Scorpius, Libra forever linked

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

Amateur stargazers generally look down their noses at astrology. Let’s face it. It’s difficult to find a scientific mechanism whereby the motions of the sun, moon, and planets through the starry constellations can actually causally influence our lives on Earth.

However, the science of astronomy owes a great debt to the astrologists of ancient times. They were the first people to systematically study the motions of the stars and planets.

Our ancient forebears, at least the Greek and Roman ones, saw the planets as gods who moved at will through the constellations of the Zodiac. Some constellations were more pleasant locations than others. When I was born, the sun, the old god Sol, was in Taurus, the Bull. One would expect me to be bull-headed and taciturn. I will let you be the judge, gentle reader.

No constellation better illustrates the astronomy/astrology connection better than Scorpius, as astronomers know it. Astrologists know it as Scorpio. They both indicate that we’re working with a nasty, poisonous scorpion here.

From our latitude, Scorpius, the Scorpion, never rises very high above the southern horizon. Like the creature after which it is named, it seems to scuttle along the ground. The average stargazer might never give it a second glance but for the bright star that forms the beast’s heart. Antares shines a brilliant orange-red, and because it never rises very high, twinkles violently most of the time.

Scorpius is certainly worth a look, partly because it actually resembles its namesake. Right now, the Scorpion sits close to the southern horizon just after dark at around 10 p.m. It even looks a bit like a scorpion, a tilted, elongated, capital-letter “J.”

Up and to the right of Antares are three stars that represent the Scorpion’s head and its abbreviated claws, which are formed by two stars — one star for each claw. Down and to the left of the head and claws, it’s hard to miss the curve of stars that form the animal’s tail, which terminates in the poisonous, upturned stinger.

So what happened to the Scorpion’s claws? In short, they got chopped off.

Farther up and to the right is the constellation Libra, the Scales. In ancient times, what we now call Libra was considered too dim to be a constellation on its own. It was originally combined with Scorpius to make up a larger super-monster.

The ancient Greeks called the constellation Chelae, which means “Claws.” The two brightest stars of Libra were commonly identified as the pincers of the Scorpion. In fact, they still bear the Arabic names that mark them as such. Zubenelschamali (pronounced just like it’s spelled — ha), the Northern Claw, is the upper star. Zubenelgenubi (try saying that one three times fast), the Southern Claw, is the lower star.

When the two constellations were separated, the Scorpion lost its pincers, but the Romans got a symbol of Roman law and order. Libra, the Scales, represents the scales of justice. And lest you think that the old gods are dead and buried, we still see in front of many court buildings, the scales held aloft by the Roman goddess Justitia, Lady Justice.

Scorpions are, of course, bad news, and the constellation has always been associated with the worst kinds of evil. They are active during the dark of night when the danger to humans is greatest. They live in cracks, crevices, and other secluded places and are therefore often associated with secrecy and stealth.

We see those qualities in the stellar representation of the beast. The tail of the Scorpius lies in a dark rift in the background glow of the Milky Way. It’s as if the Scorpion has just exited from one of its dark hiding places.

Scorpius is one of the signs of the Zodiac. For about one month every year, the sun seems to pass through each of the Zodiacal constellations. As it passes through Virgo, the goddess of the harvest, the season of abundance begins. As it travels through Scorpius, the cold, dark winter — the time of greatest privation — begins.

Thus, the passage of the sun through the zodiacal constellations has both astronomical and astrological significance. Astrology has its own internal logic, even if it is a very weird logic based on an evil scorpion and a harvest goddess among other weird characters. I doubt that the average person looking at their daily horoscope realizes that the predictions are based in part on the worship of ancient gods and their fear of ancient animal foes.

In that regard, another oddity concerning Scorpius is its association with Orion, the Hunter. As Orion sets, the Scorpion rises. They never appear in the sky together. The ancients, who noticed such things, invented stories to explain the seeming aversion that the two constellations have for each other.

Orion was indeed a mighty hunter, but he had an ego the size of Cleveland. He once boasted that he had the power to kill every animal on Earth. Earth, in the form of the Earth goddess Gaia, wasn’t very happy to hear the hunter’s boast. She sent one of the tiniest of her creatures to do battle with Orion. The Scorpion emerged from a dark crevice in the ground, snuck up behind Orion, and stung him on the heel. Thus, the mightiest hunter the world had ever known, was slain by one of the tiniest of Earth’s creatures.

The gods admired Orion enough to want to put him and the Scorpion in the sky. Orion agreed to receive this honor, but he stipulated that he and the Scorpion must never appear in the sky at the same time. Thus, from an astronomical point of view, as spring turns to summer, Orion finally sets. He is not to be seen until cold weather returns. Just as he sets, the Scorpion rises and dominates the warmer months.

It would be easy to interpret this old myth as some kind of environmental parable that argues that nature produces only good and that human interference with the natural world is bad.

However, the ancients admired Orion’s brash power over nature. They detested and feared the evil stealth and poisonous power of the Scorpion. Orion is, after all, a creature of the light.

In fact, the older astrological interpretation inverts the astronomical one. When the sun rises with the hunter, the long and bountiful days of the summer are upon us. When Scorpius rises with the sun, long, cold nights with hunger and privation rule the land.

Go out and look at the Scorpion, fellow stargazers, and think upon what the old myth might really mean. The night is warm and full of stars, but the natural world around you is potentially dark and dangerous. We must do what we can to tame those great dangers, but we must not overreach ourselves, lest we cause Earth to rise up in anger at our presumptuousness.

Next week, we’ll look at some of the astronomical objects in Scorpius you can observe in a telescope or binoculars.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.