The earth passes through nearly a thousand tons of debris from outer space every day on its orbit around the sun. This celestial trash bombards Earth's atmosphere at a rate of more than a million particles an hour. When these interplanetary pieces, or meteors -- most of which are no bigger than an apple seed -- collide with molecules of air at high altitudes, they burn up in a bright flash and vaporize.
On any average night, away from urban light, five or six such fiery space fragments appear as shooting or falling stars every hour. When our annual revolution takes us through zones heavily littered with disintegrated comet trash, we see the spectacular sky shows called meter showers.
On the evenings of August 11 and 12, weather permitting, we will be able to see the Perseid meteor showers -- the year's best with up to 60 meteors per hour at their peak. The moon will set before midnight both nights, so won't obscure the spectacular show. For best viewing, look to the northeast after midnight.
Throughout time, people have attached special significance to meteors. The Aborigines of Queensland, Australia thought that they were rope ladders by which the dead climb up to the sky. Finns and Hungarians, as well as the tribes of the Baltic region and Central Asia, thought of meteors as "fire serpents." Ancient Syrians thought that meteors were the goddess Astarte descending from heaven into the arms of Her lover. In some Islamic tales, falling stars are described as demons that try to reach heaven but are repelled by the angels.
Meteors that actually manage to penetrate the earth's atmosphere and fall to the surface are called meteorites, derived from the Greek, meaning, "presents from the air." Only about 150 meteors a year accomplish this feat. Over time they have been labeled, "moonstones," "sky stones," "lightning stones," "thunder stones" and "air stones," message gifts all, from the deities on high. Due to their rarity, meteorites which land on Earth have always been collected and held in great esteem, often as spiritual talismans of great power and portent.
Eskimos and Aleutian Islanders wore them as good luck charms. The Skidi Pawnee people of the American Great Plains considered meteorites to be gifts from the Great Spirit, Tirawahat. When someone was fortunate enough to find a sky stone, it was used as the centerpiece of a meteorite bundle. This is a buckskin bag filled with special ceremonial power objects, which the finder has learned about in a dream. Once the bundle has been made, it is kept as a tribal sacred object of protection and passed down through the generations.
A meteorite was found in the place of honor in an Indian burial mound in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, and another, wrapped in linen, was buried in the center of a prehistoric temple in Chihuahua, Mexico. In ancient Japan, meteorites were offered at the Temple of the Goddess Shokujo who was the patroness of household skills. She was thought to use these rocks from the sky to steady her weaving loom.
The oldest images of Cybele, the Mother Goddess of Anatolia, were in the form of meteorites, which were regarded as abodes of the goddess. Pessinus, the center of the cult of Cybele in Phyrgia featured a black meteorite that was worshipped as the Goddess, Herself. A meteorite from Neolithic times was once the centerpiece of the headdress worn by the statue of the Goddess Diana at Ephesus in Turkey. It is now on view at the Liverpool City Museum in England.
A meteorite, a "Zeus-fallen thing," was kept in the Temple of Venus in Cyprus and another one in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. In Rome, a piece of sky iron, regarded as a heavenly shield upon which the tenuous security of the state depended, was cared for and guarded by a special order of priests.
The most famous holy meteorite is called the Black Stone, Hadshar al Aswad. Mounted in silver, it sits in the place of honor in the Ka'aba, the sacred shrine at Mecca, and is circumambulated by all Muslems who make The Hajj, the requisite holy pilgrimage there. The sacred stone has a vulvic-shaped cleft suggesting ancient pre-Islamic goddess worship. It is attended by a cadre of men called the Sons of the Old Woman.
In 1984 Roberta Score, then a research assistant at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, discovered a 4.5 pound meteorite while on an expedition to Antarctica. The cantaloupe-sized stone is one of only 12 rocks on Earth identified as having had its origin on Mars. It contains tiny golden particles that are thought to be fossilized microscopic organisms, pointing to the possibility of long-ago life on the red planet. This time, the message from the gods is that Earth is not unique in the universe. That there is/was life beyond. And especially, the humbling reminder that it is all not about us.
The chances of happening upon a fallen meteor are slim, but we do have a super opportunity to view them showering. Go outside after midnight Sunday and Monday. Find a dark place (which I realize is a tough assignment, but that's another article.) Bring a blanket and settle in for a glimpse of the glory of the planets. Make a wish upon a shooting star and celebrate the wonder and awe of it all.
"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of (sic) man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
- Jack London