Mankind and the Stars

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The 2007 film Stardust, based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, begins with this question: “Are we human because we look at the stars, or do we look at the stars because we are human?” It is a striking question that resonates with thousands of years of mankind’s gazing upwards.

The most ancient civilizations studied the stars. They tracked their movements, using them for predicting the future, for navigation, or for poetic inspiration. Innumerable myths have arisen surrounding the stars, making them either an object of superstition or worship. All throughout literary history, the heavens remain a commonplace, though not without a great variety of approaches.

We have probably all stared into the night sky and marveled at the stars, with all their distance and mystery. We see them as something utterly beyond our ken, and as something that inspires awe and perhaps even a sense of smallness.

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How do we human beings relate to the stars? Starting at the very beginning of time, I will first explore two examples that recount the creation of the world, one from the secular realm, and the other from the Old Testament.

Beginning with the secular realm, my first example is from Ovid’s masterpiece the Metamorphoses, first published in 8 AD. The work recounts in fifteen books over 250 myths from the ancient world, particularly stories of transformation or change. For example, it recounts how Zeus changed his paramour Io into a cow, or how the nymph Daphne came to be transformed into a laurel tree.

The Metamorphoses begins with a fanciful account of the origin of the world and the creation of human beings. According to this account, it was an unknown god who fashioned the world and all that is in it. He created men last, and “to man he gave a heavenly face, and commanded him to gaze at the sky, and to lift his upturned face to the stars” (85-6).[1]  In an earlier line, Ovid says that this god made mankind “in effigiem…deorum” (83), or in the image of the gods.

Stargazing is a feature peculiar to the “erectos,” or the upright creatures; it is held in common with both gods and men. Unlike the animals, the anatomy of the creatures who walk upright demands that they look at the heavens, they are heavenly image-bearers. As the narrative goes on, men slowly become less and less human, and in the case of some such as Lycaon,[2] they are given animal bodies instead. They are no longer worthy of their upright carriage, or of looking at the heavens.

Stars are even more important to the Biblical narrative, as we can see from Genesis 1:14 onward. God created the stars for many purposes: for light, for seasons, and for signs. God uses stars all throughout the Biblical narrative, from Abram to the Star of Bethlehem to the final prophecies in the book of Revelation. The stars are a part of God’s vast and beautiful creation, which He uses to communicate with His people. God put the stars in the sky for the benefit of human creatures, and filled His Word with many poetic references to them. He speaks to human beings in terms of the familiar creation, as creatures who were made to gaze at the stars, for whose benefit the stars were created.

There is an uncanny parallel between Ovid’s unknown creator god and the God of the Old Testament, who said (Genesis 1:26) that He would create man in His own image. As an image bearer of God, we were also made to look to the heavens and to marvel at the vastness of God’s creation and the stars He put there for our use. In both Ovid and the Old Testament, human beings or “erectos” (in Ovid referring to mortal beings), have a connection to the divine realm through their ability to gaze at the heavens.

That relationship is the motivating force behind Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante ends each of the three books of the Divine Comedy with the words “the stars.” Ending each book with “the stars” reinforces the upward direction of Dante’s spiritual journey towards heaven. This is the central theme of the entire work:

“We climbed…until
though a small round opening ahead of us
I saw the lovely things the heavens hold,
and we came out to see once more the stars” (136-39).[3]

“Is not God high in the heavens? See the highest stars, how lofty they are!” (Job 22:12 ESV). Dante’s references to the stars may recall this verse in the mind of the devout readers, and perhaps intends to remind us of the proper direction of our own spiritual journeys.

In the secular realm, humankind’s relationship with the heavens is far more nebulous The stars are still beautiful and intriguing, but treated with more skepticism and less superstition.

One example comes from ancient Rome, from the pen of the poet Catullus, who left behind a literary corpus both vile and charming. A fair number of the poems chronicle his turbulent love affair with “Lesbia,” which went from an ecstatic high to the deepest despair. In the midst of his euphoria, he wrote Poem 7.

In this poem, he asks Lesbia to give him a number of kisses outnumbering the stars. By doing so, he elevates their love affair to the mysterious and the solemnizing. It draws them both outside of themselves and infuses their love affair with cosmic importance. The poem concludes that invoking the stars in this way, and the underlying concept of infinitude, will prevent people from being able to “mala fascinare lingua” (12), or place curses on the happy couple. The stars here are a superstitious means by which the desperate lover might find some assurance for the future of his love, as well as an effective poetic device.

My next example is from another genre entirely, but still relevant. Shakespeare, the consummate poet, does not use the stars quite in the way you might expect. For example, Sonnet 14 contrasts most strongly with the Catullus poem. Unlike Catullus, Shakespeare rejects any knowledge or benefit he might attain by means of the stars:

“Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
and yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive….” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 14)

The stars are just for the superstitious; whatever you might learn from them is useless in love. As the rest of the poem states, the only “stars” that matter are his lover’s eyes. He scorns all the usual superstitious nonsense associated with the stars. There’s no point in astrology or fortune-telling, since the most important duty in life is procreating (the main theme throughout all of the sonnets).

Another example from the Shakespearean corpus is from Hamlet, act 2, scene 2, when the character Polonius reads a “love letter” from Hamlet to his daughter Ophelia:

“Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love” (116-19).

Who cares about the sun and the stars? Hamlet is essentially saying, “even if you doubt something as immovable as the stars, don’t doubt my love.” On that basis, Hamlet implies that his love is more trustworthy.

This quote relates to Sonnet 14 because it uses a similar rhetorical device, denying the relevance of all else except for himself and his lover. This contrasts with Catullus, who invokes the stars as a desperate means of protecting himself against jealous rivals and heartbreak. Shakespeare prefers the inner realm, without all the superstitions about the stars.

According to the Biblical account, God created the stars for mankind’s use and enjoyment. The modern world, represented here by Dante and Shakespeare, has demonstrated of a shift in attitude towards the stars, perhaps as a result of the progress made in astronomy. Dante’s attitude indicates more sophisticated knowledge of the heavens, yet the stars still retain their original purpose given by God. Shakespeare’s treatment of the heavens suggests that the usual poetical conventions surrounding the stars had grown hackneyed, and he deliberately turned the usual convention on its head and gave it new life.

As demonstrated by their prevalence in literature, the heavens loom large in our imagination. We are attracted by their vastness and mystery, and find inspiration in them. Though we may know more about the stars, and have a more humanistic view of our relationship towards them, their enigmatic, unattainable beauty still remains. The answer to the question Neil Gaiman asks seems clear: We gaze at the stars because we are human, and we are human also because we gaze at the stars.

[1] My own translation.

[2] Lycaon was the king of Arcadia. He offended Zeus, who turned him into a wolf as punishment.

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