Astronomy and Halloween
Halloween, once the eve of the pagan fall festival of Samhain, is celebrated on the last day of the
month. In olden times it marked when the sun was midway between the autumnal equinox and
the winter solstice.
Samhain was a particularly auspicious day for the ancient Celts--the start of their winter season
and the only day of the year when the dead could revisit the living. On this night in ancient
Ireland, a new and sacred fire was kindled, from which all the fires of Ireland would be lit. This
tradition, which was believed to ward off evil spirits, is retained in our country bonfires and
front porch jack-o'-lanterns.
That name itself comes from the old Irish tale that tells of a stingy man named Jack, who,
barred from Heaven for his penuriousness and barred from Hell for his practical jokes on the
Devil, was condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day.
In the Middle Ages, the church attempted to root out the paganism associated with the Samhain
festival by naming November 1 All Saints' Day (Allhallows), and November 2 All Souls' Day.
Mumming (actors performing in disguises) was popular, and the poor went begging for "sweet
soul cakes," which would be given as payment for prayers they promised to say for the dead.
They chanted: "Soul, Soul, for a souling cake, I pray, good missus, a souling cake. Apple or pear
or plum or cherry, Anything good to make us merry." The alternative, one supposes, would
make them mad. This may be the origin of the current trick or treat, along with the costuming
and general mischievousness. One might also note that the prayers have been forgotten
altogether, not to mention the astronomy.
The Planets in October
Mercury is difficult to spot this month if your horizon is obstructed. In the latter part of the
month, look for the planet low in the west in early evening. The path the planet traces through
the sky is at present at a very low angle to the horizon. On the evening of the 27th, the planet
can be found just below and to the right of the thin crescent of the two-day-old moon.
Venus finally emerges from the solar glare, gleaming brilliantly at -4.0 magnitude, low in the
southwest after sundown. On the 27th, look for Venus just above the red star Antares in the
heart of Scorpio. On the 28th, you'll find Venus near the threeday-old crescent moon, which
will be to the left of the planet, the two of them forming a stunning sight.
Mars rises in the late evening, easily found high above the left shoulder of the great
constellation Orion, not far from the twin stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini. By morning, this
threesome is high in the southern sky. Look for Homer's "bloodstained, murderous god of war"
just 3 degrees north of the waning gibbous moon on the 18th.
Jupiter emerges from the morning twilight glow and can be seen low in the east before sunrise.
This gas giant is now found between Regulus in Leo and Spica in Virgo, closer to the latter star.
Saturn, a showpiece in early evening skies as a lone luminary in the southern sky after sunset,
sets just after midnight. Found amid the fainter stars of the constellation Capricornus, Saturn
remains the brightest object in a somewhat subdued area of midevening constellations.
Uranus and Neptune remain in Sagittarius, gradually leaving the evening scene as they move
toward the evening twilight glow along with the rest of the summertime stars. With binoculars
or a small telescope, look for them low in the southwest at sundown. Consult a star map in one
of the popular astronomy magazines for the exact positions of these distant planets. On the 3d
the moon passes above these two blue-green worlds.
The Orionid meteor shower occurs on the night of the 21st. This is usually the third most
reliable shower of the year, after the Perseids of August and the Geminids of December. The
Orionids can average anywhere from ten to seventy meteors an hour. As is the case with all
meteors, what we are seeing is the debris left behind in the path of a comet, a small amount of
which encounters the earth and burns up in its atmosphere (in this case the debris comes from
Halley's comet). The meteors will be seen best in the hours just before moonrise all over the
sky, although the radiant, the point where they appear to originate, is located in the
constellation Orion. This is predicted to be a particularly good year for the Orionid meteors.
The Moon reaches first quarter on the 3d at 10:12 a.m., EDT; full moon is on the 11th at 2:03
p.m., EDT; last-quarter moon is on the 19th at 12:12 a.m., EDT; and new moon is on the 25th at
3:34 p.m., EST.
October's full moon is traditionally called the hunter's moon. It follows the harvest moon
which occurs either in late September or in early October and is the full moon closest to the
autumnal equinox. For a few days before and after these two full moons, the moon's rise tends
to be earlier in the evening than usual. People who worked the land before electric
lighting were able to continue their harvesting and hunting past sunset.