During these cold, snowy days, you will please forgive me for thinking about the promise of springtime.
For some, the beginning of spring is marked by the first crocuses peeking feebly through the snow. For me, the first faint whiff of the season arrives when the constellation Leo, the lion, rises majestically in the southeast.
However, the feeling is tempered with vague melancholy as I think of a little poem by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire I memorized a long time ago:
O lion, mournful image
Of kings sadly brought down,
You are born now only in cages
In Hamburg, among the Germans.
The lion has always symbolized to humanity regal power and freedom, yet it is now an endangered species, brought down by the growth of civilization and the shrinking of its habitat.
The constellation Leo is somewhat the same as it slowly fades from the sky because of nighttime lighting.
Not too long ago, Leo shone very brightly among the stars of the firmament. Even then, the most common comment about the constellation was that it “doesn’t look like a lion.”
The complaint is not surprising, of course. None of the constellations look much like the animals and heroes they are supposed to represent. Still, I wish people would give an old stargazer a break. A stick figure drawing of a human doesn’t look much like a human either. Use your imagination, for heaven’s sake.
We must look to human culture and history to find the proud lion’s nobility in the haphazardly placed stars of Leo.
But first, we have to find it. Look for Leo low in the southeast just after dark at around 9:30 p.m. You can start by first finding the more familiar Big Dipper, high in the northeastern sky. Next, locate the two stars that form the front of the bowl of the dipper. Extend the line between those two stars to the east, and you’ll run right into Leo’s back.
Leo’s most identifiable feature is the backward question mark of stars, sometimes called the Sickle, which forms the Lion’s head and front paw. At the bottom of the question mark is the brightest star of the constellation, called Regulus.
Due east of the Sickle is a right triangle of stars that form Leo’s hindquarters. The bright star farthest east in the triangle is called Denebola, which means “lion’s tail” in the original Arabic.
The Egyptians were probably the first to identify the stars of the constellation with a lion. They depicted it standing on top of a snake. By the time of the classical Greek culture, the designation had stuck.
To the Greeks, Leo was the Nemean lion, offspring of Selene, goddess of the moon. It’s easy to see why. Almost on a monthly basis, the moon passes near Regulus. For example, look for the gibbous moon during the evening of March 18 when it passes just a few lunar diameters to the left of the star.
That designation resonates throughout human history. A Jewish stargazer/friend of mine once told me that early Hebrews thought of the constellation as the Lion of Judah, which represented the strength and nobility of the Jewish faith. Medieval Christians pictured it not as a lion but as the lion’s den of the Biblical book of Daniel.
However, it’s Nemean lion connection that stuck, probably because Hercules still tickles our cultural imagination. The Greco-Roman hero was asked to slay the lion as one of his 12 labors.
Later in the evening, as Leo reaches its highest point in the southern sky and slowly begins to descend to the west, Hercules begins to rise in the east, pursuing the lion forever across the dome of night.
Leo and Hercules must be enjoying themselves immensely. To be chased forever and never to be caught! The pleasure of the hunt is in the pursuit and not the victory.
Regulus is only the 21st brightest star in the sky. The Little King would probably deserve only passing mention in the history of stargazing except for a simple accident of location. The star is placed very near the ecliptic, the path that the sun takes as it moves across the sky. As a result, the sun, moon, and planets often spend time near Regulus. Astrologically speaking, their presence near the star has for millennia portended great events in the history of humanity.
The safe assumption is that the star got its name from the constellation. The lion is, after all, the king of beasts, and the Little King was also called Cor Leonis, the “Heart of the Lion.” However, so important was the star to the ancients that the constellation may have derived its name from the star. The first recorded observations of Regulus were inscribed on clay tablets around 2100 BC by the Babylonians, who already called it Sharru, “The King.” The ancient Persians regarded it as one of the four “Royal Stars” of Heaven and called it Miyan, “The Star at the Center.”
As the sun moves against the starry background, it passes near Regulus every August. Even though the ancients couldn’t see the star during the day, they were smart enough to realize that it was there. The star and its constellation thus became emblems of everything important that happened during the latter days of summer.
As the sun approached Leo, the Egyptians noticed that the Nile River began to rise, carrying with it the soil that was deposited on the river’s banks. The Egyptians depended on that yearly deposit of soil for much of their food in an otherwise very arid region. The star became for them among the most important in the sky.
The ancient Greeks didn’t much like the scorching heat and violent storms of late summer. For them, the star and its constellation portended danger. As the Macedonian poet Aratus writes early in the third century BCE, “Most scorching is the chariot of the Sun when he begins to travel with the Lion. Turbulent north winds then fall on the wide sea with all their weight.”
When we look in the direction of Leo, we gaze away from the portion of our galaxy that is most dense with stars, so we are able to look beyond our own Milky Way to galaxies beyond.
The best grouping of those galaxies can be found just below the back paw of Leo. This triplet of galaxies, the “Trio in Leo,” is marked M65, M66, and NGC3628 on most star maps.
M65 and M66 are pretty easy to see in binoculars under a dark, rural sky. They will look like small fuzzy patches. But it will take at least a small telescope to see NGC3628.
The Trio will show a bit more detail in a medium-sized or large ‘scope and will all fit into one low-magnification field of view. M65 and M66 are small, bright, and close together.
M65 is slightly more elongated. The other galaxy, NGC3628, is long and very narrow. This galactic tableau looks a bit like one of those smile buttons floating in space, with M65 and M66 forming the eyes and 3628 forming the slightly up-curved smile.
They are all over 30 million light years away, or about 180 million trillion miles. That’s over one half of a million times the distance from here to Regulus and the other stars that form the outline of Leo.
On March 18, when the moon is close to Leo, go outside and revel in the four-dimensionality — in both time and space — of what you are seeing.
When you look at the moon, you are seeing it the way it looked just over a second before because the moon’s distance, about 248,000 miles, translates into just over one light second. You are looking into the immediate past.
Regulus is 77 light years away. The starlight you are seeing took around a human lifetime to get to your eyes. On my 77th birthday, I hope to gaze at Regulus and think, “The light that I am seeing now started its great journey near the day that I was born.”
On that day, I will then swing my telescope to the Trio in Leo. That light began its long journey 30 million years ago. In those days, Earth was a far different place, and humans wouldn’t inhabit what we now call “our” planet for a very long time.
The old heroes and monsters are almost gone, lost to time and neglect. But they are memorialized in the stars and will not be lost forever. Their deeds are remembered every time we look up at the sky because they represent human needs and memories so powerful that even the passage of time cannot erase them entirely.
A time may also come when the last lion paces nervously in some zoo. Then the species will be gone forever, save for the indelible mark that it has left upon the stars. As long as the stars still shine, children will look up at them and ask, “What is that?” And parents will reply, “A lion, a noble and beautiful beast that once lived in Africa but now treads only among the stars.”
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.