Blog written by: Sam Nunlist, Southern Rover Interpreter
Due to the renewed interest in the skies following the North American solar eclipse, I feel like it would be a great time to talk about some other interesting interstellar icons: constellations. From a purely astronomical standpoint there is not much to glean from studying constellations apart from positions of the individual stars and identification, but they do give a lot of information regarding the customs and cultures of the human race’s past. The stories and lore behind each of these combinations of stars give us a glimpse into what was important and understood back then. The three constellations that I will discuss here come from Greek, Welsh, and Native American culture.
Now this is one of the most well known arrangement of stars in the Northern Hemisphere. They are all relatively bright and easy to find. The Native Americans, however, did not see these stars as a dipper. Instead, they saw the ‘bowl’ of the dipper as one large bear, and the 3 stars of the handle as hunters following this bear. In spring, the bear in the sky begins to crest above the horizon, waking from its winter slumber. It then begins to forage and climb across the sky. After a bit of time moving across the sky three hunters come upon the bear and begin to chase it to help feed their families. They throw spears and wound the bear, as it crawls towards the other end of the sky. Nearly autumn, the bear skirts the horizon dragging its now bloody body across the trees, painting them in magnificent hues of red and orange. The bear will now rest until next spring when the hunt will begin anew.
Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown, is a seven starred constellation that represents quite a few different things to many cultures. The one I will focus on here is the Welsh representation of Caer Arianrhod, which is the castle that the goddess Arianrhod called home. Arianrhod is the goddess of the moon and stars, which would make sense for why her castle is among the stars. The castle of hers was the entrance for departed spirits to enter into the afterlife and be born anew, and these stars were placed so the spirits would not be lost along the way.
Hercules is the fifth largest constellation of the 88 that are officially recognized and is visible for most of the year, prominently in the summer. Hercules’ story is the Roman equivalent of the Greek story of Heracles, son of Zeus. He was challenged with 12 labors to atone for some transgressions he committed in the past, and by doing these he would attain immortality and join the pantheon of gods. In these challenges he went up against mighty foes and required to slay, capture, or outwit these enemies. Some of these targets are immortalized in constellations as well, including: Leo the Nemean Lion, the multi-headed Lernaean Hydra, and a group of stars near Hercules’ hand, Cerberus, the three-headed warden of the underworld. Cerberus is no longer considered an official constellation but he plays a big part in Hercules’ tale. Hercules completed his missions, gained his immortality, and was allowed entry into Mt. Olympus.
The night sky is beautiful and full of stars that tell stories of eras past. However, you can look up into the sky just like they did and create your own stories surrounding them. If you want to hear a few more stories to go along with these that I relayed here, be sure to visit Bear Brook State Park on Saturday nights for the Starry Starry Night program hosted by Hannah!