Despite my name—the second-century Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy is perhaps the world’s most celebrated astronomer—I’ve never been all that bright about the stars. This was always something of a disappointment to my father, who gave me my name because he held the ancient world’s stargazers in such high esteem. Especially during our winters down in Florida when I was a kid, he loved to take me out behind our house and show me the constellations.
Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor... I’d follow my father’s hand as he traced one group of stars after another. But somehow they never stayed clear in my head. Despite all those high-sounding names my father gave them, one group looked, to me, very much like another.
With one exception. There was one star in all those wheeling constellations that stood out. Not for anything it did, but rather for something it didn’t do. This was Polaris, the North Star—also known as the polestar. Night after night, year after year, my father explained to me, the polestar always stayed in the same place. In a world where everything moved, it alone stood still.
I was far from the first person down on earth to be impressed by this fact. Centuries ago—when my namesake Claudius Ptolemy’s model still dictated how people saw the world—everyone felt a sense of awe when they looked up at Polaris. According to the Ptolemaic model (which survived up to the sixteenth century) the earth lay at the center of the universe. The moon and the stars and the planets, in turn, were not the free-floating objects we understand them as today, but were believed to be embedded like jewels in a series of concentric spheres or heavens. The earth sat at the center of this series of transparent spheres, like the figure in the center of a Russian nesting doll.
These heavenly worlds revolved. Like the angels who lived among them, the stars and planets were living, angelic entities themselves. Their very movement was powered by their love for God, who was both above and beyond the universe altogether, and, paradoxically, the axis around which they revolved, like horses in a huge, cosmic merry-go-round. In the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, God was “the still point of the turning world.” He was the center around which all things in the universe moved, and the power that ultimately drove them.
And at the very top of this turning universe, like the star atop a Christmas tree strung with celestial lights, was Polaris. Each night in the ancient world, when the stars emerged, Polaris would remind all who looked up to admire it exactly where they were—both physically, and spiritually.
Polaris was, in the words of religion scholar Henry Corbin, the “heavenly north.” Just as mariners used the stars to orient themselves physically, so could one use the sight of the polestar twinkling above each night as a spiritual orientation point.
Down on earth—or the “sublunary world,” as it was called—life was often random and accidental. You never quite knew what was going to happen next. But the farther up you moved in the Ptolemaic universe, the less of a role did chance or accident play. Things got ever more orderly, ever more pure.
That’s one reason we think of Santa Claus as coming from the North Pole. Santa, with his ability to know the thoughts of every child and satisfy every Christmas wish, is an embodiment of divine knowledge and generosity: the kind of knowledge and generosity that naturally comes from the “heavenly north.”
It’s hard for us today to appreciate just how vivid and real this vision of the universe was to those who lived within it. In the days when the Ptolemaic model still held sway, everyday, uninspired terms like “up” and “down,” “north” and “south” had an almost unimaginably powerful spiritual dimension to them.
And the sky, in this view, is not a cold, interstellar wasteland, but a grand piece of celestial architecture, filled with angelic lights and intelligences. People looked up at the heavens in those days in much the same awed and admiring way that the tourists I see every day here in New York City crane their necks up at the celestial map on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal. As Lewis wrote: “Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon the dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the medieval model you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is ‘outside the city wall. When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life.”
Of course, Claudius Ptolemy’s map of the cosmos is no longer valid. It was overturned, in the sixteenth century, by that of another dedicated stargazer named Nicolaus Copernicus. In the Copernican model of the universe the earth is no longer at the center of things. Nor does it lie at the universe’s lowest point. In fact, there no longer is a lowest point in the universe—or a highest point either. When we look up at the night sky now, we don’t see the ornate and godly structure the ancients did, but something that, while no less stupendous, seems nowhere near so consolingly ordered and homey. As the modern poet James Wright put it, we see “stars in a wilderness of stars.”
Even Polaris itself has lost its old, unmoving status. It has—very slowly—been in motion too, it turns out. According to current predictions, in a few thousand years it will have drifted from its central position and will no longer appear unmoving to us on earth.
Does this mean we have to abandon those old, inspiring views of the universe as a place of stability, harmony and order? Not at all. Physically, we may not live in the same kind of universe that those who came before us did. But spiritually, we do. In fact, in some ways, the new and larger universe we now inhabit is even more awe—and faith—inspiring than the old one. As historian Richard Tarnas, writing of the Copernican revolution, recently put it: to suddenly realize that “the great Earth itself, the most stationary and immovable entity in the cosmos, was in fact moving freely through space, must have filled the mind and spirit with an awe seldom known in human history.”
In the epitaph he penned for himself two millennia ago, Claudius Ptolemy wrote: “I know I am mortal, a creature of the day. Yet in spirit I accompany the wandering stars as they circle round the Pole.”
We are all wandering stars. And God remains the pole, the still point—no less powerful for being invisible—around which we turn.