Of all the constellations, none is stranger than the combination of Ophiuchus, the Snake Handler, and Serpens, the Serpent. For one thing, Serpens is the only constellation that is not continuous. Serpens Caput (the serpent’s head) on the right is separated from Serpens Cauda (the serpent’s tail) on the left by the body of Ophiuchus.
For another thing, here we have a man who seems to be engaged in a death struggle with a giant serpent. Why then is the unfortunate Ophiuchus wrestling a snake?
Look for the constellational tableau low in the south just after dark. You’ll find them just above the far more familiar constellation, Scorpius, the Scorpion. He is often depicted holding a long staff, which came in pretty handy, as we shall see.
Ophiuchus is most often identified as Asclepius, the god of medicine. He was the son of the sun god Apollo and the mortal woman Coronis. Apollo spent the daylight hours driving the sun across the sky, which left him plenty of time to look down on Earth. One day, he spied Coronis and it was lust at first sight.
Like all the gods, Apollo had no compunctions about sleeping around with mortals, but he was still the jealous type. Coronis had the audacity to two-time him with a mortal man while she was pregnant with Apollo’s child. In a fit of rage, he shot Coronis with an arrow and killed her. As the flames of her funeral pyre rose around her, Apollo felt remorse that was unusual for the gods. He plucked the unborn child from his mother’s womb just in the nick of time.
However, Apollo was not exactly the maternal type. Instead, he foisted his son on Chiron, a centaur, who had the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human. The centaurs were skilled in hunting and healing the sick. Asclepius soon excelled in the medical arts.
Sadly, such gifts can be a curse as well as a boon. One day, Asclepius was kidnapped by King Minos of Crete. The king’s son, Glaucus, had fallen into a vat of honey and drowned. He was good and dead, but Minos was not the type to take “no” for an answer. Asclepius was charged with bringing the boy back to life.
As the good doctor sat, staff in hand, contemplating the cold, cold body of Glaucus and his own impending demise, a snake slithered up the staff. In alarm, Asclepius slammed the staff to the ground again and again until the snake was dead. A bit later, the physician was amazed to see a second snake creep up to its dead companion. In its mouth it had some sort of herb, which it placed in the dead serpent’s mouth. The dead snake immediately returned to life. Asclepius snatched up a bit of the herb and gave it to Glaucus, who sprang up as if he had never been dead at all.
Had his father Apollo interceded to save his life? Whatever the cause, the physician had found the secret to conquering death. So successful was he that the flow of the dead to the Underworld, where the dead were supposed to reside, diminished significantly.
Hades, the dark lord of the Underworld, was not pleased. He stormed up to the CEO of the gods, the powerful Zeus, and complained that Asclepius was cutting into his business. Zeus knew that the physician had thrown into turmoil the natural order of the universe, so he zapped him with a thunderbolt. The greatest healer the world had ever known died a horrible, ironic death.
In tribute to his great skill as a healer (and to assuage the anger of the mighty Apollo), Zeus placed Asclepius in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus. Around his waist can still be found the serpent. In part, the snake represents the way Asclepius had learned of the healing herb, but its meaning is far deeper than that.
To this very day, in the offices of some physicians, you will see the caduceus, the staff of Asclepius. Intertwined upon the staff are two serpents to symbolize the constant struggle against death with which every physician must contend. Look up, all you healers of the sick, and you will see it also among the stars.
Galileo changed the world with his telescopic observations and experiments with gravity. He couldn’t have done so without being an excellent fundraiser. He played the patronage game as well as anyone until his observations came into conflict with religious dogma.
On Thursday, July 2, Ohio Wesleyan University professor Barbara Andereck will give some insight into the process. Her talk — “Astronomy, Rhetoric and Philanthropy: Connections between Delaware, Ohio and Florence, Italy” — will begin at 8 p.m. at Perkins Observatory. We’ll do a bit of stargazing afterward, including a look at the crescent Venus if the sky is clear. Please call 740-363-1257 for more information and to reserve tickets.