Astronomy: The Keeper of Heaven


March 21 marked the beginning of spring. March this year came in like a lion and went out like a dead lion.

No, wait: That’s not right. The real beginning of spring for most people is whenever the weather changes from cold and snow to warmth and rain. Given the strange turbulence of the weather this season, that division was difficult to determine.

For stargazers (this one, at least), spring begins when Arcturus rises again in the east in the early evening. Sadly, poor Arcturus used to be one of the most important stars in the heavens, but now few people except night-sky fanatics can find it.

Let’s rectify that unjust situation. This week, we’ll do its ancient myth and folklore. Next, we’ll discuss what modern astronomers know about it.

The easiest way to find Arcturus is to start with the Big Dipper, the brightest stars of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. You’ll find the “Big Dip” high in the northeast around 10 p.m. Follow the handle as it arcs around, and keep going until you come to a bright, yellow-orange star low on the horizon.

“Arc to Arcturus,” as the old stargazer’s saying goes.

Because of its closeness to Ursa Major, the Greeks called it the “Guardian of the Bear.” They believed that its power drove the Great Bear across the sky. In fact, Arcturus is the brightest star in the kite-shaped constellation Bootes (pronounced boh-OH-teez), the Herdsman. It may seem odd for him and his brightest star to be herding a bear, but there you go.

In fact, Bootes may be a different kind of herdsman than a bear herder. Although the ancient poets never make the connection, an older Greek myth may explain the presence of a stellar herder in the sky that sets it apart from its brightest star.

The myth in question involves the strange case of a baby named Boitos (Boy-EE-tos). The newborn infant was a weakling, so his parents abandoned him to die in an isolated field far from their village (poor folks did such things in those days.)

Into the field wandered a herd of cattle, which spied the boy and took pity upon him. They raised him as best they could. Certainly he was in no want of food. The milk was fresh, and he drank it straight from the spigot, if you know what I mean.

Of the ways of his fellow humans, he knew nothing. When he had finally reached adulthood, he was finally discovered by humans, and what a sight they saw! Boitos walked on all fours, ate grass mostly, and behaved very much like the cows that had raised him.

The humans took him back to civilization and tried to teach him human ways, but he balked at their suggestions. His cow-like behavior ensured that he stood little chance of fitting into human society.

At long last, he withdrew from human company and returned to the herd of cows that had saved his life and provided him with the only real affection he had ever known. He became their cowherd, and settled into a long, happy life.

In those days, the gods paid attention to such simple love and devotion and admired it greatly. Thus, when the old cowherd died, they put him up in the sky as the constellation Bootes, to remind us that the greatest happiness comes from finding that one true occupation that gives our lives meaning, purpose and simple joy.

As I stare at the simple herdsman on these warm, spring nights in the twilight of my career at Ohio Wesleyan University, I bless my lucky stars that I found such happiness in teaching there. Tonight, if it is clear, I will wish the same for you, dear reader.

Bootes’ brightest star Arcturus has special significance that predates even the old Greek myths in may cultures throughout the world. It is, after all, the fourth brightest star in the sky. The ancient Egyptians worshiped it as a god. It was the Arabian “Keeper of Heaven.” To the Chinese, it was the golden “Palace of the Emperor.”

By closely observing its rising and setting, the ancient Greeks used it to set the dates for their annual springtime festival. For most folks in the northern hemisphere, it heralded the return of spring, even in places like Egypt where the winter is not nearly so bad as Ohio’s.

Sailors saw its rising as a harbinger of violent storms at sea, which is not surprising, since it rises in the year’s most turbulent month. Around 460 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates believed that its position in the sky influenced human health. At its rising in the spring, “diseases often prove critical.” One was apt to die at the rising of the star.

A word for the superstitious: I’ve been watching Arcturus rise for over 50 springs, and I feel fine, thank you very much.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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