Stars, orientation and culture

Updated: May 10

While travelling with my son and wife by car through Northern Ireland, I finally found the time on a day of rest in a fortnight to write about background story creation and to give you an idea of what I think AstroNavigators true role in the board game industry should take.

After sharing some experiences with you all about the Northern Irish sky with its astronomical, historical and even pop-cultural attractions, I will touch upon the background of Jarrah Walker. In doing so, I intend to sketch my idea of igniting interest in different cultures and their approach towards astronomy.


Northern Ireland (Armagh)

Two weeks ago we took a Saturday to visit a town called Armagh. While walking around after lunch we came across a stone monument depicting all technical and theoretical advances in astronomy. And visible on a pedestal, was a rather giant orb for the street it is situated in. If you take a closer look at the orb, it was ornamented with golden dots which turned out to be stars on a star globe. On the grey stone background my wife saw some white stains of dirt, which actually was a representation of the Milky Way ;-). After grasping the meaning of our find in a rather insignificant area for us, we were struck with awe because of the beauty of this very informative and accurately detailed monument.

Star Globe Monument (D. De Hon)

Star Globe Monument detailed base (D. De Hon)

Our find fitted perfectly in our plans of the afternoon, which was visiting the planetarium, however it was way of course and quite far away of our planned attraction. Nevertheless a curious and pleasant discovery until a wasp ruined our analysis of the object by chasing me and my family away.

Armagh Planetarium (D. De Hon)

The planetarium in Armagh was a very nice and clean, well organized area with a lot of giant models (space shuttle, ISS, Voyager, etc) and information and workshops. The place was of course focused on Apollo's 50th landing anniversary. At the time the planetarium was quite busy and had a lot of young visitors. I had to skip the 45 minutes planetarium show, because of our timing and also because of the fact that my 3 year old son might have gotten bored and would have stolen the show for himself.


Armagh Observatory Solar System (D. De Hon)

My personal biggest surprise and really my cup of tea, was Armagh's Observatory a little bit further of the road. Unlike the planetarium, the observatory was closed and the area was desolated. But what I saw there was absolute paradise for me, and what seems for my son, a playground of discovery and one for running fun in what looked like a circular lane depicting the ecliptic plane with the planet orbit of the solar system within it and the Sun residing somewhere in the middle. Why somewhere? The area had an absolute sense for detail, like the aphelia and perihelia nuances of the planet orbits in 2005, the offset orbit of Mercury due to Einsteins gravity well and the wobbling Sun, shifting into different foci due the gravity pull of the planets. Even Ceres and Halley's comet were presented. Next to the constellation areas on the running lane of the ecliptic some nebulae, dwarf planets, clusters and galaxies were mentioned that are potentially visible while gazing towards particular zodiac constellations. This configuration really interested me because of its relation to the planet module for the AstroNavigators board game.

Armagh Observatory outside overview (D. De Hon)

Apart of this nice outdoor heliocentric representation of the celestial mechanics and some sun dials in the garden where the observer has to form his or her own shadow from a particular standing point according to the seasons to know the time during the day, a "Walhalla" of domes were present all around the place. Unfortunately these domes were closed, but some had a welcoming glass window view from the outside in. One of them had a blue with golden brass 10 Inch Grubb Dublin refractor telescope on a mechanical equatorial mount. Another dome housed what seemed to be a red giant newton Calver reflector, equally steered on an equatorial mount, but than electronically enhanced. On their website I saw they are also harboring this magnificent golden brass meridian telescope (the Jones Mural Circle). Even more telescopes were there to be discovered during opening hours, like a giant white 15 Inch Grubb reflector and the golden brass Troughton Equatorial Telescope. I would certainly want to revisit the site during opening hours when I am in the neighbourhood again.

Zenith sky region with Summer Triangle, Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila, a.o. 1st observation night (Sony NEX-5, V. Verhoeven) + Stellarium reference - Notice the Milky Way...

Ireland is very green due its humidity, so watching the stars at night could be very tricky. On my trip to the Republic of Ireland (Doolin) more than 15 years ago I got to see and really notice the Milky Way in an awestruck fashion for the first time, so I was hoping to get another chance to see it so vividly in Northern Ireland. I got one clear night and one night when it was partly clouded. During these nights I was able to use a simple camera with manual settings on 30 seconds shutter opening on a tripod with a timer of 10 seconds to avoid initial trembling during setup. I had my self-made 320mm Dobson truss reflector case telescope with me with which I could watch the Andromada Galaxy and the Ring Nebula.

Eastern sky region with Pegasus, Delphinus (Dolphin), Aquarius, a.o. 1st observation night (Sony NEX-5, V. Verhoeven) + Stellarium reference

Southern and Western sky on 2nd observation night (Sony NEX-5, D. De Hon)

During the second observation night it was mostly cloudy, but stars showed up now and then in between the clouds, which turned into very artistic images as a result. That second night my wife accompanied me while our son was sleeping and she got to see the Andromada Galaxy, Saturn, Jupiter and the first quarter of the Moon through the telescope. Meanwhile she also got hooked up with taking photos of the constellations of stars. She seemed to enjoy it a lot, which made me feel grateful for a wonderful night on a hill.

1Q Luna, Jupiter with Galilean moons on 2nd observation night (Sony NEX-5 + self-made 32cm reflector, V. Verhoeven)

Eastern "Clash of the Titans" sky region with Perseus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Cepheus, Lacerta (Lizard) a.o. 2nd observation night (Sony NEX-5, D. De Hon) + Stellarium reference - Did you find a falling star (meteor) above Perseus? Did you find the Andromeda Galaxy?

Northern sky region with Ursa Major (Big Dipper), Draco, Ursa Minor with Polaris, a.o. 2nd observation night (Sony NEX-5, D. De Hon) + Stellarium reference

Some other peculiar things I discovered in Ireland was the Starry Plough banner (Irish: An Camchéachta). This flag was originally used by the Irish Citizen Army and depicts the stars of the Big Dipper. While we were visiting Londonderry at the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, we noticed a lot of these flags looking a lot like the Alaskan flag depicting stars of the Big Dipper and Polaris. But the Irish banner predates the Alaskan flag for more than a decade. Our period of stay was also in a sensitive period where the British loyalists do their Orange Walk and hang out British flags, while the Republicans hang out the Republican flags and those Starry Plough banners as a protest.

Starry Plough flags
The original Starry Plough flag of the Irish Citizen Army from 1914 (left) and (right) a modern variant of the Starry Plough flag. (Wikipedia)

Another thing worth mentioning for those who are visiting Northern Ireland, is that the place has absorbed the pop-cultural TV-series hit Game of Thrones as their own modern culture. Not only HBO's headquarter film studios and exhibition hall can be found in Belfast, the film locations for the show are spread all over Northern Ireland, exposing some of its real history to a broader audience, such as the fans of the series. Several pubs at these locations have specially carved doors depicting parts of the story and even local linen has been promoted by having a Game of Thrones tapestry embroidered which was displayed in the Ulster Museum until the end of July 2019. Measuring over 90 meters in length and telling the story of the show from seasons 1 to 8 is a real masterpiece in Bayeux-style tapestry and can be completely viewed on YouTube if you are interested. So link below this blog for the latter.

Game of Thrones Armillary Sphere, also called Astrolabe for some reason... (agelesslink, alfinweb.com, HBO)

The most peculiar thing about this show though, in the context of astronomy, is the iconic armillary sphere depicted in the opening lyrics and in a couple of its episodes. After some research in the matter, I discovered that apart from some prophetic and historical ornaments on the rings and stand, it is supposed to work like a real armillary in calculating the seasons in the lore, but than in a heliocentric fashion, with the Sun in the middle. This is somewhat different than our regular geocentric armillary spheres in real history. In the show they keep telling that "Winter is coming...". Someone must have measured it scientifically with this instrument ;-).


An absolute, but concerning real astronomy, tip to conclude this section of the blog is the book "Moongazing: Beginner’s guide to exploring the Moon" by Tom Kerss. I bought this book at the planetarium and for a fairly low price it has everything you need to know about the Moon as an amateur astronomer.


Jarrah Walker (Oceania)

At the moment our illustrator Diego Sanchez is working on a version for the koala character in the game. To ensure that the characters play an important part as an ambassador of their continent next to their proper ability game mechanically, we try to put a lot of attention into the background of some cultures and investigate the instruments to explain the techniques as clear as possible without it becoming a homework for the player, but rather an immersive identity of the game to envelop the atmosphere and play experience. If players are very interested in the game's presented instruments and cultures, we would have given enough references for them to discover more of its real beauty separately.

The Australian koala's first name Jarrah refers to Eucalyptus marginata, from which

the leaves are an important food source, but the word is equally an Aboriginal first name for a boy or a girl. The last name Walker is a common name for people with British roots as is the case in many Commonwealth countries. The name also refers to Jarrah's "Walkabout" ability in the game.

Koala eating Eucalyptus leaves (phys.org) and a first sketch of Jarrah Walker with astrolabe by Diego Sanchez

I have tried to include some examples of Aboriginal and Polynesian astronomy into the cultural background. For this I have done some research on the oral tradition of knowledge transfer in Aboriginal cultures and the Hokule'a project involving oceanic astronavigation dating back thousands of years before any measuring instruments were invented.

Some of the most significant celestial references in local cultures can be alien, but nevertheless an interesting addition to common astronomy knowledge. As an example in Aboriginal tradition, they identify a huge shadow nebula in the Milky Way as a dark emu bird. The position in the night sky differs during the year and is a reference for a period when hunters can lure the male emu guarding the eggs with an emu caller so that another hunter can get some of the eggs. Apart from its cultural references, the form of an emu bird does seem to be visible in the Milky Way and can help us identify locations inside our Galaxy, like our general constellations do.

Emu Bird as a dark constellation of shadow nebulae (abc.net.au)

Another such exotic reference is Hokule'a, a guiding star in Polynesian navigation. The star in particular is known to most of us as the star Arcturus in the constellation Boötes. Because of the Polynesian triangle, within Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui, the zones where the Polynesian canoes (waʻa kaulua) mainly traveled the Pacific Ocean, are situated between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the polar celestial guiding regions (Ursa Major/Minor and Crux) shift while crossing the equatorial region. To have a very luminous extra star, visible anywhere in the ocean triangle, Hokule'a (Arcturus) is used until this day even by the seafaring project with a canoe bearing the same name. For more info on Polynesian navigation, find the link at the end of this blog.

(hokulea.com)

To spread awareness that more jobs than being only astronomer or astronaut are involved with measuring the stars, Jarrah walker has had a different profession in the past that has led to her astronavigation skills, that of an anthropologist.

My Balinese (Indonesian) roots drew me to the anthropological background and initial goal of Hokule'a, since it tries to trace back the Asian origins of the Polynesians. The journey would have started from Taiwan towards Indonesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, than spread out further into the Pacific Ocean forming Polynesia. Some other theories suggested Polynesians are originated from South America, but DNA, archaeology, cultural references and the navigation skills and directions to use the winds and stars confirm the anthropological theory of Asiatic origin.


More on the astronomy of the Hokule'a in the blog Above the Pacific Ocean.


Migration from Asia throughout thousends of years and Arcturus reference(Wikipedia, huffpost.com, Astronomy Trek)

Since this is my first imformative blog on the new website during my vacation, I decided to make it long enough ;-). So I really hope you enjoyed it. Next time the background of another character will be revealed. If you have some questions, things you would like to share or a specific preference for what character you want to hear about first, let me know in the comment section.


Bye for now.

Vincent V.


Interesting links

Armagh Planetarium

Armagh Observatory

Armagh Observatory research paper

Moongazing: Beginner’s guide to exploring the Moon, by Tom Kerss

Game of Thrones Tapestry

Hokule'a website


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