Few people nowadays know their way around the starry dome, and it is a rare city-dweller who can identify a constellation other than the Big Dipper. Our forebears, though, had good reason to pay close attention to celestial occurrences. All too often their livelihoods --and their very lives-- depended on correctly interpreting what they saw in the sky.
Ancient Egyptians noticed that the annual flooding of the Nile River took place at the same time of year when the star Sirius first appeared in the dawn sky. Native Americans also read the course of the seasons in the sky. “The old men used to study the stars carefully and in this way could tell when each season began,” a Cahuila Indian told a researcher in the 1920s.
"They would meet in the ceremonial house and argue about the time certain stars would appear and would often gamble about it. This was a very important matter, for upon the appearance of certain stars depended the season of crops... They never went to the mountains until they saw a certain star, for they knew they could not find food there previously."
Early navigators from around the world steered their vessels by the map provided by the constellations. The Chinese called their see-going barges “starry rafts,” and slaves escaping north through Georgia and Mississippi in the days before the American Civil War were advised to “follow the drinking gourd,” that is, the Big Dipper.
Celestial phenomena were long held to be omens of great misfortune to come. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Horatio discourse on the portents to be read in the sky:
In the most high and balmy state of Rome
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
As, stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star...
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
The Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, author of Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España , wrote of the Aztecs: “They called comets citlalin popoca, which means smoking star. They believed comets presaged the death of a prince or king, or the onset of war and famine.”
All things considered, it is easy to see why all ancient civilizations linked the stars and their movements to their own destinies, and why they invented gods and heroes to people the starry dome. What is not so easy to understand is why some people today still believe in astral influence on human affairs. Through the ages we have studied the stars, we have gazed at them in wonder and awe, and we have on occasion foisted our dreams and wishes on them. But when we finally scrutinized them with a good dose of healthy skepticism, probing them with scientifically oriented minds, we found their inner workings to be much more wonderful and awe-inspiring than anything the astrologers ever dreamed of.
Early observations of the starry sky and primitive superstitions were a long and necessary prelude to modern science. The doctrines of pseudoscience --astrology, UFOs and the like-- pale in comparison with even the simplest findings of science. As Carl Sagan wrote: “Science is more intricate and subtle, reveals a much richer universe, and powerfully evokes our sense of wonder. And it has the additional and important virtue --to whatever extent the term has any meaning-- of being true.”