Lights Will Guide You Home

Lights will guide you home..

Ever since the dawn of mankind, we have looked up to the stars in the sky for inspiration. We have looked up at them in the good old nights bereft of artificial lights, and spun up tales and legends aplenty. Tales of the Seven Sisters, water bearers and the twins spawned across the various cultures around the globe under different names. But the idea was all the same. In the nights long before the times of silly soap operas and reality shows, this was how the people of the ancient era kept themselves entertained. Some bored person looked up at the stars one fine night and conjured up a few stories. And then a few people agreed to these tales. And then by word of mouth, these stories got around and probably got twisted and several times in between to become the stories that we know of, but the idea was not lost. It wasn’t just for stories that we looked up to the stars. We looked up to them to go about exploring new lands as well. Because these stars served as beacons or landmarks. We looked up to them to navigate our way through the seas to go explore unchartered territories.

Using the night-sky for navigation has been the oldest method of navigation in the book.

First used by the famous Phoenicians traders of Ancient Greece way back in 600BC, who used it to navigate their way through the Mediterranean and around the African coast, celestial navigation proved to be a vital tool for navigation even after the invention of the compass and other modern navigational tools. Celestial navigation doesn’t hold a lot of significance in the modern 21st Century navigation, but having a good understanding of the night sky is still considered a valuable asset for pilots and sailors in case of emergency situations. There aren’t a lot of explorers who used this method ever since the medieval times, but there was one famous explorer in the 20th Century who used the archaic methods of celestial navigation to make voyages around the Pacific merely using these methods. A famous Micronesian explorer Mau Piailug completed a famous voyage all the way from the island of Tahiti to New Zealand without the use of any navigational equipment. He navigated over 4,000 km using nothing but his knowledge of the night sky and the ocean. So how did he manage to do it?

The basic idea of celestial navigation involves the use of a few popular stars in night sky. The most popular one of course being the Polaris which points in the direction of North. It is an extremely useful tool in determining your latitude as the angle the star makes with respect to its position in the sky helps is equivalent to the latitude. So the if you’re in the North Pole, you’d notice the Polaris to be right above your head, and would start to move closer to the horizon as we move towards the Equator. But of course, the Polaris is a star that is only visible in the Northern Hemisphere. What about the Southern Hemisphere? The South Pole has no true zenith star from which direct readings of south latitude may be taken. As a proxy, the southern celestial pole lies at the end of that imaginary line extended southward through Gacrux and Acrux, which are stars present in the constellation of Crux popularly known as the Southern Cross, at a distance about 4.5 times the distance between them.

Southern cross
The Southern Cross

Mau’s navigator training was historically interwoven with culture and ritual. This navigation relies on no single technique but instead synthesizes position from various inputs. These inputs include physical signals from the sea, skies, and stars, memory signals from his knowledge of star, swell, and wind compasses.

And the “compass” he carried was not magnetic but a mental model of where various islands are located along the way and the star points that one could use to navigate between them. This mental model would have taken years for him to build; dances, chants and stories help him to recall complex relationships of geography and location. The stars give him highly reliable position information when visible. He used to represent the stars in the sky with pebbles, shells, or pieces of coral, representing stars, laid on the sand in a circular pattern. The bits of shell or coral that are chosen to represent the stars and, larger pieces are used for points of the compass while smaller pieces represent important stars between those points. In Mau’s star compass, these points are not necessarily equidistant. The outer circular formation represents the horizon, with the canoe its center point. The eastern half of the circle depicts reference stars’ rising points on the horizon called the tan while the western half depicts their setting points called tupul.

Mau’s Compass

To steer the ship in the ocean, he selects a star and keeps the canoe pointed toward it. Should it become cloud-blocked, or rise too high in the sky, he selects another star but offsets his reference to remain true to the first, or steers at the same relative angle to the swell as when steering toward the star. So in that manner he uses only the conventional knowledge of the night sky and puts it to good effect to navigate his way through 4,000 km of the vast Pacific Ocean.

And that’s the way it has been for thousands of years of mankind. They’ve always looked up to the skies for inspiration, for relief. To guide them home. It was the stories of the stars that people used to remember its positions and names. And the light that the stars radiated from far, far away guided them home on the cold, dark night..


Amal Mohan

Third Year, MME

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