Apocalyptic texts speak of stars falling from heaven. We moderns typically think of individual falling stars hurtling to earth, but the ancients thought of something else. In his Thyestes, Seneca’s Chorus describes the descent of the constellations, a disturbing possibility indeed:

“Trembling, trembling are our hearts, sore smit with fear, lest all things fall shattered in fatal ruin and once more gods and men be o’erwhelmed by formless chaos; lest the lands, the encircling sea, and the stars that wander in the spangled sky, nature blot out once more. No more by the rising of his quenchless torch shall the leader of the stars, guiding the procession of the years, mark off the summer and the winter times; no more shall Luna, reflecting Phoebus’ rays, dispel night’s terrors, and outstrip her brother’s reins, as in scantier space she speeds on her circling path. Into one abyss shall fall the heaped-up throng of gods. The Zodiac, which, making passage through the sacred stars, crosses the zones obliquely, guide and sign-bearer for the slow-moving years, falling itself, shall see the fallen constellations; the Ram, who, ere kindly spring has come, gives back the sails to the warm West-wind, headlong shall plunge into the waves o’er which he had borne the trembling Helle; the Bull, who before him on bright horns bears the Hyades, shall drag the Twins down with him and the Crab’s wide-curving claws; Alcides’ Lion, with burning heat inflamed, once more shall fall down from the sky; the Virgin shall fall to the earth she once abandoned, and the Scales of justice with their weights shall fall and with them shall drag the fierce Scorpion down; old Chiron, who sets the feathered shafts upon Haemonian chord, shall lose his shafts from the snapped bowstring; the frigid Goat who brings back sluggish winter, shall fall and break thy urn, whoe’er thou art; with thee shall fall the Fish, last of the stars of heaven, and the Wain, which was ne’er bathed by the sea, shall be plunged beneath the all-engulfing waves; the slippery Serpent which, gliding like a river, separates the Bears, shall fall, and icy Cynosura, the Lesser Bear, together with the Dragon vast, congealed with cold; and that slow-moving drive of his wain, Arctophylax, no longer fixed in place, shall fall.”

“Have we been deemed deserving that heaven, its poles uptorn, should overwhelm us?” The Chorus asks. “In our time has the last day come?”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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