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New Star Appears in Taurus

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

In the year 1054 A.D. headlines around the world could have read, "Brilliant New Star Appears in Taurus!" There is little question about it. This would have been the news of the day. People everywhere would have been getting up early in the morning during the month of July to gaze toward the northeast. It would have been especially impressive on the morning of July 4 or 5--which of the two dates would have depended on which side of Earth you lived on--for the brilliant star would have been near the crescent moon: a spectacular sight for any eyes.

Imagine watching it slowly rise on that morning in July. Having heard about it, you sit upon a boulder and wait. First one star, then another come into view. The thin crescent Moon rises, and still you wait. Finally, in a burst that takes your breath away, there it is, unbelievably radiant, next to the waning crescent Moon! Indeed, it drowns the Moon with it much greater brilliance. Watching it rise, you realize that you have literally been holding your breath as the splendid object moved upward. Such a dazzling gem never before had been seen in the sky.

It has been estimated that the star was 50,000 times brighter than the planet Venus, even 40 times brighter than the combined light of the full Moon. Morning after morning you would have watched it: the Moon would have cycled out of view, but the new star would have remained, rising earlier each morning, getting dimmer as days passed. "What is it," you would have wondered, along with everyone else who saw it. No one at that time could have explained it.

Today, we know it was a supernova, a star that literally exploded, blowing itself asunder. Although it appeared in Earth's sky in 1054 A.D., the star actually exploded at least 6,000 years earlier, for its distance is about 6,000 light years away. Light burst through space, moving 6 trillion miles each year, to reach wondering eyes on Earth about 840 years ago. Today, with large telescopes, we see an energetic cloud of debris, once a star, expanding into space.

They wondered what it was in the royal courts of China, the place from which we have the most definitive accounts of the event. The records of the Sung Dynasty have been interpreted to indicate that a guest star appeared near the southern horn of Taurus, was visible in daylight for 23 days, then slowly faded from night-time visibility over the months. Scholars have analyzed records from many countries for that time period and located a few additional possible accounts of the "new" star, but they are obscure. The event provides clear reminder of the fact that most of human history has not been recorded and even that which has been is very inadequate, often imprecise. Isn't it interesting that such an astonishing phenomenon as the super-brilliant star, appearing where no star had been known before, could go almost unrecorded for the notification of succeeding generations. We wouldn't even have the Chinese record if it were not for the fact that Chinese emperors had to know what was going on in the sky all the time. They were responsible to inform their people of such things, and they had frequent celestial ceremonial tasks to perform in the "Forbidden City" that was carefully laid out upon a cosmic plan. The emperor's astrologers actually did the sky watching, but his rule depended upon their observations and interpretations. In turn, it is said that the lives of the astrologers depended upon the quality of their work.

Even though we can find few convincing records of the great supernova in Taurus, we can be sure the star was seen throughout the world. It would have been seen here in America as well as elsewhere, and scientists have found certain peckings and paintings made on stone by Native Americans that might represent the star. A number of petroglyphs and pictographs have been identified that include symbols thought to show the crescent Moon with a large star next to it. The problem with all of these is that we do not know just when they were made and we certainly can not be sure that they were made to represent the supernova of 1054 rather than something else, the Moon and Venus, for example. So, when we look at these Indian renderings, we should maintain objectivity, realizing that we will never be sure what was intended by those who made the pictures on the rocks.

With this in mind, the most convincing case I am aware of, and certainly the most beautiful of the American Indian renderings that have been labeled "supernova," is found in Chaco Canyon, located in northwest New Mexico. It is a simple painting on an overhanging ledge: a crescent, a many-pointed star, and a hand print; a simple collection of images, all of which have been important to Native American people.

Years ago I made arrangements to spend the night at this Chaco Canyon site to photograph the rock art superimposed upon a starry sky. Weather did not cooperate, but I took photographs anyway: painted Moon, star and hand against a dark clouded sky. For several weeks I thought about what to do with these, then put the film through the camera twice more: once to photograph the Moon so that it would appear in about the right place on the film; again to photograph a light to simulate the star. All of this, I hoped, might replicate a sky that resembled the images on the tiny rock-shelter ceiling. I give the image to you now, and ask you to contemplate its meaning. Does the rock art show the supernova? Might the star symbol be brilliant Venus as frequently seen near the Moon, two of the most important sky objects for the Pueblo People who lived at Chaco Canyon? I would enjoy knowing what you think.

I have returned to that place many times, to look around and wonder. My only conclusion is that it doesn't matter so much what the images were meant to represent. Like most art, it can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. It is beautiful in its simplicity, and part of the beauty is the mystery it has become for us, the enigma of our inability to get inside the head that guided the hands painting the images on the rock. Go out, look around, find Taurus, then imagine the brilliant star near its dim horn. What a Christmas Star within your mind!

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