During my mostly misspent youth, I had a brief but intense interest in chess. I was an indifferent competitor, however. I briefly achieved the rank of 10th player (“10th board,” as they say) on a team of 10 players at my high school. I was quickly knocked off the team by the next person who wanted to be a part of it.
However, I took the game seriously enough to memorize a few of the opening gambits, which all “serious” players do. But my memory has always been poor, so only one of them stuck in my head.
It’s the so-called Dragon Variation, which stayed with me because it was named by Russian chess master Fyodor Dus-Chotimirsky after a constellation I had struggled to find.
Yes, my friends, we’re talking Draco, the Dragon, here. The dragon is deeply embedded in our culture. From the intellectual complexities of chess, to the evil, blood-sucking Dracula, to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smaug, to the kindhearted dragons that populate animated movies, to the ferocious Hungarian Horntail in the Harry Potter series, you can’t escape Draco’s fiery breath.
Even though its stars are not particularly bright, Draco is easy enough to find. Look straight north about halfway up the sky, and you’ll see Polaris, the North Star. Polaris forms the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, which curves to the right from Polaris at about 9:30 p.m. right now.
Draco coils around the Dipper. Its serpentine curves defy constellational conventions. Dus-Chotimirsky named the chess opening because of the pawns’ somewhat awkward undulation after the first moves are completed.
As a result of its crinkled shape, Draco is spread out over a considerable patch of sky.
Of course, not everybody sees a dragon in this rather chaotic assembly of stars. Ancient Arabic astronomers saw a tableau of creatures they called Mother Camels. Two of Draco’s stars represent hyenas who are attacking a baby camel.
The babe is protected by four female camels, represented by four stars in the constellation. The nomads who own the camels are oblivious to the threat. A cooking tripod composed of four more stars nearby collectively represents them.
Draco’s best-known story has to do with the constellation Hercules, which is rising in the east right now.
Most people have some knowledge of his 12 labors, thanks in part to the old Disney movie.
In one of his lesser-known labors, he is given the onerous task of stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. The apples grow on a tree that was a wedding gift to Zeus, the king of the gods, and Hera, the queen.
Hera so loved the apples that she commanded one of her nastiest pets, the fierce dragon Ladon, to guard them. Hercules kills Ladon and absconds with the apples. Because of his long service, Ladon ends up in the sky as Draco.
However, the Ladon story does not explain Draco’s most famous feature. How did the Dragon get so bent out of shape?
The best explanation comes from the Roman writer Gaius Julius Hyginus, who wrote during the first century CE.
Let’s set the wayback machine to a time even before the ancient gods ruled the universe. Their parents were the Titans, a race of horrifying beasts and terrible giants who treated their children horribly.
Chiron, the Titans’ king, ate his children lest they later compete with him for supremacy of the universe. If that isn’t bad parenting, I don’t know what is.
As the gods came of age and were freed from their father’s stomach, they fought the tyrannical Titans for supremacy. After what they had been through, who wouldn’t?
For over a decade, the heavens and the earth trembled with the clashing sounds and horrific sights of all-out celestial war.
The thunderbolt-wielding Zeus led the gods against Chiron and his minions. Among the Titans was Draco, whose hot breath laid waste to enormous patches of land. Where great forests had grown, only deserts stretched for hundreds of miles. If you’ve ever wondered how the Sahara became a desert, now you know.
As the battle reached its climax, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, stood in the hot breath of the beast. She knew that she must extinguish the dragon’s heat once and for all, or the gods would be goners. She seized the dragon by its tail and heaved it upward toward the frozen wastes of the north.
As it sailed into the great void of the heavens, Draco spun and turned. Its tail was twisted into countless knots. As it struck the dome of stars, the sky’s rotation caught it, and it became hopelessly tangled.
As the northern cold began to do its work, it was frozen into place. Today, we see the tangled mess as it was many millennia ago — when gods and not men fought for supremacy over the earth and sky.
The nearby North Star is positioned directly over Earth’s north-south axis. As the Earth turns once a day, the stars seem to spin once around it.
A celestial position near the Pole Star would have been considered a place of honor in most cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought differently.
As punishment for its bad alliance with the Titans, Draco must slowly spin around the frigid north, never setting below the horizon, never dipping into the refreshing waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
His northerly perch provides little comfort to the dragon. As far as the ancients knew, Draco was stuck forever, cold and dizzy as it could be
Three millennia ago, Draco wasn’t just positioned to the north. It WAS north. Because planet Earth wobbles slowly as it rotates on its axis, the true north’s position against the starry background changes very slowly. Four thousand years ago, Polaris was not the North Star.
Thuban, a faint star in Draco, marked the center of the celestial merry-go-round. As a result, the star was critically important to our forebears. The Egyptians, for example, lined up their enormous pyramids to the belly of the beast.
The mother of all Egyptian pyramids, the Great Pyramid of the Pharaoh Khufu, is lined up with the pole star in an exceptional way.
When it was erected in about 2500 BCE, Thuban was the pole star. In a spectacular feat of engineering and astronomical calculation, the pyramid’s creators hollowed out a small tube leading from the outside of the pyramid for 380 feet, about the length of a football field.
The tube ends in a room deep in the center of the pyramid in such a way that the light from Thuban shines down into the room.
Every clear night of the year, the light from Thuban shone down the tube onto a jewel embedded into the figure of a god, perhaps the Pharaoh himself, seated in the room.
Those stories represent our ancient forebears’ cultural attitudes and obsessions, which makes them worth the telling. However, none of them is my favorite.
As I sat with my family watching the movie Dragonheart in 1996, I knew that dragons fascinated my daughter Krishni. Was there a hint in her rapt attention to the movie that she would become the Ph.D. classicist and college teacher that she is today?
In the film, the constellation Draco is a kind of dragon heaven. Dragons have been tasked to protect humanity, and in doing so, their numbers have been reduced to a single champion. In the film’s conclusion, Draco, the last dragon, ascends into the constellation after saving humanity one last time.
People often ask me why I don’t just stick to the science of astronomy. I’ll grant you that there is a good deal of pleasure to be gained by looking through a telescope and knowing what you are seeing and how it got to be that way.
Add to that experience stories so old that they seem built into our DNA. Then top it with your deeply personal experiences as you stand and look in silence on some warm summer night at a sky filled with familiar stars.
The experience of the heavens is transformed into a character-defining confluence of intellect and emotion far more profound than if you had just studied the science or heard the stories.
Thus, when I stare upward at Draco, reflect on the old stories, and understand the shift of the northern pole star from Thuban to Polaris, a vision of ancient pyramids dances in my head. I experience the sky with a depth and emotional complexity I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
To all of that, I add the memory of my daughter in that darkened theater as the light from the screen danced upon her ecstatic face. As the last dragon rises to merge with Draco, I rise with it.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.