Sunday 17 January 2021

Star-Gayzing: A Celestial Swansong

Among the queer legends associated with the stars is one which is represented by two constellations in different parts of the sky. Being objects of the night sky it is ironic that they specifically represent a myth associated with the Sun.

In Greek mythology there are several deities associated with the Sun. Among the most popular was Apollo, who was called Apollo Helios in the 3rd century BC. It was as Apollo Helios that he was the lover of Prince Hyakinthos. The name Helios, though, was originally that of an older Sun god, one of the Titans.

It was Helios who was believed to have driven the Sun across the sky every day in his chariot. Like many of the Greek gods Helios had many children, both immortal and mortal. According to the most often recorded myth one of his mortal sons was called Phaethon whose mother was a sea nymph called Clymene.

Like many male Greek characters (though unlike his father Helios) Phaethon had a male lover, as was part of cultural tradition in ancient and classical Greece. Phaethon’s lover was King Kyknos of Liguria, more commonly known by his Latinised name of Cygnus. Most of the ancient writers don’t say explicitly that the two were lovers, though several do, and the king’s behaviour following Phaethon’s death is a strong indication that they were.

The name Cygnus will be familiar to both astronomers and ornithologists as the name of a constellation and the Latin name for a swan. There are several legends of how King Kyknos/Cygnus became a swan and how he became a constellation, and they are related to the most familiar myth about Phaethon. The following is a compilation of various versions of the story.

The youthful Phaethon was being taunted by his friends over his claim that Helios is his father. So, Phaethon went to his mother and asked her, and she confirmed his parentage. Phaethon then went to ask Helios himself and, again, confirmation was given.

The Sun god offered to grant any wish to his son as proof of his love for him. At that, Phaethon asked if he could drive the Sun chariot for one day. Helios was reluctant to grant this particular wish. He warned Phaethon that the fiery horses that pulled the chariot were difficult to control, even for the mighty god Zeus, so they would be barely responsive to a mortal. However, a promise is a promise, and Helios agreed to let his son drive the chariot across the sky the following day.

In the morning Phaethon took the reins of the Sun chariot and set off. He found that his father was right, the horses were difficult to control. Struggling with the reins Phaethon found the horses pulling the chariot high into the sky, causing great areas of frost to cover the Earth. Then the horses flew downwards towards the ground and Phaethon could not stop the Sun from scorching the Earth causing the massive expanse of the Sahara.

Helios and the pantheon of gods looked on, concerned for the safety of both Phaethon and the Earth and Zeus sent a thunderbolt to strike Phaethon dead. The youth fell from the chariot, which was immediately taken over by Helios, and Phaethon plummeted downwards and plunged into the waters of the River Eridanus. Eridanus was a mythical river believed by some to represent the Italian River Po. This ties in with the location of Liguria in northern Italy, the kingdom ruled over by Kyknos, through which the Po flows. Out of respect to Helios, Zeus placed the river in the night sky as the constellation which bears the same name.

The myth of Phaethon also influenced the naming of asteroid 3200. It was discovered in 1983 and is one of the Apollo asteroids, those which approach very close to Earth, sometimes crossing our orbit (there’s several of these every year, sometimes passing between the Earth and the Moon). Asteroid 3200 also has an orbit which takes it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid, so the name Phaethon is very appropriate.

But what about his lover King Kyknos? He probably witnessed Phaethon struggling to control the Sun chariot and watched helpless as his body fall into the Eridanus. Kyknos raced to the river and wailed in despair. Some myths say he stayed there for years, and some say he was there for just a few days. However long it was, King Kyknos’ mourning for his lover eventually touched the hearts of the gods.

It was Apollo who decided to turn Kyknos into a swan. The swan was one of the animals sacred to Apollo. Again, the myths vary in the speed of the transformation. Some say it was instant, some say it took a few years, with Kyknos’s hair turning white with age and gradually transforming into swan’s feathers. As an extra tribute Zeus placed Kyknos in the sky as the constellation the Romans called Cygnus.

This is only one of several legends about the origin of the constellation Cygnus. Another is that it represents the swan into which Zeus transformed himself to pursue Leda and thereby become the father of Helen of Troy and Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins.

And the swansong? The myths say that as King Kyknos wailed in lament over his lost love and turned into a swan his voice changed and turned into a birdsong of great beauty. On his complete transformation into a swan he was placed in the sky, making his swan song the last sound he uttered. Since then a swansong has come to mean any great final performance given by a singer, actor or musician.

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