The Star Thrower Essay

"I had been unbelieving. I had walked away from the star thrower in the

hardened indifference of maturity. But thought mediated by the eye is one

of nature's infinite disguises. Belatedly, I arose with a solitary mission.

I set forth in an effort to find the star thrower."

Loren Eiseley's essay "The Star Thrower" is an important writing that chronicles one man's search for spiritual answers. The essay is filled with symbols, layers, and double meanings, and most readers might have difficulty understanding all of Eiseley's themes at first. Thus, this study guide is being written to assist students and readers of Eiseley in interpreting the themes and symbols. This guide is also intended to be used as a tool to stimulate individual thoughts and interpretations.

Section I (pages 67-73)

The first section provides an introduction in which Eiseley sets the initial brooding tone to the essay. The setting is a place called Costabel Beach. Eiseley wanders along the beach and ponders to himself about the different forces at work upon the beach. When he came to Costabel, Eiseley described himself as ". . . the inhumanly stripped skeleton without voice, without hope, wandering alone upon the shores of the world. I was devoid of pity, because pity implies hope" (p. 68). After turning away from the professional shellers, Eiseley comes upon a man throwing starfish back into the ocean. Eiseley is intrigued by this figure, and after a brief conversation, he returns to his hotel room.

Significant symbols:

Costabel Beach: The beach is a desolate world where life and death are constantly struggling with one another. "The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life" (p. 69). The beach symbolizes the world on a spiritual level, with opposing forces always battling with each other; exactly the place that Eiseley is seeking in order to find his answers. "Nothing in Costabel made sense. Perhaps that was why I had finally found myself in Costabel. Perhaps all men are destined at some time to arrive there as I did" (p. 68).

Skull and the Eye:"It began, if I may borrow the expression from a Buddhist sage, with the skull and the eye. I was the skull (p. 68). The image of the skull and eye is an image often used for meditational focus in Zen Buddhism. The idea is for the meditator to picture their heads as empty skulls, thus clearing their thoughts. Then they picture an eye floating in the emptiness that would pinpoint and seek out the answer they sought through meditation. Eiseley seems to be on a similar search for answers, and so he considers himself as a skull and eye throughout the essay.

The Star Thrower:"'Do you collect?' "Only like this," he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. 'And only for the living.' He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water" (p. 72). The star thrower represents several different themes. He represents the forces of life and goodness on the beach in contrast to the other shell collectors. He also represents a spiritual figure who gives himself to the duty of saving lost souls.

Shellfish and Starfish: The starfish on the beach are cast ashore against their will. Helpless to return to the surf on their own, the starfish die if they stay ashore too long. "In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud" (p. 71). The starfish symbolize the lost souls who have washed out of the turbulent sea of life and are placed at the mercy of the world. They are doomed unless they find the savior who can give them life.

Discussion questions:

1. Why does Eiseley feel that he belongs to Costabel? What is he seeking?

2. Why does Eiseley say, "I do not collect... Death is the only successful collector" (p. 72) when he is speaking with the star thrower? What is he revealing about his beliefs and attitudes thus far?

3. How is the rainbow (p. 71) important to the persona of the star thrower?

4. Eiseley ends the first section by quoting an old monk, saying "the voices of God and theDevil are scarcely distinguishable" (p. 73). How is this statement significant? What message is Eiseley trying to send to the reader?

5. What kinds of imagery does Eiseley use to create a sense of good versus evil in this section of the essay?

6. Interpret the quote: "I lay quiet, but my restless hand at the bedside fingered the edge of an invisible abyss" (p. 73).

Section II (pages 73-80)

In the second section, Eiseley writes very abstractly about the rise of science within humankind and the answers it has provided. Due to scientific progress and the order and stability that it creates in the world, ". . . there is little or nothing that remains unmeasured" (p. 174). He then considers the nature of human religious thought. "A hidden dualism that has haunted man since antiquity runs across his religious conceptions as the conflict between good and evil" (p. 75). Finally, after writing about his past feelings toward religious thought and a few notes on science, Eiseley claims to be haunted by an eye that will not stop looking at him. The eye transforms into different eyes, and ends by turning into the eye of his mother.

Significant symbols:

Twisters: Eiseley describes the tornadoes that used to come around his childhood home. "'Twisters,' we called them locally... They were the trickster part of an otherwise pedestrian landscape" (p. 74-75). These twisters represent the unexplainable element of chaos that has always been present in the world. Eiseley also uses the imagery of twisters throughout the essay such as, ". . . the spinning galactic clouds . . ." (p. 79).

The Trickster:"It is as if at our backs, masked and demonic, moved the trickster as I have seen his role performed among the remnant of a savage people long ago" (p. 77). The trickster is perhaps the most unclear symbol in this essay. Some readers might interpret the trickster as the devil, always haunting and manipulating mankind from the shadows. Other readers might interpret the trickster as Eiseley's criticism of organized religion. He ties the trickster in with priests and ceremonies, so perhaps Eiseley sees devout ceremonies as nothing more than a waste of time that will lure people away from the true religious concepts.

The Shadow:"I had learned...why man, even modern man, reads goose bones for the weather of this soul. Afterward I had gone out, a troubled unbeliever, into the night. There was a shadow I could not henceforth shake off, which I knew was posturing and would always posture behind me. That mocking shadow looms over me as I write" (p. 77). This shadow that begins to haunt Eiseley seems to symbolize the guilt Eiseley feels for being an unbeliever.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does Eiseley suddenly leave the scene of the beach and go off on all these tangents in the essay?

2. What does it seem Eiseley's greatest critique of religion is? What is his critique of science?

3. What similarities are there between the shadow and the changing eye that haunts Eiseley? Why does Eiseley include both of these symbols?

4. In this section, read paragraphs 1-3 and the last paragraph. What progression has taken place in the essay? What is the significance of this section?

Section III (pages 80-88)

Eiseley begins the third section by asking what events led him to this moment in Costabel. He relates back to inspirational moments of other great scientists and then comments on how he arrived at Costabel. He said it occurred after he discovered several old photographs of his mother. Then, Eiseley confronts the haunting eye and he claims to love the world and its creatures. After finally altering his viewpoint to no longer coincide with his scientific upbringing, the eye leaves him and he vows to find the star thrower again.

Significant Symbols:

Photographs of Eiseley's Mother: These photographs are Eiseley's link to his painful past, a past that still continues to haunt him. After realizing that science has been unable to fill the dark places in his mind that these painful memories occupy, he comes to Costabel in search of new answers.

The Shadows: Refers to the answers supplied by science and technology; the antithesis of the belief in an external force or the belief in nature; a symbol of evil. "The tools, if not science itself, were linked intangibly to the subconscious poltergeist aspect of man’s nature. The closer man and the natural world drew together, the more erratic became the behavior of each. Huge shadows leaped triumphantly after every blinding illumination" (p. 81-82). "Darwin, Einstein, and Freud might be said to have released the shadows" (p. 82).

Shipwrecks: A symbol for a clash of ideas. "Now it may be asked, upon the coasts that invite shipwreck, why the ships should come. . ." (p. 80). "I had come as the skull and the eye to Costabel--the coast demanding shipwreck" (p. ).

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does Eiseley mention several other scientists and their inspirations before he explains his own?

2. After telling the eye that he "loves the world," why does Eiseley say "It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage" (p. 86)?

3. Towards the end of the section, Eiseley says, "Some ancient, inexhaustible, and patient intelligence, lying dispersed in the planetary fields of force or amidst the inconceivable cold of interstellar space, had chosen to endow its desolation with an apparition as mysterious as itself. The fate of man is to be the ever recurrent, reproachful Eye floating upon night and solitude" (p. 88). Who or what do you think this "intelligence" is that Eiseley is talking about?

4. How does the final paragraph of the section (p. 88) represent the transition Eiseley makes in the essay? What is the symbolic significance of Eiseley going forth to seek out the star thrower again?

Section IV (pages 88-92)

In the final section of the essay, Eiseley returns to the beach and finds the star thrower again. Now, having come to terms with lost destiny and the cycle of life (=spirituality?), he joins the star thrower in the task of saving the lost souls upon the beach. "It was, unsought, the destiny of my kind since the rituals of the Ice Age hunters, when life in the Northern Hemisphere had come close to vanishing. We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life—the completion of the rainbow of existence" (p. 90). He casts starfish back into the surf, and he ponders about the real Star Thrower who hurls suns. "For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns" (p. 90). "Somewhere, I felt, in a great atavistic surge of feeling, somewhere the Thrower knew. Perhaps he smiled and cast once more into the boundless pit of darkness. Perhaps he, too, was lonely, and the end toward which he labored remained hidden—even as with ourselves" (p. 91). He finishes the essay with a testimony that he knows now that "there looms, inexplicably, in nature something above the role men give her" (p. 92) and "We had reached the last shore of an invisible island—yet, strangely, also a shore that the primitives has always known. They had sensed intuitively that man cannot exist spiritually without life..." (p. 91).

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does Eiseley seem to come full circle over the course of the essay? What is he trying to say?

2. What are the most important messages Eiseley is trying to send his readers?

3. How is this essay different from almost all of his other essays?

4. Eiseley refers to myths and rituals of "primitive" humans throughout the essay. He compares "modern" humans who have science and technology, to "primitive" humans who had rituals and myths. At the end of the essay (the penultimate paragraph), which culture (primitive or modern) seems to have a better understanding of life? Why?


Today’s post shares something that is very close to my heart. It’s an excerpt from the writings of the great anthropologist and nature writer, Loren Eiseley. I think I was only 17 or 18 when I first read it, but the story has been a touchstone my whole life.

To me, what Eiseley discovers on the shores of Costabel, amid all the death and suffering that are the lot of all conditioned things, points the very heart of finding genuine meaning in this universe. It points to what the Bodhisattva vow is all about.  It points to what giving metta is all about.  It points to that which is beyond all dharmas and teachings. May this story speak to your hearts, my brother and sister star throwers!

The Star Thrower

(Excerpted from The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley)

“The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life.  Shells are cast up in windrows; a hermit crab, fumbling for a new home in the depths, is tossed naked ashore, where the waiting gulls cut him to pieces.  Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms.  Even the torn fragments of green sponge yield bits of scrambling life striving to return to the great mother that has nourished and protected them.

“In the end the sea rejects its offspring.  They cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them repeatedly back upon the shore.  The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand.  The rising sun shrivels the mucila-ginous bodies of the unprotected.  The seabeach and its endless war are soundless.  Nothing screams but the gulls.

“He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.”

“…I arose and dressed in the dark.  As I came down the steps to the shore I could hear the deeper rumble of the surf.  A gaping hole filled with churning sand had cut sharply into the breakwater.  Flying sand as light as powder coated every exposed object like snow.  I made my way around the altered edges of the cove and proceeded on my morning walk up the shore….The sun behind me was pressing upward at the horizon’s rim ~ an ominous red glare amidst the tumbling blackness of the clouds.  Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence.   Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position.  He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.

“Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf.  I labored toward him over half a mile of uncertain footing.  By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features.  He was starting to kneel again.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

“It’s still alive,” I ventured.

“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea.   It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

“It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.”  He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors…

…”The stars,” he said, “throw well.  One can help them.”

“He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.… I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.

“…For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea…”

“I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water.  For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea.  He had, at any rate, the posture of a god….

…He is a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest.  The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he along every seabeach in the world….

“…I lay quiet, but my restless hand at the bedside fingered the edge of an invisible abyss, “Certain coasts,” the remark of a perceptive writer came back to me, “are set apart for shipwreck.”  With unerring persistence I had made my way thither…I had walked away from the star thrower in the hardened indifference of maturity. But thought mediated by the eye is one of nature’s infinite disguises.  Belatedly, I arose with a solitary mission.  I set forth in an effort to find the star thrower…

..”Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demonical stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations.  He walks in his mind from birth to death the long resounding shores of endless disillusionment.   Finally the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness.  But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose—to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being.  In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans.  They contend for the destiny of a world.

“Somewhere far up the coast wandered the star thrower beneath his rainbow.  Our exchange had been brief because… I had, in the terms of my profession and experience, nothing to say.  The star thrower was mad, and his particular acts were a folly with which I had not chosen to associate myself.   I was an observer and a scientist.  Nevertheless, I had seen the rainbow attempting to attach itself to earth.

“I understand,” I said.   “Call me another thrower.”

“On a point of land, as though projecting into a domain beyond us, I found the star thrower.  In the sweet rain-swept morning, that great many-hued rainbow still lurked and wavered tentatively beyond him.  Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves.  I spoke once briefly.  “I understand,” I said.   “Call me another thrower.”  Only then I allowed myself to think, he is not alone any longer.   After us there will be others.

“We were part of the rainbow ~ an unexplained projection into the natural.  As I went down the beach I could feel the drawing of a circle in men’s minds, like that lowering, shifting realm of color in which the thrower labored.  It was a visible model of something toward which man’s mind had striven, the circle of perception.

“I picked and flung another star.  Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung.  I could feel the movement in my body.  It was like a sowing ~ the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale.  I looked back across my shoulder.  Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more.  I never looked again.  The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing.  I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death.

“…Somewhere far off, across bottomless abysses, I felt as though another world was flung more joyfully.”

“But we, pale and alone and small in that immensity, hurled back the living stars.  Somewhere far off, across bottomless abysses, I felt as though another world was flung more joyfully.  I could have thrown in a frenzy of joy, but I set my shoulders and cast, as the thrower in the rainbow cast, slowly, deliberately, and well.  The task was not to be assumed lightly, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save.

“For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns….We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life—the completion of the rainbow of existence….

“…I cast again with an increasingly remembered sowing motion and went my lone way up the beaches.   Somewhere, I felt, in a great atavistic surge of feeling, somewhere the Thrower knew….

“…I picked up a star whose tube feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life.  I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out.  With it, I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence.   From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had risen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life.  It was the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered.

“….Tomorrow I would walk in the storm….  I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe.  I would walk knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms, inexplicably, in nature something above the role men give her.  I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel. . .”



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