With apologies to places like Corona, Queens in New York and Corona de Tucson just up the road, I haven’t wanted to think about the word “corona” in connection to anything for a while now. But, on a clear night a few weeks ago I casually glanced up at a familiar constellation and realized that everything “corona” is not bad. I’m talking about the seven stars that comprise Corona Borealis, the distinctive, if flattened, “U” that lies between mighty Hercules and Bootes, the Herdsman.
I’ve never given this little semicircle much thought. I’ve also never questioned its name, figuring that it’s always been the Northern Crown. After all, the sky is filled with kings and queens and gods and goddesses. Somehow someone’s crown got tossed into the mix. The thing is, however, one person’s crown is something very different to someone else. The names given to these astral groupings tell us so much about cultures and people. All over the world we’ve projected ourselves into the sky and, as in everything else, one set of definitions never really gets it done, though it’s clear that we all too easily accept one version over another. So, after some online research, I’m appreciating this constellation more than ever.
Most interesting to me is that all the namers and storytellers probably assumed that the stars in this constellation were bound together. This is how they could construct their, sometimes, magical tales. The reality is that the stars, to us, look like a grouping but they’re not. At great distances objects appear closer to each other than they actually are. In this case, the individual stars are many, many light years apart, some closer to Earth, while others are much further away. They just seem to line up like a “U” from our point of view.
For some ancients, the powers of the gods provided a vehicle to make sense of the sky. But for others, celestial objects simply resembled earthbound rituals and objects. The heavens were, then, an extension of everyday life, a mirror of the mundane being played out on a grand scale. For them, there is an acceptance that life among the stars is like the life one encounters on a daily basis. For example, Wikipedia notes that to the Bedouins the constellation appeared as a broken dish. Native Americans thought the shape was like that of a council of chiefs. Native Australians saw it as a boomerang.
What do I see? Connections to eternity. Broken dishes need never be discarded. Tribal councils can be in perpetual session. Boomerangs are never lost to an errant throw. I much prefer thinking about the constellations in this way. The names we give to what we see in the sky should not be reserved just for those who wielded great power or just for those who ruled with unmatched authority.
Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, that tiny Corona Borealis is squeezed between two of the larger constellations, fighting for space and perhaps easily overlooked. Maybe it’s a perfect reminder right now that little things matter and that the powerful have no choice but to share acreage with us regular folk. I don’t have a problem with seeing a crown in the sky. But, for me, broken bowls, a ring of elders, and a child’s toy turn the sky into a place that’s not only accessible, but also open to me.
So, how do you find it? It will be overhead and a little to the east at 9:00 p.m. on June 21. That is the date of the next New Moon, when the moon is, at best, very minimally visible and when the sky is at its darkest