Allerlei - Classical Constellations: Taurus to Virgo

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Taurus

Taurus, the Bull, is a very old constellation. Sometimes the Bull is said to represent the Greek god Zeus. One day Zeus came upon a beautiful maiden who was walking along a beach. A herd of cattle was nearby. Zeus turned himself into a magnificent white bull and went among the rest of the cattle. When Europa saw the white bull she was attracted by its color. The white bull was very friendly and walked up to Europa. But as soon as they were close Zeus threw the girl up on his back and swan across the sea. Zeus left her on the island of Crete and Europa eventually married the island's king.

Triangulum

Triangulum, the Triangle, looks like a skinny triangle in the sky. It is almost always shown as just a single triangle but in the picture above the author added his own style and turned the constellation into two triangles! You can still see the original Triangle constellation in the picture by looking for the three stars connected by a thin line. There is not much else to say about this constellation!

Ursa Minor

Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, has been known as a bear only since classical times. In earlier days these stars may have been a leopard, a jackal, or a hippopotamus. Ursa Minor contains the famous asterism known as the Little Dipper. The star at the tip of the Dipper's handle is the North Star. The Little Bear is identified with Arcas, a character in a Greek story. You can read more about Arcas at Ursa Major.

The Pahute Indians of North America have a tale in which the Little and Big Dippers are mountain sheep. Na-gah was the best climber of the mountain sheep tribe. Once, while wandering farther than usual, Na-gah came upon a very steep and smooth mountain. The mountain was so tall that it reached up into the clouds. Na-gah thought to himself, "I am going to climb that mountain!" He tried and tried but just could not find a way up the slick wall of rock. Still he didn't give up. Finally he found a crack at the base of the mountain that joined a tunnel leading upwards. Na-gah climbed in the tunnel and went up. It was pitch black in the tunnel and he often slipped, kicking loose large rocks which tumbled down far below.

The tunnel continued up a long way and Na-gah got very tired. "I am much too tired to continue," he thought. " And it is so dark! I like climbing in the sunshine but I don't like it here. I will go back down and try again on the outside of the mountain." But when he tried to go back down he found his path blocked by all the rocks that he had kicked loose. "If I can not go down then I must go up!" The tired sheep slowly made his way up the tunnel. Finally he saw a light. Exhausted, he stepped out into the sunshine and could not believe his eyes. He was on top of the mountain! Na-gah was higher than anything else he could see.

After a while Na-gah thought about going down but the tunnel he had come up was all blocked by rocks and the sides of the mountain were too slick and steep to climb down. "I will die up here," he thought, "but at least I made it to the top!" He accepted his fate and nibbled on the little bit of grass that grew on the summit.

Not long after that Shinob, a young god, wanted to talk to Na-gah. He looked everywhere on earth but could not find him. So Shinob decided to search the sky. There he found Na-gah, high above the clouds, alone on the mountain top. Shinob said, "Na-gah you are stuck on that mountain top - on that little patch of ground where you can hardly move. You can not climb down and yet you remain so brave!"

Shinob did not want Na-gah to die on the mountain so he turned the mountain sheep into a star and placed him in the northern sky. And there he stands to this very day - unmoving, serving as a guide to those who need him. Shinob had turned Na-gah into the North Star!

Since then other mountain sheep have tried to climb the mountain. They too have been turned into stars and placed in the northern sky. They are the stars of the Big and Little Dippers. Every clear night you can see the mountain sheep circling as they try to find a way to join Na-gah on the mountain top!

Virgo

Virgo, the Maiden, is often thought to represent the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Her daughter, Persephone, was kidnapped by Aides, the god of the Underworld. Demeter wandered the world looking for her daughter. She was so sad that she could not do her duty as the goddess of agriculture. Soon crops failed and people were getting hungry. Finally Aides relented and allowed Persephone to return to her mother. Demeter was very happy and made the crops grow again. However the bargain was that for a few months every year Persephone had to return to the Underworld. Each time Persephone leaves it makes Demeter sad. She neglects her duties and plants die. That is why nothing grows in the winter!

Ursa Major

Ursa Major, the Big Bear, is probably one of the most well known of all the constellations. Look for the Big Dipper in the northern sky and you've found Ursa Major. The Big Dipper only represents the hindquarters of the Bear but once you become familiar with its stars you will easily see the entire Bear.

How did this Big Bear get into the sky? Greek myth says that King Lycaon of Arcadia had a daughter named Callisto. She was an attendant to the moon goddess Artemis. Zeus was smitten by Callisto's beauty and after they were together she had a son who she named Arcas. Hera (Zeus' wife) found out about his affair and in a jealous rage she turned Callisto into a bear. From then on Callisto roamed the countryside around Arcadia. Her son, Arcas, was raised by King Lycaon. One day when Arcas was hunting he came upon a bear and, not knowing it was really his mother, he killed it. Zeus was sad and to honor Callisto he turned her into the beautiful Big Bear constellation. Later in his life Arcas too was placed in the sky as the constellation we now call Boötes.

In a variation of that story it is said that before Arcas could kill his bear-mother Zeus changed him into a little bear . Then Zeus placed both of the bears into the sky out of the reach of Hera. Hera did get some revenge though. She arranged it so Callisto (Ursa Major) and Arcas (Ursa Minor) would be placed in the far north sky so that they could never rest in the ocean like the other constellations (they were circumpolar constellations - they never set below the horizon, at least from the latitude of Greece).

Although Ursa Major is made up of many stars much mythology only deals with the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The Snohomish Indians (USA Pacific NW) explain the Big Dipper this way:

A long time ago the land around Puget Sound was a wonderful place to live but it did have one problem - the sky was too low. It was so low that sometimes tall people bumped their heads on it! The tribes in the area all agreed that the sky must be raised up. A message was sent to all the people to get as many giant fir trees as possible. They brought the trees to a gathering place and were told what to do. Everyone was to hold the base of a fir tree and shove its top against the sky. Then they were all supposed to push up the sky and move it away from the earth. The sky was quite heavy and so everyone had to push up at the same time. Each tribe spoke a different language but fortunately there was a word that all of them knew. That word was "ya-hoh" and it meant "lift together." When everyone was ready the chiefs yelled, "ya-hoh!" and everyone pushed upwards but the sky didn't budge. Again the chiefs yelled, "ya-hoh!" and everyone pushed upwards and this time the sky moved a little. Again and again the chiefs yelled "ya-hoh!" and again and again the people pushed the sky a little more upwards. Finally the sky was pushed as high as it is today and the people celebrated.

Now it so happens that while the people were pushing up the sky there was a hunting party that had gone far afield to find food for their tribe. There were three hunters and a dog in the hunting party and they did not know about the sky raising. They had found four large elk and were chasing them across the land. The chase lasted many days and took them to the edge of the earth - where the ground almost touched the sky. Having nowhere else to go the four elk jumped up into the sky and kept on running. The hunters wasted no time in following the elk and they too jumped up into the sky. It was then that the people pushed up the sky leaving the elk and hunters with no way to get back down to earth.

You can still see the hunt going on today. The four stars of the Big Dipper's bowl are the four elk. The three stars in the Dipper's handle are the hunters. The little star next to the middle hunter is his dog.

The Wasco Indians (USA Pacific NW), like the Snohomish, saw individuals creatures in the stars of the Big Dipper.

A long time ago there lived five wolf brothers who loved to hunt. Each night they would gather together and stare at something up in the sky. Coyote came along and asked, "What are you staring at?" "Nothing," the wolf brothers replied. "We are staring at nothing." The wolf brothers were worried about what Coyote would do if he found out what they were looking at. But finally, after much pestering, the wolves said, "Well Coyote, we see two animals of some kind in the sky but they are too far away for us to tell what kind of animals they are. Can you figure out a way for us to get closer?" "That is easy!" said Coyote, who was very curious himself. He took his magic bow and shot an arrow into the air. It came straight down and landed in the ground. Then he took another arrow and shot it into the sky. It came down and stuck into the end of the first arrow. He took another arrow, shot it into the sky, and it came down and stuck into end of the second arrow. Coyote continued shooting arrows in this manner for many days. Finally the arrow ladder was tall enough to reach the two sky animals. The wolf brothers climbed up first and the eldest took his dog along. Coyote was the last to climb up because he was a little afraid of what they would find at the top of the arrow ladder. After days of climbing the youngest wolf brother was able to clearly see the sky animals. "They are two grizzly bears!" he said. That frightened everyone. "But look, they are just sitting there, staring at us. I don't think that it will hurt to get closer." So the youngest wolf brother continued up the ladder followed by his four brothers with Coyote trailing far behind. The wolf brothers got right up close to the grizzly bears. They sat down and stared at the two bears. The grizzly bears didn't move. They just sat there and stared back. All the while Coyote stayed at the top of the arrow ladder. "Those grizzly bears might be dangerous," he thought. "I'm not going to get any closer! Hmm..... you know..... those wolf brothers and grizzly bears look kind of nice sitting there in the sky. I think I will leave them there so everyone can see them. Then people will tell this story about me." Coyote climbed down the arrow ladder removing the arrows as he went. The wolf brothers and grizzly bears were stuck in the sky forever. You can still see them where they are sitting and staring at each other. The three stars in the handle of the Dipper are the elder wolf brothers. The middle star of the handle is the oldest brother and his dog is sitting next to him. The two stars in the bowl, nearest the handle, are the two youngest wolf brothers. Opposite them, and pointing to the North Star, are two more stars which are the grizzly bears.

A curious thing about the celestial bears is that each has a very long tail. One story says that the sky bears have such long tails because when Zeus placed Callisto and Arcas into the sky he pulled them up by their tails, stretching them in the process!

Native American myth tells us that a long time ago all bears had lovely long tails, that is until Bear was tricked by Fox. Bear and Fox were friends but they still liked to tease each other. One day when Fox saw an Indian ice fishing he got an idea for a joke to play on Bear. Fox grabbed a fish that the Indian had caught and ran off with it to find Bear. When he found Bear Fox said, "Look at this fine fish I caught for dinner!" "But wasn't the lake frozen?" said Bear. "How did you catch that fish?" Fox replied, "I put my tail into a hole in the ice and when a fish bit it I pulled my tail out with the fish still hanging on!" Bear was jealous - he wanted fish for dinner too. "Come on", said Fox, "I will show you where the hole in the ice is." They came to the lake and Bear put his long tail into the water. Bear waited a long long time but no fish would bite his tail. Night was coming and it was getting very cold but Bear kept his tail in the water hoping to catch a fish. Finally it got so cold that the hole in the ice froze solid and Bear's tail was stuck. Fox saw that Bear couldn't move and he laughed and laughed. Then Fox began to dance around Bear and tease him. Fox said, "What a silly Bear! Your tail is frozen in the ice!" That made Bear very angry and he tried to leap at Fox. Bear jumped so hard that his long tail broke off and he was left with only the stubby tail that all bears have today.


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