I was originally going to call this piece Poseidon’s Scary Girlfriends, with Demeter the Furious and an unnamed Harpy joining Medusa. But when I began researching Medusa I found so many layers of interpretation that it seemed worth going back to the original sources and seeing what went into the myth.
In fact, it seems like there are almost two different myths, one involving a headless demon that terrified all who saw it, and another about the mortal Medusa, who either was a snaky-headed monster or became one.
Poseidon has three main aspects: sea-god, earth-shaker, and giver of horses. As sea-god he could stir up the waves or calm them, while as the earth-shaker his power was terrifying. Only as the god of horses was Poseidon a clear friend to humans.
There was a discussion recently on the Mythology Stack Exchange about whether Poseidon had been the first head of the Greek pantheon. It’s an interesting question….
You can argue this one in a number of ways. While the name Zeus is clearly Indo-European (one of the very few that is), the name Poseidon, along with his title Earth-Shaker, appears in Mycenean texts from very early times. On the Messenian coast, at least, he seems to have kept his status, and like Zeus he is the father of kings and heroes. (Indeed, the number of his offspring is second only to Zeus’.)
Like the eagle in Aquila, the swan is a bird with many associations, so it seems logical to put a swan in the sky. It was Venus’ bird; the Romans sometimes called the constellation Myrtilus because of this, myrtle also being Venusian.
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.
The Norse sea-god – if he reminded you of anyone in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, wouldn’t it be Neptune/Poseidon? And yet, when the medieval Icelanders were copying out Greek myths, they explained the god Saturn/Kronos to their readers as “Njord”. What did the two have in common, that Njord would stand for Saturn to an Icelander?
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.
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.*
When I was young, I imagined the manna that fell from heaven as being some sort of bread, possibly akin to communion wafers. It made sense to my young, Catholic, self.
Much later in life, I had to rethink the nature of manna, because of two books. One was the Poetic Edda, and the other was The Hive by Bee Wilson (a very appropriate name). Wilson’s book talks mainly about honey from the hive, but she does mention manna or meli, as the ancient Greeks called it, which falls from ash trees.
These two stars are a case of the myths fitting the reality, since Pollux is the brighter (17th brightest) while Castor languishes at 23rd. Since many versions of the Classical story of the Heavenly Twins made Castor the mortal one, it seems fitting that his star is slightly dimmer.