Hydra, Crater and Corvus: A celestial tableau


By Tom Burns


Sometimes several constellations form a story-telling tableau, an old tale frozen in 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 record them permanently in writing 2,000 years ago.

One of the best stories originates in three seemingly unrelated constellations — a crow, a cup and a snake.

Look low in the south around 10 p.m., just after the sky completely darkens. Corvus, the Crow, is the easiest to find of the three. 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 a more difficult constellation to find. A meandering line of stars stretches just underneath Crater and Corvus and for a considerable distance to the left and right of the two smaller constellations.

Corvus was the pet and “gofer” of Apollo, god of the sun and patron of the arts, especially music and academic pursuits. The pairing is somewhat ironic. Apollo was the god of light and truth.

The crow was (and is) a noisy and obstreperous creature. If you’ve ever had a run-in with a “murder” of crows, you’ll know what I mean.

Still, Apollo considered the Crow a sacred bird. When the hideous monster Typhon threatened the god, he changed himself into a crow and escaped by flying 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. 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 turned the bird’s feathers coal-black, as we see them today.

Apollo’s biggest beef against the crow was that he always sent it on essential 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. He needed a cup of 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 its home base on Mount Olympus. In desperation, it picked up Hydra, the Water Snake, and flew back to Apollo with his tail between its legs.

Corvus somewhat sheepishly claimed that the snake had been blocking its access to the water, an alibi that Apollo didn’t buy into for a minute. Apollo was, after all, the god of learning and prophecy, so it was easy for him to see through the Crow’s pitiful deception and devise a unique and fitting punishment.

The Crow must forever ride the back of the Water Snake. The cup is there as well, full to the brim with water. Corvus must forever look, forever struggle, 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.

Sometime later, after the death of the Hydra, Apollo placed it under the Cup and the Crow, where the Crow must ride the back of the Water Snake forever. But that’s another story, one that I will tell next week.

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 a crow’s distant cry.

And perhaps you will tell, as the ancient storytellers did so long ago, the old, old story that stretches back to our dim beginnings — when snow-white crows soared on distant winds.

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

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