When I talk about constellations to various groups, someone invariably points out that they don’t look a bit like the things they’re named after.
So, with great pleasure, I introduce Corona Borealis, the northern crown, which looks a bit like a crown. Check it out on a star map if you don’t believe me. I’ll wait.
Okay, so it’s a simple semicircle of stars. It could be anything that reasonably resembles a semicircle of stars. Our ancient forebears chose a crown.
Let’s find it. Looking to the west at around 7 p.m. you can still see Arcturus, the brightest star of the summer sky. Above Arcturus is a small, but distinctive, circlet of stars.
Alpha Corona Borealis, its brightest star, is sometimes called Gemma, from the Latin word for jewel. Gemma is, quite literally, the “jewel in the crown.”
These days, most stargazers call the star Alphecca, a somewhat inaccurate transliteration of “al-fakkah,” the name Arabic astronomers also gave to the entire constellation.
“Al-fakkah” derives from the Arabic verb “fakka,” which means “to open.” Thus, al-fakkah translates as “the thing with openings,” which seems to refer to gaps in the crown.
Arabic astronomers apparently saw the jewels, not the crown that contained them. Or perhaps they refer to a necklace of widely placed gems.
Despite its diminutiveness, Corona B was a significant constellation to ancient civilizations. Stories abound about how it got in the sky.
What people saw in that simple semicircle of stars often reflected their most significant cultural preoccupations.
Australian Aboriginal cultures called it Womera, “the Boomerang,” because of its shape.
It was a fishing net overflowing with its catch to South Sea islanders, an individual fish to the people of Borneo, and a broken dish to the Persians. It was a bear claw or a boot to Siberians and a beggar’s bowl to Middle Easterners.
To the Germanic tribes of western Europe, it represented a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory in battle.
Closer to home, the Cheyenne nation arranged their camps in semicircles, so it was natural for them to see a Camp Circle in the heavens.
The traditional Hawaiian name for the constellation, Kaua Mea, suggests that the constellation represents armaments or instruments of war arranged in a circle.
To the Greeks, who had the most developed star stories to tell, it was the casually discarded crown of a god.
King Minos was the lord of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. Every year, Minos forces the citizens of Athens to send him a bloody tribute.
Seven young men and seven maidens traveled aboard a ship with a black sail. At the journey’s end, they were let loose inside a dark labyrinth, where they were sacrificed to a vicious beast called the Minotaur.
With a human’s body and a bull’s head, the Minotaur quickly killed the Athenians and ate them. Minos wasn’t too happy about having the Minotaur on his hands, but hey, better Athenians for lunch than his own people.
By the third year of this sacrifice, Theseus, the youngest son of the king of Athens, had had enough. He placed himself among the fourteen boys and girls destined to die and swore he would kill the Minotaur.
After the black ship arrived in Crete, Theseus happened upon the young daughter of Minos. Ariadne was beautiful and intelligent, and the two fell instantly in love.
When the time came for Theseus and the others to become a Minotaur meal, Ariadne secretly gave Theseus a ball of yarn.
Trailing the yarn behind him, Theseus entered the dark maze. The Minotaur soon found him.
The confrontation was something of a shock to the Minotaur. Usually, his prey passed out when he attacked them. He wasn’t used to moving adversaries.
Theseus was a studly Greek hero, however. Furious carnage ensued, the details of which are best left to the imagination.
When it was all over, Minotaur guts were spread all over the labyrinth. Theseus simply followed the yarn out of the cave.
Overjoyed at their reprieve, the Athenians began to dance the Geranos, which some Greeks still dance today. Its complex movements symbolize Theseus’s winding path through the maze.
Afterward, he, Ariadne, and the Athenian youth headed for home. Unfortunately, Theseus decided to make a pit stop at the island of Naxos, the abode of Dionysus, aka Bacchus to the Romans, the god of wine and revelry.
Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and, while she was asleep, ordered Theseus to leave the island. The dejected lad immediately headed for home.
Ariadne awoke and was heartbroken. Bacchus began to woo the woeful waif.
Ariadne, somewhat disillusioned by her seeming abandonment, demanded that the good-time god prove his love.
On the day they were finally married, Bacchus grabbed his golden crown and threw it into the heavens to pledge his devotion.
The Roman mythologist Hyginus (first-century BCE) provides an alternative disposition of Corona Borealis by Bacchus, who Hyginus calls Liber.
In “Poetic Astronomy,” Hyginus tells the story of Liber’s descent into the Underworld to rescue Semele, his dead mother.
Jupiter, the king of the gods, seduced Semele. The result of their union was the god called Liber.
When Semele died, Bacchus received his father’s permission to retrieve his mother from the Underworld, the realm of the dead.
His guide was Polymnus from the territory of the Argives. Polymnus led Liber to the place where he could descend to the Underworld.
Liber reached for his godly crown and held it in his hand.
The crown was the handiwork of Vulcan, the armorer of the gods. It was “wrought of gold and Indian gems.”
Vulcan had given it as a gift to Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Venus had, in turn, presented it to the handsome Liber.
Before Liber began his descent, he laid the crown upon the ground, “lest a gift of the gods should become polluted by contact with the dead.” That spot was “thereafter called Stephanus,” which means crown in Latin.
Liber brought his mother back safely from the Underworld. In his joy, he placed his crown in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis.
Corona was a symbol of royal power and triumph to the Greeks and Romans. But it represents unbearable loss and sadness to the Shawnee people of North America.
They saw a circle of dancing maidens in what is perhaps the most charming of celestial legends.
The Shawnee believed the stars were a race of people living in the sky. Occasionally, some of them would come down to Earth on vacation.
Thus it was that a great Shawnee hunter named White Hawk was one day searching for game. As he came to a clearing, he spied a circular ring pressed into the grass, with no sign of footprints leading up to it. (Some would say that White Hawk’s discovery is the first recorded sighting of one of those infamous crop circles, but never mind.)
As he stood trying to figure out the enigmatic circle, he saw a glittering silver bucket drop down from the heavens.
In it were 12 beautiful star sisters. They immediately jumped from the bucket and began dancing in the circle. Faster and faster they danced, beating out the time on mellifluous silver bells.
The dance enchanted White Hawk. He was particularly attracted to the gyrations of the youngest and loveliest of the maidens.
Unfortunately, the Shawnee warrior couldn’t contain himself. He lunged at her.
Needless to say, his less-than-subtle approach to seduction didn’t work. The sisters simply hopped into their bucket and high-tailed it back to the sky.
White Hawk figured they would be back because the ring in the grassy was deeply worn. The sisters seemed to do their cosmic capering often at that spot.
The next day, he used his considerable magical powers to morph himself into a rabbit. As he hid near the circle, the sisters returned. He lunged again, converting himself back into human form in mid-leap and grabbing the object of his desire. The other sisters abandoned their sibling for a bucket ride heavenward.
Against all odds, the abandoned sister fell immediately in love with White Hawk. They were married and soon had a son.
However, the captured sister soon became homesick. While White Hawk was out on yet another of his long hunting expeditions, her loneliness drove her to build another silver bucket, chant a magic chant, and zoom back to her heavenly home.
Sadly, because she did not have her sisters to guide her, she soon became lost and was never seen again.
When you look at Corona Borealis, you will see that the dancing circle is incomplete. Missing is the star maiden who would make the ring whole.
She must wander somewhere between heaven and Earth, forever separated from everyone — sisters, husband, and son — she had ever loved.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.