Each month, the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition hosts a “Feminist Frolic.” A Feminist Frolic is an outdoor adventure combined with an educational presentation. This month’s presentation was on feminist stargazing, which was held at Wisconsin Point. The goal of the presentation is to enjoy the outdoors and become familiar with the celestial bodies in the night sky, while connecting science and mythology to a feminist perspective. With that said, I am certainly not an expert on astronomy, but I enjoy learning about many topics and astronomy is one of them. Thus, the following is a brief tour of our universe from the perspective of feminist.
The moon is a great place to begin, November 14th marks the super moon. A super moon is a moon appears larger than normal because it has become full when at perigee, or closest distance to the earth. Perigee is a word used to describe the nearest point to earth in an orbital path, while apogee is the furthest. Similarly, the terms perihelion and aphelion are used to describe the earth’s closest and furthest points in its orbit around the sun. Super moons happen every thirteen months or so, but this one will look particularly large because the moon will become full just two hours from its perigee. This super moon will be the largest in appearance since 1948.
Even when the moon is not at perigee or full it is super! And, to many people it has had a connection to women. In many mythologies, the moon was believed to be a goddess. The Greeks saw the moon as Artemis, the sister of the sun god, Apollo. In Chinese legends, the moon was a woman named Chang’e, who drank an immortality elixir to avoid having it fall into the hands of her husband’s rival Fengmeng. The elixir caused her to float away from earth and away from her mortal husband, where she went to dwell on the moon. Mayan people have had many beliefs about the moon over time. In one tale, the moon goddess is the daughter of the Earth God. The Moon Goddess sleeps with the Sun God, which upsets her father, who destroys her. Her blood covers the earth, but is collected in thirteen jars from which insects, poison, and disease are created. However, the blood is also the origin of medicine and a new moon. The connection between the moon, life, blood, and femininity mark the connection people made between the moon and menstruation.
The moon orbits around the earth every 28 days (or 27.32 to be more exact) in what is called a sidereal month. To ancient people, the orbit of the moon around the earth was not immediately obvious. The most obvious change in the moon was the procession of moon phases, or which cycle in a synodic month. The moon cycles through phases every 29.53 days. Thus, ancient people marked the passage of time with changes in the phases of the moon. In fact, the name month comes from the word moon. Many cultures, such as Chinese, Babylonians, Germanic, Hebrew, Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tibetans, used lunar or lunar solar calendars to mark their year. Today, Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which is why holidays like Ramadan fall on different dates each year. A menstrual cycle is about as long as the lunar cycle, so ancient people may have connected the moon to goddesses and fertility. The word menstruation itself comes from mensis, the Latin word for month and mene, the Greek word for moon. However, there is no scientific evidence that there is a correlation between menstruation/fertility and lunar phases.
While the moon may only be feminine in a metaphoric sense, it certainly has life-giving qualities in the scientific sense. Not unlike Chang’e, who drifted further and further away from her mortal husband, the moon is drifting further and further away from earth at a rate of 1.5 inches per year. As it does this, the earth’s rotation is slowing down as it loses gravitational energy. When life began evolving on earth 3.8 billion years ago, the moon was twice as close and days were half as long! Some scientists believe that the violent tidal activity may have enabled the evolution of life, by tossing around the proto-nucleic acids that eventually formed into DNA. Tides themselves allowed for ocean dwelling creatures to evolve into terrestrial life, by creating a nether environment between land and sea. The moon also created the conditions of life by stabilizing our climate and slowing our rotation. Before a Mars sized object slammed into the earth, creating the moon, the earth rotated every six hours. The moon’s gravitational pull slowed us down, resulting in less severe weather and daily temperature changes. The moon’s gravitational pull also stabilized our axial tilt, resulting in static seasons and a stable distribution of oceans. Thus, in a way, the moon is a giver of life to our planet!
Another celestial body with a connection to women is the planet, Venus. This month, Venus can be seen in the early evening Western sky. Venus is the brightest of the planets and looks like a large, peach colored star. Because of its proximity to the sun, Venus is never seen above 45 degrees from the horizon, which is another clue of how to locate this planet in the night sky. Venus is a unique planet because it has the longest rotational period of all of the planets. A day on Venus is 243 days and it rotates in an opposite direction than all of the other planets. Venus has a dense atmosphere that is 96.5% carbon dioxide. This makes Venus the hottest planet, as it has a runaway greenhouse effect of trapped heat. The average temperature on Venus is 864 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt lead. Due to the thick atmosphere, the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is same as we would experience at 3,000 feet below the ocean on Earth. If the heat and atmospheric pressure are not hellish enough, the planet features clouds made of sulfuric acid and a water-less landscape of thousands of volcanoes. Because of the hostile environment on Venus, studying the planet has been challenging. The Soviet Union was the first country to successfully send a probe to Venus through its Venera program. The Soviet Union began launching probes in 1961, but did not successfully land on the planet until 1966 with Venera III. Venera IV was destroyed by the atmospheric pressure before it could collect data. Venera V managed to collect 53 minutes of data. Venera 7 survived for 23 minutes on the surface of Venus before it was destroyed by heat and pressure. Later Venera probes managed to send back photos. It is coincidentally sexist that the most hostile planet is also the only planet named after a woman.
The Sumerians connected the planet Venus with the goddess Inanna. They believed that Venus was a morning star and an evening star, since they only saw the planet at those times of day (as it is only visible when rising and setting due to its proximity to the sun). Inanna was the goddess of fertility, love, and war. To Ancient people, the planet Venus moved in unpredictable ways, which accounted for Inanna’s warlike, capricious, and duplicitous personality. The Greeks associated Venus with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. The cult of Aphrodite drew from love goddesses of the near east, including the practice of ritual prostitution in temples to her. The Greeks also borrowed the idea of Venus as a morning star and evening star from Babylonian astronomy.
Beyond mythology, the volatile and hostile nature of Venus has been used to stereotype women in modern times. Although it is dated, the best example is the 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which reifies the gender differences between men and women through relationship advice that panders to gender stereotypes. In the worldview of the book, men withdraw and women seek closeness. However, humans are complex. Some women are emotionally withdrawn, some men seek closeness intimacy, and all humans exhibit these traits to varying degrees. By stereotyping women as out of control, unpredictable, irrational, or emotional, it dismisses their perspectives, experiences, needs, and oppression. The woman who asserts herself and her rights is thus dismissed as an irrational, angry feminist rather than a clear-thinking critic of social ills. Of course, ancient people had no idea about the hostile nature of the planet. Still, they chose to personify the mysterious planet as a foreboding female.
Taurid and Leonid Meteor Showers:
The month of November features two meteor showers. The Taurid Meteor shower peaks this weekend around the 11th and 12th, but can be viewed until early December. The meteors appear to originate near the constellation Taurus and are best seen after midnight. While the Taurids only yield a few meteors per hour, it is a shower that is likely to create fireballs. Fireballs are simply meteors that are particularly bright. The Taurids are the caused by debris left behind by the comet named Encke. Encke is a small comet which orbits the sun every 3.3 years.
The Leonids also appear in November. This meteor shower peaks around the 17th of the month and is created from the debris left behind by Temple-Tuttle, a comet which orbits the sun every 33 years. The Leonids can feature more spectacular meteor storms. For instance, in 1833, it yielded over 100,000 meteors per hour in 1833. This meteor storm was noted by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Joseph Smith. Smith believed it was a sign of the coming of Christ. The 1833 meteor shower resulted in the first accurate explanation of their origin as particles in space. Meteorites, or meteors that land on earth, have been valued since ancient times. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was believed to be built where a meteorite landed. Meteorites were also used as a source of iron for tools and weapons by ancient and indigenous peoples.
Ursa Major/The Big Bear:
Moving on to constellations, we can begin with Ursa Major. This is the easiest constellation to find because the seven large, bright stars that make up the asterism called the Big Dipper. An asterism is just another word for a pattern of stars, and in this case, the dipper is part of a much larger constellation in the shape of a long tailed bear. Many groups of people saw a bear in the sky when they looked at this pattern of stars. However, Anishinaabe saw a fisher instead. Arabs saw a coffin and several mourners. The Chinese saw a wall.
In the Greek version of the story of Ursa Major, the bear was once a nymph named Callisto, who served Artemis, the virginal goddess of hunting. Zeus found Callisto to be particularly attractive, so he disguised himself as Artemis to gain her trust, then raped her. He then abandoned her for Mount Olympus, offering no support to her or the son that she eventually had as the result of the rape. Rather than feeling sympathetic towards Callisto after the sexual assault, Zeus’ wife Hera became jealous of her. Out of jealousy, she turned Callisto into a bear, leaving her human son, Arcas, without both a mother and a father. Eventually, Arcas grew up and became a hunter himself. He happened upon his mother, in the form of a bear, and tried to kill her. Finally, Zeus intervened and turned Arcas into a bear so that he would not kill his own mother. He then placed both mother and son, in the form of bears, in the sky where they remain as the Big Bear and Little Bear.
As a whole, the Greek version of the story can be connected to the idea of rape culture as it features elements such as the entitlement of powerful men, rape as commonplace, and victim blaming. Zeus raped women in many stories in Greek mythology, but there is little consequence for him but the jealousy of his wife. Because of this, the rape is never taken seriously, and Zeus himself is a forgivable Bill Clinton or Donald Trump sort who can’t resist the ladies. Boys will be boys…and Gods will be gods! His biggest problem in life is his harping wife, Hera. While the victims of rape in Greek mythology are depicted as virginal and pretty, often putting up some kind of resistance, they don’t have much agency. Callisto has a son, becomes a bear, is almost murdered, then gets thrown into the sky. Becoming a bear was a punishment from Hera. So, Zeus was never punished. Instead, the victim was blamed. Perhaps this illustrates that women don’t always have the power to punish men, so they learn to punish other women.
On a final note, the Big Dipper, which makes up the body and tail of Ursa Major, is also known as the Drinking Gourd. It is believed that slaves used this asterism to find their way north, as the two stars at the chest of the bear or front of the gourd point up to the North Star.
Ursa Minor/The Little Bear/Polaris
Following the two stars at the front of the dipper cup, upwards, one can find the North Star, or polaris. Polaris makes up the end of the tail of the Little Dipper/Little Bear/Ursa Minor. In Greek mythology, the small bear was Callisto’s son, Arcas. The Little Bear is much smaller than the Big Dipper and the stars are far dimmer. Even Polaris is not all that bright and noticeable. Polaris, or the North Star, can be used to find north. The star happens to be located near the Earth’s axis. As such, as the earth spins, the constellations appear to move around Polaris, which stays still. The height of Polaris in the night sky can help a person figure out their latitude. The further a person travels north, the higher polaris appears in the sky.
If you follow the star (Alkaid) at the end of the tail of Ursa Major in an arc to the next brightest star, you will find the constellation Bootes. This bright star is called Arcturus, or guardian of the bear. It is part of an asterism of the same name, which is shaped like a diamond. This diamond shaped asterism is itself part of Bootes, the bear herder or bear watcher. The story of Bootes and his relationship to his neighbors, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, is murky. Nevertheless, Arcturus has a rich history. For instance, the star was used by Polynesians to navigate north from Tahiti to Hawaii, as once it appeared overhead above the equator, the Polynesians knew to turn west towards Hawaii.
While star gazing near the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, it is worthwhile to point out Draco, a giant constellation which literally snakes between the two constellations. Nine of the stars in Draco are known to have planets orbiting them. To the ancient Greeks, the constellation represented Ladon, a giant serpent killed by Hercules or the serpent child of Gaia. In Roman myth, Draco was a serpent defeated by the goddess Minerva and tossed into the sky. In Arabic astronomy, the constellation represented four mother camels protecting a baby camel from two hyenas that were trying it.
Serpents have a long been connected with women. In the Greek story, Ladon guarded the apples of Hesperides, a tree owned by Hera which offered immortality. This serpent, woman, and magical tree story is also part of Christian beliefs. In Christianity, the serpent convinces Eve to eat from the fruit of knowledge, which introduces sin into the world. Interestingly, Islam and Judaism do not have the concept of original sin, so Eve’s introduction of sin into the world is a Christian belief. Some feminists have argued that ancient matriarchal religions often involved a serpent goddess or serpent cult. For instance, Minoan figurines of a woman handling snakes have been found on Crete. It is believed that these figures could represent fertility and renewal and that Minoans had a goddess centered/woman centered religion. Temples to the Phoenician goddess, Astarte, were also decorated with serpent motifs. Some feminists have argued that the association of serpents and women was a way to honor female sexuality and that the advent of patriarchy re-cast serpents and goddesses as evil characters.
Another iconic constellation is Cassiopeia, which can be found this month by looking to the northeastern sky for a “W” or “M” shape in the sky. This is another circumpolar constellation, so it can be seen all year, but moves higher and northward as the evening progresses. Although Cassiopeia is usually depicted as white, the Greeks believed she was an Ethiopian queen of unrivaled beauty. Perhaps the whitewashing of the constellation represents European artists inability to view Black as beautiful or consider Black people as powerful leaders. Because of her boastfulness about her beauty, she was placed in the sky and her daughter, Andromeda was tied to a rock to be eaten by Cetus the sea monster. The Persians also saw a queen when they saw the constellation Cassiopeia. They saw a queen with with a crescent moon and a staff. Celtic people saw Anu, the mother goddess in this pattern of stars. Arab astronomers saw the constellation as a hand that had been tinted with Henna. Thus, many cultures envisioned something feminine when viewing this constellation.
Cassiopeia: a suspiciously white looking Ethiopian queen….
The Andromeda galaxy can be found as it is a blurry spot located between Cassiopeia and the constellation Andromeda. The deeper “V” of Cassiopeia points to the galaxy. The Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away and is the nearest galaxy to our own. Interestingly, the Andromeda galaxy is expected to collide with the Milky Way in 3.75 billion years. While objects in the universe are actually moving away from each other, the gravitational force between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy is enough to offset this expansion and pull into each other. This could result in a new elliptical galaxy once the two combine. While the impact on our own solar system is unknown, it could result in an entirely different night sky! The Andromeda galaxy is the only object that we can see outside of our galaxy with the naked eye (in the northern hemisphere).
In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of the Ethiopian queen and king Cassiopeia and Cepheus. In art, she is almost always depicted as white, despite her heritage. After she was chained to a rock to be fed to a monster, she was rescued by the Greek hero Perseus. Of course, Andromeda was already promised in marriage to Phineas, whom Perseus conveniently turned to stone by showing the Gorgon’s head. Later, when Andromeda died, she was placed in the sky by Athena as a constellation, after which the galaxy was named.
Andromeda: the very white looking princess of Ethiopia…as seen in the film Clash of the Titans.
If the night is dark and clear enough, it is easy to spot the Milky Way, which looks like a pale cloud of stars spread across the entire skydome. Everything we see when we look into the night sky (without a telescope and with the exception of Andromeda) is part of the Milky Way galaxy. The band that is seen overhead is the view of disc of our galaxy, made up of billions of stars. Our eyes cannot differentiate the light of these billions of stars, so we see them as a misty arc across the sky. The dark areas within the band are clouds of dust.
To Babylonians, the Milky Way represented the tail of Tiamat. Tiamat was a primordial serpent goddess who mothered an ancient generation of gods, who in turn parented another generation of gods, whom she sought to destroy with eleven monsters. In Greek mythology, the Milky Way was created by Hera’s breast milk, which spilled when Hercules tried to suckle too aggressively. This sounds painful and terrible. Despite Hera’s victim blaming of Zeus’ rape victims, perhaps she can be sympathized with for her horrible experience with breastfeeding. Just as women sometimes shame other women for their sexual assaults, women shame other women for breast feeding or not breast feeding. This only serves to divide women from their common interests, thereby doing the dirty work of patriarchy without men. Egyptians also saw the Milky Way as milk, though they saw it as cow’s milk and personified it as Bat, the goddess of fertility. Estonians saw the Milky Way as the wedding veil of a spurned goddess and the Chinese saw it as a bridge of birds used to unite two lovers.
The Pleiades are a cluster of related stars that can be found near Taurus. In the early evening, they are lower on the horizon, situated downward from Cassiopeia. The star cluster is one of the nearest clusters to Earth and only about 100 million years old. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the Seven Sisters, or seven nymphs who served Artemis. In one version of the myth, they were put into the night sky by Zeus to protect them from Orion, who still chases them across the sky. Presumably, Orion was chasing after them to sexually assault them. Thus, this is one of many Greek myths involving women being turned into something else to avoid rape. Other stories include Apollo and Daphne (who was turned into a tree), Philomela (who became a nightingale after she was raped), Leda (who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan), and Europa (who was raped by Zeus in the form of a bull, and is also a moon of Jupiter). Even Hera, Zeus’ sister, was raped by him, which is why she married him.
Aside from the Greeks, several other cultures saw them as women. The Mono people saw the stars as six wives who left their husbands to eat onions in the sky. Lakotas saw them as seven women who were giving birth. Cheyenne envisioned them as seven puppies conceived by a young woman who fell in love with a mysterious human in the form of a dog. The Basotho people of southern Africa saw them as planter women, as their disappearance from the night sky marked the onset of winter. To the Javanese, the stars represented seven princesses and the beginning of the rice planting season. Of course, to some people the stars were brothers, stored grain, the head of a tiger, and a market place. Nevertheless, many sisters or wives are a common interpretation of the star cluster.
The supermoon made it a bit more challenging to see these these celestial objects/phenomenon. Certainly, there is far more to see in the night sky. This is just a tiny sample of our wondrous universe. Hopefully the presentation offered a little bit of science, some interesting stories and legends, as well as some insight about the role of women on Earth and in the cosmos. Join us next month for another fun filled feminist frolic!