Stargazing: Voyage to the watery constellations


When the ancient Greeks and Romans looked south, they saw vast, unconquerable expanses of sea. Some constellations in the southern sky seemed to rise and set from the “great deep.” They are called the “watery constellations” to this day.

Those constellations have an odd, albeit indirect, connection with the Bible. I’ll be exploring that connection this week and next.

The best known is Aquarius, the Water Bearer. You can see him as soon as it gets dark by looking toward the southern horizon. Aquarius’ body is formed by a large oval of fairly faint stars. On his shoulder is a small, symmetrical group of four stars called the “Water Jar.”

Below Aquarius is the constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. The water from Aquarius’ jar flows as a faint stream of stars toward the bright star called Fomalhaut, the Fish’s Mouth.

Why, you may ask, is Aquarius pouring water into a fish’s mouth? Why is the fish quenching its thirst? Do fish get thirsty?

In ancient times, Aquarius was called Deucalion. He was the son of Prometheus, a Titan who felt a special love for humans.

As the generations passed, humans became brazen in their disrespect for Mother Earth and the other forces of nature that the ancients believed were gods.

Zeus, the king of the gods, decided to wipe humanity from the planet. A flood was a good way to go.

Is this story beginning to sound familiar? The Noah story in the Bible may or may not be true. However, note that it is also a reflection of stories that appear in several cultures around the world. People had floods. They needed to explain them.

Prometheus got wind of Zeus’ plan and told Deucalion to build, you guessed it, an ark. Well, actually it was more like a sea chest, just large enough to fit Deucalion and his wife.

Zeus squeezed the water from the clouds. The rains fell in torrents for nine days and nights until the world was covered with a great flood. Only the innocent fish escaped destruction.

When the rains ceased, Deucalion and his wife drifted until they landed on Mount Parnassus, the only place above water.

Zeus saw that Deucalion and his wife were just and loving people and agreed to help them re-populate the Earth.

To do so, he told them to throw the bones of their mother over their shoulders.

This riddle was a test of their piety. Only righteous people could realize that the Earth was their mother. So they picked up stones from the ground and threw them over their shoulders. Humans sprang up where the stones fell. Only people made from stone could survive the task of rebuilding the human race.

Then, from Mother Earth’s soil came forth plants and animals.

The sun rose again on a rich and fertile Earth. To this day, the sunrise from Mount Parnassus, with the beauty of central Greece spread out before it, is among the most glorious in the world.

When Deucalion died, the gods rewarded him by turning him into stars. He became the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer.

So why is Aquarius pouring water into the fish’s mouth? On this matter, the ancient storytellers are silent.

When I heard that climate change might be making our current hurricane season more ferocious, I was reminded of the stories of Noah and Deucalion. And I realized what the ancient storytellers might say if they were alive today:

“Aquarius, whom we knew as Deucalion, is the father of us all. He surely must be angry that we have again descended into disrespect for nature. So he pours upon the Earth a new flood of waters from his inexhaustible jar. Only the kindness of the Southern Fish, which drinks up the water, stands between us and sure destruction.

“Love your Mother. Protect her and do not squander her bounty,” the old, dead poets might say, “lest your savior, the innocent fish, become disgusted by your ways and swim away into the boundless depths of night.”

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Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.