Constellations help us understand history

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

The constellations tell us much about our dim past. We lived in fear and awe of the powerful forces around us. As a result, our relationships with our gods, the creators of those natural forces, have not always been cordial.

The ancient Greeks feared their gods. Zeus, king of all the gods, sent down his killing thunderbolts. Apollo, the sun god, sent his blessed rays, but they also baked the fields in times of drought.

The gods did not love us, and it’s difficult to blame them. The creation of humans had been an act of trickery foisted upon them by one of their hated enemies. That old story is written among the stars in the constellations of the Eagle and the Arrow.

Aquila, the Eagle, sits low in the southeast right now. The eagle is difficult to miss. First, it is shaped vaguely like a bird in flight. Moreover, Altair, the sky’s 12th brightest star, dominates the constellation.

Altair is a hot, young star that produces about 11 times the sun’s energy even though it is only 1.8 times the sun’s mass.

Altair is distinguished from the sun by its high-speed rotation. The sun takes about 25 days to spin around once. Altair accomplishes the same feat in nine hours.

Its rapid rotation has deformed it from the spherical shape we expect from stars and planets. It bulges so much at its equator that its equatorial diameter is 20% greater than its diameter from pole to pole.

Of course, the ancients were unaware of those characteristics. The name “Altair” derives from the Arabic phrase al-nasr al-ta’ir, which roughly translates as “flying eagle.”

Its name also suggests that its home constellation is far older even than the ancient Greeks. According to the German constellation expert Paul Kunitzsch, both the Sumerians and Babylonians referred to Altair as the “eagle star.”

The eagle was a lackey of Zeus, king of all the gods. We think of the eagle as a noble bird. We have even chosen it as a national symbol. However, Zeus’s ignoble eagle performed with great pleasure every evil — theft, murder or kidnapping — that the god commanded.

Among its duties was to carry the thunderbolts that a wrathful Zeus tossed at those humans who had offended him.

At some point, Zeus fell in lust with a youngster named Ganymede, variously represented as a simple shepherd boy or son of the Trojan King Tos. Zeus sent his eagle to snatch up the boy, whom we see in the sky as the nearby constellation Aquarius. The moment of the eagle’s descent is thereby commemorated forever in the sky.

A second Greco-Roman story connects the eagle with another nearby constellation, Cygnus, the Swan.

As with the Ganymede tale, Zeus again fell in lust, this time with the aptly named Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution. Because she resisted his direct advances, Zeus decided that trickery was in order.

He asked his daughter Aphrodite to disguise herself as an eagle. He then turned himself into a swan and ordered Aphrodite to pursue him. Nemesis embraced the swan to protect it and thus found herself in the amorous embrace of Zeus.

It was a foul trick, but Zeus was immensely pleased with himself. He placed images of the eagle and the swan in the sky to commemorate the event.

Near Aquila is the constellation Sagitta, the Arrow. Sagitta is the sky’s third-smallest constellation, yet it features in several well-developed star stories.

In a version of the Ganymede story, the arrow is from the quiver of Eros, the god of erotic love. Eros used it to shoot Zeus and thereby inflame Zeus’s passion for Ganymede.

Another Sagitta story is a tale of political intrigue among the gods. Near Sagitta is the constellation Ophiuchus, which is sometimes associated with the mythic physician Asclepius. Such were his powers that he could even raise the dead.

Hades, the god of the Underworld, complained to his brother Zeus that no new souls were entering his domain. To placate his brother, Zeus tossed one of his thunderbolts, which killed the healer instantly.

Unfortunately for Zeus, Asclepius was the son of another god. Apollo, the patron god of the arts, was furious about his son’s death. He couldn’t do anything against the mighty and immortal Zeus. Instead, Apollo took out his fury on the race of Cyclopes, who manufactured Zeus’s thunderbolts. One of the arrows that he used ended up in the sky as Sagitta.

All the above stories leave out an important detail. In the sky, Sagitta is pointed directly at Aquila. The arrow is poised to strike a deadly blow against the eagle.

How did the eagle get in such a fix? And why is its death a triumph for humanity and not a curse? Read on, gentle readers, and you shall see.

The gods had fought a stupendous war for control of the universe with their hated predecessors, the Titans. They were immortal, like the gods, so they were left imprisoned or in slavery by their defeat at the hands of the more powerful gods.

The great patron of humanity was Prometheus, one of the Titans. The once-proud giant was now a toady to Zeus.

But Prometheus had a decent spirit and a creative urge, so he wrought from clay a race of beings with good hearts and mortal weaknesses.

The gods didn’t think much of the new human race. They demanded that humans search the world for food and sacrifice much of it to them or risk getting swatted like flies.

What humans lacked was technology. They lived like animals. They feared the darkness and the dangers it held.

They died from diseases because they could not cook their food. They perished from wild beasts because they could not forge effective weapons against them. The gods delighted in human weakness and spent many a lazy day watching humans suffer and die.

Prometheus loved his human creations. He was ready to risk his own safety to give us comfort.

He stole from the gods the secret of fire, the gift of unlimited energy to cook our food, forge our weapons, banish the dark, and create, in effect, our great civilizations. He hid the fire in a vegetable stalk and gave it freely to humanity.

Zeus did not take kindly to such duplicity. He chained Prometheus to the Caucasus Mountains and sent his most loyal lackey to perform a particularly horrific punishment on the poor Titan.

We think of the eagle as a noble bird. We have even chosen it as a national symbol. However, Zeus’ ignoble eagle performed with great pleasure every evil — theft, murder, or kidnapping — that the god commanded.

In this case, the bird pecked out and ate the liver of Prometheus. Because he was immortal, his liver grew back every day. At Zeus’s bidding, the eagle returned each day to extend the Titan’s agony.

Prometheus would have suffered that way for all eternity had it not been for Hercules, the greatest hero of his age.

Hercules, half man and half god, set for himself the task of freeing Prometheus. Before he broke the Titan’s chains, he let loose a poisoned arrow at the eagle and released Prometheus from his pain forever.

It is that titanic event we see commemorated in the stars of the Aquila and Sagitta. Hercules had repaid humanity’s debt to its creator and benefactor. He had also freed humanity to grow and prosper using the incredible power that Prometheus had given it.

As the arrow flew upward to free Prometheus from his pain, the chains that had bound our human ingenuity and power were loosed as well. Let’s hope that we have the intelligence to use them wisely.

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.