The night sky is many things to many people. To some, it is a universe filled with hydrogen-bomb stars. To others, it is a place of exquisite beauty. To me, it is a kind of mirror that reflects back to our dimly lit faces what is best and worst within ourselves.
The constellations we recognize today are not always the same ones that ancient cultures saw. Most kids don’t see the heroes and deadly monsters in the sky. We know a bit more about how the universe works, but we seem to know less about our own inner workings on a cultural and historical level.
We live in an age of fear, and our political leaders are quick to recognize our apprehension. Our response to our anxiety is often irrational, and in that quality, we are no different than our ancient forebears. As they huddled around their fires and listened to the mysterious noises around them, they must have looked up at the stars with dread as well as awe. Death came unannounced from out of the night.
No constellation elicits our animal fear of the night like Scorpius, the Scorpion.
Scorpius is one of the few constellations that actually look like the thing for which they are named. Scorpions can be as short as an inch long, but their sting is deadly.
By contrast, the constellation Scorpius looks like it marched right out of an old Godzilla movie — a giant, evil-looking creature hovering ominously low in the south-southwestern sky in August.
The head of the scorpion is a line of three stars close to each other farthest to the north. The “body” is a stream of stars that go straight south. The stinger curves around like a fishhook to the east and then north again.
At the center of the scorpion’s body is the star Antares, which looks like a shimmering drop of blood as it twinkles close to the horizon. Its name means “rival” or perhaps “companion” to Ares, the Greek god of war. His Roman name was Mars. Certainly a lot of blood was shed in his name.
As the planet Mars orbits the sun, it periodically passes near Antares. Such is the case right now. Look to the right of the star, and you will see Mars and his rival together, a double whammy of fear and dread.
According to ancient myth, the great hunter Orion was brought down not by a ferocious animal or the sword of an enemy, but by the lowly Scorpion. Orion so feared the Scorpion that he begged the gods not to put it and him in the sky together. Thus, the summer constellation Scorpius does not rise in the south until the winter constellation Orion has set.
Scorpius is also said to be responsible for the creation of deserts on the Earth. A Greek myth says that the scorpion frightened the horses that pull the sun across the sky and caused them to bolt wildly. Out of control, the horses briefly dragged the sun too close to the Earth. Deserts, drought and famine were the result.
Thus, in Western culture, Scorpius was associated with death, war, and famine. The natural world is a deadly place that must be crushed and tamed.
Natives of the South Pacific islands see the stars – and their gods and heroes – in a more benign light. In particular, the stars of Scorpius are identified as Maui’s Fishhook. Of course, the fishhook was important to the islanders. With this simple tool, they could share in nature’s bounty and live a full and happy life.
Maui, the greatest of Polynesian heroes, once stole his brothers’ fishhook and managed to get it snagged on the ocean bottom. He dove deep into the water and tugged hard until the hook was free. As he swam to the surface, he discovered that he had hooked a whole island, complete with people going about their daily business.
So proud was he of his strength that he flung the hook into the sky, where it stays snagged to this very day. The island is still known as Te-Ika-a-Maui, Maui’s Fish, to some, but you may recognize it by its modern name – New Zealand.
Given the state of things, New Zealand sounds pretty attractive right now.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.