Friday, December 16, 2011

Pegasus the Flying Horse Part II

Sometimes I like the names of stars and their origins just as much as the mythologies of entire constellations. So let's take a closer look at four stars in Pegasus the Flying Horse.

The main feature of Pegasus are four stars marking a Great Square in the almost overhead after sunset. This is Pegasus' body and the Arabic names of three of these stars relate to that. The fourth one... well just you wait.

The alpha star in Pegasus is called Markab which means "the saddle" but can be translated as "ship" or "vehicle" - anything to travel upon. Beta is named Scheat, "the horse's shoulder." And gamma is Algenib, "the side" or "the wing." Those seem pretty straightforward and actually correspond to Pegasus' imagined body parts. The Arabic peoples were very literal when it came to naming the stars. The fourth star in the Great Square is a little more complicated.

This star is known today as Alpheratz, "the horse's navel." Technically Alpheratz is located in another famous constellation: Andromeda the Maiden. Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who was chained to a rock in the ocean as a sacrifice to the dreaded sea monster. So Alpheratz is not only Pegasus' belly but also Andromeda's head. When you see old star maps of the two constellations you can't help but feel sorry for Andromeda. Couldn't they find a little more room for her up there?

I can picture Andromeda discussing the matter with the gods.  Zeus might say, "Well, it's getting pretty crowded up there in the sky - what with all the new constellations."  After a thoughtful pause he continues, "The only empty space is up there by Pegasus' belly.  We'll just have to squeeze you up in there..."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pegasus the Flying Horse

One of the great fall constellations is Pegasus the Flying horse. He's easy to find in the sky if you're prepared to imagine him flying upside-down. Look for a big square or diamond shape of dim stars almost straight overhead. As an added clue there are very few stars within the square. This is Pegasus' body. His head and mane are to the right from the square.

Pegasus has one of the grossest origin stories I've ever read. He was born during the epic battle between Perseus the Hero and the dreaded Sea Monster. Remember the Sea Monster had just risen from the briny deep to devour poor, helpless Princess Andromeda - when Perseus flew up. And luckily Perseus had just the weapon to fight the horrible beast. Earlier in the day Perseus decapitated Medusa - the snaky-haired gorgon whose look turned all living souls to stone. Perseus closed his eyes and took Medusa's bloody head out of a bag and showed it to the Sea Monster. At first glance the monster turned to stone, cracked of its own weight and fell to the bottom of the sea.

But where did Pegasus come from? I'm getting to it.

During the battle, Medusa's head was still a little juicy. I mean Perseus just killed her that morning after all. When Perseus held out Medusa's head to the Sea Monster some blood dripped out of her neck. When the blood hit the sea water below a magical thing happened. Through some sort of foamy, jello process the Gorgon's blood mixed with the water to form into... Pegasus the Flying Horse. This was a common theme in Greek mythology - when a monster or god bled, something always sprang from it. But it's hard to imagine a lovely winged horse coming from such a gruesome beginning. Those Greeks sure had imaginations!