Leo, the Lion, has always had great religious significance. I’ve heard it said, for example, that to the ancient Hebrews, Leo is the lion that is the symbol of the tribe of Judah.
Humans have always had mixed feelings about the king of beasts. We admire its strength but we fear its power. We want to be like the lion. We just don’t want to be its mid-afternoon snack.
That ambivalence is reflected in the old Greek and Roman stories about the constellation. For starters, Leo is almost certainly the lion that Hercules was asked to slay as one of his famous twelve labors.
Leo was born of the beautiful moon goddess Selene. It lived in a cave with two entrances near the Greek town of Nemea. It emerged every so often from its lair to lunch on the local inhabitants, which was considered anti-social behavior in those days.
Hercules, the greatest hero of the time, was called upon to kill the lion, which was harder than it sounds, and it doesn’t sound easy. Leo’s parentage gave him powers that even an ordinary lion does not possess.
Much to Hercules’ chagrin, the arrows he sent flying at the beast caromed off its skin like line drives off a left-field fence.
Our hero heaved up his club and went chasing after Leo, but the lion escaped to its cave. When Hercules entered the cavern, Leo ran out the back door. After a few repetitions, the whole thing began to look like a Three Stooges movie.
So Hercules blocked off one of the entrances, entered the cave, and dispatched the animal Tarzan-style — with his bare hands. He locked his arm around the lion’s neck until the breath of the mighty beast was stilled.
Recognizing the fearful nature of the lion, Hercules decided to become one. Henceforth, he wore the body around himself as a cloak. As he approached his enemies, they would see the lion’s gaping, dead mouth bobbing above his head. Hercules looked even more formidable than he had already, but afterward he wasn’t invited to many parties. “Hi. You must be Hercules. Would you like a drink? Can I take your fetid lion skin?”
Later in the evening, as Leo reaches its highest point in the southern sky and slowly begins to descend to the west, Hercules begins to rise in the northeast, pursuing the lion forever across the dome of night.
Leo and Hercules must be enjoying themselves immensely. To be chased forever and never to be caught! The pleasure of the hunt is in the pursuit and not the victory.
The old heroes are almost gone, lost to time and neglect. Gone are Orion, Perseus, and Jupiter, replaced by more down-to-earth anti-heroes with “true grit, whatever that is. But they are memorialized in the stars and will not be lost forever. Their deeds are remembered every time we look up at the sky because they represent human needs and memories so powerful that even the passage of time cannot erase them entirely.
A time will also come when the last lion paces nervously in some zoo. Then the species will be gone forever, save for the indelible mark that it has left upon the stars. As long as the stars still shine, children will look up at them and ask, “What is that?” And parents will reply, “A lion, a noble and beautiful beast that once lived in Africa, but now treads only among the stars.”
Heavens to Betsy (whatever that means), we have no evening planets! Oh, perhaps if you have a very good western horizon, and you observe during bright evening twilight, you might spot Jupiter near the tree line.
A good time to try is tomorrow evening (March 15). Jupiter points the way to ever-elusive Mercury when the two planets are briefly close together. Mercury is somewhat fainter and to the right of Jupiter. Use binoculars if you’re having trouble seeing them.
Brilliant Venus is still the morning star, rising in the east just before the sun.
Saturn rises in the east two hours after sunset, but your best bet is to wait until after 1 AM and catch it when it’s higher in the south. The rings are more tilted than they have been for the last couple of years, so the planet is definitely worth looking at in a telescope. We probably won’t get to it at the public programs at Perkins until early April.
Tom Burns directs Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 740-363-1257 to find out about the observatory’s public programs.