Precession (continued)

The Mythology of the Milky Way

Astronomers only discovered the nature of our galaxy, our place in it, and the fact that innumerable other galaxies exist in the universe in the early decades of the 20th century. The "discovery" of the Milky Way is still a vital, ongoing project for astronomers, with new insights emerging every year. (I just read an article last night in Scientific American describing new research on how the Milky Way is "cannibalizing" or consuming some of the dwarf galaxies that are our immediate neighbors, including the Magellanic Clouds.) In particular, it was sometime in the 1980's that I first read about the theory that a giant black hole, millions of times more massive than our Sun, is at the gravitational center of our galaxy. This black hole has been named Sagittarius A*; astrologers refer to this point as the Galactic Center (or "GC" for short). It is located in our southern sky where the constellations Sagittarius, Scorpio and Ophiuchus come together and is currently very near and precessing towards the winter solstice point.

Considering how recent our scientific knowledge of the galaxy is, it may come as a shock that mythology the world over is loaded with references to the Milky Way and its importance in defining the world ages. It may seem unreasonable that "mere primitives" could know about something that western science has discovered only in the last century. However, in the ancient sky free from modern light pollution, all you need to do is look up. The Milky Way is one of the most distinctive and breathtaking features of the night sky; the area around the GC is especially thick and bright. For a person attuned to the subtle energies of the GC, which presumably would have included many of the old astronomer-priests, this is a power center that is quite unmistakable. It would surprise me more if mythology had nothing to say about our galaxy than it does to see how much material exists.

The Milky Way appears as a bright circle of light in the sky, inclined at a steep angle to the equator. Granted the circle is somewhat patchy and irregular in places, especially where clouds of interstellar gas and dust blot out the light of stars behind them. There's a quite prominent area of gas clouds near the GC known as the Great Dark Rift which appears to divide the band of light into two paths for a ways. It doesn't take much imagination to put the Milky Way circle of light on a par with the invisible Great Circles such as the ecliptic and the equator. (I'm using "Great Circle" both in the mathematical sense of a circle on the surface of a sphere whose center is at the center of the sphere, and in a mythic sense that stresses the importance of these circles.) There are two spots where the Milky Way and the ecliptic cross, one between the constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius (near the GC) and the other between Taurus and Gemini (the "Anti-center"). These crossing points were often considered to be crossroads or gates. Like the constellations, these crossroad points are subject to precession.

Since the Great Circles of the equator, ecliptic and Milky Way were all considered "roads" in the sky for planets, gods and the souls of the dead, parts of a grand celestial landscape, the metaphor of a "crossroads" is perfectly natural and may well be the origin of the cross symbolism in many cultures. The crossroads of the equator and ecliptic are of course the two equinoxes, with their buddies the solstices. However, the crossings of the ecliptic and the Milky Way were the crossroads in mythology, with many stories in their honor. Quite frequently, they are considered entrance and exit points between the terrestrial world of space and time and the celestial world of eternity. These points were viewed as the regions in the sky for souls to enter into human incarnation or to leave for the afterworld upon dying. In other traditions, souls passed through these crossroads at some point on their way to another cosmic center, such as the north pole. The position of these crossroads in the zodiac had a big effect on the ease of attaining the afterlife for many cultures. In particular, the moments in history when they lined up with the equinoxes or solstices were especially auspicious. Too bad these alignments only happen every 6400+ years.

Since the Milky Way is a broad band of light instead of a thin, crisp geometric circle (like the equator or ecliptic), the position of these crossroads is somewhat fuzzy and ill-defined. This hasn't deterred the astronomers, however, who merrily calculated the precise position of the Galactic Plane, a plane that cuts the galaxy into two mirror halves similar to the way one slices a bagel in half. This galactic plane, which appears as an imaginary circle in the sky bisecting the visible Milky Way, does have a pair of precise intersection points with the ecliptic, which can be called the Galactic Nodes (in analogy to the Moon's Lunar Nodes). If you're doing precise astrological calculations, it's probably the galactic nodes that you want to track. The node in the Scorpio-Sagittarius region is about 5 degrees north of the GC and about 3 degrees ahead, so they can often be used interchangeably.

As the galactic plane precesses around the zodiac, it's inclination to the equator changes markedly. Another way of saying the same thing is the closest distance from the Milky Way to the north pole and the current pole star changes. In our times, this distance is 30 to 35 degrees. Back in the Age of Gemini (c. 3000-4000 BCE), around the "dawn of civilization" in the Old World, the crossroads lined up with the equinoxes, but the Milky Way would have been more like 50 to 55 degrees away from the north pole. Having the crossroads line up like this would be excellent for when your soul left Earth, but if your ultimate destination was the north pole, that still left you with quite a leap at some point. The really impressive line up occurs in the Age of Sagittarius (c. 16000-17000 BCE, about the time of the Lascaux cave paintings in France; coming again about 6000 AD), when the north pole is in the constellation Cepheus the king. Since part of Cepheus is right on the Milky Way, the pole and the galactic plane nearly coincide at these times. In fact, the Milky Way would be a dead ringer for a Great Circle called the "equinoctial colure". This circle, which passes through both equinoxes and poles, is part of the basic geometrical framework of our cosmos, a major cog in the machinery of precession and planetary movement. (There's also a solstical colure, that passes through the poles and the solstices, to complete this framework.) Having all the Great Circles in alignment and the crossroads all open is truly the highpoint of the Great Year, the precessional cycle. As astrological cycles go, I find this cycle of galactic inclination most intriguing.

Of course, any star could serve as a crossroad, but the stars are seemingly scattered at random all over the sky. There's nothing unique or spectacular to single out one star over another. The galactic nodes are another story entirely. Because the Milky Way is a relatively thin and well-defined band of light, and further because there is no other structure in the night sky like it, it naturally draws your attention to the galactic nodes. The precession of these nodes through the tropical zodiac is probably the most "obvious" way to define the Great Year and the great precessional clock. Apparently many of the "Golden Age" myths around the world can be traced to the alignments of the crossroads with the tropical frame.

The Current Alignment

Miraculously (or is it just a "coincidence"?), we living through one of these great alignments right now. The galactic center is currently (2003) at 26Sa53 and the north galactic node is 0Cp03, right on the winter solstice point (0Cp00). The best estimates I've heard of placed the exact alignment around 1999-2000, but I'd easily apply a plus or minus 20 year orb for the effectiveness of this connection. Your soul picked an incredible time for your current earth-trip!

One of my favorite reading topics concerns the Mayan culture, especially the mythology and mechanics of their intricate calendar. Part of this calendar, known as the "Long Count", is a long cycle of 5125+ years that tracks a cycle of creation and destruction of the world. Curiously, 5 of these Long Count cycles is approximately equal to one Great Year, so it already sounds like they were onto something. Given that the Mayans were master astronomers, we shouldn't be surprised to find their mythology reflected in the skies.

In one of their few surviving texts, a powerful creation story of the Mayan world is told. In this tale, the creator god known as One Hunahpu is killed by denizens of the underworld, which goes by the name of Xibalba. He needs to be rescued and resurrected by his twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who go through many fantastic adventures in Xibalba to outwit the forces of the underworld and bring back their father. Upon his return, One Hunahpu stretches out his arms, measures out the four directions with a measuring cord, and the new world is born. Incidentally, this "earth measuring" motif is quite common in myths about the change of a world age. It's assumed that the form and structure of the old world disappears back into the underworld (often symbolized by the region of the sky around the south pole, the star Canopus in particular) and the hero of the myth must bring forth the plan of the new world from this same place and establish the four corners of the world for the new age. Remember that this is a symbol for establishing new constellations at the equinoxes and solstices.

Like all advanced civilizations, the Mayans placed their underworld in the sky. Only primitive and overly literal people like ourselves put it underground. In fact, Xibalba Be, the road to the underworld, was a very specific place in their mythology. The Great Dark Rift looks like a giant dark gash in the Milky Way. The Maya imagined this rift to be the entrance of a cave or a goddess' vagina (curiously the same word in one Mayan dialect), all metaphors for the entrance to Xibalba. The rift ends right at the southern crossroads, the crossing point between the ecliptic and the Milky Way. This crossroad is where the Twins entered Xibalba to search for their father and it's also where One Hanahpu emerges with the plans for the new world and establishes the directions. One Hanahpu is usually depicted as a solar god, but more precisely he is the winter solstice Sun, the time when gods are reborn. (A confusing issue with Mayan planetary symbolism is that a single planet can have many iconographic representations, depending upon which part of its cycle is being referred to. A planet like Venus can have 20 different gods and goddesses associated with it.) The myth tells us to look for when the winter solstice Sun is reborn from the depths of the Xibalba, that is, at the crossroads and the Great Dark Rift. That's when the world is created.

The origins of the myth, its astronomical symbolism and the calendar that encodes this story can be traced back to the town of Izapa, which was at its heyday between 300 BCE and 50 AD. Interestingly enough, the time of creation was not in the past for them, but far in the future. The Izapan astronomer-priests observed the Galactic Center region and the nearby crossroads in heliacal rise before the winter solstice Sun. Each year, it moved closer and closer to the rising Sun and it became obvious that someday they would rise together. In an amazing feat of astronomical observation and prediction, they estimated when the solstice Sun would emerge from Xibalba Be and set their Long Count calendar to end on this future date. Every stone, every carving at the observatory-temple site of Izapa tells this myth and points to the parts of the sky where it will happen. Their calendar says when the story comes to its fateful climax. When their calendar is compared to ours, the end of our current world and the birth of the new world is scheduled for December 21, 2012.

Granted, using modern values of the galactic node, they were 12 years off. But 12 years out of roughly 2100 years is an incredible act of celestial marksmanship, an error of about half a percent. This was just about the same time when Hipparchus was "discovering" precession in the Old World and his estimate of the length of the Great Year (36000 years instead of 25800 years) was widely off the mark. Further, we don't understand enough of Mayan astronomy to know exactly what they were aiming for, so the error could be conceivably less. A further source of inaccuracy is that the rate of precession is accelerating, while the old priests would most likely have treated this rate as constant. If the rate of precession is speeding up, the crossroads would have arrived at the solstice ahead of schedule, so to speak. While I hesitate to push our current formulas to work over such long periods of time (they are really only useful for a few centuries), I figure this acceleration adds about 8 minutes of arc to the crossroad's position, shaving an additional 8 to 10 years off their "error". And since all astrological contacts have an orb or fudge-factor, I'd say they effectively hit their mark. We are in the transition period between world ages, according to their ancient myth, a time of chaos and dissolution before a new order emerges.

So, what will you be doing at the creation of the world? This myth was powerful enough that the Mayas based their entire culture upon it. Shouldn't we be listening?

Resolving the Problem of Precession

I'm being optimistic here, because I don't expect I'll convince everyone with this new symbolism. What I've been attempting is not to win the war between the zodiacs, but to transcend the war. There's no contradiction between the constellations and the tropical signs, one is no more "real" than the other. The solution is simply that the relationship between the constellations and the signs constitutes the phenomenon of precession, the grand cycles of rebirth for humanity. We need both the tropical and sidereal realms to define the parade of myths. To every age there is a myth, if only we know how to read the omens. These truths are never eternal, gods aren't forever. How could we grow otherwise?

Astrology yanks us out of our small worlds and shows us new horizons. It brought us in contact with the Earth as a whole (Gaia consciousness, in modern terminology), then expanded our vision to include the entire solar system. With precession, we are told to become good galactic citizens. This is a spiritual perspective we can only glimpse for now.

Beyond Precession

If astrology is to take a galactic perspective seriously, we might want to start thinking of the next big motion of the Earth, namely the way the entire solar system orbits around the galaxy. Observationally, this could be experienced in the following way. Instead of looking at the sky relative to the ecliptic and the equinoxes, use the galactic plane as your reference circle and the Galactic Center as your zero point on this circle. In order to observe this rotation, you need to watch the movements of some bodies that don't share this orbital motion, something outside of our own galaxy entirely. That means looking at the transits of other galaxies in deep space around the galactic circle. It's not something you can do with naked eye astronomy, but we've got telescopes now.

If precession was a Great Year, then our galactic orbital period is like a Great Millenium. It takes us roughly 230 million years to make one orbit, the equivalent of about 8850 precessional cycles. One orbit ago, mankind didn't even exist as a species. Even the dinosaurs were just getting started. In the hundred thousand years or so that Homo Sapiens has been on the planet, our species has only experienced about 10 minutes of arc of this rotation. We haven't seen enough of this cycle to even have a clue about it.

Maybe this is such a broad perspective that it's meaningless for us in our current understanding. But it never hurts to start thinking about the next horizon...


It's been six intense weeks since I started writing this essay. It's taken many years to research and digest this material and now six weeks to bring it all together. Like many acts of writing, it's been an adventure and I didn't end up where I expected to. That's partly because many of the insights were not "mine" per se, but needed to be birthed from a deeper unconscious level. I've had many dreams recently with astronomy themes: staring with friends at the night sky, thinking about precession, looking at star charts, etc. I can't say these themes are normal for me, but simply reflect the effort I've gone through to give birth to a "new world" of sorts. I only hope these dreams are a sign of approval on my work from my better half.

Dec 15, 2003 -- as the Sun approaches the Galactic Center.

Previous Page