Tales of Delphinus


Delphinus, the Dolphin, is not a particularly large constellation. In fact, it is among the smallest and dimmest of the traditional star groupings. As a result, it might easily have been ignored. However, its position near the glow of the summer Milky Way and its distinctive diamond shape make it jump right out of the sky for stargazers in most cultures. Besides, its stars are closely packed together and partly dolphins are so darned CUTE, you betcha.

Look for the Dolphin high in the southeast around 11 p.m. The body of the Dolphin is made up of four faint but equally bright stars in a diamond shape. Down and to the right, a fifth star outside the diamond marks the Dolphin’s tail.

You are on the top edge of the so-called “watery constellations,” a celestial sea, just rising to the east, that includes Aquarius, the Water Bearer; Pisces, the Fishes; Cetus, the Sea Monster; and Capricornus, the Sea-Goat.

Of all the strange creatures and monsters that inhabit this section of sky, the dolphin certainly fascinates humanity the most. From early days, we recognized the intelligence and playfulness of the dolphin. Let’s face it, folks. If dolphins had been born with opposable thumbs, those ocean-going mammals would be sitting in special swimming pools, munching tasty fishy snacks, and watching the antics of the strange bipedal creatures in cages at “Human World.”

Two stories from the ancient Greeks explain how the dolphin got to be a denizen of the cosmic deep. In one tale, the dolphin is the messenger of the sea god, Poseidon. As an immortal, Poseidon had it made, of course. Still, he tired of his life of lonely isolation under the waves and decided that he needed a wife. At long last, he fell in love with Amphrites, one of the Nereids, or Sea Nymphs. Poseidon went courting, but he had little experience with females and the Nereids were shy. Amphrites fled in fin-flailing terror from Poseidon’s rather rough advances. Poseidon figured that he needed an intermediary, and in a burst of god-like excess, he sent several creatures to look for the nymph. Only the dolphin was clever enough to find Amphrites in her briny hiding place. Using all of its mammalian wiles, the dolphin spoke so eloquently of Poseidon’s love that Amphrites and Poseidon were soon married. In gratitude, Poseidon placed the dolphin in the sky, which is basically the way all these stories end.

A second story is based (very loosely, as we shall see) on the life of Arion, a real-life poet and singer of the seventh century BC. Arion was the Elvis of his time. Like a modern pop star, he went on extensive tours throughout Greece and Italy, where he earned a considerable amount of money singing and accompanying himself on the lyre, a hand-held harp.

On his way back to Greece by ship from a tour of Sicily, a group of sailors plotted to kill him and take the money he had earned. As the sailors prepared to commit him to the briny deep, Arion begged them to let him sing one, last song.

Figuring a free concert would do no harm, the sailors agreed. Arion sang a song in honor of Apollo, the god of the sun and patron of the arts. Apollo was so pleased with Arion’s tribute that he sent a school of dolphins, which jumped playfully (and cunningly) around the ship.

The sailors were unmoved, however. They robbed him and tossed him overboard. When Arion finally did hit the water, the dolphins rescued him and carried him on their backs back to Greece. When the ship finally arrived, Arion was able to confront the sailors and have them sentenced to death. In honor of the dolphins that saved his life, Arion had a small statue of the creature made and placed in a shrine in a temple dedicated to Apollo. Later, Apollo placed the statue in the sky.

All these stories seem to end with the great hero or proud animal in the sky, but this one is different. The Delphinus is a statue, a lump of cold stone, magically transformed into stars.

Not all world cultures see a dolphin, of course. Early Christians, for example, identified it (along with the larger and brighter constellation Bootes) as Job’s Coffin.

But right now, one story sticks out for me most intensely, partly because my wife and I have recently returned from a trip to China and partly because Delphinus defines for me my sweetest memories of my youthful late summer evenings.

Ah, late summer! The bats and mosquitoes are in their prime, and a heavy haze of heat and atmospheric moisture descends upon the land. Best of all, festive gourds will soon decorate the kitchen tables of squash-lovers everywhere.

Ah, the glorious gourd! Ah, memories! Many are the mornings after a long night of stargazing in Middleofnowhere, Ohio, that I’ve cruised into the 24-hour truck stop at 5 am looking to purchase a cup of java and a small token of my love for a wife waiting patiently at home. What better gift is a selection of the colorful gourds sitting in the faded plastic bowl by the cash register?

Yes, fellow nature lovers, we will soon enter the season of the gourd. And remember, what we find on Earth, we often find among the stars.

The calabash, as it is sometimes called, is featured in several old star stories. Escaped African- American slaves followed the Drinking Gourd, the stars that make up the Big Dipper, north to freedom in the 19th-century southern United States, for example.

However, the best-developed star story about the curvaceous calabash can be found in the myths of the ancient Chinese people. Look again to the south for the distinctive collection of stars that Western astronomers call Delphinus, the Dolphin.

The body of Delphinus, which I have described above as diamond-shaped, was called Hou-koua, the Good Gourd. The tail of the Dolphin and a few nearby stars were Pai-koua, the Rotten (or Frozen) Gourd.

As the old story is told, winter gourds could be eaten during September when they were green and fresh. After that, as winter froze the gourds on the vine, the hard shell was removed with a knife and used to make drinking cups, rice bowls, and spoons.

The soft insides were left to soak in a mixture of alcohol and rice water. The result was a sweet and potent alcoholic beverage that was much prized, especially at the Emperor’s court. In fact, the Emperor had such a great need for the beverage and the gourd cups to drink it from that he had his own gourd plantation, which was called “The Fruit Garden of the Emperor.”

In those days, clay pottery had not been invented in China. Gourd cups were not nearly so durable as ceramic cups and spoons, so gourd utensils tended to break a lot. By the time of the winter gourd harvest, people were pretty much gourdless, so the gourd harvest was much anticipated.

Woe be unto the farmer who left his gourds too long on the vine, allowing them to freeze and rot to uselessness there. The Good and Rotten Gourds were put in the sky by the gods to remind farmers not to allow their crop to become too frostbitten.

The two star grouping were also called Toung-koua, the Iced Gourds. Chinese weddings traditionally occurred during December. Slices of the more melon-like gourds preserved in sugar were frozen and eaten with a cup of gourd wine during the traditional toast to the newlyweds.

So check out the celestial squashes, fellow stargazers. On your way home from stargazing, pick up a couple of gourds to grace your kitchen table. While you’re at it, raise your gourd cups filled with gourd wine high to the humble calabash as you gaze with awe-struck silence at the stars.


By Tom Burns


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

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