For the past 200,000 years people—more specifically, Homo sapiens sapiens—have been gazing at the sky above and the objects which it contains. Sometimes people simply marveled at the beauty which they perceived, sometimes they made careful observations and attempted to correlate them with the events of their lives, and still others simply watched the heavens and then made up fantastic stories to explain what they saw. As some of these fantasies were retold they took on an aura of truth and many came to accept them as descriptions of reality.
Clouds and Sky:
The white fluffy things in the sky that we currently call “clouds” haven’t always been called “clouds” in English. In Old English “welkin” meant cloud until the twelfth century. “Sky,” on the other hand, comes into English from the Old Norse word “sky” which meant “cloud.” The word “cloud” comes from the Old English “clud” which meant “hill” or “rock” until about the fourteenth century. In Old English, the word for “sky” was “heofan,” the word from which we get our modern word “heaven.”
Aristotle used the Greek word komē meaning “hair of the head” in referring to the tail of a comet and thus provided the foundation for the English word comet. Aristotle went on to use the word komētēs which means “wearing long hair” as a noun for the object observed in the sky. Later, Latin picked up the word and transformed it into comēta which was later picked up by Old English and is the source of the modern English word “comet.”
Hale-Bopp is shown above.
At one time, comets were considered to be bad omens which foretold the deaths of kings or noble men (but apparently not noble women), catastrophes including earthquakes and epidemics, and, according to some, the comets told of coming attacks by aliens against earth-dwelling humans. There are mentions of comets in such diverse sources as the Chinese oracle bones, Gilgamesh, and the Book of Revelation. There are some who say that the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066 was the omen that told of the Norman conquest of England.
Halley’s Comet is shown above.
Since English is a Germanic language it should come as no surprise that “star” comes from the pre-historic German base *ster- which is also the basis for the German “stern,” the Dutch “ster,” the Swedish “stjärna,” and the Danish “stjerne.” The pre-historic German *ster- comes from the earlier Indo-European *ster- which has the underlying meaning of “spread out.”
Among American Indians careful observation of the stars and their movements were used to determine directions and for telling time. The directions for doing this were embedded in the mythology of the Star People.
The English word “zodiac” is based on the Greek word “zōidion” which originally referred to a “carved figure of an animal.” The expression “zōidiakós kúklos” refers to a “circle of carved figures” which represents the figures or signs of the zodiac. In Latin, the Greek “zōidiakós kúklos” became “zōdiacus” which then evolved into the English “zodiac” and the French “zodiaque”.
The basic idea of a celestial circle divided into twelve parts which somehow influences human behavior was developed in ancient Babylon. In ancient Babylon there was a special group of scribes who observed and recorded the movements of the stars and planets. They recorded their observations about the daily, monthly, and yearly positions of the stars and the planets. These observations were recorded in a work known as the Astronomical Diaries (currently housed in the British Museum).
In looking at the stars, the Babylonian astronomers connected the stellar dots to name constellations. Ten of these constellations became later fixed in the cosmic thinking of Greece and Rome and are still used in contemporary astrology: the bull became Taurus; twins became Gemini; a crab became Cancer; a lion became Leo; balance-scales became Libra; a scorpion become Scorpio; an archer became Sagittarius; a creature resembling a goat became Capricorn; and a man bearing water became Aquarius.