Dark Sky Park: Leo The Lion

May 9, 2013

IPR: Besides the Big Dipper and Orion, the star pattern of Leo the Lion has to be one of the easiest to recognize of all the constellations. Would you agree? 

MARY: Leo is one of the few constellations that actually looks like what its name implies. And in the spring Leo is quite prominent, looking overhead to the south. When you find the Big Dipper overhead, imagine it as a ladle that sprung a leak. If it did, it would leak onto the back of the lion. 

IPR: Was the constellation always known as a lion? And how do we come by that name?

MARY: Although we can easily see the lion in this constellation, it was not always known to be a lion in every culture. The Babylonians saw a great dog, protector of precious goods and men, while on the high Arctic regions of Siberia, native people saw a sleeping woman.

Former cultures created names and stories not out of what they physically saw in the stars but out of what they believed and experienced as streaming forth from a particular region of the sky.

Each year the sun appears to cover the star Regulus at the heart of Leo. This star is regarded as the "heart of the regal one" but there is something in the name that implies littleness, as though this is the little, or hidden king.

IPR: So what seasonal story can we find here?

MARY: Spring is the season of young love and, since Leo is home to the star at the heart, it is easy to find stories of love here. In book four of Ovid's Metamorphosis, we learn of Pyramus and Thisbe, young neighbors whose love is forbidden by their parents. A translation of the tale reads: when covered, fire acquires still more force. The fire is their love, forced into secret, but perhaps this is also a reference to Regulus, the heart star, being covered each year by the sun, and thereby strengthened. In the tale, Thisbe arrives at their trysting place and is scared away by a lion fresh from a kill. She runs away, dropping her veil, which results in Pyramus believing the lion has killed his love.  This theme is most readily familiar in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and it is hinted at in the stars, with Leo, the lion, the heart star, and to the east of Leo's tail, the constellation Coma Berenice, sometimes known as Thisbe's veil.