When I talk about constellations to various groups, someone invariably points out that they don’t look a bit like the things they’re named after.
Thus, it is with distinct pleasure that I introduce to you Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, which really looks like a crown — or a cook fire or a laurel wreath or a bear claw.
Come on. Use your imagination. It’s a semicircle of stars. It could be anything that reasonably resembles a semicircle of stars.
Go find it for yourself, and take a look.
If you look to the southeast just after dark, you’ll see Arcturus, the brightest star of the spring and early summer sky. Don’t be confused by much brighter Jupiter, which sits below Arcturus.
To the left of Arcturus is a small but distinctive circlet of stars called Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Despite its size, it was a very important star to ancient civilizations, and stories abound as to how it got in the sky.
As is often the case, what people saw in a simple semicircle of stars reflects their most significant cultural preoccupations and interests. The constellations are thus important because they tell us quite a lot about the way people lived and what they cared about.
Australian Aboriginal cultures called it Womera, a Boomerang, because of its shape. It was a fishing net filled to overflowing with its catch to South Sea islanders, an individual fish to the people of Borneo, a bear claw or a boot to Siberians, a beggar’s bowl to Middle Easterners, and a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory in battle, to the Germanic tribes of western Europe. It doesn’t look like any of those things either.
Closer to home, the Cheyenne nation arranged their camps in semicircles so it was easy for them to see a Camp Circle in the heavens. The old Hawaiian name for the constellation, Kaua Mea, suggests that it represented some sort of implement used in warfare.
To the Greeks, who had the most developed star stories to tell, it was the casually discarded crown of a god.
King Minos was the lord of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. Every year, the citizens of Athens were forced to send to him a bloody tribute. Aboard a ship with a black sail traveled seven young men and seven maidens. At the journey’s end, they were let loose inside a dark labyrinth, where they were sacrificed to a vicious beast called the Minotaur.
With the body of a human and the head of a bull, the Minotaur easily killed the Athenians and, well, ate them, if you must know. Minos wasn’t too happy about having the Minotaur on his hands, but hey, better Athenians for lunch than his own people.
By the third year of this sacrifice, Theseus, the youngest son of the king of Athens, had had enough. He placed himself among the 14 boys and girls destined to die and swore he would kill the Minotaur.
After the black ship arrived in Crete, Theseus happened upon the young daughter of Minos. Ariadne was fair and smart, and the two fell instantly in love.
When the time came for Theseus and the others to become a Minotaur snack, Ariadne secretly gave Theseus a ball of yarn, which would lead him back to the entrance of the maze after he had dispatched the beast.
Theseus entered the dark maze, and the Minotaur soon found him. The confrontation was something of a shock to the monster. Usually, his prey passed out when they saw him. He wasn’t used to moving adversaries.
Theseus was a Greek hero, however. He laughed in the face of fear. “Ha, ha,” he said as he dropped his sword and ran away.
No, wait. Furious carnage ensued, of which little should be said, lest the weak of heart start reading some other newspaper.
Suffice it to say that when it was all over, Minotaur guts were spread all over the labyrinth. Theseus followed the yarn out of the cave. The Athenians, overjoyed at their reprieve, began to dance the Geranos, the complex movements of which symbolized Theseus’s winding path through the maze. Afterward, he, Ariadne, and the Athenian youth headed for home.
Unfortunately, Theseus decided to make a pit stop at the island of Naxos, the abode of Dionysus, aka Bacchus to the Romans, the god of wine and serious partying.
Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and, while she was asleep, ordered Theseus to leave the island.
The heartbroken lad headed for home. Ariadne awoke and was filled with woe. “Oh, woe! ” she said.
“Yoo-hoo!” said Bacchus and began to woo the woeful waif. Ariadne, somewhat disillusioned by her abandonment, demanded that the good-time god prove his love. On the day they were finally married, Bacchus grabbed his golden crown and threw it into the heavens as a pledge of his love.
And everyone lived happily ever after. Bacchus married a beautiful and intelligent woman. Theseus got his name in the Gazette. Ariadne got to hang out on Mount Olympus and drink Bacchus’s wine. Minos was rid of the cursed monster. The Minotaur was too dead to care.
And, of course, folks like me get to take people out under clear, dark skies and tell the old story. How we love to speculate about the people who told it. How fearful they must have been of the unknown dangers that lurked in the dark labyrinths of their lives. How desperate they must have been to find a great hero to lead them out of the darkness.
They didn’t seem to care much if their hero led a morally questionable personal life and was willing to discard even his true love and closest ally if it served some perceived greater good.
Come to think of it, things haven’t changed much, have they?
The ancient stories thus live on in our hearts. To this day, Greeks still dance the Geranos. As the music swells and they dance their labyrinthine dance, I wonder if they ever look up at the stars.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.