High in the south right now you’ll find the constellation, Aries, the Ram. Frankly, the constellation doesn’t get much attention from amateur astronomers.
From urban and suburban skies, only three stars in a flat triangle are visible. Look for them low in the southeast right now. Around 9 p.m., start by looking for Perseus in the northeast. Then look right (toward the southwest) for Aries. The stars are faint, so it isn’t an easy find. Even under a dark, rural sky, most beginners might see another star or two.
Aries is one of the Zodiacal constellations through which the sun, moon, and planets move over the course of a year. That makes those faint stars significant, even more so because over 2,000 years ago they marked the vernal equinox. At that moment in time, the sun crosses the celestial equator going north, and winter becomes spring, astronomically speaking. To ancient astrologers and astronomers alike, that made the “First Point of Aries,” as it is still called, the true beginning of the year.
Sadly, Earth wobbles a bit on its axis, so that “first point” has moved into Pisces, so we must content ourselves with Aries’ former astrological glory.
For the diehard amateur telescope viewer, Aries is a joy. If you happen to own a big amateur telescope, you can spend at least part of an evening looking at distant galaxies, but they don’t look like much more than faint fuzzy patches. It takes a practiced eye to see them. Our adult clients at Perkins were hardly attracted to such distant “deep-sky” objects. Often, they couldn’t see them at all.
All of this was lost on our primary audience, the younger children who populated the nighttime programs at Perkins Observatory when I was Director there. Most of our audience at Perkins consists of children of various ages, and the feeble stellar light of Aries offered little fascination for them.
Occasionally, they would be filling a scouting requirement that involved identifying a few constellations. Scout leaders often chose the constellations for them, and sometimes the choices were, well, haphazard. Thus it was that one fine night just after I started my work at Perkins, a ten-year-old from some youth group corralled me and asked me to show her Aries and to tell her about it.
She was, I think, fulfilling a scouting requirement to observe the constellations of the Zodiac.
At such moments, a minor panic sets in. A good observatory presenter is always looking for language and analogs in day-to-day life to explain astronomical concepts to the younger folks. However, vernal equinoxes and first points of, well, anything can be daunting to a fourth grader. So you tell stories.
But the old constellation stories can be problematic as well. They reveal a lot about our ancient forebears and human nature in general. Unfortunately, they also contain some risqué or unpleasantly violent details. Reducing them to a “G” rating can be difficult. Still, I reckoned, you can’t beat a ram with a golden fleece to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old.
So I pointed upward at the stars of Aries. “Look up my arm,” I said. After some effort, she finally found the Ram, marked it off a list she was keeping, and said, “This is a ram?”
“Well, sure,” I said, “It doesn’t LOOK like a ram. None of these constellations look like what they’re named after, but Aries has had its name for thousands of years. Tradition counts for something.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Now show me Pisces.”
I didn’t (I just couldn’t resist what educators like to call a “teachable moment.”). Instead, without prologue, I erupted into a story.
“King Athamas of Boeotia …”
“Who of what?” she said.
“Never mind. His queen was a goddess called Nephele, the Nebulous Cloud …”
“Never mind. Nephele had to return to Olympus, where the gods lived, to take care of some god business. She left behind her two children. Her son was named Phirixos and her daughter was named Helle. Athamas remarried while she was gone, and … “
“That was mean.”
“She was gone for a long time. Anyway, the King’s new wife didn’t like the children, so she made up a plan to get rid of them.”
“That was mean.”
“Mortals can be that way sometimes.”
“What’s a mortal?”
“Never mind. Think of her as a wicked stepmother. She managed to have a disease spread among the crops of the land. She also spread the rumor that the gods were angry with her stepchildren.
“When the local priests argued that the children must be sacrificed to the gods to save the crops. The king didn’t want to, of course, but he finally relented and ordered his own children to be killed.”
“That was … “
“Mean. I know. So Nephele …”
“The Cloud Lady?”
“Right. So Nephele sent down a ram with a golden fleece.”
“You know, a sheep’s coat. The children were instructed to grab on to the golden hair of the ram and hold on for dear life. The ram would rescue them. But they must not look down as the ram flew across the sky or they would fall off.”
“Flying sheep. Cool.”
“Very cool. Sadly, Helle …”
“The girl. She looked down, got dizzy, and fell into the sea, where she became fish food.”
“Yuck, indeed! Her brother made it okay to a faraway land called Colchis. He was so happy to be alive that he killed the ram …”
“ … and sacrificed it to the gods, but first he sheared off the golden fleece. It was nailed to a tree and guarded by a fierce dragon that never slept.
“Zeus, the king of the gods, liked the sacrifice so much that he placed the shorn ram in the sky as the constellation Aries.”
I quivered with anticipation. I was about to get to the good part of the story. “But in the meantime, there was this guy named Jason …”
“Why did the king want to hurt his children?”
“Maybe they interrupted him too much when he was telling them stories. Anyway, this guy named Jason …”
“Are you going to show me Pisces?”
“The Fish? Sure, kid, if you promise to read the rest of the golden-fleece story sometime. I think you’ll really like it.”
And so I showed her the Fish, which she dutifully marked down in her notebook.
I can’t say that I count our encounter as one of my grand teaching successes. I’d like to think that, thousands of astronomy programs later, I have learned a bit about talking with children about the stars. But still …
That child is an adult now. If she has children, is it too much to hope that she will on some fine autumn night show her children the constellation Aries? Does she dream occasionally of a heroic sheep with wool made of purest gold as it flies high against a background of uncountable stars? It is probably a hopeless hope, I know, but old stargazers can dream too.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.