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.
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.
The main star in Scorpio is the 15th brightest star in the sky. Its name means “Rival of Ares” or “Equal to Ares”, because of its brightness and red colour. And its size – Antares is a red supergiant, 3 000 times the size of our sun. (If we switched our sun for Antares, its bulk would extend out to Mars.) A clould of reddish metallic dust surrounds it, five light years in diameter, which makes it look even larger in the night sky.
He is wise in heart and mighty in strength
—who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?—
5 he who removes mountains, and they know it not,
when he overturns them in his anger,
6 who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
7 who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
8 who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea;
9 who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10 who does great things beyond searching out,
and marvelous things beyond number.
11 Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
12 Behold, he snatches away; who can turn him back?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
(Job 9: 4-12, from The Bible Gateway)
The image at the top comes from here.
Arcturus is an orange giant, and the fourth brightest star in the sky. Its moment of earthly fame came during the Chicago World Fair of 1934. There had been a World Fair in Chicago in 1893, and they calculated that light leaving Arcturus then would arrive in time for the new Fair.*
Orion is a large, striking constellation, with many bright stars. I have already written about Rigel, its brightest star. Of its other bright stars, Betelgeuse is 12th brightest in the sky, while Bellatrix is down there at 27th.
`You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?’
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
Rigel is basically Orion’s ankle. You can find it if you look for the three stars of his belt, then down the belt to the bright white star below it. The name comes from Rijl Jauzah al Yusra, the Left Leg of the Jauzah (Jauzah was the Arabic title for Orion).
Fun fact: Rigel was mentioned in several Star Trek episodes, in the form of its planet, Rigel VII. Captain Pike had landed there and been attacked, and this history, as well as more current events, were mentioned in episodes of New Generation and Deep Space Nine.