When you Wish Upon a Star: The Science and Culture Behind Stargazing

Individuals tend to realise their potential relevance whenever they cooperatively generate change by voting, protesting, or simply speaking their mind. At the same time, we acknowledge our smallness when we put our life in perspective to the much wider and unfathomable reality that is the universe. Looking up to the sky on a cloudless night allows us to witness the unimaginable diversity of celestial bodies surrounding our planet, and it also lets our mind dwell upon a variety of existential thoughts, both about ourselves and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In particular, a research in the European Journal of Ecopsychology establishes that stargazing encourages ‘feelings of personal growth, positive emotions and a variety of transcendent thoughts and experiences’. 

What is stargazing, to be exact? It is quite simply the act of observing stars, commonly at the naked eye, especially when and where there is lack of light pollution and adverse weather. Traditionally, stargazing helped ancient peoples locate numerous configurations of stars, which enabled them to better orientate both on land and at sea, to follow the seasons for agricultural purposes and to recognise supposedly divine signs. Today, we know that stars like the sun are enormous celestial bodies constituted mostly by hydrogen and helium that emit light and heat due to the nuclear reactions that happen inside their cores. They are the principal element of a galaxy and, by considering the relativity of time and space as well as the fact that the speed of light is a constant, we may realise that gazing at a star means looking into the past. As a matter of fact, one of the most fascinating and almost absurd truths about stars is that, because light takes time to travel and stars are several light years away from us, there is always a possibility that we could be looking at a star that does not exist anymore. A star dies when its nuclear fuel is exhausted, resulting in the celestial body’s collapse into a neutron star or black hole, which also entails the annihilation of any possible life form within the star’s galaxy. 

Nowadays, stargazing is widely carried out during specific times of the year, when it is possible to witness the phenomenon of so-called ‘falling’ or ‘shooting’ stars. Although most of us usually associate vibrant lights in the sky with stars, these luminescent streaks are, in reality, fragments of dust and rock called meteoroids. These undergo a process of burning due to the powerful friction caused by their speed and the impact with gasses from the Earth’s atmosphere. Additionally, once the meteoroids enter our atmosphere they are called meteors, namely what we commonly know as ‘falling stars’, and they generally vaporise before they can hit the surface. Interestingly, the root word ‘meteor’ derives from the Greek metéōros meaning ‘lifted up’ or ‘high in the air’, and the term also comes from the Latin meteora, indicating ‘phenomena in the heavens’. Finally, if meteors manage to hit our planet’s surface, perhaps due to their originally large size, they then become meteorites. 

Wandering meteoroids can encounter our atmosphere at any time, but there are also recurring meteor showers which happen whenever our planet’s orbit passes through remains of rocks left by a comet, which take the name of the constellation from which they originate. For instance, the Perseids can be observed each year around mid-August: in Italian tradition, every shooting ‘star’ that falls on 10 August, night of St. Lawrence (‘notte di San Lorenzo’), is an occasion for onlookers to make a wish and admire the impressive spectacle. Overall, celestial bodies have always been at the centre of superstition and have been regarded as signs from gods or other superior entities. Although the very first observations of Perseids showers started back in 36 AD by the Chinese, the tradition surrounding them grew exponentially in Ancient Greece and in Rome. Both Greek and Roman customs celebrated Priapus, a minor rustic fertility god, through phallic processions, called phallika in Ancient Greece, whereby the meteor showers were associated with the god’s ejaculation over the fields which would make them fertile for the months to come. 

According to the Christian tradition, the stars falling during mid-August are associated to the tears of St. Lawrence, a Roman deacon who became a martyr after his cruel death following the persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Valerian in 258 AD. The martyr was allegedly burned alive on a gridiron, whose burning coals reminded of the falling stars during that night. In his 1896 poem ‘X Agosto’, Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli recollects this historical moment, linking it with the assassination of his father and employs the metaphor of falling stars as tears the sky sheds as a result of human cruelty:

Saint Lawrence, I do know why so many
stars in the tranquil air
blaze and fall, why so much weeping
sparkles in the concave sky

Where does the habit of making a wish upon a shooting star come from? According to the legend, Greek astronomer Ptolemy believed that the gods would occasionally peer down at the Earth from between the spheres and that stars would, now and then, slip out and, therefore, be visible as streaks of light to humans. Consequently, the habit of making a wish when glimpsing at a falling star could result from the fact that the gods were being receptive and might be more keen on granting wishes. The origin of such tradition might also be found in the etymology of the Italian verb ‘desideràre’ (‘to wish’), which comes from the Latin ‘de’ and ‘siderare’, namely ‘to stare carefully at the stars’, or, according to others who attribute a sense of distance to the prefix ‘de’, ‘to cease contemplating the stars for augural purposes’.

Although nowadays stargazing might not be primarily used to ask for divine assistance, it is not only a romantic opportunity to share with loved ones, but it is also an occasion for us to slow down our frenetic lives, look at ourselves in the stars and recognise our limitedness as human beings. Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, mentions the stars in the final verse of each cantica, physically and spiritually raising the poet toward his destination:

‘Here my high imagining failed of power; but
already my desire and the velle were turned, like
a wheel being moved evenly,
by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’

Dante identifies love as the driving force of the universe and of life, the same love which mirrors that hope in the heart of people who gaze at the stars so as to make a wish, and who, perhaps, believe in something that is not scientifically proven, but which is nonetheless rather meaningful in its abstract nature.

Note: Extract from Giovanni Pascoli’s ‘X Agosto’ (translation from Italian), extract from Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso (canto XXXIII), Divine Comedy (translation from Tuscan vernacular language)

[Domenico Di Rosa – he/him – @_itsdomenicobitch]

[Photo credit: oli-31]

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