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35 Robert Burnham, Jr.: “Burnham’s Celestial Handbook ...”, cited above, Volume 3, pages 1974 to 1977.



36 Kholopov et al., 4th edition, 1985 to 1988, as cited by the author of the SkyMap Pro software.



37 Bob Berman: “Magnitude cum laude -- Graduate to a better understanding of how to measure a star’s brightness”, Astronomy, December 1998, pages 92 to 95, see page 94 for shadow from Venus.



38 Anthony F. Aveni: “The Star of Bethlehem -- was it a celestial event, a supernatural phenomenon, or a story made up by Matthew?”, Archaeology, November/ December 1998, pages 35 to 38.



39 Solomon J. Schepps, editor: “The Lost Books of the Bible”, Bell Publishing, New York, 1979, see “The Protevangelium” (Gospel ascribed to James, brother of Jesus), XV:2 to 10, page 35 left. This Gospel is said to have been written sometime after 150 CE.



40 David Lewis: “We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific”, University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1972, see Chapter 2: “Steering by the stars”, pages 45 to 82.



41 Paul J. Achtemeyer, editor: “Harper’s Bible Dictionary”, Harper and Row, New York, 1985, pages 322 (frankincense), 352 (gold), and 672 (myrrh).







  The northern night sky on an ivory cherub


and the spirit in its wheels   


1.7. A nova explosion on the Cherub chart?

Cherub center 26 looks at first sight like a riddle in the reverse direction because it corresponds to an arc on the carving but has no visible counterpart in the sky. However, this “excess” center has also a possible, though currently not confirmable, explanation.

Move about a finger’s width to the left of that center 26 on the carving, about as far as the center for Thuban is shifted to the left, then look at the corresponding spot in the sky. There is nothing visible now, even with good binoculars, but that may not always have been the case.

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook says that midway between Mizar and Alkaid, in the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, lies the “remarkable dwarf eclipsing binary star” Ux Ursae Majoris35 (Ux may be short for Latin “uxor”, meaning “wife”).

The current magnitude of Ux varies from 12.7 to 13.8, much too faint for naked- eye astronomy. Burnham says you need a good eight- to ten- inch reflector telescope if you want to gaze at that little speck.  The “wife of the big bear” you can see through these instruments remained therefore hidden far beyond the ancient limits of observation -- except if or when the now hibernating Ux came alive and flared up as a nova.

This seems to have happened at some time in the past because Ux belongs to the “NL” class of variable stars which the General Catalog of Variable Stars36 describes as follows:

Novalike variables, which are insufficiently studied objects resembling novae by the characteristics of their light changes or by spectral features. This type includes, in addition to variables showing novalike outbursts, objects with no bursts ever observed; the spectra of nova- like variables resemble those of old novae, and small light changes resemble those typical for old novae at minimum light.”

A nova is a star that explodes with thermonuclear burst processes in the surface layers, as opposed to a supernova where that bursting occurs deep inside.

The exploding component in the double-star system of a nova is, according to the same Catalog:

“a hot dwarf star that suddenly, during a time interval from one to several dozen or several hundred days, increases its brightness by 7 to 19 magnitudes, then returns gradually to its former brightness over several months, years, or decades."

This makes the hypothesis tempting that Ux may have gone nova sometime in the ninth century BCE and lingered long enough in the visible magnitudes to get incorporated into the Cherub’s star chart.

If this was the case, and if Ux stayed within the above magnitude increase range, the ancients would have seen it with an apparent brightness that could have ranged from a barely visible 5.7, fainter than any of the other stars on the Cherub chart, to a super-brilliant – 6.3.

The latter extreme would have made Ux much more eminent than Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky with a magnitude of – 1.5, and up to 40 times brighter than even Venus in its most glorious phases. Venus can attain a brightness of  – 4.  When it does, it  reflects enough sunlight to cast on dark nights a faint shadow on light surfaces37

If the postulated nova reached or exceeded the prominence of the major stars in its visual vicinity, the apparition of such a new celestial body in the long familiar Big Dipper would not have escaped the ancient observers, and it might account for the otherwise unexplained presence of center 26.

The lateral discrepancy of about a finger’s width between that center 26 and the actual location of Ux in the Big Dipper’s handle might reflect the artist’s awareness that this new star did not belong to the Dipper group and could therefore be manipulated independently.

Astronomy and physics seem to offer currently no method for testing whether or when Ux flared, and how brightly if it did. No one can predict if archaeology might provide an answer, but it would be an interesting research project to systematically screen the many other circle-composed images of heavenly beings from those and earlier times to determine if some among them contain similar star charts, and if yes, which ones if any appear to include a similar record of Ux.

1.8. A speculation about the “Cherub nova” as star of Bethlehem

The hypothesis that Cherub center 26 might be a snapshot of Ux as a nova invites a speculation about a possible echo of its postulated explosion.

No direct account of that nova has been found, but the memory of this rare event could well reverberate in the famous story about the star of Bethlehem which had suddenly appeared to guide the “astrologers from the east” to Jerusalem.

The many conjectures that have been proposed for this apparition include exploding supernovae38. If a bright nova is an equally valid candidate, then a northern location would have filled the traditional traveler-guiding function better than the purported “star at its rising” (Matthew 2:9) which those sages are said to have followed.

In another early account of the same event, the “Infancy Gospel of James”, the “wise men from the east” say similarly “we have seen his star in the east”.  That “extraordinary large star” which “so outshined all the other stars as that they became not visible” preceded them until they came to the child in the cave39.

The writers of these Gospels seem to have been confused about the directions because people who travel by the stars typically use the northern stars as their steadily visible and easily recognized orientation guides.  When they need more precision in other directions, e.g. as the Pacific Islanders do for their precise landfalls over immense distances, they pick a sequence of “steering stars" that rise or set in succession at about the same point on the horizon; then they follow these one after the other before each one rises too high to be useful or has not yet sunk low enough before setting40.

Traveling towards always the same non-northern star would have made the wise men go eastward all evening, take a lengthy break around midnight while the star was overhead, and then retrace their steps westward till dawn as the star continued its course towards the setting horizon. They would never have gotten very far that way, and they might not have qualified as wise.

Furthermore, although the gifts they brought -- gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- were also available far to the east in India, these items came more typically from Arabia, much nearer and in the south41. The star followers would therefore have traveled more plausibly from south to north in the original account. 

It appears therefore that the authors of Matthew and James may have recycled a by then centuries-old miraculous motif from garbled tales, and this may be the reason why they had the visitors trekking so implausibly to meet a rising star, simultaneously to and from the east.


The following versions of Matthew's account about the star of Bethlehem, in Greek and English, are scanned from Aaron Adair: "The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View", Onus Books, Lightningsource, 2013, English translation by Aaron Adair.

Note particularly verse 9: "After hearing the king [Herod], they left for their journey [from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem], and lo! The Star which they had seen at the rising of the sun led them on until it arrived and stood over the place where the child was."

This means the star, which had risen in the East but then somehow led the Magi westward from Persia to Jerusalem and waited there during their audience with Herod. Then it moved southward to Bethlehem and stood still over the house where they would find the child. This sequence of motions is not possible for a star or planet or comet or any other celestial object.



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