Ancient civilizations relied on stars for answers


The science-minded among us occasionally chide me about my interest in the old stories about the stars. Why do I tell them when I could be discussing, say, the spectral characteristics of Seifert galaxies?

In part, the answer lies in the large number of crows that inhabit my neighborhood. They seem to be caw-caw-cawing a warning to each other as I trot by. What in heaven’s name could the crows have against me, a casual passerby?

Their coal-black feathers and their raspy cry send a shiver of dread up my spine. Where did they get their sad, ugly rasp? Why are they clad in black, evil-looking robes?

The answer to those questions can perhaps be found in the complexities of natural selection, but our ancient forebears had no such tools. Instead, they found their answers in the stars.

As naive as those star stories seem today, they must resonate somewhere deep within us. After all, we still tell them thousands of years later. You’ll find them in old Disney animations like “Hercules” or a remake of the even older “Clash of the Titans,” which combines the constellations Cetus, Perseus, Andromeda and Pegasus.

In fact, the old stories are at their best when several constellations form a story-telling tableau, an old tale frozen in time and place as stars. Those stories were passed down from parent to child and teacher to student over the many centuries until a Greek or Roman poet like Ovid bothered to put a unique spin on them and record them permanently in writing 2,000 years ago.

One of the best stories rises out of three seemingly unrelated constellations — a crow, a cup, and a water snake.

Look low in the south around 10 p.m., just after the sky has completely darkened. Of the three, Corvus, the Crow, is the easiest to find. Four relatively bright stars form a rough square. Crater, the Cup, is a faint semicircle of stars to the right of the Crow.

Hydra, the Water Snake, is more difficult. Its head can be found just south of Cancer as a little circle of stars. Its thin, serpentine body stretches out as a long, meandering chain of stars to the southeast just underneath Crater and Corvus and for a considerable distance to the left and right of the two smaller constellations.

Hercules, who is often at the center of such star stories but plays only a supporting role here, is rising in the east.

The Lernaean Hydra was a gigantic, nine-headed sea monster raised by Hera, the queen of the gods. She loved her nasty little pet, but she had ulterior motive for giving it such loving care.

She detested the hero Hercules because he was the son of her husband, Zeus, and a mortal woman named Alcmene who was, shall we say, not Hera. She had been trying to kill poor Hercules even when he was a baby in his cradle.

So she raised the Hydra with one goal in mind — to kill Hercules.

The Hydra was well suited to the task. Each of its nine mouths has breath so bad that it killed anyone who was foolish enough to come too close. Its blood was a deadly poison. As you might guess, the Hydra was not invited to many parties.

Corvus was the pet and “gofer” of Apollo, god of the sun and patron of music, the arts, and learning. The pairing is somewhat ironic. Apollo was the god of light and truth. The crow is a noisy and obstreperous creature.

Still, Apollo considered the Crow a sacred bird. When the hideous monster Typhon had threatened the god, he changed himself into a crow to get away. In an odd way, he figured that he owed the bird his life.

The two companions never really got along. Corvus was originally a beautiful snow-white bird with a sweet, sweet song. One day, the Crow whispered in Apollo’s ear that Coronis, the god’s one true love, had been unfaithful to him. As punishment, Apollo cursed at the bird with such fury that the heat of Apollo’s words singed the bird’s feathers coal-black, which is, of course, the way we see them today.

Apollo’s biggest beef against the Crow was that he always sent it on important missions, and Corvus always managed to mess things up.

As Ovid tells the tale in his Fasti, one fine day Apollo was planning to make a sacrifice to the king of the gods, Zeus. For that purpose, he needed some water, so he sent the Crow to fetch some from a nearby brook. Corvus picked up Crater, Apollo’s cup, and flew off to do its duty.

Of course, it flubbed the job. A fig tree full of unripe fruit beckoned, and the lazy bird decided to wait around until the figs ripened.

Several days later, the crow finally ate the figs. With its hunger sated, it realized that Apollo was going to be livid when it returned to home base on Mount Olympus. In desperation, it picked up the Lernaean Hydra and flew back to Apollo with its tail between its legs.

Corvus claimed, rather sheepishly, that the snake had been blocking its access to the water, an alibi that Apollo didn’t buy into for one Olympian minute. Apollo was, after all, the god of learning and prophecy. He could easily to see through the Crow’s pitiful deception. His agile mind conjured up a unique and fitting punishment that included both the Crow and the Cup and depended on the eventual demise of the Hydra.

The Hydra apparently made its way back to its lair, a marshy region of the Peloponnesus in Greece called Lerna.

Here, Hercules reluctantly reenters the story. As the second of his twelve labors, he was commanded to slay the Lernaean Hydra — and with good reason.

As with all of Hera’s household pets, the Hydra made life difficult for the locals.

The Hydra’s swampy domain was well suited to a water snake. The region is quite narrow, so that travelers through the swamps had best beware lest they succumb to the poisonous breath of the beast.

Hercules ferreted out the Hydra and covered his face with a cloth to protect himself from the creature’s deadly breath. As he hacked away at its nine heads, he was chagrined to discover that two more heads would grow quickly in their places.

To add to his Herculean woes, Hera, who loved her nasty little pet very dearly, sent the giant crab Cancer, also a constellational figure, to pinch him as he tried to kill the Hydra.

Hercules first had to kill the crab and then solicit the aid of his charioteer to burn the bloody stumps with a torch as fast as he could cut the Hydra’s heads off.

The distraught Hera put the Hydra and the Crab up in the heavens. And there they sit to this very day, a memorial to a goddess’s lousy choice of household pets.

Out of all those events was born the punishment for the Crow. It must forever ride the back of the Hydra. The Cup is also there, filled to the brim with water. Corvus must forever look, but in vain. The snake blocks the Crow’s access to the cool drink it desires above all else. Apollo has condemned Corvus to a life of thirst. The crow’s sweet song is reduced to a throaty rasp.

So why do I tell those star stories? The old gods are dead and cannot tell their own stories, but you can.

Perhaps there will come a warm spring night when you are standing under the stars with some small child. Perhaps you will listen to the wind and hear in it the distant cry of the crow.

And perhaps you will tell, as it was done so long ago, the old, old stories that stretch back to our dim beginnings — when snow-white crows soared on distant winds.

By Tom Burns


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

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