As you can see from the picture above, Aldebaran is the bull’s left eye, and the brightest star in Taurus. It appears ruddy through a telescope, suggesting that Taurus is an angry bull. The V-shape of the bull’s face, known as the Hyades, makes it easy to find.
The Arabic name reflects its position: the Follower, since it rises after the Pleiades, the stars that make up the bull’s shoulder. It is primarily a winter star, and by now will be visible in the sky around dawn.
Some myths feature Aldebaran as a hunter stalking the Pleiades, while others make the nearby constellation of Orion the hunter. The two are linked in another way; you can find Aldebaran in the sky by using Orion’s Belt as a pointer. The red star is to the right of the Belt.
When Taurus was the sign of the spring equinox, Aldebaran was one of the four marker stars for the year, the others being Regulus in Leo, Antares in Scorpio, and Fomalhaut in Piscis Austrinis, which is just below Aquarius. These four were equidistant in the sky, and at that time were reliable indicators of the four seasons.
Aldebaran is a giant orange star, which is actually nowhere near the Hyades, the rest of the stars in the bull’s face. It is the 14th brightest star in the sky, and astronomers think it has a planet, roughly the size of Jupiter. It is a giant star, as you might expect from its colour, and if you placed it where our sun is, it would fill the solar system right out to Mercury’s orbit.
As well as a planet, Aldebaran may well be another binary star, but its partner, Aldebaran B, is a red dwarf so faint that it is hard to ascertain anything about it. Three other stars are in a system with these two, and two of them are binary as well.
Although Aldebaran is a bright, easily found star, it lies along the ecliptic, or the path of the sun (and moon), and they often hide it.
The bull is probably one of the oldest constellations, going right back to the Bronze Age. From about 4000 to 1700 BCE its appearance on the horizon marked the spring equinox, and the Babylonians called it “The Bull in Front”. In the Epic of Gilgamesh Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven against the hero, which might represent Taurus and Orion facing off in the sky.
The Egyptians had a more benign interpretation, identifying Taurus with their own sacred bull, who fecundated the land every spring. The Greeks saw it as a symbol of Zeus as the Bull who carried off Europa.
Although Wikipedia states that the Druids sacrificed a bull at the Spring Equinox as part of a Tauric rite, there is no direct evidence of any myths or rituals associated with the constellation. Bayley suggests that the bull might be related to the Long-Horned Oxen that Hu Gadarn harnessed to the plow. (173)
In Greek mythology the Hyades were the “Rainy Ones”. When they became visible, the rainy season had begun. The Hyades, like the Pleiades, were a group of nymphs. They mourned the loss of their brother Hyus so much that the gods turned them into stars. Another story said that they were the nurses of Dionysus, and Zeus sent them to the sky when the god’s enemy Lycurgus drove them into the sea.
Their helical rising in May and helical descent in November corresponded with wet weather, and presumably their weeping accounted for the rain. The Romans called them Suculae, “the little pigs”, which had various explanations.
Pliny said it was because the rainy season brought out the mud which pigs enjoy. Another idea was that the constellation’s shape resembled a pig’s jawbone, while Isidorus traced it to the word sucus, “moisture”.
Norse myth is also silent on the subject, but several writers have suggested that the asterism of the Wolf’s Mouth might well be the Hyades. Another suggestion is that it represents the Boar’s Snout or Boar’s Throng, a formation that Odin taught to humans. (History of the Danes: VIII: 219-20)
Aldebaran also plays a part in astrology: in a predictive chart it indicates, “violence, victory and heroism in war”, and in a chart for a person it shows “confidence, energy, leadership qualities”. (Campion: 124)
Bayley, Michael 1997: Caer Sidhe: the Celtic Night Sky, vol 1, Capall Bann.
Campion, Nicholas, The Practical Astrologer, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1987.
Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes Books I – IX, Saxo Grammaticus/Peter Fisher, translation, Hilda Ellis Davidson, commentary, Brewer, 1999. (reprint)