When my daughter Krishni was young, she was a dragon fanatic. I, of course, have a passing interest in astronomy, so we both had a good time as I told her stories about the constellation Draco, the Dragon.
I remember distinctly going to see the old movie Dragonheart with her. The film ends with the last dragon on Earth rising to the celestial dome to form the stars of the constellation Draco.
I caught myself leaning over to my daughter and whispering, “That’s not what really happened.”
Well, of course. Dragons never existed in the first place. However, the starry dragon is an ancient constellation, and the stories connected with it are as good as the movie.
Draco is easy to find, even though its stars are not exceptionally bright. Look straight north, about halfway up the sky, and you’ll see Polaris, the North Star. Polaris forms the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, which curves straight upward from Polaris just after dark.
Draco coils around the Dipper. Its serpentine curves are awkward as constellations go. Draco is spread out over a considerable section of the sky.
So how did Draco get so bent out of shape?
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to a time before the ancient gods ruled the universe. Their parents were the Titans, a race of horrifying beasts and terrible giants. As the gods came of age, they fought the tyrannical Titans for supremacy. For over a decade, the heavens and Earth trembled with the clashing sounds and horrific sights of all-out war.
The thunderbolt-wielding Zeus led the gods. Among the Titans was Draco, whose hot breath laid waste to enormous patches of land. Where great forests had grown, only deserts stretched for hundreds of miles.
As the battle climaxed, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, stood in the beast’s hot breath. She knew she had to extinguish the dragon’s heat then and there, or all would be lost. She seized the dragon by its tail and heaved it upward toward the frozen wastes of the north.
As the dragon sailed into the great void of heaven and spun and turned, its tail twisted into innumerable knots. As it struck the dome of stars, it got caught in the sky’s rotation, where it became hopelessly tangled.
Draco froze into place as the northern cold began to do its work. Today, we see the tangled mess as it was millennia ago — when gods and not politicians fought for supremacy over the Earth and sky.
The nearby North Star is positioned directly over Earth’s north-south axis. As the Earth turns once a day, we perceive the stars spinning once around the pole star.
Thus, as punishment for its evil alliance with the Titans, Draco must turn around the frigid north, never setting below the horizon, never dipping into the restorative waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Draco wasn’t just positioned to the north a few thousand years ago. It WAS north. Because planet Earth wobbles slowly as its spins on its axis, the position of true north against the starry background changes slowly over time. Three thousand years ago, Polaris was not the north star. Thuban, a faint star in Draco, marked the center of the celestial merry-go-round.
The star was thus critically important to our forebears. The Egyptians, for example, lined up their enormous pyramids to the belly of the beast.
That fact provided little comfort to the dragon. Draco was stuck forever, cold and dizzy as it could be.
My daughter eventually got her Ph.D. in Roman history and classical studies. She currently teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago. As a result, she knows those old stories far better than I ever will. After all, she has read them in their original languages, Greek and Latin.
Recently, she was interviewed on a nationally syndicated radio program. The interviewer asked her what got her interested in the old stories.
Her answer brought me to tears: “My father used to tell them at the dinner table.”
Draco, the Dragon, still pops up occasionally in our conversations. But now, we might discuss what makes a law “draconian” or why Vlad the Impaler was called Dracula. But those are stories for another day.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.