Where the Forest Murmers 
Vol VI,  by Fiona Macleod

Winter Stars


To know in a new and acute way the spell of the nocturnal skies, it is not necessary to go into the everlasting wonder and fascination of darkness with an astronomer, or with one whose knowledge of the stars can be expressed with scholarly exactitude. For the student it is needful to know, for example, that the Hyades are Alpha, Delta, Eta, etc., of Tauri, and lie 10 south-east of the Pleiades. But as one sits before the fireglow, with one's book in hand to suggest or one's memory to remind, it is in another way as delightful and as fascinating to repeat again to oneself how Tennyson in Ulysses speaks of this stellar cluster as

"Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea . . ."

or how Christopher Marlowe wrote of them

"As when the seaman sees the Hyades
      Gather an army of Cimmerian clouds,
Auster and Aquilon with winged steeds . . ."

to recall how Spenser alludes to them as "the Moist Daughters," or how our Anglo-Saxon ancestors called them " the Boar-Throng." One must know that Alpha of Bo÷tes is the astronomical signature of the greater Arcturus, but how much it adds to the charm of this star's interest for us to learn that among its popular names are the Herdsman, the BearWatcher, the Driver of the Wain, and to know why these now familiar names were given and by whom. One may grasp the significance of the acquired knowledge that this vast constellation of Bo÷tes stretches from the constellation of Draco to that of Virgo, and the numeration of its degrees in declination and ascension, and (if one may thus choose between the 85 and the 140 of astronomers) that it contains a hundred stars visible to the naked eye. But, for some of us at least, there is something as memorable, something as revealing, in a line such as that of the Persian poet Hafiz, as paraphrased by Emerson,

"Poises Arcturus aloft morning and evening his
     spear "---

or that superb utterance of Carlyle in Sartor Resartus,

"What thinks Bo÷tes of them, as he leads his
Hunting Dogs over the zenith in their leash of sidereal fire?"

Not, I may add in parenthesis, that the seekers after astronomical knowledge should depend on the poets and romancers for even an untechnical accuracy. Literature, alas, is full of misstatements concerning the moon and stars. Few poets are accurate as Milton is magnificently accurate, his rare slips lying within the reach of a knowledge achieved since his day: or as Tennyson is accurate. Carlyle himself, quoted above in so beautiful a passage, has made more than one strange mistake for (as he once aspired to be) a student astronomer: not only, as in one instanee, making the Great Bear for ever revolve round Bo÷tes, but, in a famous passage in his French Revolution, speaking of Orion and the Pleiades glittering serenely over revolutionary Paris on the night of 9th August 1792, whereas, as some fact-loving astronomer soon pointed out, Orion did not on that occasion rise till daybreak. It has been said of the Moon, in fiction, that her crescents and risings and wanings are to most poets and novelists apparently an inexplicable mystery, an unattainable knowledge. Even a writer who was also a seaman and navigator, Captain Marryat, writes in one of his novels of a waning crescent moon seen in the early evening. The great Shakespeare himself wrote of the Pole Star as immutable, as the one unpassing, the one fixt and undeviating star---

". . . constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and lasting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."

This was, of course, ignorance of what has since been ascertained, and not uninstructedness or mere hearsay. Possibly, too, he had in mind rather that apparent unchanging aloofness from the drowning sea-horizon to which Homer alludes in the line beautifully translated "Arctos, sole star that never bathes in the ocean wave" . . . of which, no doubt, our great poet had read in the quaint delightful words of Chaucer (rendering Boetius) "Ne the sterre y-cleped 'the Bere,' that enclyneth his ravisshinge courses abouten the soverein heighte of the worlde, ne the same sterre Ursa nis never-mo wasshen in the depe westrene see, no coveitith nat to deyen his flaumbe in the see of the occian, al-thogh he see other sterres y-plounged in the see."

That constellation " y-cleped the Bere," how profoundly it has impressed the imagination of all peoples. In every age, in every country, our kindred on lonely lands, on lonely seas, from caverns and camp-fires and great towers, have watched it "incline its ravishing courses" about the Mountain of the North, "coveting not" to drown its white fires in the polar seas. Here, however, it is strange to note the universality of the Ursine image with the Greeks and Romans and the nations of the South, and the universality with the Teutonic peoples of designations such as the Wain and the Plough. It was not till the Age of Learning set in among the Northern peoples that the classic term came into common use. Thus in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon manual of astronomy the writer, in adopting the Greek Arctos (still used occasionally instead of the Bear), adds "which untaught men call CarleswŠn," that is Charles's Wain, the Waggon. A puzzling problem is why a designation which primarily arose from an association of the early Greeks concerning Arkas, their imaginary racial ancestor, with Kallisto his mother, who had been changed into a great bear in the heavens, should also suggest itself to other peoples, to races so remote in all ways as the North American Indians. Yet before the white man had visited the tribes of North America, the red men called the constellation by names signifying a bear. The historian Bancroft has proved that alike among the Algonquins of the Atlantic and of the Mississippi, among the Eastern Narragansett nations and among the nations of the Illinois, the Bear was the accepted token.
Bo÷tes, the Great Bear, the Little Dipper or Ursa Minor, these great constellations, with their splendid beacons Arcturus, the Triones or the Seven Hounds of the North, and the Pole Star---

                        "By them, on the deep,
The Achaians gathered where to sail their ships---

and in like fashion all the races of man since Time was have "gathered" the confusing ways of night on all lonely seas and in all lonely lands.
But best of all, to know this spell of the nocturnal skies, one should be in the company of fisher-folk or old seamen or shepherds, perchance unlettered but wise in traditional lore and leal to the wisdom of their fathers. How much more I value what I have heard from some shepherd on the wide dark moors, or from some islesman in a fishing-coble or drifting wherry, on maoiiless nights filled with a skyey "phosphorescence" as radiant as that a-dance and a-gleam in the long seethe of the wake of a ship, than what I have found concerning scientific star-names in books of astronomy. Nothing that I have since learned of "the Pointers" has impressed me so much as what I learned as a child of "the Hounds of Angus," nor, in later and fuller knowledge of Polaris, has the child's first knowledge of the mystery and wonder of " the Star of Wisdom," as pointed out and tale-told by an old Hebridean fisherman, or of "the House of Dreams," as sung to me in a forgotten ballad by a Gaelic woman of Argyll, been surpassed.
It was they---herdsmen and mariners, the wayfarer, the nomad, the desert-wanderer who, of old, gave these names to which the nations have grown used. It was with the nomad that astronomy began. The Chaldeean shepherd, the Phoenician mariner, studied the stars and named them and the great constellations which group themselves from horizon to horizon in the nocturnal skies. They perceived strange symmetries, symbolic images, grotesque resemblances. The same instinct made the Arab of the Desert call the Pleiades the Herd of Camels, made the Akkadian call them the Wild Doves, made the Celtic hunter call them the Pack of Hounds, made the Teuton peasant call them the Hen and Chickens, made the Australian savage call them (in conjunction with the Bear) Young Girls playing to Young Men dancing: the same instinct, this, as made the ancient poet of the Zend-Avesta call them the Seven Beneficent Spirits, or made the modern poet of Lockslcy Hall liken them to a swarm of fireflies, or made the Gaelic poet of to-day image them as the Herring Net. In a word, the instinct of poetry : which is as deep as hunger and thirst, as deep as love, as deep as fear, as deep as the desire of life. The instinct of the imagination to clothe the mysterious and the inexplicable in the raiment of the familiar or of recognisable and intimate symbol.
How infinitely it adds to the beauty of a starname such as Aldebaran, or Alcyone, or Polaris, to know that to the swarthy nomads of the desert it imaged itself as one following in a skyey desert, a camel-driver tracking lost camels, a hound following a quarry, a warrior following a foe, a holy pilgrim tracking the difficult ways of God, so that no name seemed to them so apt as Al Dabaran, the Follower: to know that to the pastoral Akkadians or the early tillers and hunters of sea-set Greece, looking at the Pleiades in winter, Alcyone in its lovely group suggested the Nest of the Halcyon, the summer-bird who had flown to the remote depths of the sky to sit and brood there on a windless wave-unreached nest till once again "the Halcyon days" of calm settled on land and sea: or to know that to our own seafaring folk of old, the men who voyaged perilously in small and frail craft without compass and with little knowledge of the mysterious laws of the mysterious forces of earth and sea and heaven. Polaris was the one unchanging skyey beacon, the steadfast unswerving North Star; and so, lovingly called by our old Saxon forbears the Scipsteorrae, the Ship-Star, and by the Elizabethan seafarers the Lodestar or Pilot-Star, and by the Hebridean fishermen the Home-Star, and by others the Star of the Sea---

"Constellations come, and climb the heavens, and go.
  Star of the Pole! and thou dost see them set.
          Alone in thy cold skies,
  Thou keep'st thy old uniioving station yet,
  Nor join'st the dances of that glittering train,
  Nor dipp'st thy virgin orb in the blue western main.
          On thy unattering blaze
  The half-wrecked mariner, his compass lost,
          Fixes his steady gaze,
  And steers, undoubting, to the friendly coast;
  And they who stray in perilous wastes by night
  Are glad when thou dost shine to guide their footsteps right."

The same spirit which animated Bryant when he wrote these verses in his beautiful "Hymn to the North Star," which made one of the Gaelic island-poets allude to it as the Star of Compassion, prevailed with these ChaldŠan shepherds and Arabian nomads of old. They gave the familiar or beautiful names of love or intimate life, and in exchange the taciturn face of heaven lost its terrifying menace of silence, and the Night became a comrade, became the voice of the poets, of the sages, of the prophets and seers, the silver gateways of the Unknown.
The Hunter, The Herdsman, the Bear-Watcher, the Driver of the Wain---how much more we love BoŰtes, or, as Chaucer called the constellation, " ye sterres of Arctour," because of these simple names. The Herdsman, the Hunter, . . . the words strike the primitive music. The youth of the world is in them. In these few letters what infinite perspectives, what countless images. The Golden Age lies hid in their now impenetrable thickets. Through their branches we may look at the tireless hunter of to-day on the interminable pampas, at the bowed trailer in the dim savannahs of the Amazon, at the swarthy nomad on the wastes of Sahara guarding his camels like ships becalmed in a vast sea of sand, or may see the solitary mountain-shepherd in the hill-wildernesses of Spain or Italy, or the Northern herdsman toiling against wind and snow on our Gaelic hills.
Here also is the romance of the stars, as well as that deeper and perturbing romance which is disclosed to us in the revelations of science. That sense of incalculable distances, of immeasurable periods, of unknown destinies and amazing arrivals, which haunts the imagination of the astronomer when he looks beyond the frontiers of ascertained knowledge, half-doubting perhaps whether even that be not a terrible illusory logic, is also here. One goes back, as in thought one recedes into the beautiful, impassioned wonderland of childhood. One seems to see mankind itself as a child, gone but a little way even yet, looking up trustfully or fearfully to the mysterious mother-eyes of a Face it cannot rightly discern, in its breath being Immortality, Eternity in its glance, and on its brows Infinitude.