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Volume 4, No. 2
The Bird, The Cross, And The Emperor: Investigations into The Antiquity of The Cross in Cygnus
David J. Ross
When was it that someone first gazed up at the Summer Milky Way and recognized the Cross among the stars of Cygnus? After the Big Dipper and the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, the Northern Cross is among the most familiar of asterisms, for Westerners at least. Turn to almost any modern handbook on the constellations and we find under Cygnus that the Swan often goes by this well known alias. Little explanation is required; the Cross being simply a matter of common knowledge. But when did it become so? One such popular guide, by the late veteran interpreter of the stars, Julius Staal, ventures only that it was 'early Christians' who recognized the cruciform shape of Cygnus.1 It is certainly a reasonable guess; but, which early Christians recognized the Cross where others in their day would have imagined a great swan flying along the river of milk flowing from Hera's breast? Although it seems little more than an odd bit of trivia, attempting to answer the question of the asterism's antiquity touches on some interesting aspects of our cultural history. I hope to show how light from this admittedly peculiar angle may illuminate ways that astral imagery played upon the early Christian imagination, particularly as related to aspects of the history of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome.