Part of the Never-Ending Story

This image of Orion and its Cloud Complex by Rogelio Bernal Andreo has got me transfixed this week. Orion the mighty Hunter and his belt is such a familiar constellation to us that we often don’t even pause to wonder what secrets it may be holding, and yet here in this mosaic, stitched together so beautifully, we can see just how wondrous Orion really is.

There is Barnard’s Loop – that red gaseous crescent moon shape on the left. There’s the Witch’s Head Nebula down in the lower right that I’m still not quite certain isn’t Falkor the Luck Dragon flying our hero Atreyu through the universe.

Just above the left-hand star of Orion’s Belt (Alnitak) we find the Flame Nebula, and just under it, the eerie Horsehead Nebula emerging out of the dark. And then in the lower centre, the incredible Great Orion Nebula we can even see with our naked eye.

But this is just scratching the surface. There’s an open cluster of stars, three of which are perfectly aligned north to south, Collinder 69, that lie in the face of Orion  – when was the last time we even gazed upon our Hunter’s face? And then the Reflection Nebula… The list goes on and on.

It is the myth of these constellations that really lights a fire in my heart, and Orion, seen the world over, has birthed thousands of tales and legends. Looking at this image one can’t possibly help but think of Orion as mythic. And it raises the question, what is myth? Does it have to be an ancient tale of a great Hunter who, in his pride, was stung by a scorpion? Or a tale of a Belt that in the South Pacific is instead a canoe taking fishermen heroes out to sea?

What if a myth is also a story of an exploding star (did you know Betelgeuse, that red star on the left shoulder of Orion may explode as a supernova in the relatively near future and that humans on Earth will see it?), or a tale of how humans saw an eerie horse or witch’s head in the sky above? Or, of a face that is rarely looked at yet wears three distinguished stars across a cheek… Where does the myth end and where does it begin? Or perhaps, what we discover is that it is all a myth. Life throughout space and across time is simply a beautiful, fantastical, unimaginable, rich mosaic of a story, and how lucky we are to be part of it.

The Eternal Lion in the Sky

Thousands of years ago, before Egypt became the arid place we now know it as, it was once lush and green, and lions roamed its jungles. They were feared and revered by tribesmen, and seen as a symbol of power, and strength — the king of the jungle. To be caught in a tussle with a lion and to win was an incredible feat, and the skin would be given to kings as a gift.

As the climate changed and deserts overtook the country, however, the lions drew further back, and living on the edges of the desert they became known as the guardians of the eastern and western horizons, where the sun rose and set. But when the heat increased during the summer months, the lions would leave their posts to travel to the Nile in search of water. Can you imagine what a sight that must have been for the very earliest of the Ancient Egyptians to see these beasts come in their prides of as many as 40 lions to drink and feed at the river?  Little wonder so many of the ancient statues and tombs in Egypt are flanked by stone lions. The sphinx itself has the body of a lion.

At those times, when constellations were being named, there was a collection of stars, including one particularly bright star, that would rise before dawn during the hottest period of the year when the Nile would flood and the lions were making their journey to the river. The Ancient Egyptians named that bright star, ‘the heart of the lion’ — in Arabic,”Qalb al-Asad — one of the four royal stars — and the stars that surrounded the heart formed the body of a lion, which is the zodiacal constellation, Leo. Today we refer to the brightest star in the constellation as Regulus (the king).

Now, however, there are no more lions in Egypt, and it is saddening to think that one day if humanity doesn’t act quickly to conserve the great cats, there may be no more lions left in Africa at all. In 2015, only 20,000 lions remained on Earth. Imagine in a few hundred years from now when people look skywards to Leo, and tell tales of this mighty creature that once roamed Africa weighing in at some 500 pounds with three-inch claws and a golden mane, how those listening might shake their head and call the lion simply a mythological creature — that it never existed.

Gazing up at Leo reminds us how animals are part of our human story and that we need to help preserve them, lest they be only be seen by future generations in the stars above. It also makes us wonder… Draco (the dragon) is immortalized in our night sky. Can it be possible dragons once existed, and aren’t just stuff of legend..?

The Royal Family in the Sky

They are called the Royal Family, and they revolve in the heavens around the pole — Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Andromeda. Their tale is a tragic one (naturally), but one with many lessons…

Queen Cassiopeia was the wife of King Cepheus, and together they had a daughter called Andromeda. Both mother and daughter were a beautiful pair — and Queen Cassiopeia made no bones about declaring their physical attributes.One day in a fit of vanity, she boasted that both her and Andromeda were far more lovely that the sea-nymphs, the Nereids — the 50 daughters of Nereus, the old man of the sea.

But the Nereids did not take kindly to the comparison, and complained to their protector, Poseidon, who became so enraged that he struck the waters with his giant trident flooding the lands all along the coast, and calling up from the depths of the sea, the sea-monster Cetus.

King Cepheus was at his wits’ end. Thanks to his wife’s conceited ways, his kingdom was flooded, and now a monster lurked off-shore, and so he went to consult the Oracle to see what could be done. But only more bad news met King Cepheus. He was told that, in order to save his people, he had to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Cetus, and succumbing to the pressure, this is exactly what Cepheus decided to do.

Poor Andromeda was chained to the rocks along the coastline to be fed to the monster…But, as luck would have it, hero Perseus happened to be passing overhead on his horse Pegasus (although some say Perseus had no horse and was flying with magic winged-sandals).

Recently back from beheading Medusa, Perseus pledged to save Andromeda in return for her hand in marriage, and King Cepheus (who it was clear would give his daughter to anyone who asked) agreed. And so Perseus went out onto the rocks to wait for the sea-monster to attack. And attack it did… But brave Perseus prevailed, stabbing Cetus finally in the heart (although some say he used Medusa’s head to turn the monster to stone), and saving princess Andromeda.

Depending on who you ask, Andromeda and Perseus had a glorious celebration of marriage, but Poseidon did not forget… As punishment for her vanity, Poseidon put Cassiopeia up into the night sky placing her in such a position that she would have to revolve around the Pole, therefore being left hanging upside down in an undignified position for much of eternity. King Cepheus is next to her, and you’ll find Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus not too far away.

Lyra and the Music of the Gods

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The constellation Lyra represents a lyre, or harp, and has within it the very bright star Vega. Its story is a beautiful, albeit a sad one…

One day Mercury was resting by the banks of the River Nile when he found an empty tortoise shell. As he peered into it, he noticed that sounds echoed from within it, and he had the idea to add some strings and create an instrument. This beautiful lyre played sounds so ethereal and beautiful that only immortals could hear it, and Mercury took it to Olympus, the home of the Gods.

All the gods were enamored with the enchanting sounds of lyre — particularly Apollo, who offered Mercury his magic staff, said to contain the power to bring great prosperity to its owner, in exchange for the instrument. Mercury agreed, but before taking to the air in his winged sandals and leaving, he taught Apollo how to play the lyre. But this is just the introduction to the real story of the lyre, because Apollo gave the lyre to his son Orpheus…

Orpheus was in love with Eurydice, but on the day of their wedding Eurydice was bitten by a viper and died instantly. Devastated, Orpheus travelled to the Underworld to ask Pluto, the god of Death, if Eurydice could come be let free — a request Pluto was often asked, but almost never agreed to. In order to convince Pluto, Orpheus played his lyre — a melancholy melody so touching that it moved Pluto’s wife Persephone and all the spirits of the dead to tears.

Pluto agreed: Orpheus could indeed take Eurydice with him back up to the land of the living, but he offered one warning — that as they made their way out of the Underworld, they should not look back…

So Orpheus guided Eurydice through the Underworld until the gates that marked the exit back to Earth came into sight. As the tunnel became narrower, Orpheus let go of Eurydice’s hand and led the way, but, concerned she was not behind him, he turned at the last moment as he walked through the gates to check that she was still there…

The warning had been ignored, and Eurydice was cast back down into the Underworld leaving poor Orpheus once again alone with his lyre to wander the Earth.

If you thought this was tragic, I’m afraid it only gets worse. As Orpheus traversed through hills and dales playing his sad songs on his lyre, trees and animals came to hear him, and they weren’t the only ones… His magic song drew many maidens to him — all of whom fell madly in love with him, but Orpheus refused their advances, thinking only of his love for Eurydice.

In the end he had rejected so many women that they came together in their anger and formed a small army to set upon Orpheus and kill him. And one night, they did just that. Their crazed screams drowned out poor Orpheus’ lyre and the band of women stabbed him in the heart.

As he lay dying, they cast the lyre into the river where it sank to the bottom. But Jupiter, having seen all this from above, sent a vulture down to Earth to pluck the lyre from the water and bring it back to the gods, and place it in the heavens for eternity for the immortals to always hear.

As you look up maybe hoping to catch bright star Vega or the Ring Nebula that sit within Lyra, listen very carefully… maybe you’ll hear its song filling the universe.