Altair: the Eagle

Eagles and thunder-gods often appear together, but in Greek myth the eagle was Zeus’ accomplice as well as his emblem. It stole the beautiful youth Ganymede from his fields and carried him to Olympos to be Zeus’ cupbearer. (Ganymede is also in the heavens, as the constellation Aquarius.)

The eagle also carried out Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus, who stole fire to give to the humans. Zeus had him chained to a cliff face, and the eagle came every day and tore out his liver. Hercules rescued Prometheus as part of his 11th Labour and killed the eagle. Zeus then put it in the sky to reward its faithful service.

The Eagle features among the Hercules family of constellations, by the way, which include large asterisms like Ophiuchus the Snake-Handler as well as tiny ones like Ara, the Altar.

Three Steps of Vishnu

The constellation itself appears in the summer, and can be seen from July to October. Its most noticeable feature is its brightest star, Altair, and the two stars that flank it. These form an Orion-like belt, which has attracted mythology of its own. (The other two are known to astronomers as Beta and Gamma Aquilae, or Alshain and Tarazed. They form a sort of necklace for the Eagle, with Altair as the jewel in the middle.)

The Hindus call it the Three Steps of Vishnu. At one level, his three steps are a sign of his solar nature: he moves from earth to heaven in merely three steps.

His three steps also feature in a myth in which the demons had taken over the earth and were dividing it up. Vishnu came among them as a dwarf, and asked for a share. The demons granted him all he could encompass in three steps, so he rose up and took in heaven, sky and earth in his three steps, and so rescued all from the demons.

A hymn in the Rig Veda (7.100) seems to imply that with his three steps he measured and created space, fixing the boundaries of the three realms.

Aquila and Vega

Other myths about Aquila include the Chinese and Korean folktales about the Spinster of Heaven and her mortal lover. In these Vega is the weaver girl and Aquila the cowherd, and a quick look in the sky will show that the Milky Way does separate them. (If you sky watch, you will know that Vega (Alpha Lyrae), Altair (Alpha Aquilae) and Deneb (Epsilon Delphini) make up the Summer Triangle.)

From the book Urania's Mirror. Shows Aquila with the now-obsolete constellation Antinous.

From the book Urania’s Mirror. Shows Aquila with the now-obsolete constellation Antinous.

Norse and Celtic

In Welsh myth the eagle may represent the god Llew Llaw Gyffes, who took eagle form after he was murdered by his wife and her lover. There don’t seem to be any Norse myths about this constellation, although given the various eagles scattered throughout the mythology, there are plenty of candidates.

Fun Facts about Altair

  • Altair is a white dwarf star, which rotates in about nine hours. This has caused its poles to flatten slightly, like putty rolled in your hand. (The sun takes 25 days, although it’s smaller.)
  • If it went ten percent faster, apparently it would start to break apart. According to measurements, it is extremely variable, going through about nine different rates of brightness.
  • It’s also one of the closest stars visible to the naked eye, at 16.7 light-years from Earth. You can find it in the sky by looking for the Summer Triangle. Vega is the brightest of the three, followed by Altair.
  • The movie Forbidden Planet is set on the planet Altair 4, and the star’s planetary system featured in various episodes of the Star Treks.