The Milky Way — the ultimate wishing well

One of my family’s favorite activities is sitting around the firepit under a clear night sky, equipped with blankets and all the fixings for s’mores, of course.

The pandemic patio purchase has served us well on Saturday nights throughout the seasons as we look to the stars as our entertainment. We point out the constellations and planets that punch through the dark with illumination that evokes a wonder and hope that I find myself clinging to more these days.

To this day, I cannot look to the night’s sky without feeling compelled to focus my sights on the brightest star and recite a poem I learned as a child:

“Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have this wish I wish tonight.”

Of all the stories and rhymes shoved into my head over the span of a lifetime, this little poem about wishing on a star that my mom taught me has adhered like superglue into my brain.

I was taught to recite this little ditty, a 19th century children’s poem, before placing my best wish on the first star I spotted in the twinkling night sky.

Those moments were always filled with hope and wonder, like I was looking into my soul and my future all at once. (My wishes, of course, were secrets so I can’t tell you what they were.)

The rhyme still runs over in my head as I peer out at the equally impressive starlight sky as an adult and I utter aloud to my toddler, prepping another generation to carry on the tradition. I’ll admit it — I still wish on stars regularly.

Where did wishing on a star come from?

Wishing on stars started thousands of years ago

There is evidence of cultures looking to the stars for answers dating back millennia, according to Nicholas Campion, a professor in cosmology and culture at the University of Wales. The ancient Egyptians believed that your soul ascended to the stars when you died, and that when your soul reached the stars, you gained absolute wisdom, according to Campion.

“There is clearly this tendency for people to look at a bright star and find some kind of meaning in it,” Campion said.

Fast-forward to the second century, when the astronomer Ptolemy believed that stars were gods or, at least, signs from the gods. He thought that stars were signs that the gods had slipped through gaps in the sky, or, as he called them, “heavenly spheres,” and had a direct line of vision to the humans below.

What better time to ask them for whatever your heart desired?

“The Greeks, and Babylonians before them, saw the upper sky as the home of the gods when meteors fell to Earth,” said Bonnie MacLachlan, professor emeritus and adjunct research professor of classical studies of Western University in Ontario, Canada. “Instead of reasoning that there might be rocks up there, they felt that divinity must reside in the fallen meteorite and worshipped it.”

The Greeks and Romans also believed in “cosmic sympathy,” the concept that our souls were formed according to the “order of the cosmos, including stars and planets, and they are felt to influence how we behave,” MacLachlan said.

It was believed that we are intrinsically connected to the cosmos, so perhaps it was a natural assumption that the stars could listen to our wishes and deliver those things we most desire.

The Christians followed

Once science had dispelled some of the myths of the Greeks, other traditions stepped in to fill the void.

In the Christian tradition, the star of Bethlehem guided the three wise men to baby Jesus as depicted in the Nativity scene. As early as the first century AD, shooting stars were said to be fallen angels.

Coincidentally, that period in history may have also seen increased meteoric activity, according to scholar William H. Black, who wrote about the convergence of cosmic activity and early Christianity’s focus on stars as religious symbols for the International Meteor Organization’s bimonthly journal.

“Clear references to falling stars only commence with the apocalyptic biblical and extra-biblical material which flourished especially between the circa 2nd century BC and the circa 1st century AD,” he wrote.

Arguably the most influential institution following religion is Disney, the megabrand that has made kids’ wishes for a magical world come true for decades. Disney’s beloved insect, Jiminy Cricket, sang the memorable “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the original 1940 movie version of “Pinocchio.”

The familiar voice of Cliff Edwards, who recorded the original version of the song, has been covered by dozens of others over the years. Its wistful appeal remains intact. “Makes no difference who you are,” the song goes, insinuating that the stars are the great equalizers.

We all stand under the same cosmos, no matter who we are or where we are or what our present circumstances might be. We all get a wish.

We might look to the stars and wonder whether we’ll ever make it big. Or whether we’ll make it to the next sunset. We put our faith in the same celestial wonder that our ancestors did nearly 2,000 years ago.

Why do we still wish on stars?

The science has certainly evolved since the second century AD — and with it our understanding of many aspects of our world. We still don’t know exactly how wishes work, though, whether we can will the things we most want into existence, whether our lives are predetermined, or whether we are authors of our own fates.

“Wishing on a star is simulating a desired future,” said Bertram Malle, a professor of psychology at Brown University. “If you then wish for something that you can control, you might strengthen your goal and initiate planning and persistence; if you wish for something you cannot control, you might at least have the momentary glow of an imagined world,” he said.

Since we’re taught to keep our wishes secret (otherwise they won’t come true), it’s hard to know exactly what people wish for when they look to the stars. We do know that family, career and friendship are the areas in which people find the most meaning in life, according to a 2018 Pew study.

How to find that star to wish on

“I have never wished on a star myself, but I do think there is something magical about stargazing,” said British science writer Abigail Beall, author of “The Art of Urban Astronomy: A Guide to Stargazing Wherever You Are.”

“Just looking at the vast number of stars in our Milky Way, and knowing there are so many more out there we can’t see, gives me a real sense of awe,” she said.

Whether you are wishing or not, gazing at the stars can be equally stunning. Just one hour of time with your eyes fixed at the night’s sky should allow you to spot at least one or two meteors, according to Beall.

“Exactly how many you’ll see depends on the light pollution in your area, and how much of the sky is visible and not blocked by buildings or trees, for example,” she said.

Beall also recommends distinguishing between satellites, which travel slowly across the sky, and meteors, which move much more quickly and disappear at any moment.

These days, it’s not a big stretch to wonder why people might look up at the brilliant, blinking visual cacophony that is the night sky and wish for the things they most want and need in life. The sky feels vast and aspirational, the stars like an infinite number of possibilities just waiting to be picked like ripe fruit. We wish because we dream, and we dream because we hope. And hope is the thing that keeps us going.

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