November 11, 2012
High in the southeast right now you’ll find the constellation Aries, the Ram. It consists of four fairly dim stars high in the southeast. Around 10 p.m. start by looking for Perseus high in the east. Then look right (toward the southwest) for Aries. The stars are faint, so it isn’t an easy find.
I remember showing it to a girl of about 10 more than a few years back at Perkins. She was, I think, fulfilling a scouting requirement to look at five constellations. After some effort, she finally found the Ram, marked it off a list she was keeping, and said, “This is a ram?”
“Well, sure,” I said, “It doesn’t LOOK like a ram. None of these constellations look like what they’re named after, but Aries has had its name for thousands of years. Tradition counts for something.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Now show me Pisces.” I didn’t. Instead, without prologue, I erupted into a story.
“King Athamas of Boeotia …”
“Who of what?” she said.
“Never mind. His queen was a goddess called Nephele, the Nebulous Cloud …”
“Nebulous?” ”Never mind. Nephele had to return to Olympus, where the gods lived, to take care of some god business. She left behind her two children. Her son was named Phirixos and her daughter was named Helle. Athamas remarried while she was gone, and …”
“That was mean.”
“She was gone a long time. Anyway, the King’s new wife didn’t like the children, so she made up a plan to get rid of them.”
“That was mean.”
“Mortals can be that way sometime.”
“What’s a mortal?”
“Never mind. Think of her as a wicked stepmother. She managed to have a disease spread among the crops of the land. She also spread the rumor that the gods were angry with her stepchildren. “When the local priests argued that to save the crops the children would have to be sacrificed to the gods, the king finally relented and ordered his own children to be killed.”
“That was … .”
“Really mean. I know. So Nephele …”
“The Cloud Lady?”
“Right. So Nephele sent down a ram with a golden fleece.”
“You know, a sheep’s coat. The children were instructed to grab on to the golden hair of the ram and hold on for dear life. The ram would rescue them. But they must not look down as the ram flew across the sky or they would fall off.”
“Flying sheep. Cool.”
“Very cool. Sadly, Helle …” “The girl.”
“The girl. She looked down, got dizzy, and fell into the sea, where she became fish food.”
“Yuck.” “Yuck indeed! Her brother made it OK to a place called Colchus. He was so happy to be alive that he killed the ram …”
“… and sacrificed it to the gods, but first he sheared off the golden fleece. It was nailed to a tree and guarded by a fierce dragon who never slept.
“Zeus, the king of the gods, liked the sacrifice so much that he placed the shorn ram in the sky as the constellation Aries.
The fleece …”
“Why did the king want to hurt his children?”
“Maybe they interrupted him too much when he was telling them stories. The fleece …”
“Are you going to show me Pisces?”
“The Fish? Sure, kid, if you promise to read the rest of the golden fleece story sometime.” And so I showed her the Fish, which she dutifully marked down in her book.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.