Leo, the regal Lion, is perhaps the most distinctive constellation of spring. He rises high in the south after dark. Look for the distinctive backwards question mark, called the Sickle, which forms the Lion’s head and shoulders. To the left, the star ancient Arab astronomers called Denebola represents the Lion’s posterior region.
Regulus, the 21st brightest star in the nighttime sky, marks the lion’s front paw or, more traditionally, his beating heart, which is why the ancient Romans called it Cor Leonis, the “heart of the lion.”
The Greco-Roman version of the constellation was somewhat larger. To his right, a beautiful fuzzy patch of unresolved stars called the Praesepe, variously translated as “Beehive” or “Manger,” formed Leo’s whiskers and nose. To the left, a loose cluster of stars in the constellation Coma Berenices represented the tuft of hair at the end of Leo’s tail.
The stars of Leo are so striking that cultures around the world saw what was most important to them in its environs. The Chinese saw in the stars of the Sickle their Rain Dragon, to whom they prayed for life-giving rain.
The Taulipang people of northern Brazil saw Tauna, the god of thunder and lightning. Other Brazilian tribes saw a tasty crayfish.
The ancient Babylonians saw a fierce guard dog, a critical component of commerce. Many such beasts guarded the trade caravans that carried precious cargo from far-away places.
The most recognizable story associated with Leo has to do with the famous hero Hercules. He represents the Nemean Lion, which Hercules killed in the first of his 12 labors.
My favorite story about Leo traces its origin back to the ancient Babylonians. As told much later by the Roman poet Ovid, Leo is the villain in a tale of tragic love and a bloodstained veil fluttering in the breeze.
Pyramus and Thisbe were neighbors, separated by a wall and the disapproval of their love by both sets of parents. Thisbe, the young woman, was forced to talk to her paramour in secret through a crack in the wall.
They agreed to meet one dark night by a spring near the edge of the forest. Thisbe arrived first. Leo arrived soon after. The lion immediately settled down to a meal of the animal he had just killed.
As Thisbe scurried away in terror, she dropped her veil, which the lion picked up in his mouth. In the process, Leo stained the delicate piece of cloth with blood of his prey. The lion, sated from his repast, then dropped the veil and disappeared into the woods.
The boy Pyramus arrived soon thereafter and picked up Thisbe’s veil. He supposed that Thisbe was dead, and in his anguish used his sword to commit suicide.
When Thisbe returned, and saw her dead lover, she plunged his sword into her side. As their blood mingled on the ground, they were united finally in death.
Jupiter, the king of the gods, admired the fervor of young love. He wanted to remind parents that they should be more understanding of their children’s affections and that unsatisfied youthful passion can lead to tragedy. When we reach adulthood, we must not forget what it was like to be young.
And so it was that he placed the symbol of those dangers in the sky as the constellation Leo. Fluttering behind is Thisbe’s veil which, in this version of the story, is the beautiful cluster of stars that we have come to call Coma Berenices.
Coincidentally, Jupiter lurks nearby right now. You’ll find it to the left of the star Regulus, the heart of the Lion, as the brightest point of light in the heavens in the early evening.
The planet Jupiter shines brilliantly, despite its incredible distance from our planet. At about half a billion miles away, only Jupiter’s immense size and stunning reflectivity can make a planet shine so brightly. It is easy to see why the ancients saw him as a god.
To its right, the star Regulus shines more dimly, and there is a lesson in that. I have just passed my 64th birthday, and that event reminds me that on a future birthday, I plan to learn that lesson.
Jupiter is so far away that the light we see took about 50 minutes to get to our eyes. The light from Regulus took 77 years.
If I make it to that advanced age, on my 77th birthday, I will go out and look at the star Regulus. The light that I see at that moment will have erupted from that hydrogen-bomb star on or about the day that I was born and will have been traveling my entire lifetime to get to my eyes.
And thus I will contemplate the brevity of human life, the long-lost passion of my youth, my love for my own children, and the immensity and beauty of the cosmos that we all are privileged to be a part of.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.