Dolphins and gourds
Ah, September. The air has turned crisp, and the world will soon be covered in leafy splendor. Above all, let us sing in praise of gourds.
The winter squash has many uses in our culture. They make colorful items for living room display. When dried, they make excellent maracas. Large ones can be fashioned into stylish hats. Er, they make colorful items for living room display. They have many uses. I’ll think of more later.
What spouse of an amateur stargazer has not received a delightful gift of gourds from his or her errant mate returning from a long night of stargazing? Many all-night truck stops keep a supply of colorful calabashes on hand for just that purpose.
It should come as no surprise that a gourd constellation sits high in the south this time of year.
We call it Delphinus, the Dolphin. Look for it around 9:30 p.m. as a diamond-shaped arrangement of stars with a short tail.
Delphinus is the patron of all sailors who have seen dolphins jumping in the wash of their ships. Western culture is awash with stories that explain the presence of the dolphin in the sky. These myths usually tell the tale of a dolphin saving the life of a human (or god) from a watery demise.
My favorite story has to do with Poseidon, lord of the sea, and his love for Amphitrite, the comely daughter of Oceanus. At first, Amphitrite spurned the god’s advances and tried to hide from him. Poseidon asked Delphinus to follow her wherever she went and to sing the god’s praises.
The laws against stalking hadn’t been invented in those days, so Amphitrite had to put up with this constant harassment. Eventually, she relented and married the sea god.
In gratitude for the dolphin’s efforts, Poseidon put Delphinus in the sky, where we see him to this day.
The ancient Chinese looked at the constellation and saw gourds, which were very important to their culture (really). The winter gourds were eaten in September when they were green. Some of the gourds were left to freeze on the gourd bush. (Vine? Tree? My gourd expertise is a little rusty here.) The shell was then removed with a knife. The flesh was soaked for a time in a mixture of alcohol and rice water. The resulting brew was sweet and delicious. (Please, don’t drink gourd juice and drive.)
Most importantly, plastic had not yet been invented, so the ancients used gourd shells to hold their food and drink. The dried shells were quite handy as rice bowls, spoons and cups to hold the aforementioned beverage.
Thus, the gourd crop was eagerly anticipated. The emperor had his own extensive gourd plantation, called the Fruit Garden of the Emperor. He needed plenty of cups and gourd booze to entertain his many courtiers and drinking buddies.
Woe be unto the farmer who let the gourds over-freeze. That made them rot, and they became useless for cup and beverage making.
The Chinese placed two gourds in the sky. Hou-koua, the Good Gourd, is made up of the diamond-shaped head of the occidental dolphin. Pai-koua, the Rotten Gourd, is composed of fainter stars near the dolphin’s tail.
The ancients put them there to remind us not to let our gourds become frostbitten. Listen to the ancients. They knew what they were talking about.
Please submit other uses for gourds to email@example.com.
The morning sky looks so good right now that it might even be worth getting up at 5 a.m. to see it. Start by looking for Jupiter, the second brightest planet, pretty high in the eastern sky. Below it and to the right are the very distinct and bright stars of Orion, the Hunter. Below it and to the left are the twin stars Caster and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. As morning twilight dawns, look below the Twins for the brightest planet, Venus. Such a view!
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.