in our e-book Cherubwheels by H. Peter Aleff
The northern night sky on an ivory cherub
and the spirit in its wheels
1.3. The size of the Cherub
The star charts help you to realize the awe- inspiring size of this Cherub. The carving confines its ivory image to the length and breadth of your hand but does not so limit the spirit that still dwells in its wheels. To experience its stirring magic, look north on a starry spring or summer night. Launch the creature out of its miniature frame and project it onto the stars from which it was made. Then open the eyes of your mind, and you will see the Cherub become the overwhelming celestial apparition it was intended to be, a kin to the cherubim Ezekiel saw.
Like Aladdin’s genie released from its equally small lamp, this Cherub stunningly covers the sky. The hubs of its wheels span the horizon from the prominent pole- pointer stars in the pan end of the Big Dipper to Arcturus, brightest star of the northern sky and faraway extension of the Dipper handle’s long curve. Lift your head, and the vision towers above you all the way up to Arcturus’ near- rival Vega, the brilliant jewel that shines in the Cherub’s crown.
The swath of firmament these Cherub centers cover is 53 degrees wide along the horizon and over 57 degrees high -- an immense astral background appropriate for that heaven- representing and here heaven- spanning creature. The scale matches the vast setting that had impressed Ezekiel:
Seeing the cherubim as creatures composed of stars brings sudden clarity to some other parts of Ezekiel’s description, such as
If you read the “did not turn” in the first of these statements as “did not make a U-turn”, then all these otherwise enigmatic motions make sense when you apply them to northern stars that are centers of their individual Cherub- shaping circles and also lie on the rim of their own daily revolution around the pole.
Some of these stars rise from the ground or horizon, and all circle as on a wheel around the pole in the sky. As they follow their circles, they move in any of the four directions, here projected as right and up and left and down; they also move all together in unison, their “wheels” rise when they rise, all are connected to each other, and none of them ever swerve in their course.
The spirit which imparts direction to the circling stars was for Ezekiel the apparent motion of the sky. This motion would have been to him identical with the force behind it. The ancient Greeks believed that any motion continued only as long as something was pushing or pulling or turning, and it seems safe to assume their Levantine neighbors had long held the same obvious- appearing and experience- confirmed idea.
Though we may now repudiate this ancient error, we should not forget that it is wrong only in our artificial framework of idealized physics with frictionless motion but not in the everyday observable world where moving anything heavy required sustained effort23. The spirit- directed course that the cherubim and their star components followed was thus also the force that kept the firmament going and made the stars turn on their wheels.
Ezekiel’s imagery anticipates here the medieval conception of the world shown in a 14th century French manuscript illumination where two angels stationed at the two ends of the world’s axis each turn a crank handle attached to that axis and so keep it rotating24.
1.4. Matching up star pairs with pairs of Cherub centers
When I first noticed the Big Dipper configuration among the apparent jumble of Cherub center dots, the features that made me pursue my heavens- chart hunch were the closely spaced pairs of circle centers 10 & 11 and 22 & 23. Both pairs are in just the right places relative to the Dipper- like group of centers in the back of the Cherub to correspond to pairs of stars in the real sky.
The stars Kochab and Pherkad that match centers 10 and 11 are slightly farther apart in the sky than on its ivory replica, but they are typically perceived as a pair : the Classical Greeks called them “the two guardians of the pole”, the Romans referred to them as the “two circlers, leapers, or dancers around the pole”, and Arab astronomers knew them as “the two calves”25.
Since the proximity of these two well visible stars, at magnitudes 2.06 and 3.08 in an area without immediate large neighbors, suggested this pairing to so many different people, the Cherub carver, too, may well have put them so close together to show them as a pair.
The other star pair is formed by 2.40- bright Mizar in the bend of the Dipper’s handle and its 4.02- dim companion Alcor. These appear separately as centers 22 and 23 on the Cherub chart but not on the SkyMap because the magnitude- scaled Mizar completely covers the smaller dot for Alcor.
These two stars are so close together that they were often called “the horse and rider”, and Mizar out- shines Alcor so much that seeing them separately was long considered a test for good eyesight26. Their proximity on the Cherub chart is therefore an accurate reflection of their pairing in the sky.
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