Stories Under the Stars: Aquila

I told two stories, a comedy and a tragedy, on March 9, 2017 in my site-specific installation Hemisphere at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.  My intention was to weave together ancient myths about the constellations with the contemporary science exploring those same stars.  This is the comedy.

by Megan Gafford


The constellation Aquila takes its name from the Latin for “eagle”, but in ancient Egypt this pattern was considered the falcon of Horus.  It is said that Horus is the sky.  The sun is his right eye, and the moon his left; they cross the heavens as the falcon god flies through them.  There is a story that explains why the moon is dimmer than the sun, that tells of how Horus’ uncle Set, god of the desert, battled with him for control over Egypt.  It is the tale of the first dick measuring contest.

This story begins before Horus was born.  His father, Osiris, the god of the dead, was dismembered by his jealous brother Set.  Set dumped Osiris’ body in the Nile river, where a catfish nibbled off his penis.  His wife Isis, goddess of nature and magic, gathered the dispersed body parts and used her sorcery to put Osiris back together like a successful version of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment.  She made him a golden phallus, so that they could conceive their son Horus.  And so when Set challenged Horus for control over all of Egypt, Horus taunted him and asked, “You think you can defeat the god from the golden rod?”

The war was triggered by an adolescent prank.  Horus spread his semen on some lettuce, because it was Set’s favorite food, and then he went around and told all the other gods that Set ate his seed.  Set was enraged and sent his warriors to battle Horus’, and for eighty years the armies of Upper and Lower Egypt fought each other in defense of their respective gods’ honor.  Many Egyptians died in the long war, and even the gods were not unscathed: Set lost a testicle and Horus took an arrow to his left eye, and after that it was always dimmer than the other one -- this is why the sun is brighter than the moon.

After nearly a century of war, the other gods insisted that they settle their differences with a boat race, where they each had to make a vessel of stone for the contest.  Horus and Set agreed.  But Horas secretly made his boat out of wood that he painted to look like stone, so that once the race began Set’s boat sank and Horus won.  The gods declared Horus ruler of Egypt, but as a consolation, they gave the desert to Set because it was fitting that the lord of an infertile land be one testicle short.  And so Horus won the first dick measuring contest, and with it, control over all of Egypt.

As this story about the constellation Aquila shows, humanity has always thought its power comes from the gonads, and to take them away is to neuter that power.  Little has changed, of course, and the contemporary tale about Aquila also tells of tempered vitality.  This story begins in America in the 1970s, when NASA was building the Pioneer 11 space probe; the probe has flown by Jupiter and Saturn, and it will pass near the star Lambda Aquilae in about 4 million years.  This spacecraft flying towards the falcon of the sky carries a golden plaque.  Etched onto it is a hieroglyph designed to explain the object’s origins in case extraterrestrial life ever discovers it.

The image was designed by Carl Sagan, and drawn by his wife Linda.  It shows a map of our solar system, along with a drawing of two nude humans.  Linda chose to draw the figures nude so that the clothing wasn’t specific to any time or place, and so that the image would be more educational for extraterrestrials... but people believe that the power of their gonads is potent even as a picture.  And so NASA would not approve the hieroglyph unless the vertical line that indicated the woman’s vulva was removed, although they allowed the man’s penis and testicles to remain.  It seems that the vulva’s strength was too great to depict, and NASA trembled before it.

pioneer_plaque half size.jpg

But the American public blushed at the image NASA sent towards Aquila, even without the vulva’s vertical line, and they worried about the morality of exposing aliens to the power of their private parts.  The newspapers, fearful of the pornography, removed the women’s nipples and the man’s genitals before publishing their papers.  Yet still, angry letters to the editor poured into newspaper offices, crying out at the obscenity of it all.  Some people shouted back that the vigor of humanity ought to be proclaimed to the cosmos, and to stop being such prudes.  After all, the Pioneer 11 probe is like a gift to Horus, the falcon from the golden rod, and an impotent image would be an insult to this great god.