Apr/May 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

Beneath the Night

Review by Ann Skea

Beneath the Night.
Stuart Clark.
Guardian Faber. 2020. 290 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78335 153 4.

On a mountain in "Australia's Warrumbungles range," Stuart Clark stood under the clear night sky and experienced the sublime:

There was no light-pollution on the mountain and I was staggered by the number of stars I could see. There were so many that I found it difficult at first to pick out the familiar constellations. The stars appeared so bright and so "close" that I felt an almost irresistible urge to reach up and pluck one from the sky.

For most of us, living in night-lit towns and cities, this is something we may never experience. It was the way our ancient ancestors saw the night sky and, for them, this moving panoply of stars with its regularly repeating patterns of constellations was ever present, but we have little evidence of what they thought about it.

In Beneath the Night, Stuart Clark sets out to chart the way in which the stars have influenced human history. He introduces us to artists, henge-builders, wanderers, philosophers, mathematicians, astrologers and astronomers, kings and presidents, all of whom have played their part, and he begins with what little evidence we have—the art and artifacts—of the lives of some of the earliest hominids 20,000 years ago.

Archaeologists interpret the meaning of these early artifacts in different ways. One, for example, proposes that the pattern of notches carved into a ten-centimeter-long piece of fossilized baboon bone found in the ruins of Ishango, an ancient Congolese village, represents a tally of the phases of the moon. Another has discovered that one group of notches on it are prime numbers between 10 and 20. Did these ancient people know about prime numbers?

Another archaeologist, struck by the pattern of six dots above the shoulder of an auroch (an extinct ancestor of the bull) painted some 16,000 years ago on the wall of one of the Lascaux caves in France, interprets these as representing the bright cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, which feature in myth, astrology and astronomy around the world.

Such archeological theories are plausible, and there is no doubt early people were aware of the stars, but to equate the Lascaux cave painting of bull and stars with the image of the constellation we know as Taurus the Bull, as has been done, is to endow it with a name, picture, and myth given to it by Ancient Sumerians 10,000 years later. This requires quite a feat of imagination. Clark remarks that this association is "the most interesting part of the story" and that the Bull of Heaven and the Pleiades, which are, in fact, situated above the shoulder of Taurus in the night sky, are the subject of similar stories around the world. He goes on to retell the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh and his rejection of the amorous advances of the goddess Inanna, who, furious, sends a bull to kill him.

It fails after an ally of Gilgamesh rips the bull in two and throws it back into the heavens. Even to this day, Taurus is usually depicted as the front half of the bull only. According to the Babylonians, the two hind legs could be found in the constellations we now call Ursa Major (the Plough) and Ursa Minor.

These myths and stories are Eurocentric, and although Clark does note that other cultures—the Australian Aborigines, for example—tell different stories about the Pleiades, he does not also note how these cultures often "read" the sky in a completely different way. For the Australian Aborigines, for example, the dark mass between the stars of the Milky Way is more important than the stars. It is seen as the Dark Emu, which moves across the sky indicating by its position the seasons when Emu eggs are laid and when they are ready to eat.

Nevertheless, this is only a very small part of Clark's book. Once people began to record their observations in written form, the effect of the night sky on human history becomes clear. Clark covers the use of the stars for navigation and agriculture, mathematical calculations associated with the planets, calendars and the ability to predict events on earth, almanacs, superstition, the way civilizations grew, and the development of celebratory festivals, rituals and religion.

Along the way we meet most of the famous, and some not-so-famous, people whose work with the stars has influenced our history. He writes about Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, Boethius, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Halley, Hoyle, and others. More surprising, perhaps, but adding to the interest of the book, is his inclusion of such people as Lucretius, Giordano Bruno, Van Gogh, Jung, Dickens, Allan Leo, Madam Blavatsky, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and, in the modern space-age, the Russian history-makers, Ham the chimpanzee, Yuri Gagarin, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the reclusive librarian Nikolai Fyodorov, Sergei Korolev, and the German rocket engineer, Wernher von Braun.

Clark deals simply with the mathematics and physics which has, over the centuries, been used in studying the stars. Some of it is complex, but Clark's stories lighten the text, as do his discussions of the importance of music (especially), poetry, art, novels and films in our learning and our interest in the night sky. Kepler for example, not only spent his life working on a theory to explain planetary movements and conjunctions, he also designed and had built a model in silver for Duke Frederick I of Wurttemberg to prove his theory:

It was to stand in the entrance hall of the Duke's palace, where it would be a talking point. Kepler even promised that the pipework would be hollow so that it could function as a drink dispenser. Each shape would carry a beverage which mirrored the astrological properties of the planet it supported. In the case of Saturn, this meant filling it with bad beer or corked wine.

Unfortunately, when he came to assemble the model, the shapes didn't fit together, but this only spurred him on to refine his calculations.

Other fascinating facts are scattered through the book. We learn how the three star-guided "magi," powerful astrologers who followed a star to Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus, first became "kings," then simply "wise men"; and my favorite 16th century theory about comets is the one proposed by George Busch, a "German painter and astronomer" (which you must read for yourself).

Beneath the Night is an interesting, well-written, and very readable book. Stuart Clark, understandably since he is an astronomer and scientist, believes that although we now rarely see the true glory of the night sky, we can still experience the awe it inspired in our ancestors. At the end of his book, he writes, "our connection to the night sky is inescapable, it is instinctive," and science has brought about technology which means "we are now more connected to the cosmos than ever before."

I am not sure technology can provide us with the awe a clear, star-lit, night sky inspires, but the recent establishment of International Dark Sky Parks, and the provision of designated dark sky reserves in parts of our cities, means some of us will again be able to marvel at the wonders of the night sky.


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