Every year at the beginning of August we pass through the midpoint of the summer season, a time known as the “cross quarter.” We also pass under the thickest region of Milky Way stars, which makes this month one of the best of the year for stargazing.
The word galaxy comes from the ancient Greek galaxias, the word for milk, in reference to the milky vault of heaven that they believed was splashed across the night sky by the goddess Hera.
In Aristotelian cosmology, the Milky Way was described as the place in the heavens where the celestial and terrestrial spheres came into contact with one another.
And in Ovid’s 8th century narrative poem “Metamorphosis,” he described it as high heaven’s palatine, or palace. In book one he wrote:
There is a high track, seen when the sky is clear, called the Milky Way, and known for its brightness. This way the gods pass to the palaces and halls of the mighty Thunderer. To right and left are the houses of the greater gods, doors open and crowded. The lesser gods live elsewhere. Here the powerful and distinguished have made their home. This is the place, if I were to be bold, I would not be afraid to call high heaven’s Palatine.
On clear nights, the Milky Way is an unmistakable arc across the high heaven, and this week, because the Moon is a waxing crescent, it won’t diminish the best views. From the northeast, the Milky Way arcs up through Cassiopeia, overhead through the Summer Triangle, before it meets the horizon in the South, between the Scorpion and the centaur, Sagittarius. If we were to travel through this region of sky between these two constellations, we would arrive at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, imagined by storytellers as the throne of the highest gods.
Image from Astronomy Magazine.