A joint publication of: Astro Logos and Zyntara Publications

 
 

ISSUE NO. 52.

April 2009

   VAN Archive - www.Zyntara.com

 


In this issue:
  The Knot of Heaven, its story and its history. A look at the faint star Al Rescha and its role in the heavens in 4th century BC and how its rich symbolism has been embedded in our culture. 


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The Knot of Heaven,
 Its story and its history

 

Bernadette Brady MA

 
 

A question which is often raised in astrological fixed star work is that, given that there are thousands of visible stars, how does one choose which stars to use in a horoscope?  A simple answer could be that the brighter the star the more important its symbolism. However, any astrologer who has worked with the stars will quickly find this a simplistic approach, for although all the bright stars are rich in sky symbolism, not all stars that carry strong symbolism are bright. One such dim star is in Pisces and it is only magnitude 4.33. However, Aratus considered it to be to one of the four great stars in the sky. This is the star named Al Rescha, from the Arabic for “the cord”.

 

The star is described by Aratus (315 – 245 BCE) in his Phaenomena ("Appearances") [1] the poem in which he described the stars and constellations of the sky. This poem is one of the foundation stones on which the 48 ancient constellations of western cartography are based. Aratus wrote of the constellation Pisces as follows:

 Still further in front of the Ram and still in the vestibule of the South are the Fishes. Ever one  
 is higher than the other, and louder hears the fresh rush of the North wind. From both there
 stretch as it were, chains, whereby their tails on either side are joined. The meeting chains
 are knit by a single beautiful and great star, which is called the Knot of Tails.  [2]

Or another more recent translation by Godefroid de Callatay reads as follows:

 

            Even further in front of [the Triangle,] but still in the entrance of the South are

            The Fishes. One of them, which always precedes the other,

            Hears Boreas louder when it starts to come down.

            From both are stretched, as it were, the chains

            By which their tails, on each side, are joined together in one point.

            A single star holds them, a beautiful and great star

            Which is called the “Knot of the Heavens”. [3]

 
Aratus named 48 constellations but only four stars in the sky. He named the brilliant star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes with a magnitude of -0.04. Arcturus is so bright that it will catch the eye of any casual star gazer on a clear night. He also named the beautiful star Capella in Auriga the Charioteer with its magnitude of 0.08. This dominates an area of the sky about 90 degrees to the east of Arcturus. He also listed the beautiful star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky with a magnitude -1.46. Sirius is so bright that the Egyptians called it The Scorcher and linked it with the Goddess Isis. Lastly Aratus cited the mysterious Pleiades in the shoulder of the Great Bull of Heaven, Taurus, with its seven twinkling lights. It is therefore curious that into this illustrious group of stars Aratus placed a dim star with a magnitude of only 4.33. Most of us in our city life would never have seen this star. Even if you were far enough away from the city lights, it is still only one of several hundred stars of between magnitude 4 and 5.[4]   

We could dismiss Aratus’ fascination with this little star if his work had not proven to be so significant in forming our western ideas of the constellations. His work was reflected in Ptolemy’s Almagest where it was  described as “the knot which holds the fishes together”, a statement which suggests that, by the 2nd century CE, Ptolemy may not have considered the star important but he was at least acknowledging its culturally-established position within the constellations. However, the Knot then became linked with Ptolemy and his influence in western astronomy and astrology.

Yet all was not plan sailing for this little star. By the time of Erhard Ratdolt, a German printer working in Venice who produced the first printed star atlas in 1482, it was ignored. Ratdolt based his images on the later Greek poet Hyginus (64BCE – 17 CE) whose work Poeticon Astronomicon did not mention the knot. (see figure 1).

[Right. Figure 1 - The constellation Pisces from Erhard Ratdolt’s 1482 version of the Poeticon Astronomican, void of any connecting knot.]

However, in 1515 when Albrecht Durer, the German artist and mathematician, produced two polar projections of the celestial sphere, he carried on Aratus’ description and displayed the two fishes of Pisces held together by a large knot. (See figure 2).

 

       Figure 2 -  Albrecht Durer’s woodcut of the Northern Hemisphere sky, 1515.

Since Durer’s work, which was never published in book format, this small star has been honoured with holding the knot of the fishes together, and it has been an honour which has grown in celestial cartography. 

Figure 3 -  Johann Bayer, Pisces.
From his Uranometria (1603).

In 1603 Johann Bayer produced his Uranometria and in this he once again represents the star as a great knot. (See figure 3).

The last of the celestial atlases which carried rich imagery along with the positions of the stars was that of Johann Bode. In 1801 he produced the largest pictorial star atlas ever printed containing over 17,000 stars and he displayed the star as a large ornate knot with a rose clasp linking the two fishes of Pisces. (See figure 4). 

Undoubtedly Aratus’ consideration of this star as one of his four great stars of the sky has become embedded in our western cultural and maintained in the visual images of celestial cartography. Yet the question still remains: why did Aratus consider such a small star so important? The answer may lie in its unique position at the time Aratus would have been looking at the sky.  

Figure 4 -  Johann Bode, Uranographia, 1801.
Pisces and the Knot of Heaven

 

                                                 

The Constellation Pisces and the Equator

When Aratus was writing his sky poem Phaenomena the constellation Pisces straddled the northern and southern hemispheres, with one fish being in the northern sky while the other was in the south. It was indeed the only zodiacal constellation that could claim equal membership of both hemispheres. Named The Swallows by the Babylonians and The Fishes by the Greeks, there is a line of stars in the sky which forms a “v” in the sky, and it is the star at the point of the “v” which Aratus called the Knot of Heaven. (See figure 5).  So one explanation for the star’s importance is that it appeared to bind together a constellation that straddled both hemispheres and thus it was a star that could bind together both the northern and southern skies.

Figure 5 - The constellation Pisces at the time of Aratus in 390 BCE with and without the stick figure.
Use the image on the left to train your eye to see the constellation in the image on the right.
The chain between the two fishes, one in the north and the other in the south can be clearly seen.

However, in 1996 Godefroid de Callatay [5] suggested another solution to Aratus’ fascination with this star and that was that for Aratus it lay upon the equinoctial colure. 

The Equinoctial Colure

The equinoctial colure is the name given to the meridian circle (a circle that passes through the north and south pole) which also passes through the point of the vernal equinox (the 0 Aries point in the tropical zodiac).  The importance of this line, when you are using observation to understand the sky, is that if a star falls on this line, it can be used to point to the position of the vernal equinox.

Callatay pointed out that, for Aratus, this star in Pisces did actually fall on this line. It therefore marked the point where the equator crossed over the ecliptic, the vernal equinox. This in itself may not have been so important except that it also marked something else.

Wthin Ptolemy’s model this star was recognized as the last star in Pisces to rise above the horizon and thus considered to be the last star of the zodiac. Al Rescha thus became, for Aratus, “The Knot of Heaven” as it firstly, marked the alignment of the beginning and end of the year in terms of the spring equinox; secondly it marked the joining point of the band of the zodiac - Pisces to Aries; and finally it held the two fishes together, one in the northern hemisphere and the other in the south. Thus Al Rescha held the whole sphere together by Hemisphere, Season and Zodiac.
(See Figure 6).

Figure 6 - The Equinoctial Colure for (396 BCE) for the time of Aratus. The star in the knot of Pisces lies upon the meridian line which passes through the vernal equinox which is the crossing of the ecliptic (pink line), with the equator (blue line).

 

Time has broken the bond between Al Rescha and the spring equinox, and it has even broken the bond between the two hemispheres, as now the constellation of Pisces lies with both fish swimming in the northern hemisphere. However, celestial cartography was, until the 19th century, an important cultural carrier of sky mythology and star lore, and thus Aratus' Knot of Heaven has been carried down to us via our sky maps. 

 

Culture and Symbolism

The story of this star provides us with a rare insight into how a star gains symbolic and cultural significance. The first step was that the star gained a proper name “The Knot of Heaven” due to its important location in the sky at a particular era. This name allowed it to be pictorially represented long after its initial meaning had been lost, and in this pictorial format it was culturally carried from one generation of cartographers to the next. Its imagery culminated in the work of Bode in 1801 with a bejewelled knot in the heavens.  

However, although celestial cartographers have carried this star forward, astrologers have tended to ignore it. It was absent from William Lilly’s (1602-81) list of stars and, apparently following his lead, later authors such as Vivian Robson (Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, 1923),  Ebertin-Hoffmann (Fixed Stars and their Interpretation 1971) and Joseph Rigor (The Power of Fixed Star, 1979) all failed to mention it in their work. However, in more recent times in my own work (Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars 1998) [6] as well as in the work of other astrologers like Diana Rosenberg, we have returned to the work of Aratus and the work of other celestial cartographers in wondering about the symbolism of this small but apparently vital Knot of Heaven.

The Knot of Heaven and its links with Historical Events

Aratus told us that this star held all the heavens together, and for astrology which seeks symbols, this star potentially ought to carry the message of the joining of worlds, a point in time and space where unity is made or broken. So in the following examples from history where events were joined, we would expect to see Al Rescha  (The Knot of Heaven) prominent in some way. 

 
The Battle of Milvian Bridge – 28 October, 312CE  - Rome.
 

Jupiter in paran with Al Rescha

In 312 CE Rome was in a civil war. The Emperor Constantine had a vision which assured him that he should conquer in the sign of the Christ and thus he ordered his warriors to mark their shields with the sign of Christ and march on Rome. The battle occurred near the bridge over the Tiber called the Milvian Bridge, and here Constantine was victorious. In gratitude to the God of the Christians, Constantine immediately declared that Christian worship was henceforth tolerated throughout the Empire (Edict of Milan, early in 313). Christianity was later adopted as the official religion.

This was the joining of the Roman world with Christianity, a union that is still strongly held.  

Conversion of Emperor Constantine, Print, 1869, Johnson, Fry & Company Publishers, New York

 

 

Fall of Constantinople   - 7 June, 1453 (NS)  


Saturn in paran with Al Rescha

The city of Constantinople was the jewel in the crown of the Eastern empire and stood at the crossroads between East and West. The fabled riches of the emperor and the city made it a prize for invaders. This date is set for the final assault and breach of the fabled indestructible walls through which the Ottomans broke, signalling the end of the city's thousand-year reign.

This was the end of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, is by its location an Al Rescha-like city as it sits at the point of union between Asia and Europe. Its current struggle to join the European Union is symbolic of the struggle of the two fishes of Pisces when they sat in the two different hemispheres. 

 

The American War of Independence 19 April, 1775 , Concord, MA

Pluto in paran with Al Rescha

This was the skirmish between the British Army and American patriots which marked the beginning of the American War of Independence. Acting on orders from London to suppress rebellious colonists, General Thomas Gage ordered his troops to seize the colonists' military stores at Concord. En route from Boston, the British force of 700 men was met on Lexington Green by 77 local minutemen and other volunteers who had been forewarned of the raid by Paul Revere.

With Pluto in paran to Al Rescha, we have the breaking of a union, that of England and America. This conflict lead to the eventual creation of the United States of America on the 4th July  1776 where by “coincidence” Jupiter was in paran with The Knot of Heaven

Minutemen facing British soldiers on Lexington Common, Massachusetts, in the first battle in the War of Independence, 19th April 1775. Original artist William Barnes Wollen.


First Transatlantic Radio Message -  12 December, 1901  Poldu, Cornwall.

Neptune in paran with Al Rescha

Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio signal just after noon on 12th December, 1901. Criticism had been levelled at his new wireless system of communication, saying that it would only work as long as the two stations were in view of each other. To disprove this he set up a station to send a Morse code "S" - three dots - from the coast of Newfoundland to be received at Poldu, on the coast of Cornwall, England, a distance of over 3,500 miles.

For three days the Newfoundland station sent out the "S" signal, and for three days Marconi struggled to raise aloft a giant kite which was his aerial. On 12th December he was successful and received the three faint dots of the Morse code “S”.

This signal opened the door to global communications and linked together the New World on one side of the Atlantic and the Old World on the other.

 Guglielmo Marconi.
(Unknown photographer.)

The bombing of Pearl Harbour - 7 December, 1941 Hawaii

Pluto rising with Al Rescha culminating
(Note above Pluto  was also in paran with Al Rescha at the start of The American War of Independence)

On this day, a fleet of Japanese aircraft bombed the US naval installation at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii destroying the US Pacific fleet and killing thousands of military personnel.  Known as the "Day of Infamy", this heralded the USA's entrance into World War II.

When Pluto is in paran with Al Rescha over USA latitudes it appears to represent times of vulnerability, for here again it marked the US entry into conflict and this time binding it to the new union of the Allied forces.

   

The Construction of the Berlin Wall - 13 August, 1961, Berlin

Saturn culminating with Al Rescha rising

Early in the morning of Sunday, August 13, 1961, the GDR, under the leadership of Erich Honecker, began  to block off East Berlin and the GDR from West Berlin by means of barbed wire and antitank obstacles. Streets were torn up and barricades of paving stones were erected. Tanks gathered at crucial places. The subway and local railway services between East and West Berlin were interrupted. Inhabitants of East Berlin and the GDR were no longer allowed to enter West Berlin. In the days following, construction brigades began replacing provisional barriers with a solid wall.

Saturn with Al Rescha was active with the fall of Constantinople, the city that divided East and West.  With this event a wall was used to split a city and demarcate East Berlin from West Berlin, thus becoming the face of the Cold War. 
 


The handing over of Hong Kong - 1 July, 1997 

Neptune on the IC with Al Rescha setting

The island of Hong Kong had originally been leased to the British Government by the Chinese at the end of the 19th century. The island was the last colonial outpost of the British Empire and when the 99-year lease expired, Britain relinquished her last overseas possession. 

This was the end of an era of a great naval empire. It was also the beginning of a new union for the People’s Republic of China.

July 1, 1997: After 156 years of British rule,
China resumes sovereignty over Hong Kong


People and the Knot of Heaven

 

Saturn culminating with Al Rescha

Charles Henry Dow  - Born 6 Nov 1851 in Sterling, Connecticut.  Dow was the creator of the Dow Jones Stock Index first published in 1884. He also developed a series of principles for understanding and analyzing market behavior which later became known as Dow theory, the groundwork for technical analysis of the stock market.

Saturn culminating with Al Rescha

John Kellogg Born 26 Feb 1852, in Tyrone Lake, MI.  Kellogg is best remembered as the father of the breakfast cereal and responsible for the development of the breakfast food industry.  

Saturn setting as Al Rescha was culminating

Guglielmo Marconi - Born 25 April, 1874 in Bologna, Italy, best known as one of the inventors of radio telegraphy. Marconi established the first radio message across the Atlantic (referred to above).

Jupiter Rising with Al Rescha Setting
 

Carl Jung born 26 July 1875 in Kesswil, Switzerland, was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. Jung's approach to psychology has been influential in countercultural movements across the globe. 

Jupiter culminating with Al Rescha

Martin Luther King born 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, GA, was an American clergyman, and prominent leader in the African-American civil rights movement. His main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States and he is frequently referenced as a human rights icon today. 

 

Uranus culminating with Al Rescha rising.
Henry VIII of England, born 28 June, 1491 in Greenwich, UK, was a significant figure in the history of the English monarchy and is popularly known for his political struggles with Rome. These struggles ultimately led to his separating the Anglican church from the Roman hierarchy, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and establishing himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

 

In Conclusion

 

The story of the dim star Al Rescha provides us with an example of how a celestial object can become slowly embedded with symbolism over 2000 years. The star's importance began with its ability to mark a key point in the sky for Aratus – the union of the three great spheres of the heavens.  Although this mathematical or visual use was forgotten, Aratus gave us or at least recorded its proper name “The Knot of Heaven”. By owning a proper name which suggested a visual image it then became culturally transmitted over several thousand years through the work of cartographers, gaining its most elaborate representation in the last great pictorial star atlas of Bode in 1801. Having been culturally maintained and enhanced by cartographers from the ancient period to the early 19th century, it then entered astrology in the 1990s. Now it has found a home within the culture of western astrology and, since as astrologer we seek symbolism in our "objects", the symbolism attributed to it by Aratus and polished by the pens of several thousand years of cartographers now resonates in historical events and people who have Al Rescha in paran with their natal chart.

 

The stars only have meaning for us when they carry our stories and the longer these stories are maintained and polished by generations of humans, the deeper or more powerful their symbolism becomes.  It is not the brightness that is important for a star but rather the polish it has received from the hands of humanity.

 


 

1. Readers can see his full poem on this web site http://ota.ahds.ac.uk/headers/0223.xml
2. Aratus (1989).  "Phaenomena." In Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams Lycohpron, Aratus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pg. 227.
3. de Callatay, Godefroid  (1996). "The Knot of Heavens." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 59: 1-13. pg.1
4.
Starlight lists 1118 stars in its star catalogue which are between 4 and 5 in magnitude.
5. de Callatay, Godefroid  (1996). "The Knot of Heaven." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 59: 1-13.

6. Brady, Bernadette. (1998).  Brady's Book of Fixed Stars. Maine, USA: Samuel Weiser, Inc.pg 313.

 

   


The software that allows you to work with the whole sky in your astrology is  Starlight and it can be explored on the Zyntara home page where there are  also online tutorials.