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Polaris, Orion, the Pleiades, Perseus: "...silent worlds of fire, ice and gas..."

The Pleiades


I just ran across this beautiful bit of writing by Penelope Lively in her book about London, City of the Mind; she is a powerful writer.

"From the chair, on these August evenings, with the curtains undrawn, he can occasionally see the stars, when the miasma of the city permits. City stars are polluted --- frailer creatures then crisp brilliants that pepper country skies. Nevertheless, he can identify, can name names. He is surprised by how much survives of that boyhood craze of his. The map of the heavens is more familiar than he had realized. He fetches his binoculars: constellations and individuals leap into greater clarity. There is Mars, distinctly red, hanging low over St Pancreas. And there, of course, is Polaris and good old Betelgeuse. Orion and Ursa Major. Could that be Cassiopeia? Perseus? He seeks out eventually one of his old astronomy books, smelling of damp, with his name in stilted schoolboy script.
"Hercules, Taurus, Sagittarius. Mars, Venus, Pluto. The dead and dancing sky is mysteriously charted in languages which are no longer spoken: the graffiti of the stars, the imagined conjunctions of gas clouds billions of miles apart, commemorate the mythology of a departed people. The scientists of the twentieth century classify the stars by letters of the Greek alphabet. The gods and heroes of ancient Greece are still going about the business above our heads, night after night. The world turns against a backdrop of this archaic reference system. The newspapers, this week, carry photographs of Neptune’s moon, beamed across four billion kilometers by the traveling, ticking robot creature Voyager 2. Neptune’s moon is named for Triton, the conch-blowing offspring of Poseidon and Amphitrite. It is though these silent worlds of fire, ice and gas, whirling in their immeasurable distances of time and space, have for ever so disturbed the human imagination that they can only be approached by attaching to them codes of a known system. They are the one stability in lives of flux, the only constant. They are inconceivable, and essential. They cannot be understood, and so must be labeled."

Perseus was a Greek hero most famous for his slaying of Medusa. If anyone looked at Medusa's face they would turn to stone. With the help of Hermes' wings and Athena's shield, Perseus killed Medusa without looking at her. On his way home, Perseus came across the monster, Cetus, getting ready to eat Andromeda. Perseus used Medusa's head to turn Cetus into stone and saved the princess.