Having demolished a sizeable badger between them, Ig and Ug were feeling replete. Ug sat staring into the dying embers of their fire while Ig lay on his back gazing at the stars, which formed a brilliant jewelled tapestry above them, undimmed by light pollution (whatever that is).
“Have you ever noticed,” Said Ig, half to himself, “that some of the stars seem to make shapes?”
“Can’t say I have.” said Ug, giving the embers a stir with the butt of his spear.
“Yeah, look at this for example. If you draw some lines from one star to another, then it would look just like a big ladle.”
“What’s a ladle?”
“You know, it’s one of those things that Og made to drink water out of.”
“Oh yeah. Can’t see what was wrong with drinking out of your hands myself”
“Never mind that. Just look; you can see the shape of one made up of stars.”
“There.” Ig points out the seven stars that make up the shape of the Plough, but he couldn’t call it that because ploughs hadn’t yet been invented.
“Oh yeah. I see what you mean. Can I ˊave a go.”
“Why not. It’s a free savannah.”
And thus was the constellation invented, one of the least scientific concepts known to mankind.
“Well, let me see.” Ug said, straining his eyes to pick out some of the dimmer stars. “Oh yes. There you are. That group there. They look like a scorpion.”
“You’re ˊavin a laugh. I can’t see that.”
“Look.” Ug takes the butt of his spear and copies the group of stars by making marks in the dust on the ground with the point of his spear. He then traces a line to join up the marks. “There, see. There’s its head and there’s its body and there’s its tail with a sting on the end of it.”
“Oh yeah. You’re right. Let’s see what I can make.” He gazes up at the stars and then starts to make marks on the ground. They spent an evening doing this, giving each shape a name, whiling away the hours until they felt tired enough to sleep.
“And this one.” Concluded Ug, “is a virgin.”
“Now you’re just being silly.” Ig scoffed, pulling his furs around him and settling down for the night.
“The Gods have shown me a way to tell the future.” High Priest Shab commented, watching the King out of the corner of his eye to see how he would react.
“Oh yeah. Is that like how they told you the sky was going to go dark in the middle of the day because the sun would disappear?”
“Well, it happened didn’t it?”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell us you knew it was going to happen until after it had happened. There’s lots of things you seem to have been told by the Gods were going to happen, but you neglected to mention them until after they happened.”
“Sorry. I can’t remember everything all the time. The Gods tell me a lot of things. Some of them are more important than others.”
“The flood that washed away Old Gadger’s hut would seem to be important. You told us you knew about that after it happened.”
“Old Gadger isn’t important. Not in the great scheme of things.”
The King gave a sigh, knowing it would be fruitless to argue the point any further. “OK. So tell us what the Gods have told you about foretelling the future.”
“Well, it’s all about the stars. You know that they move around.”
“Yes, you showed us that and all that incomprehensible maths stuff that showed that it took them three hundred and sixty five days to get back to where they started, so you called that a year. And the same for the sun to return to rise over the big rock we stuck in the ground so you could measure the time it took, and that the moon came and went thirteen times a year.” The King finished his rant but muttered under his breath “You’re a right boring clever dick.”
High Priest Shab heard the slight but decided to ignore it. “Yes. And you know that some of the planets move more than others, and they’re the ones I called The Wanderers (Greek Planētēs, but it’s another 7,000 years before the Greek language will be invented).”
“Will you just get to the point.” King Sheb snapped irritably.
“Sorry. Well, if you plot where The Wanderers are against the constellations behind them, the Gods have told me how I can use that to foretell the future.”
“And what does the future hold for us?” King Sheb tried unsuccessfully to keep the scorn from being heard in his voice.
Shab ignored him again. “Well, next week a great disaster will happen.”
“Oh, and what disaster might that be?”
“Well, it’s not that easy to say. The stars only guide, they don’t decide.”
“So what if disaster is going to strike? There’s not much I can do about it.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Let’s say it’s a disaster that could be avoided. If you don’t do something about it then the villagers might not trust you to be King anymore, especially if they were to find out you knew about it and then did nothing. They might decide they needed a new King, one that heeded the warnings of the Gods.”
“How would they find that out?” Realisation struck. The villagers would no doubt hear it from the Gods, via the High Priest Shab “Ah, yes. I see what you mean. So what sort of disaster do you think might happen.”
“The people of Shiraq, the place we attacked and took all their food, may want to get their own back. Maybe they’ll attack us.”
“Do you think they might?”
“It’s quite likely. They’ve never liked us much and now they positively hate us.”
“So what can I do about that?”
“You get our retaliation in first and attack them before they can attack us.”
“Seems logical. And that will avert the disaster, will it?” The King found himself believing it despite his scepticism about pretty much anything Shab said.
“For us it will; not for the people of Shiraq though. But of course the stars carry the same message for them. It’s not our fault that they can’t interpret it the way I can.”
King Sheb nodded his head wisely. “OK. We’ll do it. Will you be coming with us this time?” Of course King Sheb already knew the answer to that question. High Priest Shab was never around when the spears and arrows were flying.
“A very wise decision, My King, but no, I won’t be able to come with you; I’ve got horoscopes to cast and sacrifices to make to the Gods to ensure the success of your mission. You understand, I’m sure. Oh, while you’re there,” The Reverend Shab wheedled, “Could you pick me up a few virgins for the temple.”
“Your Majesty,” Phillop The Astrologer replied. “I have cast your horoscope. It is written in the stars. This great Armada of yours will destroy the English fleet. Your soldiers will throw the heretic Queen Elizabeth off the throne of England and you shall take your rightful place and return that God forsaken country to the loving bosom of Rome.”
“Yes, but horoscopes don’t always turn out like that, do they? Remember that astrologer that told the King of France that if he fought the English at a place called Agincourt then he was bound to be victorious.”
“I believe that he made a mathematical error. The six planets of the solar system weren’t aligned quite as he calculated them to be.”
“Is that how many there are? Six? I thought there would be more.”
“No, your Majesty. The firmament is incapable of supporting more than six planets. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and not forgetting the biggest of them all, the Moon. That’s all there are.”
“You know, the Vatican isn’t too keen on astrology. They say it’s all a load of tosh. They liken it to witchcraft and you know how they feel about that.”
“I have heard that, your Majesty. But there are many things the Vatican doesn’t understand and a science such as astrology is clearly one of them. Did I not correctly predict the Turkish attack on Malta?”
“My granny could have predicted that. Malta is the key to the Mediterranean Sea. Whoever holds it controls all trade. We are blessed by the fact that it is held by good Christians. Will they withstand the assault of the Turks?”
“Your Majesty, the stars tell me that they won’t.”*
“Sad. All the more reason that we take England then.” He paused. “There is a man that is saying that the Earth goes round the Sun, and so do the other planets.”
“A heretic, Sire. I have heard of him, this Galileo. The Pope is well aware of his teachings.”
“He also says that the stars are millions of miles apart and that the patterns they make are the imaginings of men. Some stars are bigger, or nearer, while others are further away or smaller. He also says that they only form the shapes that we see because of the way we perceive them. If we saw them from a different angle we would see different shapes. A bit like the way we see a fleet of ships at sea. When we look from one angle one ship seems to be leading, but when we look again from a different angle another ship seems to be in front.”
“Such ramblings are dangerous, you’re Majesty. I would report him to the Pope. Perhaps Holy Mother Church can silence him, this Galileo.”
“Yes. Maybe I should bring his name to the attention of the Inquisition that I have established.”
“Ah, yes Majesty. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Actually everyone does. It’s in the rules that they have to give written notice of their visits.”**
“Anyway, your Majesty, may I set your mind at ease on this matter. My old pal Nostradamus has published six thousand three hundred and thirty eight prophecies, one of which predicts the success of your Armada. He is a widely respected Seer in Italy and provides horoscopes for most of the Italian aristocracy. I have even heard it whispered….” Phillop looks either way to make sure they can’t be overheard, before whispering “that The Pope himself consults Nostradamus.”
“Oh, very well. If Nostradamus said it then it must be true.”
“ˊEre, Chardonnay. You gonna marry that Brad then?”
“I dunno Shiraz, I ˊaven’t made up my mind yet. Pass me the newspaper and let me see what my horoscope says.”
“You believe in that stuff, do you?”
“Oh yeah. It’s an ancient science and those ancients knew a thing or two. The stars never lie.”
So much for teaching science in schools!
* Historical Notes: The Knights of St John successfully repelled the attempts of the Turks to capture the island of Malta in 1565. In 1588 the Spanish Armada sailed for England. Although it was defeated it was the weather that was the main cause of its failure to overcome the much weaker English Navy. Back then weather forecasting was less accurate than astrology and some say it still is. The pseudo-science of Economics was created for the sole purpose of making astrology look respectable. Most political opinion polls are based on astrological predictions.
** This is true, despite the Monty Python sketch that suggests otherwise.
Next week Ig and Ug invent football.