A Dreadful Dragon Lurking in Our Northern Sky
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
September 9, 1998
It has been said that everyone loves dragons. True or not, dragons are certainly favorites in literature ranging from children's books through science fiction. Always, it seems, people have been searching for slithering monsters that are reported as sightings but can't quite be found. Dragons represent human fears and nightmares that stretch from the remotest of times right up to the present. The preeminent symbol of dragons, both cute fuzzy ones and horrible dreaded ones, is nestled in the starry sky near the apparent axis of movement of the universe.
The story of this dreadful dragon likely originated among the Sumerians and Babylonians of the Tigris and Euphrates Valley more than 5,000 years ago. These people spoke of a female dragon they called Tiamat that existed at the beginning of creation, before earth and sky were separated. Tiamat ruled over the wild, chaotic and evil primordial ocean, but eventually newer gods arose and rebelled against her. Thus, Marduk challenged Tiamat with strength and cleverness. He caused violent winds to blow right into the gaping dragon's mouth, tearing her asunder. Then Marduk cleaved her skull and cut her skin into two parts from which he formed heaven and earth. This original great dragon slayer put the stars in their courses and ordered the seasons. He fixed the sky with an axis bolted to one star within the constellation that eventually became known as Draco, the Dragon.
This epic story is portrayed by the fact that in those early Chaldean times the pole star was the one we know as Thuban, a star in the body of Draco. At that time the entire heavens revolved about Thuban, as it does today about the Polaris, our current North Star located in the constellation Ursa Minor. In those glorious Mediterranean times Thuban was a most important star as evidenced by the fact that the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza contains a 300-foot long shaft running from the heart of the pyramid to a small opening that looked directly at Thuban, the point about which the heavens turned when the Pyramid was constructed.
Early Greeks told a somewhat different story about the Dragon of Heaven. Olympian gods fought against dark and chaotic forces known as the Titans, including a great dragon. Athena, goddess of wisdom, met the dragon, grabbed it by the tail, swung it around and cast it spinning into the sky. Its coiled and twisted body landed right at the axis of heaven, entangled with the north celestial pole.
Thus, in those mythologically rich times, the dim star Thuban marked the point about which the heavens moved. As centuries passed, the Pole of Heaven drifted away from Thuban until it is currently located near Polaris in smaller bear, Ursa Minor. Still, however, we can find the Dragon coiled in this northern portion of our sky.
Draco is a challenge to learn to recognize, being composed of dimmer stars that twist around in snake-like fashion. September is an excellent time to look for it since it is well placed standing upright in the north. As it gets dark, start by locating the Great Dipper low to the west of north. Follow the last two stars of the Dipper bowl upward to Polaris at the end of the Little Dipper handle (end of the tail of the Little Bear). The Small Dipper is oriented so that the handle goes from Polaris to the left. Although the handle stars are very dim, the bowl contains two brighter stars, sometimes called "Guardians of the North Star." In our early evening September sky the Little Dipper bowl is straight left (west) of Polaris.
As you go out and look around to find Draco, remember that its stars are dim. The end of Draco's tail is right between the two dippers. The body is formed by a string of tiny stars going up to the left, then bending to the right above the bowl of the Little Dipper. It bends again back to the left where a triangle of stars forms the Dragon's head next to one of the feet of Hercules. The entire figure of Draco forms a more-or-less "S" shape with the end of the tail low in the north and the head high to the west of north. The brilliant star Vega is still higher above Draco's head in our evening sky. Thuban is the third star from the end of Draco's tail.
We will never run out of dragons in the sky or on the earth. People have spent fortunes searching for them in lakes, most recently in Scotland, and in the oceans, and science fiction writers suggest that someday we might find real ones out there on planets orbiting stars. Whether in our mythologies, our dreams, or our futures, dragons lurk within our minds. All of them are symbolized by Draco, the great celestial dragon bejeweled with stars, constantly whirling through our northern sky.