Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Story in the Stars

A Story in the Stars
by Dave Adalian

High in the northern sky this time of year hangs the bright constellation Cassiopeia, the Seated Queen, and with her a tale of love, vanity, monsters and heroism that is as old as western civilization.

Vain Cassiopeia ruled ancient Aethiopia with her husband, King Cepheus. She was indeed lovely and bragged she was even more beautiful than the Nereids, companions of the sea god Poseidon. As punishment, Poseidon sent a terrible monster, Cetus, to wreak his vengeance upon the land.

King Cepheus consulted the oracle for a divine solution and was told he must sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Poseidon to end the terror. So, at the king’s orders Andromeda was chained to the rocks at the edge of sea to die.

But death did not come to the maiden.

The hero Perseus was returning home after slaying Medusa, whose snake-haired head could turn men to stone. Flying through the sky on the winged sandals of Hermes, god of the underworld, Perseus spied Andromeda below and instantly fell in love. He swooped to her rescue and slew Cetus, saving both the girl and her land.

With Aethiopia secure, all was well, except for Cassiopeia. As punishment for her vanity and the trouble it caused she was doomed by the gods to ride forever in circles about the North Star, spending half the year dangling in embarrassment from her throne.

Cassiopeia’s bright stars form an obvious W-shape during warmer months. But on the longer nights of fall and winter the queen sits upside down, tied in her chair to keep from falling, and the W becomes an M above the North Star at about 8 p.m.

Cepheus’ faint constellation lies between the North Star and Cassiopeia, and Cetus, another dim group, is opposite Cepheus in the sky, far south with only a single bright star, Diphda.

Andromeda’s constellation and the bright and misty naked-eye galaxy that bears her name sit directly overhead around 8 o’clock during autumn nights. Perhaps her galaxy reminded the ancients of spindrift blown up from the waves that crashed around her feet as she awaited her terrible fate.

Perseus, holding Medusa’s head, is a starry constellation east of Cassiopeia. Medusa was also mother of Pegasus the winged horse, and his constellation and its Great Square shine west of Andromeda. West of Pegasus is the tiny Equuleus the Horse, which some say shows Chrysaor, earthbound brother of the flying horse.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Nov. 24, 2005.