The Ancient Modern
Reflections on Precession: A Circle of Poems from Africa / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Because I am fascinated by astronomy, and especially by the symbolic language of stars and planets in various cultures, I find myself continually looking up at the night sky—comparing what I see with what past civilizations have seen.
Stargazing reveals quite clearly how we human beings do not see with our eyes, but with our minds through our eyes, with the effect that the modern world sees differently than the ancient world—though the thing seen has remained the same.
The stars and planets haven’t changed very much over time. But how we think about them has changed dramatically. This is partly due to new tools. I might even modify my earlier statement: if we once saw the heavens with our minds through our eyes, we now see them with our minds through our tools as represented in our media. The tools, of course, are more or less sophisticated telescopes. The media may be books, screens or photographs.
Very seldom do we set our tools and media aside and simply look.
The result of these two ways of seeing is that we live in a very different intellectual “place” than our ancestors. When they looked up, they saw language, geometry, perfection, dance, music, order. Perhaps most importantly, they saw a standard by which to judge and correct their inner lives.
For example, Plato said that the unvarying movement of the stars was knowledge, while the more complicated movement of the planets was right opinion. This knowledge was no less than Truth, a timeless possession of the knower; while right opinion (also true) was borrowed from outside oneself—from Saints and Sages.
But a connection between stargazing and epistemology makes no sense to us today. The Earth is a rock and the planets are rocks, and the rocks are kept from bumping into each other by scientifically-observable forces. We study the planets (as best we can) as we would study any other piece of rock. If we gain knowledge from the planets, it certainly won’t be moral or artistic.
These ideas have been the direct or indirect subject of several past posts. But I mention them again, because the astrological event of precession can also be interpreted through an ancient or modern lens.
Precession refers to the change in orientation of the axis of a rotating body; specifically, the axis in question is that of the Earth. The practical effect of Earth’s precession is that, over time (over a 26,000-year period!) our axis moves in a circle, pointing toward a series of stars that each, in turn, becomes Polaris, the pole star.
The ancients knew about precession; Hipparchus, and later Ptolemy, wrote about its effects. Wikipedia has an article about precession with helpful graphics, which I recommend.
I chose “Precession” as a title, because it refers to a change happening so slowly as to be overlooked and easily forgotten. Consider this: few who check their horoscopes know that the dates given for the Zodiac signs no longer correspond to when the Sun sets in each constellation—which is how the twelve signs were originally determined. So “Libra” in the newspaper no longer refers to the dates when the Sun meets the constellation Libra on the western horizon.
This is due to precession. The sun’s position relative to the stars has shifted, but because we have stopped looking at the sky and have relied on calendars and numbers—media—those who consult their horoscopes were likely born under a different sign than the one with which they identify.
Many examples of this reliance on information rather than observation are all around us. Place and time—terms once full of meaning—have become mere referential sounds. We use words without remembering or honoring how they were given and why they may have changed:
October is no longer the eighth month. We don’t celebrate the Moon on Mondays or Thor on Thursdays. Oxford is no longer a place where cows cross the river. Mr. Smith (likely) doesn’t come from a family of ironworkers.
I mention these examples (and there are many more) because they show the slow change of language and meaning over time. Forgetfulness of meaning is not inevitable, of course, but it is very easy. Wars and natural disasters, philosophical or religious revolutions, technological advances: for these reasons and more, mass oblivion can happen in just a few generations.
In any case, I suggest that failure of memory is due to a (forced or chosen) failure of observation. The breakdown of observation, hence in memory, is both collective and historic as well as individual and current.
How can we describe this kind of forgetfulness? Let me poetically stretch the definition of the word and claim that we forget when we lose touch with various kinds of precession.
If poetry has a “use” in the contemporary world, it may be for helping us re-observe meaning and change—patterns in the sky, as well as patterns in language and culture. The past and the present are more deeply connected than we are accustomed to believe.
I have found that becoming aware of a few different kinds of precession can lead to a flood of contemplation about who we are and how we should live: etymology, the precession of words; toponomy, the precession of place names; archaeoastronomy, the precession of human relations to the night sky. These are technical terms for what monks and poets and sages know because they observe and remember.
My five months in Africa are nearly over. I have tried to make good use of this time in simple watching and listening. I have tried to bring the experience of the past few years into dialogue with my hope for the next few. No easy task, because there is no “object” to work toward. I am wondering and waiting, recording thoughts through essays and poetic reflections.
In this little collection of poems (which is precessing toward the second full-length volume next year), I have included nursery rhymes and religious themes, modern Africa and ancient China, science and nonsense. I want to think about all the possibilities of precession: from slow, inexorable decay to the dawn of revelation and wonder.
The world around us carelessly sleeps. But we can be awake and aware of the sky.