Greek Mythology and Starry Skies Collide
Pegasus is horse from Greek mythology who has enormous feathered wings. His mother was the snake-haired gorgon Medusa and his father was the sea god Poseidon. It is said that Pegasus sprang from the blood of his mother when she was beheaded by the hero Perseus. In some stories, he carried the hero Perseus on his back, while in others, he was a servant of Zeus and helped transport thunderbolts. Pegasus is the seventh largest constellation in the sky. A couple of other interesting facts: There is a spring on Mount Helicon that was believed to have been created when the hoof of Pegasus struck a rock and Pegasus was a favorite subject of Greek art.
Aries is one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac. It is depicted in Ptolemy’s system as a ram, and ancient Egyptian astronomy associated it with a ram-headed god. In Greek mythology the ram represents the animal that was sent to save the children of King Athamus’s first wife, from his second wife who wanted to destroy them. The constellation Aries contains a number of distant galaxies including some so close to one another that their gravitational fields have started to collide.
Cassiopeia is one of the brightest and most recognizable constellations in the sky appearing as a bright W or M depending on when it’s observed. She is often called the vain queen because her story begins with her boasting about her beauty. As the story goes, Cassiopeia claimed she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs which angered Poseidon, the god of the sea, who sent a sea monster Cetus to destroy the queen’s kingdom. To pacify the monster, Cassiopeia’s daughter, Princess Andromeda, was left tied to a rock by the sea. Cetus was about to devour her when Perseus the Hero looked down upon her from Pegasus, the Flying Horse. Perseus rescued the Princess, and all lived happily.
The gods were so pleased, that all of these characters were elevated to the heavens as stars. But Cassiopeia was placed in the sky in such a position that she would be upside down for half of the year as a punishment for her vanity.
Ursa Minor, also known as the little dipper (which is the asterism that makes up the constellation) looks like a miniature version of the big dipper. Ursa Minor is home to Polaris, the star many know as the North Star. Polaris is useful to many cultures around the world because of it’s stable position. In mythology Ursa Minor is named Arcas and is the son of Zeus and the maiden Callisto (who became Ursa Major). Arcas and Callisto were changed into bears and placed in the sky by Zeus in order to be protected from his jealous wife Hera. We think Ursa Minor looks like a bear with a squirrel’s tale.
Cygnus is located along the Milky Way and is depicted as a swan. It is recognizable by the cross shaped asterism that forms the body and main parts of the wings which is often referred to as the Northern Cross. The name Cygnus comes from the Greek word for swan and various Greek myths have been attributed to Cygnus, however Cygnus was most likely Zeus in disguise. The story goes that Leda who was the wife of the Spartan king was so beautiful that Zeus could not resist her. Zeus didn’t think he could win Leda’s love as himself so he took the form of a beautiful swan and eventually won her over. The name of the brightest star in Cygnus is Deneb, and it comes from the Arabic word for rear or tail and as you would guess, Deneb is located in the swan’s tail.