Well, we sure have had several nights during the past couple of weeks to really get a nice look at the night sky. Hopefully, you were able to make out the various stars and constellations. Yes, I know, some imagination is needed as you try to connect the dots so to speak. Then you think: no way! How on earth could Ptolomy have seen that creature or that figure outlined by those stars? It wasn’t so much the shapes the stars are arranged in but the meaning they represent. In part II, I will transform myself into a mystical parrot who recites the myths and legends of the summer constellations. In part III, I will discuss the signs of the Zodiac. Let’s begin:
Ursa Major, the Great Bear and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear (The Big Dipper and Little Dipper)
In the land of Arcadia, Zeus fell in love with the beautiful nymph Callisto. Hera, upon hearing that Callisto had given Zeus a son named Arcas, turned Callisto into a bear. One day Callisto saw her son in the woods and attempted to approach but could only growl. Seeing the bear, Arcas drew his spear and prepared to attack. To protect Callisto, Zeus changed Arcas into a little bear and then placed them both in the northern sky, swinging them up by their tails. This is why the tails are so long.
Boötes The Bear Chaser or Winemaker
In the first legend, the Greeks knew this constellation as Arctophylax, variously translated as Bear Watcher, Bear Keeper or Bear Guard. Aratus wrote of ‘Arctophylax, whom men also known as Boötes’, and likened him to a man driving the bear around the pole. In the second legend, Bootes is seen as representing Icarius, an Athenian who was taught the secret of winemaking by the god Dionysius. Icarius then allowed some peasants to sample his product, but his kindness back-fired. The men became extremely drunk and were convinced that they had been poisoned, so they killed Icarius and buried him. His daughter Erigone and was so overcome with grief when she found his body that she hanged herself. Zeus transferred her to the heavens as Virgo, Icarius became Bootes, and Maera, the dog who had led Erigone to her father’s grave, became one of the dogs of Canes Venatici.
Cassiopeia The Queen
She is the very beautiful and very vain Queen of Ethiopia. Gazing at herself in a mirror, she proclaimed herself to be more beautiful than the Nereids, which were sea nymphs. As punishment, Poseiden demanded that the princess Andromeda be sacrificed to the sea monster, Cetus. After her daughter was saved by Perseus, Cassiopeia plotted with her daughter’s ex-fiancée Agenor, to kill Perseus. Perseus used the Medusa’s head to turn Cassiopeia, Agenor, and his men to stone. The constellations of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus are facing each other’s feet so they cannot speak to each other. Because the Queen insulted the sea nymphs, she never sets below the surface of the sea (as seen from northern latitudes. The name “Cassiopeia” is a Phoenician phrase that means the “Rose-Colored Face.”
Cepheus The King
He is the king of Ethiopia and his wife the Queen is Cassiopeia. He was also one of the Argonauts that adventured with Jason.
Hercules – The Hero This legend has several sub plots and the tales, in turn, represent several constellations.
Hercules is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was jealous of Alcmene and attempted to kill Hercules many times but always failed. Hercules performed many great feats which made him famous. He liberated Thebes from the Minyans, for which he was given the hand of Megara, Princess of Thebes. They had three sons. Then Hera had her revenge. She made Hercules temporarily insane and he killed his wife and the children. In punishment for the crime Hercules was given twelve impossible tasks. Only if he completed these tasks would he be a free man. One example of the tasks is that Hercules had to slay the Nemean lion who terrorized the valley of Nemea. But the task was to slay it bare handed. It took 30 days to strangle the animal. He skinned the beast and nailed the body to the sky-Leo. He wore the skin as a trophy. Another example is that he had to battle the Hydra, a multi-headed sea snake who lived in the marsh of Lerna. When he cut off one head, two more heads would grow in its place. Instead of cutting them, Hercules burned the heads off. Another task of Hercules was the theft of the golden apples of the Hesperides. They were guarded by Ladon, the dragon Draco. Unable to safely approach the dragon, Hercules asked Atlas for help. Atlas was an immortal and the father of the Hesperides, so he could manage the dragon. It was Atlas who was holding up the heavens on his shoulders so Hercules offered to hold the heavens for awhile in exchange for the help. Atlas got the apples, but then refused to take back the burden. Hercules asked Atlas if he could just take it back briefly, so some padding could be found to make it more comfortable. Atlas took the heavens back, but Hercules picked up the apples and left.
Ophiuchus The Physician
Asclepius (Ophiuchus) was raised by the centaur Chiron and was taught the art of medicine and healing. Asclepius became a great physician. He learned to make medicines from the poisons of snakes and plants. One of his remedies even caused the recently deceased to come back to life. This infuriated the god of the dead. Hades asked Zeus to stop Asclepius and he was struck with a thunderbolt. Then, in pity Zeus restored him to life and made him immortal. He was placed in the sky with a serpent.
Cygnus The Swan
As is the case with so many of the constellations, there are a number of possible explanations for the presence of the swan in the heavens. Some myths, for instance, state the swan was once the pet of Queen Cassiopeia. Other versions state that the swan was Cionus, son of Neptune, who was wrestled to the ground and smothered by Achilles. To save his son, Neptune immortalized Cionus as a swan. Another story says the swan is Orpheus, who was murdered by the Thracian women while under the influence of Bacchus. Upon his death, the celebrated musician was placed in the heavens to spend eternity by his harp, Lyra. Yet another variant says that the swan represents the form taken by Jupiter when he deceived Leda and fathered Pollux. Finally, the swan was once Cygnus, son of Sthenele and a close friend of Phaethon. Phaethon died in the river Eridanus after attempting to drive the chariot of the sun, and Cygnus was overcome with grief that Zeus could have struck down his friend so Zeus placed him in the sky forever as a way to calm his grief.
Lyra The Harp
Apollo invent the lyre using a turtle shell strung with strips of cow gut. He gave it to Orpheus whose beautiful music could tame wild animals. Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was chased by Aristaeus, a beekeeper, who was trying to kidnap her. Eurydice was bitten on the ankle by a snake and died. Orpheus descended to the realm of the dead to retrieve her soul. His song and music charmed the three-headed dog Cerberus, the ferry boatman Charon, and other creatures of the underworld. Persephone agreed to release the soul of his wife if Orpheus agreed to walk in front of her and take it on faith that she was following him. Just as he reached the light of the world Orpheus turned to see if Eurydice was behind him and she disappeared in a puff of smoke. After Orpheus died Zeus placed his lyre in the sky as a tribute.