Monsters, Myths, and Constellations

By Leila A. McNeill

“I am nothing. I have done nothing at all; all I am, all I know, I owe to my brother. I am the tool which he has shaped to his use--,” wrote Caroline Herschel in 1846. We know that Caroline’s insistence that she had “done nothing” is far from true. In her lifetime, she, independently of her famous brother William, discovered 8 comets and 3 nebulae and received multiple honors. She also carried out some of William’s most complex astronomical calculations. Still, she sees herself not as an astronomer in her own right, but as a helpmate to William, a tool that he shaped for his own ends. Caroline defines herself in relation to her brother, and for over 100 years, history remembered her similarly. Though Caroline seems grateful to William, and never expressed dissatisfaction with her lot in life, it is difficult not to feel a sharp sense of sadness when Caroline resolutely says, “I am nothing.” Caroline’s rejection of her accomplishments, her own sense of self, is no doubt an internalization of sexist 19th century cultural norms. How women identify, define, and understand themselves has too often been tied to their relationships to men, and this crisis of female identity has been women’s inheritance handed down from centuries of literary traditions and historical narratives. In 1968, poet Adrienne Rich wrote “Planetarium,” a poem dedicated to Caroline and other female astronomers. In “Planetarium,” Rich wrests from Caroline’s story the root causes of internalized sexism, tracing a matrilineal line of female identity from the past to the present.

In her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Rich bemoans what male writers and artists, as creators of Western literature, art, and cultural history, have made of women. In art and literature, women have served as “the painter’s model and the poet’s muse,” and in history, they have been wives, mothers, assistants, and copyists. Men, on the other hand, have been women’s watchers, gate-keeping and influencing the language and images women produce. Rich leans on Virginia Woolf’s feminist text A Room of One’s Own to illustrate this point. Even in a text where Woolf attempts to create a space for women in a male dominated literary tradition, her language and tone betray a self-conscious awareness that men from the other room are still listening. Rich says that “the spectre of this kind of male judgment...has created problems for the woman writer: problems of contact with herself, problems of language and style, problems of energy and survival.” Caroline was neither a writer nor an artist, but she too, as a woman in astronomy, was haunted by male sanctioned conventions. And even though Rich as a poet speaks from the experience of literary traditions, it is in “Planetarium” with Caroline that Rich feels “at last the woman in the poem and the woman writing the poem become the same person.”

In the stirring opening lines of “Planetarium,” Rich refers to Caroline as “A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them.” As an unmarried, childless woman participating in a male dominated science, Caroline challenged assumptions about women’s nature, becoming an inversion of what a woman was supposed to be. Rich goes on to trace the matrilineal line of female identity from past to present: “she whom the moon ruled/ like us/ levitating into the night sky/ riding the polished lenses// Galaxies of women, there/ doing penance for impetuousness.” Through the “polished lenses” of the telescope, Caroline peered at the other woman monsters in the skies, the “[g]alaxies of women...doing penance for impetuousness,” who were myths created by men and placed in the stars by them too.

Casseiopeia. Illustration from Poetica Astronomicon, by Hyginus (1482). (Internet Archive I Public Domain)

Cassiopeia, a constellation in the northern hemisphere, was named for the mythical queen of Aethiopia. Poseidon punished Cassiopeia for taking pride in her beauty by tying her to her throne, and as she circles the pole, she is upside down half the year. 

Andromeda. Illustration from A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy, by Jehoshaphat Asping, 1825. Image courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries; copyright the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

Andromeda, Cassiopeia’s daughter, also doing penance for Cassiopeia’s vanity, was chained naked to a rock where she waited for Cetus, the sea monster, to rape her. Andromeda was saved by Perseus, who took her for his wife. The Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, is a cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation. The Seven Sisters were once women who danced together under the night sky, but Orion desired them so he hunted them. To help the sisters escape, Zeus turned them all into stars, but Orion, a constellation too, still chases them night after night.

Orion. Illustration from Urano Metria, by Joannis Bayer (1603). Image courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries; copyright the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

The stories we tell matter, and the stories that the stars tell are often of rape and female punishment at the hands of men. When women astronomers look at the stars, these are the stories they read. Rich understood that these types of myths and images of women could have a profound influence on both men and women-- men in the way they view women and women in the way they perceive themselves. Of the woman writer who encounters these myths and images in the Western literary tradition, Rich says, “She goes to poetry or fiction looking for her way of being in the world, since she too has been putting words and images together [but] she comes up against something that negates everything she is about: she meets the image of Woman in books written by men.” Caroline’s book was the stars, and when she turned her telescope on the sky, she met the image of Woman in the stars named by men.  

Male astronomers have a very different experience than women when they read the skies. The constellations named for men tell stories of conquest, not submission or punishment. In “Planetarium,” Rich contrasts Caroline’s experience with astronomical discovery to Tycho Brahe’s: “An eye,// ‘viril, precise and absolutely certain’/ from the mad webs of Uranusborg// encountering the NOVA...Tycho whispering at last/ ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain.’ “ When Tycho looks at the sky, he sees stories of male identity linked to power and strength, so when he discovered Tycho’s Nova in 1572, it would be his right to claim the discovery as his own. This is quite different from Caroline’s “I am nothing” because she had learned from her myths that women, who acted in ways that displeased men, were monsters deserving punishment. Sometimes, myths become truth.

Throughout “Planetarium,” Rich comes to an understanding of how myths create a culture that uses and abuses women, and in her understanding, she experiences a personal awakening: “What we see, we see// and seeing is changing.” She at once acknowledges the matrilineal line of female monsters with the pronoun “we” while moving toward a transformation-- “seeing is changing.” For the rest of the poem, she only uses the pronoun “I,” signalling her own part in re-writing our cultural myths and literary traditions. Rich ends with a final nod to Caroline as she re-imagines Caroline’s 1876 words--  “I am the tool which he has shaped to his use.” Rich, too, sees herself as a tool but one of her own making and used for her own ends: “I am an instrument in the shape// of a woman trying to translate pulsations// into images// for the relief of the body// and the reconstruction of the mind.” By rewriting myths and translating them into new images, Rich, once a monster at the beginning of the poem, is now a woman.

As a historian, I am in the mythmaking and storytelling business, and as a feminist historian, I think of myself and other historians like me as revisionist mythmakers. As Rich turned to Caroline to frame her own awakening from a male dominated literary tradition, I turn to Rich to articulate my own awakening in the pursuit of history. Like Rich in “Diving Into the Wreck,” I had carried with me “a book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” When I decided to study history, I wanted to see why women had been written out of it: “I came to see the damage that was done//...the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.” I did not want to just work within the male dominated historical narrative the way it was; I wanted to know why it was in the first place. And in knowing, dismantle it. Book by book, letter by letter.

Further Reading

Alicia Ostriker, “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking,” Signs 8, no. 1 (1982): 68–90.

Renee L. Bergland, “Urania’s Inversion: Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and the Strange History of Women Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 34, no. 1 (2008): 75–99.