Sometimes several constellations form a story-telling tableau, an old tale frozen in place as stars. Those stories were passed down from parent to child and teacher to student over the many centuries until a Roman poet like Ovid bothered to record them permanently in writing 2,000 years ago.
One of the best stories rises out of three seemingly unrelated constellations — a crow, a cup, and a snake.
Look low in the south around 10:45 p.m., just after the sky has completely darkened. Of the three, Corvus, the Crow, is the easiest to find. Four relatively bright stars form a rough square. Crater, the Cup, is a faint semicircle of stars to the right of the Crow.
Hydra, the Water Snake, is more difficult. A meandering line of stars stretches just underneath Crater and Corvus and for a considerable distance to the left and right of the two smaller constellations.
Corvus was the pet and “gofer” of Apollo, god of the sun and patron of music, the arts, and learning. The pairing is somewhat ironic. Apollo was the god of light and truth. The crow is a noisy and obstreperous creature.
Still, Apollo considered the Crow a sacred bird. When the god had been threatened by the hideous monster Typhon, he changed himself into a crow to get away. In an odd way, he figured that he owed the bird his life.
The two companions never really got along. Corvus was originally a beautiful snow-white bird. One day, the Crow whispered in Apollo’s ear that Coronis, the god’s one true love, had been unfaithful to him. As punishment, Apollo turned the bird’s feathers coal-black, the way we see them today.
Apollo’s biggest beef against the crow was that he always sent it on important missions, and Corvus always managed to mess things up.
As Ovid describes tells the tale in his Fasti, one fine day Apollo was planning to make a sacrifice to the king of the gods, Zeus. He needed some water, so he sent the Crow to fetch some from a nearby brook. Corvus picked up Crater, Apollo’s cup, and flew off to do its duty.
Of course, it flubbed the job. A fig tree full of unripe fruit beckoned, and the lazy bird decided to wait around until the figs ripened.
Several days later, the crow finally ate the figs. With its hunger sated, it realized that Apollo was going to be livid when it returned to home base on Mount Olympus. In desperation, it picked up Hydra, the Water Snake, and flew back to Apollo with his tail between its legs.
Corvus claimed, rather sheepishly, that the snake had been blocking its access to the water, an alibi that Apollo didn’t buy into for a minute. Apollo was, after all, the god of learning and prophecy, so it was easy for him to see through the Crow’s pitiful deception and to come up with a unique and fitting punishment.
The Crow must forever ride the back of the Water Snake. The cup is there as well, full to the brim with water. Corvus may forever look, forever struggle, but in vain. The snake blocks the Crow’s access to the cool drink it desires above all else. Apollo has condemned Corvusto a life of thirst. The crow’s sweet song is reduced to a throaty rasp.
The old gods are dead and cannot tell their own stories, but you can.
Perhaps there will come a warm spring night when you are standing under the stars with some small child. Perhaps you will listen to the wind and hear in it the distant cry of the crow.
And perhaps you will tell, as it was done so long ago, the old, old story that stretches back to our dim beginnings when snow-white crows soared on that distant wind.
Saturn is still high in the south just after dark.
The great planetary conjunction of 2011 continues without Mercury, which is now probably too close to the sun for you to see. During predawn twilight, look very low in the east. Jupiter is highest and farthest to the right. Bright Venus is down and to the left. Much dimmer Mars is farthest right.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. firstname.lastname@example.org