King of constellations, part 2


A few weeks ago, I told you one of the stories associated with the constellation Leo, the lion. However, that story, the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, is not the one normally associated with the starry lion. Pyramus and Thisbe might be familiar to those who love Shakespeare, because it is the basis of his play “Romeo and Juliet.” Beyond that, we must look to other myths if we want to see stories we recognize.

In fact, some of the ancient heroes survive in the popular imagination to this very day. You may not have heard of Pyramus, but you have almost certainly heard of Hercules.

That most familiar of ancient heroes is rising in the east right now as Leo sets in the west. If one ignores the intervening constellations, it looks as if Hercules is chasing Leo across the sky, which, as we shall see, he is.

Of course, recognizing Hercules and Leo can be a chore. Many kids who came to Perkins when I was director there complained that the constellations do not resemble the animals and heroes they are supposed to represent.

That complaint is, of course, not surprising. The universe was not created entirely for us. We tend to apply our own experience to our observations of the sky. If no resemblances exist, we just make up some. It shouldn’t be too amazing that our perceptions of the sky differ from those of the people who named the constellations thousands of years ago.

To know why the ancients called a certain set of stars “Leo” or “Hercules,” we have to get to know our forebears. If we do, we might be surprised at how similar we are to them after all.

We all recognize Hercules from the modern depictions of him. Disney did an animated movie, for heaven’s sake. However, the ancient hero goes way back, and he scarcely resembles the Disney depiction.

To our modern eyes, he doesn’t much resemble a hero — or a human for that matter — but his human antecedents are truly ancient. He got his start as the Kneeling Man of the Babylonians some 2,500 or more years ago.

According to the old stories, he was the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman. As a result, he earned the everlasting hatred of Zeus’s wife, Hera, who tormented him his whole life.

As a result of a fit of madness brought on by Hera, Hercules murdered his wife and children. His famous Twelve Labors were acts of penance for those atrocities. Some hero.

On the other hand, Leo, the lion, resembles its namesake more than most constellations. But don’t take my word for it. Just after dark, check it out yourself. You’ll find it very high in the south. Look for a backward question mark of stars, called the Sickle, that forms the head and front paw of the lion.

Humans have always had mixed feelings about the king of beasts. We admire its strength, but we fear its power. We want to be like the lion, but we don’t want to be its lunch. As a result, the old story about Leo and Hercules could have come straight out of one of our modern action-hero movies.

Leo was born of the beautiful moon goddess Selene. It lived in a cave with two entrances near the Greek town of Nemea, emerging from its lair occasionally to snack on the local inhabitants, which was considered anti-social behavior in those days.

Hercules, the greatest hero of the time, was called upon to kill the lion as one of his Twelve Labors.

That task was harder than it sounds, and it doesn’t sound easy. Leo’s parentage gave him powers that even an ordinary lion does not possess. Much to Hercules’ chagrin, the arrows he hurtled at the beast caromed off its skin like fly balls off a left-field fence.

Our hero heaved up his club and went chasing after Leo, but the lion escaped to its cave. When Hercules entered the cavern, Leo ran out the back door. After a few repetitions, the whole thing began to look like a Three Stooges movie.

So, Hercules blocked off one of the entrances, entered the cave, and dispatched the animal Tarzan-style — with his bare hands. He locked his arm around the lion’s neck until the breath of the mighty beast was stilled.

Recognizing the fearful nature of the lion, Hercules decided to become one. Henceforth, he wore the skin around himself as a cloak. As he approached his enemies, they would see the lion’s gaping, dead mouth bobbing above his head. Hercules looked even more formidable than he had already, but afterward, he wasn’t invited to many parties: “Hi. You must be Hercules. Would you like a drink? Can I hang up your rotting, fetid lion skin for you?”

As with so many things these days, we are tempted to remake the constellations in our own, contemporary image. The lion is, after all, an endangered species, and will probably soon be no more.

Sometimes, in my trips to schools, I passed out simple star maps with the lines removed. I ask students to connect the dots and make up constellations of their own. Over the years, I’ve gotten some interesting responses. My heart nearly broke when one child drew a hypodermic needle over the constellation Delphinus, the Dolphin. “The Stab,” he called it.

In the end, constellations with names like “The Terminator” or “Travolta, the Disco Dancer” have not stood the test of time. They have already gone the way of the dinosaur, wrenched from public consciousness by a new set of one-decade wonders.

We still tell the stories of the old constellations because they still say something important to us. They pass the test of the millennia and will continue to do so even after the flawed bravery of Hercules and the fearsomeness of the lion have vanished from the face of the Earth.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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