Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of January 24th - January 30th,  2003

Subtle Stars

Columns Archive


   The bright constellations command our attention. During winter especially, when the nights are cold, long and the stars particularly clear, we gaze out onto a diamond filled sky which has no peer. Orion, Taurus and Gemini begin their ascent in fall, rising in the east through the winter, climbing higher in the firmament as the season matures. At other times, Scorpio, Sagittarius and Leo parade across heaven, boldly going where no man has gone before.

The Vernal Equinox in Gemini

The Vernal Equinox in Gemini
c. 5,000 BC

   But other constellations claim a fame which seems to belie their magnitude. Stars nestled between brighter constellations, familiar to even those who do not study the cycles of heaven. Cancer is one of these, simply because it lies along the ecliptic and is of the company of twelve through which the Sun passes every year. The stars of this constellation are not only dim, but they also claim 17 degrees of the average 30 degrees alotted to each sign. The best way to find this constellation is to look to Gemini and Leo, and know that it lies in between. Because the Sun in its annual journey reaches its highest elevation over the northern hemisphere while in this sign (related to, but different from the constellation), it's reputation is more widespread than its dim stars might indicate.

   Moving outside of the range of the ecliptic, there are other constellations which also seem to be comparatively dim, yet whose fame extends beyond their boundaries. Draco is the most notorious of these, as stories of the Dragon abound in cultures around the world. The most obvious reason for this is because for seven thousand years this stellar grouping guarded the pole of heaven. As the protector of this supreme treasure the serpent's stars were always high overhead and visible whenever the elements cooperated and permitted a glimpse of the Lord of Thunder and Flood. For this same reason, Polaris and Ursa Minor are famous now, although most of the stars of the Little Bear are also very dim.

Constellation Hercules, c. 5000 BC

Three names, from three cultures,
for one constellation

   Another constellation which is comparatively faint when measured against some of his nightly neighbors is Hercules. This hero holds a preeminence in Greek myth which stands out far above other contenders for heavenly favor. The apple of his father's eye, one would think Zeus might have honored him by giving Orion's strong shoulders and lower limbs, but in this assessment we would miss the pivotal role Hercules played in heavenly history. Gilgamesh and Izhdubar were Mesopotamian names for the constellation Hercules. Their physical prowess was also legendary, with feats accomplished not by their stellar brilliance, but in the pivotal role this constellation played in the seasonal cycle. When the earliest oral traditions chanted their song in rhyme, looking up at the night sky and fixing the boundaries of the seasons in time, they saw Gemini at the springtime position, and the stars of Hercules half way round the circuit of heaven, cutting the great wheel in half by his light. In the oldest myths, Izhdubar cut the heavens in two, accounting for the astronomical inspiration for this oral tradition. These two constellations, Gemini and Hercules, no longer lie on opposite sides of heaven because the common center through which they aligned (the North Celestial Pole guarded by the Dragon) has shifted, and a different axis of heaven now commands the choreography.

   Hercules is one of the oldest of all the constellations in the sky, whether as the 'Kneeler', 'nameless one', or father of the Germans (Almannus) and Celts (Celticus). Then as today, these subtle stars were legendary not because of the apparent brightness of their individual components, but because of the role they played in helping to shape the heavens of antiquity, the calendar, and time itself.