Fishhook? Snake? Letter "J"? It's Scorpius the Scorpion!
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
Over the past six months we have, in this column, been looking around the zodiac. We come, now, to a most beautiful and interesting constellation, one having a shape that has intrigued people over the centuries throughout the world. In the northern hemisphere it is thought of as a summer constellation, moving low across our evening sky in the south during June, July and August. Today, most people know it as Scorpius, the Scorpion, but it has been seen in many other shapes.
Shapes are one of the most interesting aspects of our natural surroundings. The human mind is inclined to draw from its stored memories to associate shapes found in nature with things and experiences. We tend to see animals and people in the contours of rocks, hillsides and mountains silhouetted against the sky; we see such shapes in clouds as they form and change; and we see them in the stars. When the shape that the mind imagines is not fully there, we have a readiness to fill in details we wish to see. Scorpius is a fine example of this.
The constellation Scorpius currently makes it appearance in our early nighttime sky. It rises considerably south of east. First we see a line of three stars close together in a row, and then below these brilliant ruddy Antares comes into view. The name Antares means "Rival of Aries," or "Rival of Mars," since Mars is the Roman name for Aries. This name is fitting since both Mars and Antares are bright, have distinct red color and are always in the zodiac. Antares, of course, remains always part of Scorpius, while Mars wanders throughout the zodiac as it orbits the Sun. In doing this, Mars occasionally passes close to Antares. A few hours after sunset we can see the entire shape of Scorpius and it moves through the night low across the southern sky.
If you follow the brighter stars of Scorpius, you can easily find a string of stars beginning above Antares and coming down from Antares, then the string bends eastward. Another small set of stars comes down at a steep angle toward the east end of the string of stars. Most cultural mind- sets have had no trouble imagining a smooth bend to connect the string of stars with the little group above it. Thus, as we look at these stars we have, in our minds, the appearance of the letter "J," forming the classical outline of the Scorpion. It is interesting to note, however, that others are not led to see a smooth bend in the tail of Scorpius: they separate the string of stars that forms the body of the Scorpion from the ones that form the tail and stinger. Two examples might be of particular interest to Americans. The Skidi Pawnee saw a snake formed by the front part of Scorpius, but the stars of the stinger were, for those people, a pair of ducks. When the "Swimming Ducks" appeared in the twilight before sunrise, the Pawnee recognized that it was time to begin the ceremonies that continued through the planting, hunting and harvest seasons. The Swimming Ducks were the primary stars used to set the Skidi ceremonial calendar.
The Navajo people also separate Scorpius into two constellations. The front is part of an important figure they call "First Big One," and the tail and stinger they know as "Rabbit Tracks."
Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, marking the heart of the Scorpion, was one of the "Royal Stars" of ancient Persia, around 3,000 BC For early Chinese it was the Fire Star, being part of a large assembly of stars making up the Dragon of the East. Medieval alchemists claimed that during the brief period of time when the Sun was passing through Scorpius it was possible to transmute iron into gold.
Scorpius is one of the old constellations of the zodiac, probably originating in the Euphrates Valley at least several thousand years ago. The origin of associating these stars with a scorpion is likely due to two facts. First, the stars can easily be pictured in the shape of a scorpion, and second we can easily observe that scorpions are creatures of dark places, becoming a symbol of darkness and death. It seems quite appropriate to picture a giant scorpion in the night sky. The most famous story about Scorpius is that it represents the scorpion that rose out of the ground at Hera's command in one of her fits of revenge. Specifically, she commanded the Scorpion to attack Orion, stinging him on the foot to cause his death. Both Orion and Scorpius were honored by placement in the sky, but on opposite sides where they could never again come into contact. Thus, when Scorpius rises, Orion sets as if to show that the great giant of the sky still fears the Scorpion.
A lesser-known and equally interesting story comes from the islands in the Pacific. New Zealand, for example, has been called Te-Ika-a-Maui, meaning the Fish of Maui. According to the myth, Maui, the chief of the gods, used a jawbone as fishhook to pull up the islands from the underworld. Having created the islands in this way, Maui tossed his fishhook into the sky where it is now outlined as the stars of Scorpius. From those southern latitudes this hook-shaped set of stars rides high overhead across the heavens.
Scorpius is one of the beautiful constellations that have been enjoyed by people throughout human time. Different groups have seen in these stars various shapes that are symbolic of things important to their cultural identity. Scorpius is embedded in one of the richest parts of the Milky Way, having within its boundaries many star clusters and clouds of gas and dust still forming into clusters of stars. For astronomers we have here exciting things to study in the continuing quest to discover the physical nature of the universe. It is worth anyone's time to go out and enjoy this region of the heavens that will be one of the hallmarks of our summer evening sky.