The Gate of Man and the Manger
The waxing moon brightens our evening skies and passes within a few degrees of Saturn Thursday the 6th. Look for the two almost directly overhead with sunset at 7:36. They remain visible until nearly 4am, when first Saturn then the moon set in the northwest. These two provide an easy reference point to observe the spring constellation Cancer, one of the faintest in the heavens.
Of the half-dozen stars that make up Cancer, none is brighter than magnitude 3, and all are outshone by a fuzzy blob at the constellations’ center, the Beehive Cluster. Despite its faint stellar outline, Cancer is one of the most important constellations throughout time and culture.
To the ancient Egyptians ,Cancer was a scarab beetle, which were believed to be earthly representations of Atum the creator.
Around 1000bc, Babylon was led by a group of astronomer/priests called the Chaldaeans who saw Cancer as a tortoise and as The Gate of Man, through which souls passed from heaven to earth to take on human bodies. In October of 331bc, Alexander the Great and his armies surrounded the well-fortified city of Babylon but took it without siege or fight as the Chaldaeans and their people surrendered.
To the conquerors go the spoils, in this case the Chaldaeans’ scientific and astronomical knowledge, but also some of their religious philosophy, which contributed to the earliest foundations of Judaism, Kabala and Christianity.
Along the way, the tortoise became a crab, which in Greek and Roman mythology was the sole creature to side against Hercules, pinching at his feet as he battled the many-headed Hydra.
As Rome converted to Christianity, Cancer again became a force of good. The Beehive Cluster, then seen as one star, is called Praesepe, which in Latin means manger.