Taurus, the Bull, is among the most distinctive and easily recognized constellations. This time of year, it rises early. Look for its V-shaped head low on the eastern horizon around 7 p.m.
The bright, reddish star Aldebaran forms the red, bloodshot eye of a rather angry, if cartoonish, bull. Follow the strokes of the “V” to the left to see the bull’s long horns. You can’t miss the bull’s upper horn. Taurus shares the star Elnath with the constellation Auriga.
Above the “V,” the distinctive cluster of six stars, called the Pleiades, represents the bull’s shoulders.
Only the bull’s head, horns, and shoulders appear in the sky. What happened to Taurus’s lower body? We will solve that mystery in due course.
We see a raging bull in mortal combat with mighty Orion, down and to the left in the sky. However, the old star stories often describe the bull as a beautiful heifer, sometimes with a hide as white as new-fallen snow and horns gleaming like polished gold.
Jupiter’s presence in Taurus is no surprise. Because the planets orbit the sun, they slide along a band of constellations called the Zodiac.
Jupiter takes about a dozen years to orbit the sun. Consequently, it makes one passage around the sky in about that same time. The planet spends just under a year in Taurus before moving to the next constellation in the Zodiac.
Of course, the ancients were unaware of the motions of the planets around the sun. Jupiter was the king of the gods. Presumably, he could meander around the sky any way he wanted. Why does he spend so much time in Taurus?
One ancient explanation revolved around Jupiter’s frequent marital infidelities, despite the watchful eye of Juno, his justly jealous wife.
The resulting stories, fair warning, are somewhat appalling when measured against today’s moral standards. Unfortunately, we can’t understand the origins of the constellational Bull without them.
In those days, the gods were not bound by human standards of decency. As immortal gods, they could and did yield to their powerful appetites. They rarely considered the consequences for lowly mortal beings like humans. When they did, they acted regardless of — and sometimes because of — the disastrous results.
Two ancient myths typify the connection between Jupiter and Taurus. The Greeks initially devised the stories. However, the Romans embraced many Greek gods and their attendant mythology.
For simplicity’s sake and to emphasize the relationship between Jupiter and Taurus, I use the Roman names for the gods below. The Greek Zeus, king of the gods, thus becomes the Roman Jupiter. Hermes becomes Mercury, and Hera becomes Juno.
The first story concerns Europa, daughter of Agenor, the Phoenician king of Tyre.
Europa was a comely and innocent young woman who liked to frolic on the beach with her Tyrian playmates.
Jupiter ordered his son, Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, to drive King Agenor’s cattle toward the shore where the girls were playing in the surf.
Jupiter transformed himself into a gentle, milky-white bull and mingled with the herd. As one might expect, the bull’s beauty and placidity entranced Europa.
Despite his anticipation of a liaison with Europa, Jupiter maintained his cool. It was not easy for him. She stroked his sides with tender caresses and adorned his horns with flowers.
The bull knelt onto the sand, and Europa climbed on its back. She expected a pleasant ride on the docile beast.
Instead, Jupiter plowed into the water and swam rapidly away from the shore. As the water rose around her, Europa became increasingly alarmed.
She rose higher on the bull’s back until she was clinging tightly to his horns. As the waves sloshed higher on the bull’s back, the maiden, now in fear for her life, clung even more tightly.
That, of course, was what Jupiter had in mind in the first place.
When they returned at last to the shore, Jupiter transformed himself into the radiant king of the gods. One thing led to another, and, well, you know.
Jupiter, for once, wanted to maintain the illicit relationship, so he plied Europa with bounteous gifts, including a dog that was later to become the constellation Canis Major.
Their children included King Minos of Crete, who grew up to create his infamous palace at Knossos, complete with its elaborate labyrinth.
The labyrinth was a devilishly confusing underground maze. Its primary purpose was to house the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of Pasiphae, Minos’s unfaithful wife, and a snow-white bull (not Jupiter, a real one).
The Minotaur possessed the body of a human and, you guessed it, the head of a bull.
Pick any of the bulls in the myth to put in the sky. The ancients chose the disguised Jupiter because of his gigantic ego. They expected that Jupiter would want to remind himself of his seductive powers.
If you are not bullish on Europa’s story, please consider the somewhat less offensive tale of Jupiter and Io.
In that story, Jupiter’s lover, not Jupiter, takes on the role of the bull.
One ill-omened day he fell in lust with Io, the stunningly beautiful daughter of the river god Inachos. Io couldn’t resist the charms of Jupiter’s power, which, as Henry Kissinger once said, is the most powerful of aphrodisiacs.
Still, Io had to be cautious. Jupiter’s spouse, Juno, could make serious mischief for Io if she found out.
Jupiter was not so squeamish. He was much more powerful than his wife. As a result, he could take liberties. Io was a priestess in Juno’s temple, which added to her allure as far as Jupiter was concerned.
When Juno inevitably found out, she turned poor Io into a white heifer, a relationship killer if there ever was one. Because she didn’t trust her philandering husband even under these strange circumstances, she also instructed Argus, a giant with 100 eyes, to watch the imprisoned heifer.
Argus made an excellent prison guard. Because a few of his eyes were always open, he didn’t get much sleep.
Jupiter figured the least he could do was to free Io from prison. He balked at the thought of doing his own dirty work, so he sent Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, to kill the huge, hairy insomniac.
That was no mean task. Argus quite literally had eyes in the back of his head. In this case, lightning speed triumphed over 20-20 vigilance. Mercury lopped off the giant’s head before he knew what hit him.
Juno was furious, of course, but she couldn’t do much to punish her more-powerful husband. In one version of the myth, she contented herself by placing the slain giant’s 100 eyes in the sky as the tail of the constellation, Pavo, the Peacock.
In another version, Io escaped to Egypt, where Jupiter returned her to human form. As repayment for her considerable troubles, the god allowed her to give birth to Epaphus, a lovely daughter who eventually becomes ruler of the Nile Valley.
In the most constellational rendition of the story, Juno exacted a certain measure of revenge. Just as Jupiter freed Io from imprisonment, Juno sent a gadfly to bedevil the heifer.
To escape the annoyance, Io jumped into the sea and tried to swim away. She remains to this very day in that wretched state — immersed up to her shoulders in the ocean of night.
Despite Jupiter’s many flaws, he is, if nothing else, loyal to his fallen and discarded lovers. As he makes his rounds through the Zodiacal constellations, he condescends every 12th year to revisit the splendor of the beautiful white heifer, Taurus.
Jupiter will again enter the constellation on May 2, 2024. By June, the unchanging nature of planetary motion will turn the tables on the now helpless god. Jupiter, the planet and the god alike, will be perched on the heifer’s back.
Of course, astronomers no longer believe in Jupiter, but they still remember the god and his paramours.
The planetary point of light we see is a ball of liquid hydrogen and helium and not the grand deity of old. Nevertheless, remnants of the old beliefs remain.
Binoculars reveal four tiny points of light huddled around the planet. They are the four brightest moons of the erstwhile god. One of them is called Io. Another is named Europa. They still orbit Jupiter in fidelity to their lost love.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.