Life on Earth would not exist without the brilliant objects we see in it; we would not be here without the light and heat of the Sun, and the rhythmic, tidal, biologically-vital, influences of the Moon. From earliest recorded history and in all societies the stars and planets, indeed the entire sky, have been a source of meaning for human affairs. In many cultures the heavenly bodies speak to humanity and, often, humanity talks back. Sometimes the stars speak for themselves as divine entities. In much western art and literature they become metaphors, underpinning narratives — and discourses — which explore or dramatise the human condition, as in the epic narratives of modern, cinematic science fiction. And for millennia human beings have imagined a journey to the heavens. This dream finally became a reality on 12 April 1961 when Yuri Gagarin made his single, historic orbit of the Earth. This date inaugurated the period of human space travel, and has a claim to be one of the most significant moments of human history.
The Heavenly Discourses conference was a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s achievement, held at the University of Bristol and sponsored by the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This volume brings together selected papers from that conference and provides a valuable resource in the emerging discipline of Cultural Astronomy.