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HORUS VOL I. Issue 1

Observations of Venus by James I
by Charles Raspil

Discussing the observations of solar eclipses in the Former Han Dynasty of China (206 BC to 23 AD), the eminent historian of astronomy, Robert R. Newton, remarked that "in about a fourth of the records . . ., the date listed is not that of an eclipse visible in China .... further, of all the solar eclipses recorded in the annals of the Han Dynasty ... only four are correct to within a degree of Right Ascension (the expected celestial longitude of the eclipsed sun)..."

Given the reputation for accuracy of ancient Chinese astronomical observations, Newton's remark is surprising. Were these observations of eclipses an accurate description of a past reality? If one examines the entire record of astronomical observations from China and other areas of the world from ancient times through the 20th Century A.D., even more surprises appear. The record teems with anomalies.

In documenting these anomalies it will be shown only that they suggest that episodes of celestial instability have occurred in the past. Questions about the original observer's accuracy I will leave to the reader.

To begin, we will examine an unusual sighting of the planet Venus. The reader is probably aware that the order of the solar system places limits on Venus' sightings from the Earth. First, like a the planets, Venus' celestial latitude now does not deviate more than a few degrees north or south of the ecliptic. Second, because Venus is an inner planet, it never appears to an earthbound observer more than 47" east or west of the Sun. With these parameters in mind, let us look at some past observations of Venus that seem to conflict with present observations.

Because Venus' present orbit is closer to the Sun than the Earth's, and because the planet's orbital plane is roughly parallel to the ecliptic (the Sun's visible annual path through the Zodiac), an earthbound observer will always see the planet near the Sun. Venus will not stray more than about 47" east or west of it, nor more than 3624' north or south of the ecliptic. Further, again because it is in inner planet, our observer can never sight Venus at an angular distance from the Sun of 90 or more.

Yet over the past centuries, Venus' orbit may have deviated from the orbital values we now observe. Let us look at some material that hints of such variations.

The "King's Quair" (King's Poem) is a poem that King James I of Scotland may have composed in 1424 while a prisoner in the Tower of London. The gist of the poem James' Venus-induced reverie - will not concern us here. Rather, we shall concentrate on the poem's first seven lines, the prologue to James' reverie:

"Heigh in the hevynnis figure circulere
The rody sterres twynklyng as the fyre;
And in Aquary, Citherea the clere,
Rynsid hir tressis like the goldin wyre,
That late to fore in fair and fresch atyre
Through Capricorn heved hir hornis bright
North northward approchit the mydnyght."

The first six lines tell us that Venus (Citherea the clere) had passed from the constellation Capricorn into Aquarius. A student of the poem, John Norton-Smith, in order to date its composition precisely, retrocalculated Venus' position for late 1423 and early 1424. By the retrocalculation, it was expected, to have spent the second half of 1423 as the Evening Star, pass inferior conjunction about January 30, 1424, and then appear as the Morning Star on the boundary between Aquarius and Capricorn throughout February, 1424. The first six lines of James' poem do seem to match its expected position reasonably.

But the seventh line, "north northward (Venus) approchit the mydnyght", puzzles Norton-Smith. He asks, what are the meanings of "north northward" and " mydnyght". Continuing his retrocalculation, Norton-Smith finds that during the period Feb. 10-18, 1424, Venus was a little north of the Sun in declination and moving slowly southward. He therefore assumes that "north northward" merely describes its declination north of the Sun.

Researching "mydnyght", Norton-Smith finds that Skeat, a 19th Century commentator on Chaucerian literature, defines it as the line of midnight, the meridian (the observer's zenith). But Norton-Smith must reject Skeat's view. He realizes that on its present orbit, James could not have observed Venus near his zenith at any time during the night (the time of his reverie): Venus' declination would then be about 606 too far north, and its Right Ascension at least 800 too far west of the Sun.

So Norton-Smith looks for another meaning of "mydnyght". He says, ". . . the word may be a kind of poetic variation on the well-attested Middle English use of 'midday" to mean "the south" (compare with Latin meridies)." Using "the south", he can now satisfy the imperatives of retrocalculation: recall that Venus was expected to have moved slightly south between Feb. 10, and Feb. 18, 1424

In Figure 1, Norton-Smith's retrocalculation is used to show how James should have sighted Venus on a night in mid-February, 1424. Notice in the diagram how close Venus is to the Sun, being about 10 west of it at a time just before sunrise.

Thus Venus could be seen only dimly in the half-light of dawn. Yet, James sees to have composed his poem some time before dawn ("the rody sterres twynklyng as the fyre"); and the text describes a visually bright planet ("Citherea the clere", "golden tressis"). Let us suspend Norton-Smith's explanation temporarily and with it the dicta of modern astronomy, and dare to read the first seven lines as James may have intended.

Figure 2 shows how James would have observed Venus if it had moved from Aquarius towards the zenith (located at the declination of London, about 50.5 north). Such a radical difference from Venus' present movement implies, at least, that Venus was not then within her present orbital limits. To have it appear at James' zenith, at least 90 from a Sun still hidden beneath his eastern horizon, Venus could not have been on its present orbit. Its orbital distance from the Sun would have to have differed greatly from the orbital path we see today.

Two descriptions of "Citherea the clere" in James' text not only support the supposition that Venus was then on a different orbit, but also imply that it periodically approached the Earth more closely that it does today.

[*!* Image: Figure 1 - Venus mid-February 1424: the flattened ellipse marked NESW (the cardinal points) is James' viewing horizon at London (latitude 50 N.). J is the position of James, the observer. NCP and SCP are the North Celestial and South Celestial Poles; Z is James' zenith, his overhead point. QQ1 shows the line of the Celestial Equator; VV1 is the path taken by Venus (and the Sun) during a 24 hour period at about 10 south of the Celestial Equator.]

[*!* Image: Figure 2 - Venus as seen by James, taking literally the first 7 lines of his poem. AZB shows the path of an object directly over his head. VV1 shows Venus approaching this path from its position at midnight beneath the horizon. Venus has moved over the southeastern horizon and has headed west and north toward James' zenith.]

In the sixth line, Citherea the clere "through Capricorn heved hir hornig bright." If we translate "hornis bright" as "bright horns", we recall a similar reference to the horns of the crescent Moon. Did Venus appear as a bright crescent in Capricorn after leaving inferior conjunction with the Sun? We know that through a telescope, the planet appears as a crescent following inferior conjunction. But had Venus reached a distance from the earth where her crescent phase would become visible to the naked eye?

Evidently, this possibility also struck Norton-Smith because he quickly seeks a different meaning for "hornis bright" he argues that to translate the term as bright horns would imply that "Citherea the clere" was the Moon, the only celestial object whose crescent phase is visible to the naked eye; yet, the appellation "clere" in James' times always identified Citherea with the planet Venus, not the Moon; and after all, Venus was the only celestial subject of James' poem.

So, Norton-Smith suggests that "hornis" refers to "the elaborate dressing of women's hair in a horn shape, popular at this time. He adds that the text's phrase "in fair and fresche atyre" supports his interpretation. (But why doesn't he mull over the source of this hair style?).

In the fourth line, Citherea the clere "rynsid hir tressis like the goldin wyre." Norton-Smith simply translates "tressis..." as unbound golden hair. the phrase doesn't strike him. But it should strike the readers of Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. They will recall that in his scenarios of Venus' celestial role in the centuries preceding the 7th Century B.C., Velikovsky cited many ancient sources that Venus had a hair-like (the word "comet" is derived from the Greek word for "hair"- see W in C, pp. 163-167.* ) train, a guise that he attributed to the planet's origin as a comet-like proto-planet which entered the solar system in historical times. Did Venus grow new tresses in 1424 because it then varied more in its orbit, or was James' description merely a recollection of Venus' classical description over two millennia before?

In future issues, other historical material that suggests anomalies in the retrocalculated position of Venus will be explored.

*Page numbers refer to Doubleday's hardback edition of >Worlds in Collision (N.Y., 1950).

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