Leo, and I ain’t Lion
Every time I see the constellation Leo, the Lion, rise majestically in the northeast, I think of a little poem by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire:
O lion, mournful image
Of kings sadly brought down,
You are born now only in cages
In Hamburg, among the Germans.
The lion has always symbolized to humanity regal power and freedom, yet it is now an endangered species, brought down by the growth of civilization and the shrinking of its habitat.
The constellation Leo is somewhat the same — slowly fading from the sky because of nighttime lighting. But while it still shines brightly, we can get an understanding of why the lion has always meant so much to humanity and why the ancients honored it with a place in the sky.
Look for Leo low in the eastern sky. It can be found by first finding the Big Dipper, high in the northeastern sky. Next locate the two stars that form the front of the bowl of the dipper. Extend the line between those two stars to the east, and you’ll run right into Leo’s back.
An arc of five bright stars called the Sickle forms his head and front paw. It looks a bit like a backward question mark. The bottom or south-most star in the Sickle is called Regulus, which forms his front paw.
Regulus didn’t get its name until the 16th century. According to Richard Allen, the great astronomer Copernicus named it. Regulus means “little king,” for surely Leo is the king of beasts. In many cultures it is called the lion’s heart, and it is always taken to be a portent of kingly power, fame, and wealth.
Due east of the sickle is a right triangle of stars that form Leo’s hindquarters. The bright star farthest east in the triangle is called Denebola, which means “lion’s tail” in the original Arabic.
Leo has always had great religious and cultural significance. I’ve heard it said that to the ancient Hebrews, Leo is the lion that is the symbol of the tribe of Judah.
Leo is almost certainly the lion that Hercules was asked to slay as one of his twelve labors. 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 heroes like Rambo and Eastwood and Schwarzenegger. 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, must not, erase them entirely.
You must know these things. 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 you must reply, “A lion, a noble and beautiful beast that once lived in Africa but now treads only among the stars.”
We’ve been getting a lot of calls at Perkins about the two bright “stars” visible in evening twilight right now. For heaven’s sake, check them out. You’re looking at Venus low in the west and Jupiter up and to the left. They are the brightest objects in the nighttime sky besides, of course, the moon. Get your kids out there and show them. It’s quite the view.
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory in Delaware and he’s glad to hear from you. He can be reached at email@example.com.