High in the south right now, you’ll find the constellation Aries, the Ram. Frankly, the constellation doesn’t get much attention from many average stargazers.
From urban and suburban skies, only three stars in a flat triangle are visible. Just after dark, start by looking for the small right triangle that forms the main stars of the constellation Triangulum. Then look to the left for bright, yellow-orange Mars. Below and between the two, you will find the main stars of Aries.
Its stars are faint, so Aries isn’t an easy find. Even under a dark, rural sky, most beginners might see another star or two besides the main three.
Aries is one of the zodiacal constellations through which the sun, moon, and planets move over the course of the year.
Running more or less through the centers of those zodiacal constellations is one of the great circles that span the sky. The ecliptic, as it is called, is the 360-degree path that the sun appears to travel over the course of a year.
The celestial equator is a second great circle. Imagine Earth’s equator projected on the sky. Above the celestial equator is the northern sky. Below it is the southern sky. The intersection of the two circles made the faint stars of Aries significant to our ancient forebears.
Why? Over 2,000 years ago, they marked the vernal equinox. At that moment, the sun, moving along the ecliptic, crosses the celestial equator, 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.
However, Earth wobbles a bit on its axis, so that “first point” has moved into Pisces. Thus, we must content ourselves with Aries’ former astronomical glory.
Aries’ three brightest stars are best known by their Greek letter names: Alpha, Beta and Gamma. The Greek letter designations trace their history back to 1603 and the German astronomer Johann Bayer.
Over decades, he cataloged over 1,600 stars in every constellation in the sky. He then gave them Greek letter designations based on their apparent brightness, their location in the constellation, the order of their rising above the horizon, or their mythological significance. Sometimes he combined two or more of the methods.
In Aries’ case, he appears to have used brightness as his main criterion. Alpha, Beta, and Gamma are the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, and the stars they designate are the three brightest stars in descending order.
Those three stars are of some interest to the diehard stargazer. Alpha, the brightest, was called Hamal by medieval Arabic astronomers. According to Emily Winterburn in The Stargazer’s Guide, the name derives from “ras al-hamal,” which means the “head of the ram.”
Alpha is a red-giant star. Having reached the end of its life, it has swelled to enormous size, cooled down, and turned red.
Beta was called Sheratan by Arabic astronomers. The name is derived from “sharatayn,” which means “the two signs.”
The name is apt. Taken together, Beta and Gamma are signs of the vernal equinox, as we have seen. Of course, Alpha also heralds the equinox, but never mind.
Beta and Gamma were more popularly known in nomadic Bedouin culture as “qarna al-hamal,” the “horns of the ram.”
Beta is a blue-white star at the beginning of its hot, young life at a mere 300 million years old.
Gamma is worth a look if you have a small telescope handy. At about 50x magnification, it will split into two stars, Gamma A and Gamma B. Gamma B is in orbit around Gamma A, which makes the pair a binary (double star). Its orbital period is a stunning 5,000 years or more.
For the diehard amateur telescopist, 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 much like faint fuzzy patches.
Our adult public clients at Perkins were hardly attracted to such distant “deep-sky” objects. Often, they couldn’t see them at all.
All of the above astronomical folderol was lost on the younger children who populated the nighttime programs at Perkins Observatory when I was director there.
Much of our audience at Perkins consisted of children of various ages, and the feeble stellar light of Aries offered little fascination for them.
Occasionally, they would be filling some 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 about 15 years ago, a 9 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 analogies 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.
Those old constellation stories are worth the telling because they reveal a lot about our ancient forebears and human nature in general. Unfortunately, they also contain some risqué and generally unpleasant details.
Reducing them to a “G” rating can be difficult. Still, you can’t beat a ram with a golden fleece to capture the imagination of a 9 year old.
And thus it was that I pointed my finger at the three dim stars of Aries. 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 a prologue, I erupted into a story.
“King Athamas of Boeotia …”
“Who of what?” she said.
“Never mind. He was a king. 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 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.
“The local priests argued that to save the crops, the children would have to be sacrificed to the gods. The king finally relented.”
“Gave in. He gave in and ordered his own children 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 ram’s golden hair 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 meanwhile, 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 have learned much over the years about telling stories. I have learned a bit from my occasional successes. I have learned much more from my frequent failures. I learned a lot that time.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.