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Celestial Sentinels

The heavenly bull’s glare

As darkness settles, the bright glow of Jupiter pierces the east-southeast horizon, by far the brightest light in the sky, as the moon spends this week waning through pre-dawn skies. The gaseous giant is high in the south at midnight, and as dawn nears, it sets beneath the western horizon.

Around 10pm, the star Aldebaran rises in the east. The red glaring eye of Taurus the bull is one of the oldest recognized stars within one of the oldest recognized constellations. Among the paintings found on the cave walls at Lascaux, France was one of a bull with a glaring eye. Above the cave bull’s shoulder are seven almost indistinct markings — except that they align with the stars of the Pleiades star cluster. Radio-carbon testing dates the cave painting to be more than 16,000 years old. 

Around the dawn of civilization more than 5,000 years ago, the Persians of Sumeria and Mesopotamia worshiped this red giant as the Watcher of the East, one of four royal stars guarding the heavens and earth. The others were Fomalhaut, Watcher of the South, Regulus, Watcher of the North, and Antares, Watcher of the West. However, Aldebaran watched over them all as the Guardian of the Heavenly Host. 

Each of the four watchers marks one of the four cardinal points on the compass. More significantly, perhaps, each rose in tandem with either solstice or equinox, with Aldebaran rising with the autumnal equinox, the beginning of the new year for these ancient forebears. 

Already a couple weeks past equinox, Aldebaran is still a few hours short of rising at sunset today. Over the millennia, the celestial backdrop overhead has shifted as a result of earth’s 231⁄2-degree tilted rotation, which causes the planet to slowly but surely change the point in space to which its axis points.