Star Lore Part 2

I find myself with a dilemma – which constellations to include in this blog? Ideally, it would be best to continue where the last blog left off, linking the constellations and stories of Cassiopeia and Cepheus to Andromeda and her plight.  However, at the time of writing this blog (April), some of the constellations I would really want to explore cannot easily be seen and some can’t be seen at all.  But the story needs to be finished right? And they are in the right part of the sky to add to the ones we’ve explored already… so, well at least Auriga and Perseus can be seen in their entirety at the moment, as for the rest, they’ll reveal themselves more and more over the next few months.

So many variations in the Greek stories

I mentioned in the last blog, that different cultures have a variety of stories associated with different constellations which were probably tools to help make them easier to learn, and that we mainly know the ones associated with Greek myths.  When learning the constellations and their stories, I was confused by how there was sometimes more than one Greek story associated with a constellation or set of constellations.  At first, I thought it was a mistake on behalf of the person that relayed the story to me, but then when researching the constellations later, I found a variety of often similar, but not-quite-the-same plots and intrigues surrounding them.  I do not know why for sure, but have my own hypothesis for why this is.  I was recently reading a book on the history of various Greek city states – Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes etc. and realised that there were over 1000 of these city states, including the islands in the ancient period.  While they all spoke Greek, and pretty much all worshipped the pantheon of Greek gods that we know and love, they often had slightly different stories about them.  It is hardly surprising considering that the states were spread out over such a long distance and were influenced not only by each other, but by other civilisations too, such as Egypt and Persia and of course their own prehistory with different myths and religious beliefs.  Many stories from now regarded as ancient literary sources such as Hesiad, Homer, Simonades, Sophocles, and Euripedes were different interpretations of previous myths with ‘modern’ twists to engage their audiences.  As these different city states and literary works became well known, so the stories behind the constellations must have changed depending on where you were from and who you were listening to, and thus the existence of a variety of stories for the origin of many of the Greek constellations.  In support of my hypothesis, Herodotus the historian seemed to delight in collecting different versions of similar myths.  So to keep it simple, if there is more than one Greek story for a constellation, it’s usually my favourite version that usually finds its way into this blog.

Navigation – understanding direction by star movement

We live in the UK and the sky has been known to be a bit cloudy on occasion.  So while knowing where north is by locating Polaris is great, we could do with a few other ways of getting a general idea of direction.  Some of those can be found by referring to individual constellations and we’ll include them as we go along.  But there is a way of getting an idea of direction using the movement of the stars over time.  It is based on the same idea as the apparent movement of the sun, which is after all a star (albeit a very close one).  The sun which is approximately over the equator, rises in an easterly direction, rises highest into the sky at midday (indicating due south) and sets in a westerly direction.  In the same way, because the earth rotates anticlockwise, those stars and constellations look like they moving from an easterly to westerly direction.  This is most easily seen in those constellations that hover around the equator as they will go through a greater arc over the night than those that are towards the northern part of the sky, and some, such as Orion will rise in the east and set in the west.  It really is worth spending a night or two going out every few hours and tracing the movement of the stars through sky to understand it.

Understanding this movement you can get an idea of direction by tracing the movement of stars over an hour or so.  I recommend about 2hrs because in that time a star / constellation will look to have rotated 30 degrees and this should be an easily visible change in position – it will look roughly like it has moved three widths of an outstretched fist.  The trick is to choose a spot and mark it so you can go back to it later – don’t think about standing in the same spot for two hours on a cold night! Also mark using a helpful landmark or particular tree the relative position of the star or constellation as well as measuring its height above the horizon using an outstretched fist.  Return an hour or two later and measure the change in position (upwards/downwards, left/right).  Movement upwards indicates that you are looking east, movement downwards that you are looking west, movement from right to left you are looking north, and movement from left to right indicate that you are looking south.  So now you can use this as another indicator of direction.

As you can see, it’s not instant… and it can be a little tricky in getting a good fix on the relative position of the star or constellation.  But not only can it be used to help show direction in terms of the compass, but also your relative position and direction of travel if you are moving.  If the star or constellation looks to be in a different general position after you have walked or driven (or however you are moving), then you can relate it to where you have been and where you might want to go.  Just remember that the constellation will move in an arc of 15 degrees an hour and take that into consideration.  It was just this method of comparing my position with that of a constellation and where it was in relation to a landmark that I used in South Africa when on a game drive one night.  We were driving to and fro along tracks in the dark around the reserve looking for game to shine a bright light at.  It was great hearing the night noises and we spotted quite a few animals, but I was wearing a t-shirt and was getting a little chilly as time went by.  I was delighted when by marking the positions of Orion and Lepus compared to the dark silhouette of a mountain I realised we were nearly back at the lodge – and close to a getting a hot coffee and an Ouma or two.


Below we have our revised map… the first five constellations of Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Draco, Cepheus and Cassiopeia alongside the Plough and Polaris from the first blog.  And the next in our series which are relatively close by: Andromeda, Perseus, Pegasus, Cetus, Auriga and the Pleiades.

Andromeda can be seen from July to January in the northern hemisphere and merges with part of Pegasus.  I think of the constellation being her legs protruding from the Great Square of Pegasus as she is whisked away from certain doom but actually it is her head which joins the left corner of the Great Square of Pegasus.  Unfortunately, although Andromeda and Pegasus are joined in the sky, sadly Andromeda didn’t actually get whisked away on Pegasus because it would have made the story so much better from a joining of the constellations perspective!

One notable object of interest which can be found just above her waist (half way along the length of the row of stars closest to Cassiopeia) is the Andromeda Galaxy (or M31), the closest spiral galaxy to our own, and containing double the stars than our own Milky Way.  It can be seen by the naked eye but get a pair of binoculars trained on it and it turns from a fuzzy patch into something magnificent – I was lucky enough to focus on it from the Sahara, where there is no light pollution to mar the sky, and I remember it feeling like one of the most amazing and humbling sights I had ever seen.

Andromeda Galaxy
Author: Adam Evans– Source: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy (now with h-alpha) Licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 2.0 licence.

Andromeda is a great example of how the Greek origin stories for constellations sometimes differ.  The last blog started the story of Cassiopeia and Cepheus and mentioned that Cassiopeia was so taken with her own beauty that she boasted that she was even more gorgeous than the Nereids, or sea nymphs – one of which, Amphitrite, was the wife of Poseidon.  An alternative story has it that Cassiopeia wasn’t quite so self-absorbed, but like most mothers, thought her daughter Andromeda was the beauty and it was Andromeda’s loveliness that she crowed about.  Whichever way, the Nereids were pretty upset by this boast and petitioned Poseidon to take retribution.  Poseidon – maybe to console his wife – sent a sea monster to ravage the coast of the kingdom.  Andromeda’s father Cepheus sought the advice of the Oracle of Amman who told him to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to the sea monster by chaining her to a rock.  So poor Andromeda, whether or not she was the reason for the boast, was the victim.  In this story, she lucked out as she was rescued in dramatic fashion and had a pretty good life afterwards, marrying her rescuer, becoming a queen and having nine children.  Hercules was her great grandson.  She was eventually placed in the sky by Athena after she died, but to tell the whole story now would spoil the story of Perseus and Pegasus who follow.

Perseus is most visible from mid-August until March but can be seen all year round and despite all the lines in the chart which depicts it with the arms and legs, I recognise it as being a bit of a bent V to the south of Cassiopeia.  When I say visible, I don’t mean it is easily visible! The stars are not as bright as the ones in Cassiopeia but look out for Algol, the ghoul or demon star, at the bottom of the crooked V, which represents the head of Medusa who Perseus slew on the orders of Polydectes, the king of Seriphos.  He wanted to get Perseus out of the way so he could romantically pursue his mother.

You may notice that while many constellations have Greek origins, many of the bright stars have Arabic names.  They were named during a period called the Islamic Golden Age between the 8th and 14th century when Arab scholars excelled in maths, science, philosophy and astronomy.  Mapping the bright stars no doubt helped immensely in their incredibly long range trading feats.  If you look at Algol over a few days, you may notice that it seems to dim and brighten from day to day.  This is because it is a variable star with a nearly 3 day (night?) cycle.

Perseus is also the radiant for the Perseids meteor shower, so called because they look like they are emanating from the constellation.  They are the debris of the comet Swift-Tuttle which has a 133 year orbit and are visible from the middle of July until late August.  They peak somewhere around the 10th-14th August when up to 60 meteors an hour can be seen.  I have some fond memories lying on my back by a fire one night watching these from our woods in Belvoir.

After Perseus slew Medusa by cutting off her head, he was flying back to Seriphos – to sort out Polydectes on his winged sandals.  As he flew over Ethiopia he spotted Andromeda chained to the rock, besotted with her, he made a deal with her father Cepheus who promised his beloved daughter to him if he slew Cetus and rescued his daughter.  So Perseus kills Cetus by showing it the head of Medusa turning it to stone.  He did have a little more bother to deal with before he could fly off into the sunset with Andromeda though.  A small matter of Cepheus having already promising his daughter to his brother Phineas who attempted to kill Perseus with a spear at the wedding.  This is no drama for Perseus, who happened to have Medusa’s head at the ceremony and promptly showed it to Phineas so ending that problem.  After the wedding, Perseus and Andromeda go to Seriphos where they rescue his mother from Polydectes.  I bet you can work out how Perseus killed him!  They eventually become king and queen of Tyrins and had a huge family.  Athena was so pleased with Perseus and Andromeda that when they died she placed them in the sky.

Pegasus is best identified by finding the large asterism called the Great Square which represents the wings of the flying horse.  It is easy to spot as there are not too many other stars in that region of the sky and can be from June to January but is best viewed in the autumn.

It is also has a navigational aid, the people of Polynesia used to use the Great Square of Pegasus to help them find north.  If you link the two right hand stars of the square with the far left hand star in Cassiopeia this will point north and follow this line you will find Polaris.

Pegasus has a few origin myths but the one I prefer links in with the story so far.  When Perseus killed Medusa by beheading her, the blood that flowed from her neck hit the floor.  From this sprang the winged stallion Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor (who was not a winged horse).  They were actually regarded as the offspring of Medusa and Poseidon who had made Medusa pregnant by ravishing her as she attended Athena’s temple.  Athena was not too pleased with this happening in her temple and as she could not punish Poseidon she focused her fury elsewhere and that is the reason why the once beautiful Medusa had snakes as hair and her stare would turn people to stone. 

Pegasus was caught and tamed by the hero Bellerophron who had been sent on a mission to kill the chimera – a fearsome fire breathing monster with the head of a lion the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent.  On the way he consulted with a seer who told him that to succeed he would have to capture Pegasus.  As he slept at a temple to Athena, she came to him in a dream giving him a golden bridle.  When he woke up he found the bridle was real and he set out to capture Pegasus at a well which the seer had told him about. So Bellerophron tamed the wild Pegasus and rode him to kill the chimera.  When Bellerophron returned to the king that had set the challenge, he was not believed and was sent on a number of other heroic challenges. All of which he and Pegasus succeeded in.  As he become more famous, so he became more arrogant and thought he deserved a place with the gods.  He decided to fly on Pegasus to Olympus the home of the Greek pantheon.  Zeus saw what was happening and was not happy.  In a move that showed just how canny he could be, Zeus sent a gadfly to bite Pegasus.  Pegasus reared and Bellerophron fell into a thorn bush, leaving him blind and disfigured.  Pegasus however completed the journey and Zeus set him in the sky to carry his lightning bolts.  It is the sound of Pegasus’ hooves thundering through the sky that we hear when we see lightning.

In Polynesian star lore, the Great Square is said to be the Kite of Kawelo (Kalupeakawelo).  Kawelo was a great chief of Hawaii.  As he was out paddling one day as a child he saw his cousin flying a kite.  He decided he too wanted to fly a kite and asked his grandparents for one.  His wish was granted, and as he and his cousin were flying their kites together the strings became entangled, and in the ensuing toing and froing of the wind the string of Kawelo’s kite cut that of his cousin’s bringing it down to earth in a distant forest.  Kawelo’s cousin was bigger than him and he could have punished Kawelo for losing his kite, but instead he was kind and blamed the wind ensuring that they remained friends.  It was interpreted by those that saw it that this showed that Kawelo’s mana (spirit or life force) was stronger than that of his cousin.

Cetus seen in our skies from October through to January is the sea monster sent by Poseidon to ravage the coast of Ethiopia after Cassiopeia’s act of hubris about herself/her daughter.  In some stories Cetus is depicted as a whale, in others as a sea monster.  The pre-Greek origin of Cetus seems to be Mesopotamian and they certainly worshipped a whale.  The constellation of two ‘angular box’s’ linked by a line of stars does to my eye look a bit like the body and tail of a whale.  As we have already found out, Cetus was turned to stone by Perseus weaponising the head of Medusa.

Mira, one of the stars in the constellation (seen as the middle star in the neck of the whale – under the ‘t’ of Cetus in the star chart above) is well known as a variable star.  It is a red giant that pulsates, increasing and decreasing in brightness over a 332 day period.  It varies so much that it can be seen as one of the brightest stars in the constellation at its peak illumination and cannot be seen with the naked eye when it as its weakest.

Auriga is easy to find with its bright star Capella and is best seen from October through to April.  It looks a bit like a slightly misshapen 50p piece to me.  Capella is one of the brightest stars in the sky (6th brightest) and is actually a binary star (i.e. two stars) both much brighter and larger than our sun.  It is also known as the Goat Star as it represents a goat being held in the arms of a charioteer… don’t ask! But Capella also used to be called the Harvest Star because it rises to the northeast in late August indicating that it’s time to start reaping what we sowed.

Auriga can also be considered a good navigational aid.  By extending the line between the two stars before Capella about 5x the distance between them you can find Polaris and hence north.

Sadly Auriga is not part of the Perseus story, it is Latin for charioteer.  There are a few different origin myths surrounding it, but the one I originally heard was that Auriga represents Erichthonius the son of the god Hephaestus, the crippled son of Zeus and Hera.  Erichthomius became the king of Athens after inventing the four horse chariot that he used in battle against Amphictyon the king of Thermoplyae and Athens.  Zeus raised him to the skies in honour of his creativity and valiant deeds.  In many old renditions of the star charts, Auriga is seen as a charioteer holding reins in his right hand and a goat (Capella) on his left shoulder with two kids under the left armpit.  I have tried to find out why a goat is associated with the constellation to no avail.  But apparently the constellation was represented as a herd of goats to the ancient Bedouin so maybe there was some kind of crossover in the stories somewhere along the way.

Pleiades also known as the seven sisters is a star cluster which is amongst the closest to us.  Technically, the Pleiades are not a constellation, but star cluster in the constellation of Taurus.  From October to April it is quite easy to see them with the naked eye but only a handful of the stars can be seen unaided.  I have heard that amongst some North American tribes it was used as an eyesight test for scouts.  Many of us only see 6 stars in this cluster, but there are many more with those with good eyesight seeing 7 or even 8 with their naked eye. 

The Greek origin myth is that the Pleiads were the seven daughters of Atlas, the Titan that holds up the sky and Pleione the Oceanid who was the protector of sailing.  After Atlas was forced to take the weight of the sky after the Titan lost the war with the Olympian gods, Orion began to pursue his daughters.  This caused Atlas some distress so Zeus turned his daughters first into doves and then into stars.  To this day, they are still being pursued by Orion… take a look into the sky and you will see him chasing them.  Coincidentally, there is an Aboriginal dreaming where the Pleiades represent seven sisters running away from the unwanted attention of a man who tried to practice love magic on one of them, they sat down at Uluru to forage but saw him following and with the help of spirits of Uluru they were transformed into stars.  In another Greek version of the story, they are so saddened by the punishment assigned to their father that they committed suicide, Zeus in an act of compassion then placed them in the night sky.

A Polynesian origin story that is quick and worthy of telling goes that originally, this star cluster was only one extremely bright star that was pretty vocal about how beautiful it was.  The god Tane became incredibly annoyed with this boasting so he smashed the star to pieces creating the star cluster.

Mark Sharwood- Instructor, Primitive Skills Year Alumni, Woodland Wayer Alumni

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