The ancients composed stories around the constellations that reflected every human emotion. No set of constellation stories is more moving than those concerning Lyra, the lyre.
In August, Lyra can be found by looking straight overhead for Vega, one of the brightest stars in the summer sky.
Hanging down from Vega to the east is a small parallelogram of stars that represents the body of the lyre. Vega is the neck of the instrument.
There are several interesting astronomical objects in Lyra within reach of binoculars or a small telescope. Northeast of Vega, almost directly north of the parallelogram, is the naked-eye star Epsilon Lyra. In binoculars Epsilon turns into two stars. In a telescope at high magnification, a surprise awaits. Each of the stars in Epsilon is itself double. They’re very close together, so you’ll need fairly high magnification. Popularly called the Double Double, that group of four stars is one of the most spectacular multiple-star systems in the sky.
Also in Lyra is the famous Ring Nebula — more on it next week.
The lyre is one of the most ancient of stringed musical instruments. The Egyptians and Sumerians had them thousands of years before the birth of Christ. They were plucked or sometimes bowed, usually as accompaniment to the singing of songs and the telling of tales. What we call lyric poetry began as lyrics, songs that told the stories of great heroes.
The lyre we see in the sky was made for Apollo, god of wisdom and the arts ‚and given to Orpheus because of his great skill as a musician.
His story is one of great art, great sacrifice and perfect love.
Orpheus was deeply in love with Eurydice, and she with him. But Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and died. Orpheus’s love was so great that he determined to go to the Underworld and rescue her. Through the glorious power of his art he was able to sing his way past the horrible three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates to Hades.
At length, Orpheus played upon his lyre and sang of his love for Eurydice to Pluto, the god of the Underworld. It must have been a glorious song because even the god of death himself was moved. Pluto allowed Eurydice to leave Hades, but only on the condition that Orpheus should not look back on his beloved until they had both returned from the Underworld to the earth above.
But Orpheus’s love was too strong. Worried, he looked back at Eurydice just as they were about to reach the surface. Eurydice was dragged back into Hades.
Afterward, Orpheus wandered the earth, singing his plaintive love song, a song so sweet that the rocks and stones began to weep, until he finally died.
So why do we see the lyre, and not Orpheus, in the sky? The gods so loved Orpheus that they send him to the Underworld to be with his beloved. His lyre, the medium and symbol of his art, they put in the night sky. They placed it there to remind us that perfect love, deeply felt, can triumph even over death, and that art and music can be the perfect expression of what is best about the human spirit.
Lyra shows up that the power of love and the power of art can do the impossible — if love is pure enough and its expression through art is deeply enough felt.
Saturn, Mars and the star Spica in the constellation Virgo are stacked up very close together in the WSW right now at the end of evening twilight. You’ll need a perfect western horizon to see them, but what a view! Yellowish Saturn is on top. Reddish Mars is almost immediately below Saturn. Spica is below Mars.
The morning planets are just as spectacular and a lot easier to see. At about 4:30 a.m., look low in the east for bright Jupiter to the left of the stars of Taurus the Bull’s head. The bright star to the right of Jupiter is Aldebaran, the red eye of the bull.
Now look down and to the left and wait for Venus to rise above the tree line as morning twilight begins.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 740–363‑1257.