These days, the most common comment about the constellation Leo, the Lion, is that it “doesn’t look like a lion,” which is not surprising. None of the constellations look much like the animals and heroes they are supposed to represent.
When I asked the schoolchildren attending field trips at Perkins Observatory what the stars looked like, they most commonly answered, “A horse.” But I also got every animal imaginable, notably an aardvark.
Aardvarks notwithstanding, Leo resembles its namesake more than most constellations, in my humble opinion.
But don’t take my word for it. Just after dark, look for it yourself rising in the southeast. First, find the 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.
Look for a backward question mark of stars called the Sickle, which forms the lion’s head and front paw. At the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star of the constellation. East of the sickle is a right triangle of stars that form Leo’s hindquarters. For every heart, a butt must follow.
In West Africa, the lion is now classified as a “Critically Endangered” species. It has been brought low by climate change, illegal hunting, civilization’s growth, and shrinking habitat.
The constellation Leo is somewhat the same — slowly fading from the sky because of nighttime lighting. But while it still shines brightly, we can get an understanding of why the lion has always meant so much to humanity and why the ancients honored it with a place in the sky.
The Greco-Roman version of the constellation was somewhat larger than the one we see today. To the right, a beautiful fuzzy patch of unresolved stars called the Praesepe, variously translated as “Beehive” or “Manger,” formed Leo’s whiskers and nose. To the left, a loose cluster of stars in the constellation Coma Berenices represented the tuft of hair at the end of Leo’s tail.
The star Regulus didn’t get its name until the 16th century. According to Richard Allen, the great astronomer Copernicus named it Regulus, the “Little King.” After all, Leo is the king of beasts.
The ancients sometimes called it Cor Leonis, the “heart of the lion.” In some cultures, Regulus is still called the “lion’s heart” to this very day. For many people throughout the world, Regulus signifies kingly power, fame, and wealth.
Regulus is only the 21st brightest star in the sky. The Little King would probably deserve only passing mention in stargazing history except for a simple accident of location. The star is placed 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. Their presence near the star has for millennia portended great events in the history of humanity.
The first recorded observations of Regulus were inscribed on clay tablets around 2100 BCE 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.”
Why then did our forebears regard Regulus so regally?
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 it was there. Thus, the star and its constellation 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. It carried with it the rich river soil, which it 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.
During a visit to Egypt, I experienced the importance of that very narrow fertile region firsthand. One day, I walked across that fertile band — from harsh desert to harsh desert — in 10 minutes.
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 wrote 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.”
We must look to human culture and history to find the proud lion in the haphazardly placed stars of Leo.
The Egyptians were probably the first to identify the constellation stars with a lion. They depicted it standing on top of a snake. By the time of the classical Greek culture, the designation had stuck but without the snake.
That designation resonates throughout human history. Early Hebrews thought of the constellation as the Lion of Judah, which represented the Jewish faith’s strength and nobility. Medieval Christians pictured it as the lion’s den of the Biblical book of Daniel.
To the Greeks, Leo was the Nemean lion, offspring of Selene, goddess of the moon. It’s easy to see why. Every month, the moon passes near Regulus. For example, look for the fat crescent moon during the evening of May 1, when it passes just a few lunar diameters above the star.
Leo’s Greek story is still told today largely because of our modern fascination with the Greek hero Hercules and his 12 labors. Killing Leo was one of those labors.
Hercules was the offspring of Zeus, king of the gods, and a mortal woman. As a result, he was half god and the strongest man on the planet — the Mad Max of his time.
Hera, queen of the gods and Zeus’ wife, hated Hercules even before he was born, as she did all the considerable number of children born of Zeus’ mortal dalliances.
In one of her many acts of pique against Hercules, she sent him a fit of madness, under the influence of which he killed his own children.
When Hercules came to his senses, he was overcome with remorse. To cleanse himself of his guilt, he placed himself under the service of his cousin, Eurystheus, for 12 years, during which time he was expected to perform his famous 12 labors.
The first of these tasks was to kill the ferocious lion who lived in Nemea, a valley in Argolis in ancient Greece.
The Nemean Lion was one mean cat, and I ain’t lion. He was the offspring of Typhon, a 100-headed monster, and Echidna, who was half woman and half snake.
Hera sort of adopted the lion. She had a thing for monsters and took several as household pets. She nursed the infant lion, which must have been painful because lions are born with all their teeth.
The lion eventually turned up in Nemea, which was no bargain for the locals. Many of them ended their lives as brunch for the hungry feline.
Along came Hercules with blood in his eye. Finding the lion’s den was easy. Presumably, he just followed the trail of body parts. He shot the lion with an arrow, but to no avail. Hercules’ aim was infallible, but the arrows bounced off the lion’s leathery hide.
Hercules then blocked off one of the two entrances to the lion’s cave, strode into the other entrance, and pounced on the lion. After much thrashing around, he strangled the beast.
Hercules skinned the lion and hefted the bloody hide onto his shoulders. In effect, he disguised himself as the ferocious feline and returned to his taskmaster.
Eurystheus hid in terror when he saw Hercules coming. He thought the lion was coming to get him!
Thereafter, he required Hercules to display his trophies and receive further instruction from outside the city gates.
Eurystheus’s fear gave Hercules the notion that he would wear the animal’s skin as a nasty-smelling cloak. Whenever he wanted to produce in his enemies the same kind of fear that Eurystheus had felt, he pulled the lion’s head over his own.
Of course, Hera was devastated by the death of her pet. She eventually immortalized the lion by placing it in the sky as a constellation, where we can see him still.
These days, Leo has dimmed in the sky and in our imaginations. The Lion’s Heart shines only feebly in the firmament of our lives.
It need not be so. All it takes is a trip outside on a dark, clear night to know again what the ancients knew — that the stars can exert a powerful influence on us if we take the time to look up with wonder at the night.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.