March 19, 2013
If you look to the west just after dark (11 p.m. this time of year!), you can still see Arcturus, the brightest star of the spring sky, pretty high in the southwest. Above Arcturus is a small but distinctive circlet of stars called Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Despite its size, it was a very important star to ancient civilizations, and stories abound as to how it got in the sky.
It was fishing net to South Sea islanders, a fish to the people of Borneo, a bear claw or a boot to Siberians, a beggar’s dish to Middle Easterners, and a laurel wreath to the Germanic tribes of Western Europe.
To the Greeks, who had the most developed star stories to tell, it was the casually discarded crown of a god.
King Minos was the lord of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. Every year, the citizens of Athens were forced to send to him a bloody tribute. Aboard a ship with a black sail traveled seven young men and seven maidens. At the journey’s end, they were let loose inside a dark labyrinth, where they were sacrificed to a vicious beast called the Minotaur.
With the body of a human and the head of a bull, the Minotaur easily killed the Athenians and, well, ate them, if you must know. Minos wasn’t too happy about having the Minotaur on his hands, but hey, better Athenians for lunch than his own people.
By the third year of this sacrifice, Theseus, the youngest son of the king of Athens, had had enough. He placed himself among the fourteen boys and girls destined to die and swore he would kill the Minotaur.
After the black ship arrived in Crete, Theseus happened upon the young daughter of Minos. Ariadne was fair and smart, and the two fell instantly in love.
When the time came for Theseus and the others to become a Minotaur snack, Ariadne secretly gave Theseus a ball of yarn, which would lead him back to the entrance of the maze after he had dispatched the beast.
Theseus entered the dark maze, and the Minotaur soon found him. The confrontation was something of a shock to the monster. Usually, his prey passed out when they saw him. He wasn’t used to moving adversaries.
Theseus was a Greek hero, however. He laughed in the face of fear. “Ha, ha,” he said as he dropped his sword and ran away.
No, wait. Furious carnage ensued, of which little should be said, lest the week of heart start reading the astrology column.
Suffice it to say that when it was all over, Minotaur guts were spread all over the labyrinth. Theseus followed the yarn out of the cave. The Athenians, overjoyed at their reprieve, began to dance the Geranos, the complex movements of which symbolized Theseus’s winding path through the maze. Afterward, he, Ariadne, and the Athenian youth headed for home.
Unfortunately, Theseus decided to make a pit stop at the island of Naxos, the abode of Bacchus, the god of wine and serious partying.
Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and, while she was asleep, ordered Theseus to leave the island.
The heartbroken lad headed for home. Ariadne awoke and was filled with woe. “Oh, woe! ” she said.
“Hubba, Hubba!” said Bacchus and began to woo the woeful waif. Ariadne, somewhat disillusioned by her abandonment demanded that the good-time god prove his love. Bacchus grabbed his golden crown and threw it into the heavens to honor her beauty.
And everyone lived happily ever after. Bacchus married a beautiful and intelligent woman. Theseus got his name in the papers. Ariadne got to hang out in Olympus and drink Bacchus’s wine. Minos was rid of the cursed monster. The Minotaur was too dead to care, and that made everybody happy.
To this day, Greeks still dance the Geranos. As the music swells and they dance their labyrinthine dance, I wonder if they ever look up at the stars.
Saturn is getting very low in the west when darkness falls in the evening. Jupiter is still a morning object. Look low in the east around 4 AM for the brightest object in that direction.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. firstname.lastname@example.org.