When Orion carries the moon across the sky and over the heavenly river

When Orion carries the moon across the sky and over the heavenly river

Orion is not considered a constellation of the Zodiac. But there is a curious and noteworthy fact pertaining to the journey of the moon and planets along the ecliptic (that imaginary line or hoop through the zodiac constellations upon which the sun and planets seem to wander). As it crosses from Taurus, the bull, into Gemini, the twins, the moon for a period of just one night (and maybe only part of the night, depending on where you are located) appears to be carried across the sky by the great hunter constellation, Orion.

Right now, as I look out at the night sky, the waning gibbous moon is in Taurus, suspended between the horns of the bull. As the night wears on, it will gradually progress eastwards on its monthly journey, and as day breaks tomorrow morning it will be closer to the end points of the horns (the stars Elnath and Tianguan). Observers in the USA will, overnight, watch as the moon drifts out of Taurus, but you will have to be in the Far East (specifically Mongolia and Asiatic Russia) to witness the moon being "carried" by Orion high in the south at around 2 to 3am tomorrow morning.

Orion carrying the moon from the eastern horizon
Boyne Valley, 4th November 2020, 9.30pm. Orion carries the moon up from the horizon in the east.

At the moment of moonrise here in the Boyne Valley tomorrow night (around 7.20pm or thereabouts), the moon will be in Orion's hand, but by the time the entire hunter constellation rises completely (around 10.10pm), the moon will have drifted out of Orion's hand towards the feet of Gemini.

It is this apparent interaction of Orion and moon/planets that might have inspired some of our ancient myths, in which the warrior hero battles at a ford (the crossing point where the Ecliptic passes over the Milky Way, the heavenly river/Boyne), sometimes guarding the ford as the cattle cross over it. Richard Moore and I suggested this interpretation of myth in our book Island of the Setting Sun - which has recently been republished as a special 2020 edition.

Why would this event have been important in ancient times? Well one of the reasons is that the elevated or raised arm of Orion provides a convenient "marker" for the monthly journey of the moon along the ecliptic. Because the moon's path is inclined slightly to the ecliptic, sometimes the moon appears to be closer to Orion's hand, and sometimes further away.

Thrice nine

The sidereal month, which takes the moon back to exactly the same point among the stars, is 27.3 days long. The number "thrice nine" is commonplace in Irish mythology, and one wonders if this isn't a mnemonic for remembering the moon's apparent sidereal journey time.

Another reason a monthly crossing of the river ford by the white cow/moon/Bóinn might have been important in prehistory is that it marked a transition point of the year. So for instance, at the time of the supposed arrival of the Milesians into Ireland – when the bard Amergin placed his foot on the shore of the Boyne – around 1700BC, the sun was in Orion's hand at the moment of the Milesian arrival, which was at Bealtaine, the beginning of summer. Six months later, the full moon would be carried across the sky by Orion, at Samhain, with Orion/Amergin clearly bringing a pale light into the long, cold depths of winter.

The imagery is certainly quite dramatic, and one wonders whether many myths were framed around the seasonal interaction of the sun and moon with certain constellations. But this junction or crossing point of the sky is the most illustrious. There are only two places where the ecliptic crosses the Milky Way (known in Irish as Bealach na Bó Finne, the Way of the White Cow). One of these is between Sagittarius and Scorpius, beneath the foot of another giant of the sky, Ophiuchus. The other is in Orion's hand.

I have often wondered if the myths about figures such as Cúchulainn, the hero of Táin Bó Cuailnge, were perhaps inspired by these celestial guardians of the river. The hero light, a bright halo, was seen above Cúchulainn at certain times of battle. And he is most famed for fighting in ford water (yes, you read that right – he is at his best when standing in a river ford), using his lethal barbed spear, the Gae Bulga, to deadly effect under water, where it is invisible to his enemy.

The winter solstice sun beneath Ophiuchus
Winter solstice, 21st December 2020. The sun crosses the river beneath Ophiuchus.

We are now in an epoch of wonderful cosmic coincidences. On our summer solstice, the sun is in Orion's hand (although you won't, of course, be able to see Orion because of the daylight), crossing the Boyne/Milky Way. On our winter solstice, the sun is beneath Ophiuchus, crossing the Milky Way. 

And because the full moon is always opposite the sun (in other words, six months ahead/behind the sun in the Zodiac), the midwinter full moon will be above Orion, and the midsummer full moon will be beneath Ophiuchus.

One of the beautiful things about all this is that most of us (save those in the largest cities with bright lights hindering the view) will be able to watch all this play out in the heavens, just as our ancient ancestors did.

In fact, you don't have to wait until midwinter (or midsummer in the southern hemisphere). And that's because the moon's "dance of the thrice nines", its 27-day journey through the stars, repeats every month, so that you can watch it being carried through the heavens by Orion even when it's not full. 

I invite you to watch tonight, from wherever you are located in the world, the gradual procession of the moon from the horns of Taurus into the hand of Orion, and then onwards from there to the feet of Gemini, the twins.

And if you do that, you will be engaging in a very, very ancient art of time-keeping. The ancient calendars were not just based on the sun. They had to incorporate the moon because it has this monthly rhythm, and can be counted upon to repeat its circle of the sky in rhythm with the tides and even in cadence with the menstrual cycle. 

The eternal return

But by far the most important aspect of this rudimentary lesson in lunar movement is that the moon helps us to define periods of time, and repeating patterns of time – cycles in effect. No wonder that humans developed clocks which have twelve hours, representing perhaps the twelve constellations of the zodiac, its hands following a circular movement as if tracking objects along a ring or hoop through the sky.

To conclude, I must leave matters in the hands of a great thinker and indeed a wonderful writer, Mircea Eliade, and will quote from his book The Myth of the Eternal Return. In the chapter called 'The Regeneration of Time",he says of the moon:

That, for a primitive, the regeneration of time is continually effected – that is, within the interval of the "year" too – is proven by the antiquity and universality of certain beliefs in respect to the moon. The moon is the first of creatures to die, but also the first to live again. ... if the moon in fact serves to "measure" time, if the moon's phases – long before the solar year and far more concretely – reveal a unit of time (the month), the moon at the same time reveals the "eternal return".

A light for the world

As the moon reaches its apex tomorrow (the crossing point above Orion marks the moment of its highest position in the night sky), we hope that this will represent a stark and revelatory notion for us – that man (Orion) is carrying a bright light for the world. It is a light that brings us great hope for the renewal of mankind, and for the nourishment of our spirits through uncertain times.

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