Our forebears didn’t have cable TV and the Internet to entertain them. Instead, they sometimes went outside and looked up at the glorious, starry sky and told stories about the giant beasts and noble heroes that populate the heavens in the form of constellations. It’s no wonder that the old stories are fading from our cultural memory. TV and the Internet are easy – new worlds are just a click away.
And let’s face it. Stargazing is hard. To do it properly, especially if you live in the “urbs,” you have to load up on gas and drive to those magnificent rural locations where the stars still shine like diamond dust against the uncorrupted blackness of the night. Even there, the growth of light from distant cities is slowly causing the stars to disappear from view.
However, a few stars still shine brightly, even from downtown Columbus. Two of them are Vega in the constellation Lyra, the Lyre, and Deneb in Cygnus, the Swan. Vega is the brightest star of summer. Just after dark (around 10:30 p.m.) look for it high in the east. If you’re observing from more rural skies, check out the rest of Lyra as the parallelogram of stars hanging to the southeast of Vega.
Cygnus is a much tougher constellation to find because of the glow of streetlights, and a dark rural sky creates a new set of problems. There are so many stars! Their profusion is daunting, to say the least.
Start by finding Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus, by looking down and to the left from Vega. The rest of Cygnus forms a rough cross, much larger than Lyra, lying on its side.
Many modern stargazers call Cygnus the Northern Cross, probably because of the influence of Christianity. The oldest stories from the ancient Greeks don’t identify it as a swan either. Instead, the ancients saw it as Ornis, a generalized bird, or as the Hen, which is what the Arabs had in mind when they called it Al Dajajah.
Eventually, the Greeks began to see the bird as a swan — and not just any swan. According to most accounts, Cygnus represented Zeus, most powerful of all the Greek gods. He often disguised himself as an animal of some sort when he wanted to seduce mortal women.
(Warning: Some of the following is almost as violent and grotesque as your kids might see on the Internet.)
In the simplest version of the Cygnus tale, Zeus appeared before Leda, wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta, in full swanhood. One thing led to another, and, well, you know.
The matter was further complicated when Leda also had, ahem, conjugal relations with her husband later that same night. Leda eventually laid an egg. (Yes, that’s right, an egg.) Out of the egg was born the constellational twin heroes Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux to the Romans) and Helen of Sparta, later famously to become Helen of Troy.
There the matter remained until the Romans got the constellation into their militaristic little hands. They associated it with Cycnus, who had the misfortune of being the son of Mars, god of war. Growing up under the influence of such a violent father caused Cycnus to turn into a mass-murderin’, night-stalkin’, flesh-eatin’ kind of guy. He had no love of humans and the near-god status to do something about it.
His interests turned to architectural design of a rather macabre sort. He lived in Thessaly, a region of northern Greece. When hapless travelers wandered into Thessaly, he killed them and collected their heads as trophies. He intended to show his love for his father by building a temple to Mars out of human heads.
A son’s love for his father is, of course, admirable, but geesh. The closest analogue to Cycnus in modern religion is the eastern-Indian goddess Kali, who wears a necklace of skulls around her neck.
The other gods realized that something had to be done about Cycnus. Luckily, the ancients had an all-purpose hit man, who was willing and able to take on the nastiest of contracts. He was, of course, the magnificent half-god, half-man Hercules.
Hercules dispatched the hated villain with a single stroke of his sword. Mars, who was not well known for his altruism, was heartbroken enough by his son’s death to transform him into an ironically gentle swan and put him in the sky. Ah, there’s nothing more heartwarming than a father’s love for his son.
Despite such stories, we think of swans as things of beauty, and Cygnus’s position in the sky reinforces that impression. The Swan is embedded in the silvery river of light called the Milky Way. From dark, rural places, the view of that area of sky is among the most strikingly beautiful sights that humans can behold. Imagine a swan flying over a river of light.
Now go out and look at it for yourself. Then show somebody else, preferably a child. I was 18 years old when I first saw the Milky Way in Cygnus. That’s what growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, will do for you.
The view made me want to pass it on to others, which I am still doing at the John Glen Astronomy Park down in the Hocking Hills almost 50 years later.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.