Dolphin in sky has tales to tell


Delphinus, the Dolphin, is among the smallest and dimmest of the traditional star groupings. As a result, ancient stargazers might easily have ignored it.

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, dolphins are so darned cute, you betcha.

Look for the dolphin high in the southeast around 11 p.m. Four faint but equally bright stars in a diamond shape form the body of Delphinus. 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 rising to the east, including 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 the sky, the dolphin 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 specially designed 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 dolphins became denizens of the cosmic deep. Both tales originated in ancient Greece. The first century BCE work “Poetic Astronomy” by the Roman writer Hyginus contains the most comprehensive retelling of both stories.

In the first tale, the dolphin is the messenger of the sea god, Poseidon. As an immortal, Neptune 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. Amphitrite fled in fin-flailing terror from Neptune’s rather rough advances.

Neptune figured he required 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 Amphitrite in her briny hiding place. Using all of its mammalian wiles, the dolphin spoke so eloquently of Poseidon’s love that Amphitrite and Neptune were soon married. In gratitude, Neptune lifted the dolphin into the sky, which is how all these stories seem to end.

A second story rises out of the life of Arion, a real-life poet and troubadour of the seventh century BCE. 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, his faithless servants plotted to murder him and steal the money he had earned. As his retainers 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 servants 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.

Arion’s retainers 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 confronted his former servants and had 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 Boötes) as Job’s Coffin.

But right now, one story sticks out for me most intensely because Delphinus defines the sweetest memories of my misspent youth during these late summer nights.

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 (or calabashes, as we sometimes call them) 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 a.m.

I was desperately looking to purchase a cup of java and a small token of my love for a spouse waiting patiently at home. What better gift is a selection of the colorful calabashes sitting in the faded plastic bowl by the cash register?

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

Several old star stories chronicle the consequential calabash. Enslaved African-Americans who escaped from their servitude followed the Drinking Gourd, the stars that comprise the Big Dipper, north to freedom in the 19th century southern United States, for example.

However, we find the best-developed star story about the curvaceous calabash in the myths of the ancient Chinese people. You can look again to the south for the distinctive collection of stars that Western astronomers call 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 Chinese tell the old story, winter gourds could be eaten during September when they were green and fresh. Subsequently, 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 alcohol and rice water. The result was a sweet and potent alcoholic beverage that was much prized, especially at the Emperor’s court. The Emperor had such a great need for the libation and the gourd cups to drink it from that he had a private gourd plantation called “The Fruit Garden of the Emperor.”

In those days, the Chinese had not yet invented clay pottery. Gourd cups were not as durable as ceramic cups and spoons, so gourd utensils tended to break frequently. By the time of the winter gourd harvest, people were pretty much gourdless, so they awaited their harvesting with great anticipation.

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

The two star groupings were also called Toung-koua, the Iced Gourds. Chinese weddings traditionally occurred in 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 colorful gourds to grace your kitchen table and perhaps placate your spousal unit.

While you’re at it, raise your gourd cups filled with gourd wine high to the simple squash as you stare 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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