Today everyone is familiar with the astrological zodiac – the 12 signs that refer to specific times of the year and correspond to categories reputed to provide some psychological insight into one's personality. Connecting the 12 zodiacal constellations like a highway in the sky is the ecliptic – the path that the Sun, moon and planets travel. Without getting too bogged down in details, when the sun is located in, say, Libra, the time of year very roughly correlates to the astrological period of Libra. When the planets, which travel at different speeds and in different-sized orbits, pass through various signs, we say, for instance, that Jupiter is in Aries. The moon traverses these constellations for several days every month.
No Starry Night print goes out without mention of at least one of these zodiacal constellations. But there are a host of other star patterns that fill the night skies, many of which never appear on a Starry Night print. These constellations might be too far or below the ecliptic, which takes them outside our viewing frame. Others will appear but won't be mentioned in the caption. They might contain faint stars, making them difficult to perceive, while others, frankly, lack "star power." Auriga, the charioteer? Corvus, the crow? And Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Bearer? Pronouncing it makes a sound like a sneeze.
But the majority of all the constellations, unsexy perhaps, have been part of stargazers' panoramas for thousands of years. Long before the first books were written, people looked up into the heavens and made up stories about the patterns they saw there, the way daydreamers imagine shapes and corresponding stories in passing clouds. It was through Greek myths that I first realized this.
More decades ago than I care to admit to, I became infatuated with D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. I checked it out constantly from the public library, pouring over the illustrations and memorizing the stories of the gods, goddesses, heroes and those mortals fated to come into contact with them. For me one of the allures was their attempts to explain the natural world. The story of Persephone's abduction, for instance, serves as explanation for the seasons. Hades, god of the underworld, steals her away from her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and Demeter's mourning causes the earth's abundance to wither. Eventually Persephone is allowed to return to her mother, but since she ate 6 pomegranate seeds while in Hades' realm, she must reside 6 months of each year underground. During her absence, Demeter mourns, blessing the earth with abundance only upon her daughter's return.
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Accept no substitutes.
Just as earth-bound phenomenon is explained, so are patterns in the night sky. D'Auliares' recounts the story of Orion, a great hunter and favorite of Artemis.
"Orion was the only man Artemis had ever favored, and her brother Apollo grew jealous. One day while Artemis was away, he sent an enormous scorpion to attack Orion. Orion's club and mighty sword were no avail against the scorpion's poisonous tail. He turned to flee, but as he did, the giant insect stung his heel.
Artemis was angry with her brother when she returned and found her companion dead. But she could not stay angry with her twin for long, and he helped her hang Orion's image in the skies as a constellation so the great hunter would never be forgotten.
Over the stormy winter sea the constellation of Orion glitters, enormous and meancing, and the dark clouds flee before him like wild animals. But in summer, when the constellation of the Scorpion rises over the horizon, Orion begins to sway and stagger, and then he, in his turn, flees and disappears into the ocean."
This is, in fact, what Orion does in the night skies. He's positioned between the zodiacal constellations of Taurus and Gemini, so in the late Spring and into Summer, he's too close to the Sun to be seen in the night skies. By late summer he rises in the night sky in the early dawn and then successively earlier until early May when he's setting in the west soon after sunset. And that's precisely when the Scorpion begins his ascendancy in the night skies.
D'Auliares also tells the story of the first spider. A young girl gifted at weaving, Arachne mistakenly boasted of her talents to Artemis. Angered, the goddess turned her into a spider: "Vainglorious girl, go and spin your thread and weave your empty net forever." Today we explain our connection to spiders less through fanciful stories of how their behavior originated than through the lens of the natural sciences -- evolution, biology, genetics, etc. In the same way, we've shifted to explaining the stars with the language of physics. But at night, gazing at the stars, we're looking at the same world the Greeks wondered at and explained with the stories of gods and heroes. Our lives today differ vastly from theirs, but their stories and the stars remain – connecting us through their timeless ability to amaze and delight.
Detail of the Ship Argo – the vessel that carried Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. This asterism, known as 'Argo' joins four constellations in the southern sky: Vela (the Sail), Puppis (the Stern), Pyxis (the Compass), and Carina (the Keel).