Dark Sky Park: The Constellation Bootes

Jun 26, 2013

IPR: One of the most prominent constellations in the evening sky is Bootes with the bright star Arcturus. What stories belong to this part of the sky?

MARY: Bootes is coming to the zenith or the highest region of the sky overhead this month. To find Bootes it helps to locate the Big Dipper asterism first. When you've found the Big Dipper you follow the arc of it's handle to Arcturus. This is easily done in early evening as the Big Dipper and Arcturus are some of the first visible objects in the sky at this time.

Also in this season we see Venus as our evening star looking west about 45 minutes after sunset. Venus is just to the East of the constellation Gemini, the Twins. We really can't see Gemini right now because the Sun is moving in this region of the sky and that where the story really begins. 

When the Sun is setting in Gemini, we can imagine it as Apollo. Apollo is a son of Zeus, and a twin with the goddess Artemis. Apollo is the god of the Sun, of light, truth and prophecy while his sister Artemis is a Moon goddess best known as goddess of the hunt.

Apollo kills the one-eyed Cyclops, "Steropes," the cyclops that forged the deadly thunderbolt used by Zeus to slay Apollo's son Aesculapius. We can imagine this behind the thunderstorms of this season. As punishment for slaying the cyclops Apollo was sentenced to a year of servitude to a mortal. He chooses to serve Admetus, a shepherd and a king, known for his justice and hospitality. To reward him for his goodness, Apollo makes all of Admetus' cows bear twins. So we have this element of twins happening. Apollo is a Twin. He makes the cows bear twins. He is the Sun god and in this season the Sun is in the region of Twins.

IPR: And Arcturus?

MARY: Arcturus can be likened to Admetus, the king, and though he is blessed with bounty at the hand of Apollo he also exhibits folly and demonstrates why it is best to not avoid your fate. Admetus falls in love with Alcestis and through the help of Apollo is able to win her hand in marriage. So happy is he in his love that he begs the gods for reprieve when his day of death arrives. The fates grant him this reprieve providing he can find someone to replace him. He presumes that one of his aged parents will surely take his place but instead it is his own wife Alcestis who nobly stands in for him and submits to the fate of death. "I think my wife's fate is happier than my own, even though it may not seem so. No pain will ever touch her now, and she has ended life's many troubles with glory. But I, who have escaped my fate and ought not to be alive, shall now live out my life in sorrow."

IPR: Is that where it ends?

MARY: No, and this story continues in the stars overhead. We can see just to the east of Arcturus the constellation Hercules, the kneeler. He is as though upside down on bended knee just beside Arcturus and Bootes. During one of his twelve labors Hercules took a rest near where Admetus was herding his cows. Hercules was so impressed with his goodness that when he heard of his troubles he took it upon himself to enter into the underworld and retrieve Alcestis from her tomb. 

Behind the storms and the stars of this season, we can live into these ancient tales, tales of lightnings and slayings and bounty, fate and renewal and though they will be greatly diminished by the light of the Moon this week there is also a meteor shower from this region of the sky known as the June Bootids which peak the evening of Thursday, June 27.