Normally, we’re perfectly happy to have our beaks in a book of a wintery eve, but we’ve been spending rather more time gazing skywards lately, thanks to Susanna Hislop’s astronomy atlas, Stories in the Stars. Read about The Winter Oval, also known as Orion – a constellation which contains entire solar systems – in this exclusive extract from the book.
“Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began.”- John Berger
THE DAYS DRAW IN, the pumpkins and the fireworks come out, and the giant hunter Orion appears in the sky, his dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor snapping at his heels. Or at least, he’s supposed to. Perhaps as a child I was too busy sparkling my name in the air to notice the glittering of the great hero’s belt. Why, as the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle asked, ‘did not somebody teach me the constellations, and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead, and which I don’t half know to this day?’
In days of old, mothers sang lullabies to their children to pass on their knowledge of the stars. I wish that as I’d lain in my sticker-clad bunk bed, one of my many babysitters had told me about the stellar nursery hidden just south of this huntsman’s belt: the Orion nebula in which not just stars, but whole solar systems are formed. Or about Shen, the warrior who – in a rare conjunction with Western astronomy – the Chinese also see in these stars, as part of a celestial hunting tableau. Why, when I wrote a whole project on Inuits, did I not learn that they too saw hunters chasing through the night? Why did my New Zealand au pair not tell me about the Canoe of Tamarereti, the mythical ancestor of the Maori people?
Or my Norwegian nanny not thrill me with tales of Thor breaking off Aurvandil’s frozen toe, and casting it up into the heavens? When someone plonked me down in front of Tim Burton’s 1988 film, I had no idea that the devious hero of this spooky comedy owed his name to the unpredictable variable supergiant, Betelgeuse. Nor that this star marking the hunter’s right shoulder, although designated as Orion’s α star, is in fact only its second most brilliant. The constellation’s lucida is actually Rigel, from the Arabic rijl meaning ‘foot’; but this ‘bright star in the left foot’ as Ptolemy called it, is labelled β Orionis. Nor was my imagination sparked by the fact that a female warrior – the supergiant Bellatrix, sometimes known as the Amazon star –sits on Orion’s left shoulder.
Only in adulthood have I learnt that this star-spangled hunter is the anthropological descendant of the great Sumerian hero Uru An-na (meaning ‘light of heaven’) who fought the Bull of Heaven and whom we call Gilgamesh; and that this is why Orion is still pictured brandishing his club and lion pelt against the charging Taurus. And learnt to see in this image the undeniable hints of another ancient hero, Hercules. And that there are so many stories to explain the presence of this glorious giant, the most recognisable of all constellations, that I would need several childhoods to listen to them all in awe.
Stories in the Stars will be read in five parts by Susanna Hislop on Radio Four’s Book of the Week this Christmas.
Hear the first episode on Monday 22nd December 2014 at 9.45 GMT.