Late summer is absolutely the best time to observe the summer Milky Way, which stretches from horizon to horizon as a convoluted streak of purest light just after the sky gets completely dark in the early evening.
The streak is, of course, the unresolved glow of the more distant stars in our galaxy, which is also called, somewhat confusedly, the Milky Way. The galaxy is more than just the streak. The Milky Way also consists of all the stars you see, the Earth you stand upon, and also, come to think of it, you.
The simple truth is that for virtually all of human history, people had not a clue what the streak of light really is. That fact was bought home to me 15 years ago. At that time, I had my best experience of the Milky Way, and I had it, weirdly, indoors.
I was on a trip to Egypt, where I was traveling with teachers and students from my daughter Krishni’s school, Columbus Alternative High School.
Of course, I wanted to see the Pyramids at Giza and all that jazz, but my real reason for traveling 7,000 miles was to see a rather supple 3,200-year-old young lady painted and carved on the ceilings of some of the tombs of the ancient pharaohs in Egypt’s renowned Valley of the Kings.
The ancient Egyptians believed that death was just a passage into another life. Thus, the bodies of pharaohs were carefully embalmed. With them in the tombs and pyramids were placed the household furnishings and other goods they would need to live in the world beyond. On the interior walls of the tombs, they carved and painted images of their over 730 gods.
The particular reason for my Egyptian odyssey was to see Nut (pronounced “newt”), Egyptian goddess of the sky. During the 20th Egyptian Dynasty, circa 1200 B.C., she was often depicted as an enormous human arch. The tips of her fingers touch the floor and her arms stretch upward along the wall. Her head and midsection are on the ceiling and her legs arc downward to her toes, which touch the ground on the opposite wall to her arms.
She stretches, in other words, like a band of color and light from floor to ceiling and back again. She looks very much like the personification of night sky’s most spectacular denizen, the Milky Way, the band of unresolved stars that stretch from horizon to horizon across the top of the sky during the late Egyptian (and our) summer.
Despite her nocturnal reputation, Nut dominates the day, as well. It is she who gives birth to the sun, her son, every morning. During the day, the sun is rolled along her body by the dung beetle, or scarab, until it reaches her mouth. The sun disappears at night because she, well, eats it. Over the course of the night, it works its way through her body. It reappears in the morning because she gives birth to it again, as she has since the beginning of time.
Over 1,200 years earlier than the pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptian rulers built giant pyramids to act as their temporary resting places. Deep within the Great Pyramid is the burial chamber of the Pharaoh Khufu, who ruled the great Egyptian empire around 2500 B.C.
Rising from Khufu’s burial chamber is a tiny shaft nine inches square that works its way to the northern face of the pyramid. Through this passage would rise the spirit of the reborn king, upward to a point corresponding almost exactly to the pole star, the eternal star that never sets below the horizon.
The pharaohs were considered gods, and the many gods of ancient Egypt lived among the stars. If the pharaohs wanted to achieve eternal life, they had to pass through and into the goddess Nut.
They were required to sue for her protection during the long journey up to their final, celestial home. Thus, we still see her image painted upon the ceilings and walls. Thus, we see her likeness carved on the inside lid of the pharaohs’ stone sarcophagi. While the dead pharaoh lies in his stone coffin, he gazes at and prays to “the great protectress,” as Nut was sometimes called.
And thus we see carved upon the walls of the ancient pyramids in the mysterious hieroglyphs of those days a prayer to the goddess sky, the great stream of the Milky Way, that ought to resonate in the hearts of everyone who, to this day, gains succor and courage from the beauty of the night:
“Oh great one who has become the sky! You have filled every place with your beauty. The whole earth lies beneath you, and you have taken possession of it. You have embraced the earth and everything therein within your arms.”
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.