Who’s the lady in the lawn chair?

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

The constellation Cassiopeia is hard to miss. Right now, its brightest stars form a distinct “W” on its side high in the northeast just after dark.

Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation, meaning it never quite sets below the horizon as it circles the pole star, Polaris. Watching the constellation throughout an autumn night is an instructive way of learning about the motion of the sky around the pole.

Cassiopeia and all the circumpolar constellations are a 24-hour clock running counterclockwise.

Just after dark, it starts in the southeast as a “W” tilted on its side. As the hours progress, it rises higher in the north. By midnight or so, it reaches its highest point and is straight north.

As twilight begins around 5:30 a.m., the constellation looks like a lowercase Greek epsilon and has sunk pretty low in the northwest.

Over the daylight hours, if you could see it through the sun’s glare, you would notice that it has dipped to very low on the horizon and has returned to its “W” shape.

By 7:30 p.m., it has risen again approximately to its original position the night before.

Such a distinct star group has generated many star stories over the millennia, especially among people who lived in close harmony with their natural surroundings.

If you want a full rendition of the classical, Greco-Roman version of the Cassiopeia myth, watch one of the two “Clash of the Titans” movies. Astronomically speaking, all the main characters of the tale inhabit an autumn night.

King Cepheus sits adjacent to his queen, the lovely but vain Cassiopeia. Their daughter Andromeda is off to the East, down and to the right of Cassiopeia.

Low on the eastern horizon is Cetus, the Sea Monster, to whom Cepheus offers the beautiful Andromeda as a sacrifice to atone for his spouse’s vanity. The hero Perseus, who rushes in to save the life of Andromeda, is off to the left.

I have told the Greco-Roman tale before in this space. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that Cassiopeia instigated the proceedings by offensively boasting that she was more beauteous than the sea nymphs. Poseidon, the god of the sea, took umbrage and sent severe storms to ravage the coast of Ethiopia. To save his country from destruction, Cepheus agreed to sacrifice Andromeda to Cetus, but Perseus slew Cetus and saved Andromeda from being eaten by the sea monster.

The gods sentenced both Cepheus and Cassiopeia to circle the pole forever, never to rest. To add insult to injury, they must hold on for dear life because they spend much of their time hanging upside down.

In his seminal work on the constellations, late-nineteen-century constellation scholar Robert Brown traces the constellation back to the ancient Phoenicians, who named Cassiopeia Qassiu-peaer. On cuneiform tablets from the period, she is called Kasseba, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of beauty and the sun.

The skilled Arab astronomers of the Middle Ages adopted the Greek designation and called Cassiopeia “The Lady in the Chair.”

That designation has survived to this day with a modern twist. Many amateur astronomers still refer to her as “the lady in the lawn chair.”

Muslim Arabs identified a different constellation entirely.

They called the constellation “The Tinted Hand,” probably referring to the practice of Arab women to color their hands with henna (a reddish dye) to protect their skin from the sun.

Julius Staal identifies the Tinted Hand as the hand of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. But henna is not the cause of the tint. Blood stains her hand.

No discussion of Cassiopeian constellational lore would be complete without a mention of Tycho’s Star.

In 1572, a “new” star burst forth in the constellation. As Tycho Brahe observed it over subsequent days, the star flared to a brightness greater than Venus before it slowly faded from view almost two years later.

We now know that Tycho’s Star was a supernova, an exploding star. However, Brahe and his contemporaries were ignorant of the cause of the seemingly miraculous phenomenon.

It’s hard to blame them. Only eight supernovae in the Milky Way have occurred during recorded human history, and one of them, Kepler’s Star, came 32 years after Tycho’s Star.

Brahe’s contemporaries were unaware of the previous supernovae. The seeming uniqueness of the event sparked considerable interest and wild speculation.

Without evidence, Protestant reformer Theodore Beza concluded that the star was the second apparition of the Star of Bethlehem. As a result, Beza proclaimed that the second coming of Jesus Christ must be nigh. It wasn’t, of course.

Star stories were not the sole purview of the ancient Greeks and Romans or overzealous theologians. While the Romans ruled Europe, hundreds of autonomous cultures worldwide developed distinct sets of identifications.

The Chinese saw a chariot. Marshal Islanders saw a porpoise. The Laplanders of Northern Europe saw moose antlers.

In North America, the Navajo people saw the Whirling Female, and the Pawnees saw a rabbit. Farther north, Greenland’s Polar Inuit call the constellation Stones Supporting a Lamp.

The Zuni people, who lived along the Zuni River on the Colorado Plateau, used a more descriptive name — Star Zigzag.

The most developed North American star story comes from the Quileute, who lived along the Quillayute River in the state now known as Washington. Whaling and fishing were their primary means of survival.

They did a bit of hunting as well, with elk as their favorite prey. During the summer, they hunted gray and humpback whales. In winter, they held complex initiation ceremonies and religious rites.

Their story about Cassiopeia captures what life must have been like for them a couple of millennia ago.

Long ago, there lived five brothers. One day, the four eldest went up the river in their canoes to hunt for elk. The youngest, whose name was Tuscobuk, was left behind. At last, the brothers came to the great prairie, where they saw a lone man walking with a bow and arrows.

The man offered to drive a herd of elk down a nearby trail so that the brothers could slay them with their bows and arrows.

The man examined their bows and arrows and said, “I have better arrows than you have. Let’s trade.” The man had mesmerized them with magic. Otherwise, they would have noticed that he had fashioned his arrows from salal bush stems and the points of salal leaves. The arrows were worthless for hunting.

Soon a gigantic elk with enormous horns came down the trail. When their arrows hit the beast, they simply bounced off. The elk killed them all with its long horns and then turned himself back into (you guessed it) the same man who had offered to help them in the first place. He was Man of the Prairies, and that was how he killed those who encroached on his land.

Tuscobuk waited a long time for his brothers to return before he went alone up the river to search for them. Eventually, he spied their canoe and walked onto the prairie.

When the Man of the Prairie saw him, he tried to pull the same trick as he had with Tuscobuk’s four brothers. However, Tuscobuk was a medicine man and was not so easily fooled. He refused to give up his arrows for the worthless twigs offered by the stranger.

Still, the man of the Prairie thought he could fool Tuscobuk. He instructed Tuscobuk to stand behind a tree while he drove elk down the trail. His real intention was to sneak up behind Tuscobuk and kill him.

Tuscobuk again was not fooled. He moved to another tree. When the giant elk came into view, he shot it four times with his solid, yew-wood arrows. In a dying rage, the elk jumped on Tuscobuk.

Luckily, the elk’s wounds had weakened it. Tuscobuk was able to slit its throat with a clam-shell knife.

Tuscobuk decided to skin the elk, but when he stretched the skin on the ground, he discovered it was bigger than the whole prairie.

Since it was too big to carry home, Tuscobuk threw the skin into the sky, where you can see it any clear night as the constellation we call Cassiopeia. The long “handle” to the left of the “W” is the elk’s tail. The stars show the places in the elk’s hide where Tuscobuk drove the stretching stakes.


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.