One of the minor consequences of our current coronavirus infestation is that the word “corona” will forever have negative consequences.
Corona means crown. For stargazers, the word has a glorious meaning. Some of us have witnessed the solar corona during a total eclipse of the sun. That magnificent corona is the bright crown-like ring of gases surrounding the sun.
The solar corona is visible only on those rare occasions when the observer happens to be standing in the shadow of the moon as it blocks the bright disk of the sun and reveals that bright crown shimmering in all its glory. Eclipse chasers, as they are called, travel to far-flung places to get a momentary glimpse of what has been called the most beautiful sight that humans can behold.
In 1968, scientists who were looking under a microscope at a newly discovered class of viruses thought that they resembled the solar corona. The glorious solar crown was sullied forever.
As a result, it is with a mixed feeling of joy and dread that I introduce you to Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, which really does look like a crown. Check it out if you don’t believe me.
If you look to the east just after dark, you can still see Arcturus, the brightest star of the spring and early summer sky rising in the east.
Below and to the left of Arcturus is a small but distinctive circlet of stars called Corona Borealis, which obviously looks like a crown.
Come on. Use your imagination. It’s a semicircle of stars. It could be anything that reasonably resembles a semicircle of stars.
Despite its small size, Corona was a very important star to ancient civilizations, and stories abound as to how it got in the sky. As is often the case, what people saw in a simple semicircle of stars reflects their most significant cultural preoccupations.
Australian Aboriginal cultures called it Womera, the Boomerang, because of its shape. Similarly, the old Hawaiian name for the constellation, Kaua Mea, suggests a weapon or “tool of war.”
It was a fishing net filled to overflowing with its catch to South Sea islanders, an individual fish to the people of Borneo, a bear claw or a boot to Siberians, and a beggar’s bowl to Middle Easterners. It doesn’t look like any of those things either.
The Greeks thought it looked like a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory in battle. The Germanic tribes of Western Europe thought so too. To the Arabs it was a shield, the Persians a broken dish, etc.
Closer to home, the Cheyenne nation arranged its camps in semicircles. Naturally enough, they saw a Camp Circle in the heavens.
In what is perhaps the most charming of celestial legends, the Shawnee people of North America saw a circle of dancing maidens.
To the Shawnee, the stars represented a race of people who lived in the sky. Occasionally, some of them would come down to Earth on vacation.
Thus it was that a great Shawnee hunter named White Hawk was one day searching for game. As he came to a clearing, he spied a circular ring worn in the grass but with no sign of footprints leading up to it. (Some would say that White Hawk’s discovery is the first recorded sighting of one of those infamous crop circles, but never mind.)
As he stood trying to figure out how the circle had been pressed into the grass, he saw a glittering silver bucket drop down from the heavens. In it were 12 beautiful star maidens, who immediately jumped from the bucket and began dancing in the circle. Faster and faster they danced as they beat out the time on glorious silver bells.
White Hawk was enchanted by the dance. He was particularly attracted to the gyrations of the youngest and loveliest of the maidens, so he did what any self-respecting Shawnee warrior would have done under similar circumstances. He lunged at her.
Needless to say, his less-than-subtle approach to seduction didn’t work. The sisters simply hopped into their bucket and high-tailed it back to the sky.
White Hawk figured they would be back because the ring in the grassy was deeply worn. Apparently, they did their cosmic capering often at that spot.
The next day, he used his considerable magical powers to morph himself into a rabbit. As he hid near the circle, the sisters returned. He lunged again, converting himself back into human form in mid-leap and grabbing the object of his desire. The other sisters abandoned their sibling for a bucket ride heavenward.
Against all odds, the abandoned sister fell immediately in love with White Hawk. They were married and soon had a son.
However, the captured sister soon became homesick. While White Hawk was out on yet another of his long hunting expeditions, her loneliness drove her to build another silver bucket, chant a magic chant, and zoom back to her heavenly home.
Sadly, because she did not have her sisters to guide her, she soon became lost and was never seen again.
When you look to the sky at Corona Borealis, you will see that the circle is incomplete. Missing is the star that would make the ring whole. She must wander forever, somewhere between heaven and Earth, forever separated from everyone —sisters, husband, and son — she had ever loved.
All that remains is the semicircle of stars that remind us of the path she trod as she and her sisters danced their glorious dance.
To the ancient Greeks, the Northern Crown suggests a more joyful dance and the casually discarded crown of a god.
King Minos was the lord of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. Every year, the citizens of Athens were forced to send to him a bloody tribute. Aboard a ship with a black sail traveled seven young men and seven maidens. At the journey’s end, they were let loose inside a dark labyrinth, where they were sacrificed to a vicious beast called the Minotaur.
With the body of a human and the head of a bull, the Minotaur easily killed the Athenians and, well, ate them, if you must know. Minos wasn’t too happy about having the Minotaur on his hands, but hey, better Athenians for lunch than his own people.
By the third year of the sacrifice, Theseus, the youngest son of the king of Athens, had had enough. He placed himself among the fourteen boys and girls destined to die and swore he would kill the Minotaur.
After the black ship arrived in Crete, Theseus happened upon the young daughter of Minos. Ariadne was fair and smart, and the two fell instantly in love.
When the time came for Theseus and the others to become a Minotaur snack, Ariadne secretly gave Theseus a ball of yarn, which would lead him back to the entrance of the maze after he had dispatched the beast.
Theseus entered the dark maze, and the Minotaur soon found him. The confrontation was something of a shock to the monster. Usually, his prey passed out when they saw him. He wasn’t used to moving adversaries.
Theseus was a Greek hero, however. He laughed in the face of fear. “Ha, ha,” he said as he dropped his sword and ran away.
No, wait. Furious carnage ensued, of which little should be said, lest the weak of heart start reading some other newspaper.
Suffice it to say that when it was all over, Minotaur guts were spread all over the labyrinth. Theseus followed the yarn out of the cave. The Athenians, overjoyed at their reprieve, began to dance the Geranos, the complex movements of which symbolized Theseus’s winding path through the maze. Afterward, he, Ariadne, and the Athenian youth headed for home.
Unfortunately, Theseus decided to make a pit stop at the island of Naxos, the abode of Dionysus, aka Bacchus to the Romans, the god of wine and serious partying.
Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne and, while she was asleep, ordered Theseus to leave the island.
The heartbroken lad headed for home. Ariadne awoke and was filled with woe. “Oh, woe! ” she said.
“Yoo-hoo!” said Bacchus and began to woo the woeful waif. Ariadne, somewhat disillusioned by her abandonment, demanded that the good-time god prove his love. On the day they were finally married, Bacchus grabbed his golden crown and threw it into the heavens as a pledge of his love.
And everyone lived happily ever after. Bacchus married a beautiful and intelligent woman. Theseus got his name in the papers. Ariadne got to hang out on Mount Olympus and drink Bacchus’s wine. Minos was rid of the cursed monster. The Minotaur was too dead to care.
To this day, Greeks still dance the Geranos. As the music swells and they dance their labyrinthine dance, I wonder if they ever look up at the stars.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.