High in the south right now you’ll find the constellation, Aries, the Ram. It consists of four fairly dim stars high in the southeast.
Around 9 p.m., start by looking for Perseus high in the northeast. Then look right (toward the southwest) for Aries. The stars are faint, so it isn’t an easy find.
Aries is one of the Zodiacal constellations through which the sun, moon, and planets move over the course of the year. That makes those faint stars significant, even more so because over 2,000 years ago they marked the vernal equinox. At that moment in time, the sun crosses the celestial equator and winter becomes spring, astronomically speaking. To ancient astrologers and astronomers alike, that made the “First Point of Aries,” as it is still called, the true beginning of the year.
Sadly, Earth wobbles a bit on its axis, so that “first point” has moved into Pisces, so we must content ourselves with Aries’ former astrological glory.
Most of our audience at Perkins consists of children of various ages, and a good observatory presenter is always looking for language and analogues in day-to-day life to explain astronomical concepts to the younger folks. However, vernal equinoxes and first points of, well, anything can be daunting to a fourth-grader. So you tell stories.
Those old constellations reveal a lot about our ancient forebears and human nature in general. Unfortunately, they also contain some unpleasant details, and reducing them to a “G” rating can be difficult. Still, you can’t beat a ram with a golden fleece to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old. I have learned a lot over the years from my failures. Here is one of them:
I remember showing Aries to a girl of about 10 one time at Perkins this time of year. She was, I think, fulfilling some scouting requirement. 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…”
“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.” (Even in these more enlightened times, most children are familiar with the concept of the wicked stepmother, I am sorry to say.) “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.”
“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. She looked down, got dizzy, and fell into the sea, where she became fish food.”
“Yuck, indeed! Her brother made it OK to a faraway land called Colchis. 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 that 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.” I quivered with anticipation. I was about to get to the good part of the story. “But in the meantime, there was this guy named Jason…”
“Why did the king want to hurt his children?”
“Maybe they interrupted him too much when he was telling them stories. Anyway, this guy named Jason…”
“Are you going to show me Pisces?”
“The Fish? Sure, kid, if you promise to read the rest of the golden-fleece story sometime. I think you’ll really like it.”
And so I showed her the Fish, which she dutifully marked down in her notebook.
Tom Burns is the director of the Perkins Observatory, located between Mansfield and Columbus.