EPISODE 16: STARS
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
The Big Dipper is easily the most recognized star pattern in the world. Even if you don’t know anything about space, there is a good chance you have heard of this figure, and perhaps have even seen it on a clear night.
Most people incorrectly assume that the Big Dipper and Little Dipper are constellations themselves, but they are actually parts of two bigger ones known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Ursa Minor is home to Polaris, which many of us know as the North Star. For thousands of years this one star - which is actually a group of three stars that looks like one - has guided travellers from all walks of life.
Polaris is an emblem of hope that helped enslaved people navigate the underground railroad as they risked their lives fleeing from the USA and into Canada.
The astronauts on the Apollo mission used Polaris as a way to orient themselves while navigating the moon.
And in Nunavut, Polaris is featured on the territory emblem. According to the legislative assembly it "represents the traditional guide for navigation and more broadly, forever remains unchanged as the leadership of the elders in the community.”
Polaris sits almost directly above the Earth's rotational axis, and because Ursa Minor is located in the northern celestial hemisphere and is circumpolar to northern observers, it is visible year round.
The names Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are translated to the Great Bear and the Little Bear. They are companions, and part of the same family of constellations.
These families, are made up of groups of different constellations either based on location in the sky, the same mythology, or outlined during the same period of time.
The 88 Modern Constellations and set families were defined by Donald H. Menzel, who was the director of the Harvard Observatory in the 1950s and 1960s.
When it comes to the constellations themselves, most of the Northern ones were defined by Ptolemy in his Almagest in the 2nd century AD, while the Southern ones which were not visible to the ancient Greeks, were identified and labeled in the 16th to 18th centuries, at the height of European exploration and the subsequent colonization of other lands.
Of course, every culture on Earth has designated their own constellations throughout time and told stories about them but, in this episode you will be hearing information about three of the ones documented by Ptolemy, as well as three constellations that didn’t make the final cut for our night sky.
And as you have probably figured out by now, the first story in this journey is that of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Many, many years ago, there lived a young nymph named Callisto.
Callisto was the epitome of beauty and kindness, and everywhere she went, she was looked upon with infatuation.
Callisto was born into royalty, but she felt stifled and bored by this charmed life.
More suited to the secrecy and wildness of the forests. Each day Callisto would explore the woods surrounding her fathers kingdom. There in amongst the trees she felt free to roam, her passion for nature completely unbridled.
It was this passion that was observed one day by the Goddess of the Hunt - Artemis.
Over the coming weeks, the goddess watched the young woman and marvelled at her spirit and tenacity.
One afternoon, Artemis decided it was time to extend an invitation to Callisto and ask her join her band of Huntresses.
Artemis told Callisto, that In order to join, she would have to take a vow of celibacy for the rest of her life.
The nymph emphatically agreed.
You see, remaining a virgin was the ultimate freedom for Callisto.
Pacts made between Gods and humans were respected above all else.
By making this choice, she would never be forced to marry a man of her father’s choosing.
Callisto would be able to make her own decisions and craft the life that she wanted.
So she, thrived in her new role, and quickly became a favourite of Artemis, even becoming the Goddess’ right hand woman.
One day while out hunting, Callisto was spotted by Zeus. And if you know anything about Zeus, you know how unfortunate it is for a woman catch his eye.
Callisto’s legendary beauty was the only thing he noticed, and he decided she would be his.
Knowing she was a devotee of the Huntress, the cruel and selfish God transformed himself to look exactly like Artemis and approached Callisto.
He then persuaded her to undress and lay with him, but during this assault, he reveals himself to be Zeus.
Callisto was devastated, not only was she raped by a god, but now her vow to her mistress was broken.
You see, It would not matter to Artemis whether it was consensual or not. All that mattered was whether the promise remained intact. A gods will was held in higher regard than a mortals and Zeus’s will was to have sex with Callisto and Artemis’s will was for Callisto to remain a virgin.
Callisto, who was already filled with shame, soon discovered she was pregnant. She did her best to hide this from Artemis for as long as she could, but time was running out.
One day, after a particularly intense hunt, Artemis invited all her devotees to take a refreshing bath in a lake.
One by one they undressed, and waded into the water. As right hand to Artemis, there was no way she could avoid undressing.
It was then that Artemis saw the pregnant belly of her companion.
In a fit of rage, the Goddess banished Callisto from the group of Huntresses forever.
Though she faced many dangers, Callisto cared for herself quite well in the forest and the wild beasts were no match for her skills.
But she stood no chance against the shame and sadness she felt.
Callisto also stood no chance against the wrath of Zeus’s wife. Hera had recently learned of her husbands actions and was determined to make Callisto suffer for them.
One day, while Hera was out searching for Callisto, she received word that she had just given birth to a baby boy.
Hera became completely unhinged.
Zeus, who was watching the search unfold, knew that when Hera found the young mother, she would kill her.
In a moment of guilt for what he had done to the young woman, he turned Callisto into a beautiful white bear in order to disguise her.
He then took her son, who she named Arcas away to be raised by a nearby king.
Callisto was now destined to roam the forest as one of the creatures she had previously hunted.
She was lonely and tired and always on the move.
The years passed, and Arcas grew into a strong and noble young man, who had a natural ability to hunt, just like his mother.
One day, while Arcas was in the woods, he saw a beautiful white bear walking the trails.
Callisto, who immediately recognized the man as her son, was overcome with grief and joy and began to rapidly approach him.
This confused and startled Arcas, who felt he was about to be attacked.
He raised his spear to throw at the bear.
Zeus, who seems to always be watching the unfortunate consequences of his actions without ever being affected himself….quickly turned Arcas into a smaller bear.
Mother and son reunited, he then placed them together in the sky as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, where they would never be in danger again.
The next constellation you will be hearing about, is that of Sagittarius.
I wanted to talk about this one because there is a lot of misinformation surrounding it.
In recent years, Sagittarius has become associated with the story of the Chiron the Centaur, but his story actually belongs to the constellation called Centaurus.
The reason this misinterpretation happens, is because the ancient Greeks, adopted the entire constellation from the Sumerians… which for them, did depict a "horse-man" type creature.
The story of the constellation Sagittarius is that of a brave Satyr named Krotos who lived on Mount Helicon with the Muses.
Krotos, was the son of Eupheme and Pan, and was the live-in nurse and protector of the nine Muses.
Because he was constantly around them, he had a consistent flow of inspiration at his fingertips.
Not only was he a gifted musician he was also a skilled hunter.
There are two significant things associated with Krotos that he is remembered and honoured for.
The first, is that he is thought to have invented applause.
Whenever the muses would create something spectacular, which of course they did everyday, Krotos would clap his hands together in celebration of them.
This quickly spread around ancient Greece, and replaced the tradition of yelling and hollering in recognition of a performance. Or, at least was used alongside it.
In Greek myth Satyrs were typically associated with primal urges, such aggression and wildness, but Krotos was more refined and appreciative of the arts.
This is what made him stand out to the Greeks, but they didn’t completely overlook his supposed “genetic” predisposition to hunting in their mythology.
He is credited by the Greeks as the inventor of the bow and arrow, which he used to protect not only himself from attacks, but also his charges — the muses.
You see that supposed Satyr wildness is channeled into a force for good, rather than destruction.
The muses were so thankful for all Krotos had done for them throughout their lives, that they asked the gods to place him in the sky as a constellation — the highest honour one can receive.
The story of Krotos has always reminded me of this quote by bodhi sanders, and so I will leave it with you to ponder.
"Protecting yourself is self defense. Protecting others is warriorship.”
Our final “recognized” constellation to discuss, is Lyra the Lyre.
Though this is one of the smaller constellations it does contain the fifth brightest star in the sky called Vega.
Lyra is the latin word for Lyre, which is a string instrument in the shape of a U that is kind of similar to the harp.
Popular with the ancient Greeks, it was only natural that they would make sure this instrument was recognized in star pattern.
Lyra is associated with the famous myth of Orpheus.
Orpheus was a gifted musician and poet, a special favourite of the muses, because his mother was one of them: Calliope.
When Orpheus was a little boy, the god Apollo gifted him a magnificent golden lyre, that he immediately took to.
It was said that Orpheus could play music that reached all the way to the core of the earth. Even the stones on the ground were enamoured by his playing.
When the argonauts were out sailing passed a location frequented by the Sirens, they would bring Orpheus along, as his music was the only thing strong enough to compete with their compelling and deadly song.
Orpheus was killed by the Bacchantes, a female worship cult of Dionysus.
They then threw his lyre into a river, which Zeus had recovered using special eagle, before placing it in the sky in honour of the gifted musician.
If you take a look at old star maps, they will usually show an image of the eagle with Lyra in its mouth. A little nod to Zeus’ decision to honour Orpheus.
What many people don’t realize is that in the West, there have been constellations that have come and gone over the centuries.
What better way to end this episode than with a story of my favourite obsolete constellation.
In the late 18th century, astronomer and lecturer Joseph-Jerome de Lalonde took it upon himself to create a constellation.
A cat, which he called Felis.
Felis was formed by using stars between the constellations Hydra and Antlia.
When asked why he decided to make this constellation he said;
“I am very fond of cats. I will let this figure scratch on the chart. The starry sky has worried me quite enough in my life, so now I can have my joke with it.”
Though Felis was included in a few star atlases, it was never widely recognized and fell out of a favour.