Libra was originally ‘Claws’ of Scorpius

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

And now, a beast fiercer than Godzilla, more terrifying than Jaws — ladies and gents, I give you … Claws.

But you can’t see this monster in theatres or on the Internet. You’ll have to stay up until midnight or so to see this one among an odd tableau of constellations in the south.

Low in the southeast is Scorpius, the giant scorpion, rising just above the horizon. To the south, just to the right of the beast, you’ll see Libra, the Scales, or if you prefer, the Balance.

Based on a comment by one of the younger patrons at Perkins, I must digress here. We are not talking the kind of scales one might find on a fish or to answer the young person directly, a dragon. Instead, I’m referring to the two-sided balancing device used to measure the weight of something.

Where was I? Oh, yes.

Libra gets its ancient identity from two nearby constellations. Setting in the southwest, Virgo, the innocent virgin, is being chased by the scorpion, which is rising in the southeast.

Libra originally was considered too dim to be a constellation on its own. The ancient Greeks combined it with Scorpius to make up a larger super-monster that made Jaws look like a guppy.

The ancient Greeks called the Libra “Chelae,” which means Claws. The two brightest stars of Libra were commonly identified as the claws of the scorpion. In fact, they still bear the Arabic names that mark them as such. Zubenelschamali (pronounced just like it’s spelled — ha), the Northern Claw, is the upper star. Zubenelgenubi (try saying that one three times fast), the Southern Claw, is the lower star.

Scorpius is one of the nastiest constellations, with its broad head at the top and its deadly stinger curving down and to the left. Add the claws and you have one of the largest and cruelest-looking star groups in the sky.

Later, the Romans saw this area of sky as a set of scales, partly because the two Zubens are more or less similar in brightness. But there’s another reason.

Libra is a zodiacal constellation, one of the star groups through which the sun, moon, and planets pass as they travel across the sky.

The sun appeared in Libra on the autumnal equinox, a day during which daylight and nighttime are evenly divided. Here then was the balance point of heaven.

The Romans, who considered themselves a balanced lot, believed that Rome’s favored status among the gods resulted in part from the fact that the moon had been traveling through Libra when the city of Rome was established.

Libra’s favored status presented a problem. Libra is the only sign of the zodiac that is an inanimate object. It therefore must be owned by another constellation. Scorpions don’t have a use for scales, so the association had to go.

Luckily, Virgo sits on the other side of Libra. She was sometimes identified as Dike. The name is pronounced DEE-kay, just as Nike, the goddess of Victory, is technically pronounced NEE-kay. The shoe manufacturer can pronounce it any way they want, of course.

Dike was the goddess of justice. We see her to this very day in front of court buildings — blind justice with her scales raised high, holding the rule of law in the balance. In the Roman version of Libra, the goddess of Justice, Virgo, is holding high the balanced scales of justice, Libra.

There is, of course, something to be learned from this. The evil scorpion sometimes seems to rule for a time, but eventually the rules of justice and equality and the impulse of our common humanity will triumph. As Martin Luther King most famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So it is written here on Earth, and so it is written among the stars.

Let us fervently hope that eventually we will come to say, as the Romans seemed to say so long ago, “Malevolent scorpion, where is your sting? Sweet justice has stolen your claws.”

Celebration of the Sun at Perkins Observatory

July is the cruelest month for stargazers because the sun doesn’t get out of the way of nighttime observing until after 10:30 p.m. or so.

Thus, during three days in July, Perkins Observatory spends its Saturday late-afternoons celebrating our daystar by observing it safely with our battery of solar-safe telescopes.

Programs start at 4 p.m. on July 14, 21 and 28. We strongly recommend that you purchase your tickets ahead of time by calling 740-363-1257. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and children when they are purchased in advance.

In addition, we’ll also be talking about the sun, launching rockets, and giving observatory tours that emphasize its solar features.

The solar celebration programs are among the last ones I will be conducting as director of Perkins Observatory. I’m hoping that y’all will come and celebrate my quarter century at Perkins by attending one of the programs.

Call 740-363-1257 for details or to preorder tickets.


Look for bright Venus low in the west during deep evening twilight. Venus has phases just like the moon, but Venus takes 248 days to cycle through its phases as the planet travels around the sun. Right now, the planet is in its “half-Venus” phase.

Jupiter, almost as bright as Venus, hovers near much fainter Zubenelgenubi in the south after it gets completely dark.

How bright is Jupiter? Not quite as bright as Venus but bright enough that it is unmistakable. It’s probably easier to see Jupiter to find the constellation Libra than it is to use Libra to find Jupiter.

Use binoculars to glimpse three or four of Jupiter’s brightest moons lined up close around the planet.

Saturn is that yellowish point of light above the teapot-shaped constellation Sagittarius. Look for it low in the southeast after midnight. Binoculars won’t help you much here. You’ll need at least a small to see its fabulous rings.

Mars is engaged in one of its 17-year closest approaches to Earth. Look for it low in the southeast around 3 AM amidst the faint stars of Capricornus. It’s easy to pick it out with the unaided eye. The so-called “red planet” will look like a bright, yellow-orange star.

However, even at its current best, Mars never fails to disappoint, even in a large telescope. You might see a white polar cap or two and perhaps some greenish markings on the surface.

I’d suggest coming to one of the Friday night programs at Perkins in August if you want to get a half-way-decent view of it. Call 740-363-1257 for details.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.