The crown over your head

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending July 14, 2012 

There’s a crown you might see over your head, but you won’t wear it. According to an old legend, a deserted lover received a beautiful gift to cheer her up. The gift was a crown placed in the sky in honor of love lost. It is Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown.

The ancient Greeks told of the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull creature, who terrorized the city of Athens unless the people offered seven of their young men and seven of their young women to the beast every year. The young adults were sent into the Labyrinth, a maze from which nobody could escape. That’s where the Minotaur lived. One year, one of the people chosen for this sacrifice was Theseus, the son of the King of Athens.

Ariadne, the daughter of the King of Crete, fell in love with Theseus and plotted to help him escape the Minotaur. She gave him a ball of string and a sword. Theseus unwound the string as he entered the Labyrinth, leaving one end of it tied at the entrance. He would follow the string back after killing the Minotaur with the sword.

Theseus fled Crete with Ariadne. On the way to Athens, the lovers stopped on the island of Naxos where something happened to spoil the love affair. Theseus left Ariadne and she wept. The god Dionysus happened to be in human form visiting the island at the same time. He felt bad for Ariadne and wanted to win her over. But the young lady didn’t recognize him as a god. She rejected him, saying she wanted nothing more to do with mortal men.

Dionysus told her that he was, in fact, a god. Of course, the jilted lover felt he was just another man bragging and trying to impress her. Dionysus finally proved his godly status by taking off his crown and throwing it into the sky and turning it into a semi-circle of stars.

Other cultures have other legends about this group of stars. The Shawnee Indians said it was a circle of star maidens dancing in the sky. But the circle’s not complete because one of the maidens has left to live with a mortal warrior on Earth. The Arabs saw it as a cracked or dented bowl like those used by the poor. Australia’s aborigines looked at this star group and saw a boomerang.

The brightest star in Corona Borealis is known by two names. Alphecca means “the brightest one” in Arabic. It’s also called Gemma, which means “gem”.

At 26° north, Corona Borealis is clearly a northern constellation. But it’s not too far north for most people in the southern hemisphere to see. The best time of year to see the constellation in mid-evening is July.


Here are some links to more information about Corona Borealis.