OK, I’ll admit it. I have mixed feelings about the night. On one hand, you can’t see much of the universe during the day.
However, fear of the night is a primal part of us all. It’s not so much what we see as what we don’t see. It’s the unknown that makes us fear the night.
As our ancient ancestors huddled around their fires and listened to the mysterious noises around them, they must have looked up at the stars with dread as well as awe. Death came unannounced out of the night.
No constellation elicits our animal fear of the night like Scorpius, the Scorpion.
Scorpius is one of the few constellations that actually look like the thing for which it is named. Scorpions are bugs, and they look like them. They can be as short as an inch long, but their sting is deadly. Scorpius looks like it marched right out of one of those old Japanese monster movie — a giant, evil-looking creature standing low in the southern sky during the summer months.
By the way, the constellation is called Scorpius, not Scorpio. Only astrologers, not astronomers, call it Scorpio. Unless you intend to predict the future with it, you should call it Scorpius.
The head of the scorpion is a line of three stars close to each other farthest to the north. The “body” is a stream of stars that go straight south. The stinger curves around like a fishhook to the east and then north again.
To the left of the stinger are two clusters of stars, numbers 6 and 7 in the Messier catalog (M6 and M7). From a rural observing sight, they should be just visible to the naked eye as small fuzzy patches. They resolve into many stars with a pair of binoculars.
At the center of the scorpion’s body is the star Antares, which looks like a shimmering drop of blood as it twinkles close to the horizon. Its name means “rival to Ares,” the Greek god of war. Certainly a lot of blood was shed in his name.
According to ancient myth, the great hunter Orion was brought down not by a wild animal or the sword of an enemy, but by the lowly Scorpion. Orion so feared the Scorpion, that it is said that he begged the gods not to put it and him in the sky together. Thus the summer constellation Scorpius does not rise in the south until the winter constellation Orion has just set completely.
Scorpius is also said to be responsible for the creation of deserts on the
Earth. A Greek myth says that the scorpion frightened the horses that pull the sun across the sky and caused them to bolt wildly. Out of control, the horses briefly dragged the sun too close to the Earth. Deserts, drought, and famine were the result.
Thus is Scorpius associated with death, war, and famine.
We can predict with certainty the motions of the stars and planets. They are symbols of our understanding and even conquest over nature.
Scorpius serves to remind us that nature is still unpredictable and even deadly. As William Cullen Bryant writes:
Man foretells afar
The courses of the stars; the very hour
He knows when they shall darken or grow bright;
Yet doth the eclipse of Sorrow and of Death
So as you walk some southern beach this summer on a midnight stroll, look down, my friends, and beware the Scorpion’s sting. But look up, as well, and admire its awful majesty.
Saturn is getting lower in the southwest just after dark. It shines pale yellow above the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo. You’ll need your own telescope or a trip to Perkins to see the rings.
Mars is getting dimmer and farther away from Earth. Look for its yellow-red glow farther to the southwest of Saturn and underneath the constellation Leo.
Mercury is a reddish dot very low in the west just after sunset. You’ll probably need binoculars to see it. For heaven’s sake, wait for full sunset before you start scanning. Pointing any optical instrument at the sun accidentally will wreck your eyes. Once you’ve seen it in your binos, wait for it to pop out to your unaided eyes.
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.