By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
This week I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you a story, or maybe a hundred of them.
Humans from the Ice Age until today have looked to the sky for information and inspiration, and in the starry firmament have picked out shapes that reminded them of the things in our world. This happened worldwide, across many cultures, and over many millennia of years. Some of these stories have stood the test of time and survive even today. I am, of course, most familiar with the Greek and Roman (western) tales so most of my references are to those stories, but there are tales from every major culture on earth and it is interesting to compare them.
Many of the myths are quite fascinating and contain tales of battle, love and betrayal. Some of these tie several constellations together in their telling and make for large scenes in the sky. For example, Orion the great hunter is accompanied by his dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor, who persue Lepus the rabbit along the river Eridanus while Taurus the bull bears down on them. Farther to the north, Hercules kneels with his foot on the head of Draco the dragon and reaches for Lyra the lire as his prize.
One of my favorite stories is the tale of Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Perseus. Much of this tale was recreated in the 1981 movie “Clash of the Titans,” by director Desmond Davis. In this story, Cassiopeia, the vain and boastful wife of King Cepheus, was lounging on her throne and combing her long locks. While gazing into a looking glass she declared that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs. One of the Nereids, Amphitrite, heard of Cassiopeia’s hubris and became furious. Amphitrite was married to the god of the sea, Poseidon, and begged him to punish Cassiopeia for her slander and vanity. Bowing to their request, the sea god sent the monstrous Cetus, modified to the Kraken in the Hollywood treatment, to destroy King Cepheus’s country. To appease the monster, Cepheus and Cassiopeia chained their daughter Andromeda to a rock on the shore as a sacrifice to the monster. Andromeda was ultimately saved from the monster’s jaws by the hero Perseus, who used the head of Medusa to turn the monster to stone. This is one of the most famous rescue stories ever told.
There are literally hundreds of these stories about heroes and monsters depicted in the sky. Here are some great books you can get on Amazon and read around your next campfire. Or, even better, memorize one of your favorites and be the story teller while you point out the constellations to your rapt audience. Here are a few of my recommendations:
Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations – about $20
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes – about $18
Star Lore: Myths, Legends, and Facts – about $23
Any or all of these will make a great addition to your traveling library.
Hearing some of these stories as a child was one of the factors that got me interested in the stars. I think of them whenever I look up at the constellations, and imagine my ancestors gathered around a fire, just like we do today, and telling these stories.
Take some time and read one of the ancient tales for yourself and then go outside and see if you can spot one of the characters in the sky. I promise you, once you make that connection, you will never forget that constellation and the story associated with it.
Till next time …
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)