really looking forward to it.

Some people may not realize that Libra is unique among the signs of the zodiac. And I strongly suspect that even fewer people realize that Libra has been associated with intrigue and mystery from almost the dawn of recorded history all the way into the present world.

In today’s post I’m going to just briefly touch on some of the astronomy of Libra and some of the alchemy of Libra.


Libra, the Scales, is a small constellation with no bright stars. I’ve never observed Libra, but I do not expect Libra to be hard to find. The constellation of Cancer is small and dim, but it is easy to find between bright Gemini and Leo. Libra is also between bright celestial landmarks.

Bright Jupiter is in Sagittarius two constellations to the east of Libra. Bright Saturn is in Leo two constellations to the west of Libra. The two gas giants stand like guardians to either side of Libra. Directly east of Libra reasonably bright Antares marks the middle of Scorpius and directly west of Libra reasonably bright Spica shines in Virgo. And this time of year Libra should be high in the southern sky, farthest from where light pollution is at its worst near the horizon.

Right off, Libra starts with a mystery: Gary Seronik is a very knowledgeable and entertaining astronomer who does a monthly column about binocular observing for Sky & Telescope magazine. Many of his columns have been collected in a great book, “Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users.” Of all those celestial highlights, Gary doesn’t even find one thing to look at in Libra! Doesn’t even mention the constellation Libra. Sue French is a very knowledgeable and entertaining astronomer who does a monthly column about deep sky observing for Sky & Telescope magazine. Many of her columns have been collected in a great book, “Celestial Sampler: 60 Small-Scope Tours for Starlit Nights.” Sue doesn’t even find one thing to look at in Libra! Doesn’t even mention the constellation Libra.

This is all very strange because just typing this stuff off the top of my head I’m going to have more to say about Libra than I will have time to fit into one post! And I haven’t even seen the darn constellation, just gathered lore about it from my years in astronomy . . .

The two brightest stars in Libra, Alpha and Beta Librae are both celestial highlights worth looking at with the naked eye, binoculars and telescopes!

And they’re both part of the intrigue and mysteries of Libra.

Alpha Librae is a colorful double usually described as beautiful by observers. The stars are typically described as bright white and bright yellow or topaz. I’m looking forward to seeing them and judging their color.

Beta Librae has for many generations been described as the most unique single star visible in the heavens.

What the hell, Gary, what the hell, Sue, not even a heads up for that?

Beta Librae for many generations has been described as the only green star visible to the naked eye.

Most observers—and many astronomers—believe there are no visible green stars. The accepted wisdom is that the human visual system will interpret spectrums peaking at short wavelengths as white with a blue tint and spectrums peaking at long wavelengths as white with a red-orange tint. But typically green stars are almost never mentioned.

But experienced astronomers know that Beta Librae has been called a green star for many generations.

In fact, the odd green nature of Bea Librae takes us back to a couple of the ancient mysteries associated with Libra.

Although astronomers know the two brightest stars of Libra as Alpha and Beta, the stars have been observed for so long that they have popular names. And their popular names are two of the most interesting in the sky.

Alpha Librae is named, “Zubenelgenubi,” and Beta Librae is named, “Zubeneschamali.”

These are both Arabic names and they come down to us from a very strange era when the Roman empire dominated the known world. Those two names touch on one of the deepest mysteries of the zodiac.

The name Zubenelgenubi means ‘The Southern Claw’ and Zubeneschamali means ‘The Northern Claw.’

You see, at some point during the ascendancy of Rome, the intelligentsia of the era decided to change the zodiac and for reasons of their own decided to eliminate the constellation Libra by merging the stars of Libra with the stars of Scorpius.

It’s interesting to speculate about why people would want to modify the zodiac and it is even more interesting to speculate about why the constellation of Libra would be singled out for elimination. I suspect the answers have more to do with alchemy than astronomy, but I’m not going to get into that speculation in today’s post.

The zodiac changes, of course, did not last and Libra remains in the heavens.

Libra remains unique among the zodiac signs: It is the only zodiac sign that is inanimate. All the other signs are people, animals, insects and such. Only Libra is not a living thing.

And, historically, it is interesting that Libra, the Scales, almost never is interpreted in terms of scales for weighing money. Libra almost always is interpreted in terms of philosophy, scales for balancing justice—or even “Justice”—and more than that, Libra, the Scales, almost always is interpreted spiritually, the Scales on which our soul will be tested, where we will be judged for salvation or damnation.

Which brings me to one last mystery for today’s post.

Look at this painting. This is one of Vermeer’s most well-known works. “Woman holding a Balance.” She’s holding a scale. The same kind of scale most typically associated with Libra. Check out the description of the painting by clicking on it. The scales in the painting are empty. Vermeer wasn’t depicting a real-life scene of a woman checking out her jewelry. The woman is standing in front of painting of the Last Judgment. The ‘accepted’ interpretation of this painting now is that this is a woman undergoing a spiritual crisis. She is evaluating the material reality of her life and ‘weighing it’ against the spiritual reality of her life.

That’s much better than the secular view of this painting but I strongly suspect it is still slightly wrong.

I strongly suspect this painting is simply an allegory for the constellation of Libra itself.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings contain astronomical or astrological (or alchemical!) symbolism. In fact, one of Vermeer’s paintings is explicitly titled, “The Astronomer.” And in those days astronomy and astrology were effectively synonyms. In those days most astronomers made their living by working up horoscopes for rich people. I suspect Vermeer did a twelve painting cycle of zodiac allegories but because so many of his paintings have been lost, the ‘actual’ meaning of some of those that remain has become shadowed.

Libra. A constellation of beauty, intrigue and mystery.

I’m really looking forward to observing Libra. I might get a chance tonight. I’ll be posting more—I suspect much more—in the future. I urge everyone to check out Libra. It should be hard to see but easy to find in the southern sky. And it’s worth tracking down!

1 comment:

Americanising Desi said...

i m libra and i wonder if i m that intriguing :)