Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Star-Gayzing : Perseus and the 14th Sign

The zodiac constellations are ancient. That is to say their representations as individual groups of stars were devised by ancient astronomers and astrologers. Those astronomers also found that the paths of the Sun and Moon travelled through the same constellations each year (the path we now call the ecliptic) and astronomers divided the sky into 12 symbolic regions which became the astrological signs of the zodiac.

Until 1930 the constellations had no definitive borders between them. The areas in between were like a kind of interstellar no-man’s land. Then the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided the uncertainty was not suitable for scientific purposes and the cataloguing of the locations of interstellar objects. They set the present imaginary lines that mark out the boundaries of all the constellations. Once established it was discovered immediately that the ecliptic passes through 13 constellations giving the zodiac 13 signs. The 13th constellation is Ophiucus. In fact the Sun is in Ophiucus for longer than it is in Scorpio. For the queer story of Ophiucus read my article here.

But for one day of the year the Sun clips another constellation, the 14th, thanks to the IAU’s modern boundaries. That constellation is called Cetus.
As you can see in the map above the ecliptic just clips one corner of Cetus. I've shown the Sun in it's relative size in relation to the constellation's border. However, the ecliptic is the path of a mathematical point and the Sun is bigger than that. The centre of the Sun travels the ecliptic and the Sun’s disc occupies a wider path. So even if the centre of the Sun doesn’t enter Cetus part of the Sun’s disc does.

The Sun only goes into Cetus for less than a day, yesterday, in fact. So there are likely to be very, very few people who can say their star sign is Cetus. By clipping corner of Cetus the Sun brings a vast section of the night sky into the queer zodiac. Between then Cetus and its related constellations tell one of the most famous stories of Greek mythology, the story of Perseus. Another map now. Marks in red are the constellations which tell the story.
We’ll being with central hero, Perseus. This hero doesn’t have the same number of gay lovers as his more famous great-grandson Herakles, who has a plethora of boyfriends and constellations to his credit.

The Greeks would have taken for granted that Perseus would have participated in same-sex activity as part of his military training. The first time any mention of a specific male partner for Perseus appears in writing is in “De Astronomica”, a Greek manuscript which has been difficult to date. Some authorities say that it dates from the 1st century BC, and others say it is a century younger. However, it is regarded as one of the most important documents on constellations and the myths surrounding them. In several places “De Astronomica” is the only written source of some obscure myths. One of these is the love between Perseus and the god Hermes.

The Perseus-Hermes love affair is only given as a passing remark in “De Astronomica” I assume that the affair was too well-known at the time to need any explanation. Hermes is recorded as having other male partners, including Krokus.

In the Perseus story Hermes lends to our hero his famous winged sandals and winged cap to help him travel on his long journey to slay Medusa the Gorgon. Unlike the film “Clash of the Titans” the Medusa quest was a task given to Perseus by King Polydectes of Serifos who wanted him out of the way so he could marry Perseus’s mother. The story of Andromeda and the sea monster (called the kraken in the film, but Cetus in the constellations) was a separate episode that occurred after Medusa was slain.

The famous winged horse Pegasus is a later addition to the story. Perseus uses Hermes’ winged sandals to fly around in his quest. Pegasus was introduced into the myths later as being “born” from Medusa, springing out of the Gorgon’s body when she was decapitated by Perseus. The horse’s original tamer and rider was a lesser hero called Bellerophon. Only in later centuries was Perseus given Pegasus to ride.

So, all the main characters in the Perseus and Medusa myth, except for Medusa herself, were immortalised in the night sky by the ancient Greeks. They form the largest group of neighbouring constellations which come from one myth – Perseus, next to Andromeda and her parents King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, with Pegasus below them and Cetus underneath them all, lurking just below the ecliptic like a sea monster beneath the waves.

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