Libra, the scales
Not too many people believe in astrology anymore, and that’s probably for the best. There was a time when most people believed that the stars controlled our destiny, and that the signs of the Zodiac we were born under determined the courses of our lives. If that were true, then all the lawyers of the world should have been born under the sign of Libra, the scales, because they have represented the rational and emotional balance out of which justice is supposed to arise. Yes, lawyers have a patron constellation.
In the early evenings of June, Libra is situated straight south about a third of the way up to zenith, the highest point in the sky. Look for a large, kite-shaped arrangement of four relatively faint stars above and to the left of the bright red star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.
Libra is in the Zodiac, the band of sky through which the planets, moon and sun wander. The ancients believed that the planets were gods, who could wander at will against the fixed starry background.
If you were born in late September or early October, then the sun was wandering through the patch of sky occupied by Libra on your birthday. The sun, because it is the brightest of the wanderers, was said to have the greatest influence on your future life. Since Libra represents scales and scales represent balance, you are said to possess the qualities of calm emotional balance that would make you a good lawyer or reality-show host.
There are 12 zodiacal constellations. Libra is odd because it is the only inanimate object in the bunch. Everything else is a person or animal. Let’s see how it happened.
The Sumerians, who lived about 4,000 years ago, called Libra ZI-BA AN-NA—the balance of heaven. The sun is in Libra at the time of the autumnal equinox, around Sept. 22. On that date, the day and night are of equal length, making for a perfectly balanced day.
By the time of the ancient Greeks, about 1,500 years later, that association had been lost. They saw Libra as the claws of Scorpius, the Scorpion, which is located just to the southeast.
A remnant of that association still remains in the Arabic names for the two brightest stars in the constellation. The great Arab astronomers called the star farthest to the right “Zubenelgenubi” and the top star “Zubenelschamali,” the southern and northern claws. Modern astronomers, who sacrifice imagination for ease of pronunciation, call Zubenelgenubi “Alpha” and Zubenelschamali “Beta.” I’ll refer to them that way, as well. Listen, you try keyboarding in “Zubenelgenubi” 15 times.
Alpha (whew, that was easy) is right on the line of the ecliptic, the path that the sun takes across the sky. Thus, around Nov. 7 every year, the sun passes right over the star.
Alpha turns out to be two stars if you look at it (them?) in binoculars. Such binary, or double, stars consist of two stars rotating around one another.
The star Beta has a strange mystery associated with it.
Eratosthenes was an ancient Greek astronomer who is famous because he first used astronomy to measure the size of the earth. He wrote that Beta was brighter than the star Antares in nearby Scorpius. A few centuries later, the astronomer Ptolemy said that it was as bright as Antares.
But to our modern eyes, Antares is much brighter than Beta. Has Beta gotten dimmer? Or has Antares gotten brighter, preparing itself to flair into a red giant and die?
Modern astronomers believe that Antares must have changed. They speculate that one reason that the constellation was called “the Scales” is that Alpha and Beta are about the same brightness. Antares must have gotten brighter, or Libra would have never got its “balanced” reputation.
The Romans liked the notion of balance implied by the scales. They believed that the city of Rome was founded when the moon was in the constellation Libra, and that Libra represented the balance and moderation present in Roman society.
They associated it not with the dangerous scorpion, but with the gentle constellation Virgo, to the south. Virgo is sometimes identified as the goddess Dike (or Astraeia), patron of justice, who is so important that she sits at the right hand of the head god, Jupiter. Virgo holds aloft the scales, which symbolize the balance and impartiality that the law is supposed to uphold.
And she still stands before some court houses today, holding high the scales of justice, which are found also among the stars.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at email@example.com or 740–363‑1257.