“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you.”
These are the opening lines to the song “When You Wish Upon A Star”, written in the 1940’s for Disney’s movie Pinnochio. The idea that meteor showers, or shooting stars, are lucky or can grant wishes is an idea that has permeated certain cultures for centuries. Other civilizations have attributed negative aspects, such as bad omens, with so-called ‘falling stars’. With no way to explain these natural occurrences, ancient cultures gave superstitious or supernatural rationalizations for these specks of falling light in the sky. No matter what the connotation, one thing is certain – human being are fascinated with these beautiful displays of astral light.
One of the most famous meteor showers, the Perseid, has been observed for approximately the last 2000 years, peaking around August 9-14 and delivering as many as 60 spectacular meteors per hour. The shower receives its name from the fact that it appears to originate from the constellation Perseus. In ancient Greek mythology, Perseus was the hero son of the god Zeus, famous for the slaying of the Gorgon monster Medusa, whose gaze turned any mortal into stone. The ancient Europeans called the Perseid shower the “Tears of St. Lawrence”, after a Roman Catholic Saint who was martyred on August 10, 258. The date is significant because it coincides with the peak of the Perseid shower. (Source – QSL.net )
Another early Christian idea was that the fireball was actually an angel who had turned away from God and been cast out of Heaven. Other cultures saw the stars as human souls, with the falling star representing a person’s death. This idea is held in Romania, where stars are candles lit by the gods at ones birth and blown out at their death. The falling star is the soul’s journey to the afterlife. This idea is also prevalent in the Teutonic mythology of central Europe, where the soul is a star attached to the ceiling of the sky. In this myth, fate would snip the thread at the end of a life and the star would fall.
Occasionally pieces of these brilliant meteors make it past our atmosphere, falling to the ground as meteorites. If one were to follow the path of the shooting star, one might stumble across the crater left by the meteorite, glazed with a glassy substance. The ancient Greeks saw meteor rocks as powerful talismans from their sky gods, and believed that finding one would bring a year of good luck (thus the idea of ‘wishing upon a star’ was born). Temples throughout the ancient Mediterranean held meteor rocks inside as sacred objects.
Many other cultures venerated these rare rocks from the heavens as well, such as the Native Americans. Their shamans, or medicine men, sometimes wore the rocks as sacred amulets, and passed them down through the generations. The Black Stone of the Ka’baa is another meteorite held sacred. In Islam, Jewish, and Christian faiths it is believed to have been sent from Heaven to Abraham and now resides in a holy mosque in Mecca. (Source – SacredMists)
The Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first to use science rather than religion or myth to explain meteors. He speculated around 350BC that meteors were akin to lightning, merely hot and dry streams of wind that had risen from the dry land and been warmed by the sun, creating streaks of “fire” as they rose towards the heavens. He believed that their upwards momentum created friction and caused the particles to burst into flames. It was not until 1833 that people began to understand that meteors were small particles in space colliding with our atmosphere. This was around the time that Newton had discovered gravity, and scientists were beginning to understand that the Earth was rotating very rapidly and that anything which hit the atmosphere would be destroyed. (Source – Cambridge.org)
Regardless of how they are viewed, meteor showers are a sight to behold. And perhaps mankind needs the myths and legends, the ideas of the divine or the holy, to remind them that there is a huge world out there and that all things are fleeting. With almost every month of the year holding a meteor shower, chances are that one can be viewed soon. So grab a coat and step outside, and watch the gorgeous display that the heavens have provided!