“Ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?”
“They’re fireflies. Fireflies that got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.”
“Oh, gee. I always thought they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.”
“With you, everything’s gas.”
- The Lion King
Whatever they are, stars are fascinating. It’s funny that something that we see every night can still captivate us and render us motionless. With our heads craned towards the night sky, we search the billions of tiny specks to find the familiar outlines of the constellations that we have known our whole lives – constellations that we once made in preschool out of black construction paper and yellow yarn.
The Big Dipper is the most well-known and recognizable constellation, as it is used to locate the North Star. What is oftentimes forgotten is that the Big Dipper isn’t actually a constellation – it’s an “asterism”, a star pattern that is part of a constellation. The Big Dipper makes up the tail and hindquarters of Ursa Major, or the Big Bear. One version of the Big Bear, or “Celestial Bear”, story is that in autumn when the constellation is lowest in the sky, the bear hits his nose while coming down to Earth, and his bloody nose colors the fall leaves. In early winter, the Bear can be seen in the northern horizon, proving that hibernation season has come.
Orion is another familiar constellation. Most notable is Orion’s Belt, the three brilliant stars that make up the belt of this celestial hunter. In Greek mythology, Orion was one of the most handsome men – exceptionally tall and wielding an unbreakable bronze club. One version of the myth says that Orion fell in love with the seven sisters, Pleiades, who were the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. When he started pursuing them, Zeus banished them into the sky, where they became the famous star cluster by the same name. Orion can be seen forever chasing the sisters across the night sky.
One of the more peculiar constellations is Cassiopeia, consisting of five bright stars in the shape of a “W”. What’s peculiar to me is how they could ever get a whole women out of a single “W”, but the story is pretty interesting. In the myth, Cassiopeia was the wife of King Cepheus of Ethiopia. She was stunningly beautiful but incredibly arrogant and vain. She drove everyone crazy boasting about how she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than any of the sea nymphs. The sea nymphs happened to be the daughters of the sea god Nereus, who brought the wrath of Poseidon onto Ethiopia. Andromeda was spared, but Cassiopeia was banished into the heavens as punishment for her arrogance and vanity, sitting upside-down on her throne forever.
There are dozens of other constellations with equally interesting stories strewn across the sky, right above our heads. So pull our your hammock, lay back, and look at the stars.