More Bull about Jupiter
If anyone is expecting me to write about the Mayan apocalypse supposedly coming up on the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21, then you will be disappointed. The supposition is so much bull that it isn’t worth the expenditure of ink or electrons to discuss. But speaking of bull, an event is occurring there that is worthy of observation.
I am, of course, referring to Taurus, the Bull. Anyone who has taken a quick trip outside on a clear evening lately has seen the planet Jupiter shining brightly in the east.
These days, the planet is in the constellation Taurus, which is nicely placed just after sunset in the southeast right now. Jupiter is perched right above the bull’s neck, a tableau made even stranger by the traditional depiction of Taurus. Only the Bull’s head, horns, and shoulders are represented in the sky.
Also, the Bull is described as a heifer in some of the old star stories.
Jupiter’s presence in Taurus is no surprise. Because the planets orbit the sun, they slide along a band of constellations called the Zodiac. Jupiter takes about a dozen years to orbit the sun and thus about the same time making one passage around the sky. The planet is bound to spend just under a year in Taurus before it moves on.
The ancients were unaware of the true motions of the planets around the sun. Jupiter was the king of the gods. Presumably, he could meander around the sky any way he wanted. Why does he spend so much time in Taurus?
One explanation consisted of Jupiter’s frequent marital infidelities, despite the watchful eye of Juno, his rightfully jealous wife. One ominous day he fell in lust with Io, the stunningly beautiful daughter of the river god Inachos. Io couldn’t resist the charms of Jupiter’s power, which, as Henry Kissinger once said, is the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. Still, Io had to be cautious. Juno could make powerful mischief for Io if she found out. Jupiter was not so squeamish. Io was a priestess in Juno’s temple, which added to the allure as far as Jupiter was concerned.
When Juno inevitably found out, she turned poor Io into a white heifer, a relationship killer if there ever was one. Because she didn’t trust her philandering husband even under these strange circumstances, she also instructed Argus, a giant with 100 eyes, to watch the imprisoned heifer. Argus made a good prison guard. Because a few of his eyes were always open, he didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.
Jupiter figured the least he could do was to free Io from prison. He demurred at the thought of doing his own dirty work, so he send Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, to kill the huge, hairy insomniac.
This was no mean task. Argus literally had eyes in the back of his head. In this case, lightning speed triumphed over 20–20 vigilance. Mercury lopped off the giant’s head before he knew what hit him.
Juno was furious, of course, but she couldn’t do much to punish her more-powerful husband. In one version of the myth, she contents herself by placing the slain giant’s 100 eyes in the sky as the tail of the constellation, Pavo, the Peacock.
In another version Io escapes to Egypt, where Jupiter returns her to human form. As repayment for her considerable troubles, the god allows her to give birth to Epaphus, a lovely daughter who eventually becomes ruler of the Nile Valley.
In my favorite rendition of the story, Juno exacts a certain measure of revenge. Just as Io is freed from imprisonment, Juno sends a gadfly to bedevil the heifer.
Io jumps into the sea to escape the annoyance. She tries to swim away, and she can be found in the sky immersed in the ocean up to her shoulders to this very day.
Despite his many flaws, Jupiter is, if nothing else, loyal to his fallen lovers. As he moves among the stars of the Zodiac, he is driven occasionally to revisit the beauty of the constellation. And there is the ever-present Jupiter, perched these days on the heifer’s back.
Of course, astronomers no longer believe in Jupiter. The point of light we see is a ball of liquid hydrogen and helium and not the grand deity of old. However, remnants of the old believes remain. Binoculars reveal four, tiny points of light huddled around the planet. They are the four brightest moons of the erstwhile god. One of them is called Io, who still orbits the planet in fidelity to her lost love.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at email@example.com.