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The Lion in the Sky Signals Spring in Northern Climes

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

"March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb," they say, "or sometimes it is the other way around." When it comes to the lion in the sky, there never is doubt. Indeed, March does come in with a lion, the constellation Leo, and with it comes the breath of spring.

By the beginning of March Leo has cleared the eastern horizon at the end of evening twilight, and by the end of the month it is high in the east as darkness comes. Of all the constellations, this is the one that signals the onset of mild weather in the northern hemisphere.

The head of Leo is formed by a sickle-shaped set of stars with bright Regulus marking the handle of the sickle. If you wish, you can imagine this as a reverse question mark, with Regulus being the period of the question mark. Behind the sickle, toward the horizon in the east, three stars form a small triangle that marks the rear of the Lion.

Leo can be located in several ways. If you can find the Great Dipper, rising upward with its handle downward toward the northeast this time of the year, you can go directly through the bottom of the dipper bowl to find the Lion: go about three times the length of the Dipper handle from the bottom of the bowl. Another way is to find the brightest star of the night, Sirius in Canis Major, move upward and eastward to Procyon in Canis Minor, then continue in an arc that flows from Sirius, through Procyon and on to the next bright star toward the east. This is Regulus, Leo's brightest star. Still another way to find Leo is to use the knowledge I hope you have gained from my articles over the past four months and trace a portion of the zodiac: Aries is now off toward the western horizon in the evening sky; Taurus, east of Aries, is well up in the south west; next comes Gemini, high in the south with the dim stars of Cancer to the east of the Twins. Now,continue eastward to locate Leo with its brightest star Regulus.

Leo has always been associated with the Sun. Pliny wrote that Egyptians worshiped the stars of Leo because they knew that the Sun appeared to enter them during the time when the Nile flooded to bring fresh fertile soil onto the land. Because of this, it was thought that the Sun rose in Leo at the time of creation. Thus, Leo was the emblem of the fire and heat that nourished the land, intimately associated with all the blessings that rained down from the greatest of the gods that filled the world with light each day. In this regard, it has been suspected that the great Sphinx represents both the Sun and the constellation Leo. It is shown, however, with the body of the Lion and the head of the beautiful Virgo, the constellation next to the east along the zodiac. Not all scholars of Egypt agree with this: some say the Sphinx has the head of one of the early kings or, perhaps, one of the gods.

The star Regulus, the luminary of Leo, has been called the "regulator" of heaven. Marking the heart of the great lion in the sky, it gave the celestial creature life, and its association with the Sun moving through the zodiac was thought to regulate the seasons. From this, many have supposed that it regulated affairs on earth as well as ruling the heavens. For Persians it was one of four Guardian stars of Heaven. Regulus has been called the "Royal Star," and "Kingly Star," being associated in many ways with kings on earth. Thus, both the star and its constellation became a cherished symbol of royalty.

Representing such a powerful animal, in addition to its symbolic representation of the Sun, Leo the Lion became the symbol found on royal arms in England and elsewhere. Having worked at the Smithsonian Institution for nearly a decade, I like to associate Leo with the Smithsonian symbol showing the Lion holding the "Sun in Splendor" in its grasp. This symbol, indeed, was acquired by the Smithsonian from its benefactor James Smithson. Thus, it is a fine example of the Lion and the Sun on a royal coat of arms.

The constellation Leo has been known as a Lion from nearly all the early lands of the Near East; certainly from Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia, and Syria, as well as from the Greeks and Romans. It was the tribal sign of Judah, and in the Middle Ages it was referred to as one of Daniel's lions. Its association with the Nile River is the likely reason that the heads of lions with open jaws were carved on the gates of canals used to carry off the flood water that irrigated the Nile Valley. Perhaps the many other lion heads with water spouting from their mouths, in so many medieval and modern fountains, might have derived from the Lion in the sky.

Should we ever think that "science fiction" is relatively new to the world, all we need do is reflect on myths from Greece, Rome and elsewhere. In many respects, Greek mythology is the archetype of science fiction. Indeed, the Greek gods could be thought of as aliens from space. Certainly this is true of the Lion now found among the stars. The Greeks said Leo came down from the Moon on a meteor, landing on the Isthmus of Corinth. The beast ravaged the land, terrorizing people around the Nemean forest until Hercules slew the creature. In due course it was carried back to the heavens along with Hercules, both inducted into the stellar hero hall of fame.

When you go out on a lovely March or April evening, look around and spot the great Lion of heaven. As lungs breath fragrant spring air, let eyes draw the light of those stars to your mind. Do they, for you, resemble the great Sphinx? Do other images, perhaps personal ones, as well as cultural and historical ones, come to mind? What a pleasure to stand on such an evening under the firmament of images that have for so long attracted eyes, thoughts and imaginations of those before us.

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