The University Record, October 16, 1995

Greek gods appear in Michigan's October skies

Michigan's autumn skies display five constellations representing the chief players in one of the most famous constellation myths---the rescue of Princess Andromeda by the hero Perseus.

"The tale is one of vanity and vengeance," says astronomer Richard Teske. "Principal characters are Perseus himself, the beautiful Andromeda and her parents, the king and queen of Ethiopia, and a menacing sea monster who gets turned to stone. Re-runs of the adventure may be seen every year during prime time, just by walking outside on a clear, starry autumn evening."

According to the early Greeks, who created the story, all the trouble started with the boastfulness of Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia---seen seated in her W-shaped chair almost directly overhead after dark.

The Queen claimed that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than certain sea nymphs. The nymphs took this as an insult to their exceptional looks and complained to the sea god Neptune. To punish Queen Cassiopeia for her pride, Neptune sent the sea monster Cetus, a whale, to ravage the coast of Ethiopia. King Cepheus, Cassiopeia's husband and father of Andromeda, was angered by the monster's depredations. He told Neptune to call off the monster and stop the destruction. Neptune agreed, but only if the Princess Andromeda was sacrificed to Cetus. There did not seem to be a good alternative, so the king arranged to have it done.

"Michigan sky-watchers who face north while looking upward at Cassiopeia will find King Cepheus a bit westward to her left," Teske says. "He is actually closer to the North Star and is recognized by his square face and pointed crown. Their daughter Princess Andromeda lies chained to some rocks south of Cassiopeia, woefully awaiting the hot breath of the sea monster who is coming to devour her. Most of Andromeda's constellation is a little south of the overhead point."

Just in the nick of time, the great hero Perseus arrived at the place where Andromeda was chained and rescued the tearful princess. One of the most celebrated of mythical Greek heroes, Perseus was on his way back home from his greatest adventure---the beheading of the Gorgon Medusa who wore snakes for hair. She was so fearsome to look at, even when dead, that anyone who saw her was turned to stone. It so happened that Perseus was carrying the head with him. He showed the severed souvenir to Cetus who froze into stone, saving the princess from death.

"For observers facing North, the starry outlines of Perseus holding the Medusa's head can be found just to the right (east) of Cassiopeia and below. The extended lines of Andromeda's chains point directly to him," Teske adds.

"Cetus the malevolent whale is not good company for our hero and royal family who cluster almost overhead in the autumn sky, so Cetus is placed in a different part of the heavens. The monster is found fairly far to the south, where many watery constellations reside. There Cetus lurks with Pisces, the two fish, swimming near the River Eridanus and just east of Aquarius the water bearer. Justifiably---in view of the monster's size---the constellation Cetus is fourth largest in the heavens. But it is undistinguished by bright stars and is difficult for observers to pick out."

The five constellations in the legend are just a few of the 88 "official" constellations that populate the sky, according to Teske. Fifty of them were known to ancient Greek, Roman and Arab peoples who created their names and traditions. These 50 are all visible from land north of the equator.

Thirty-eight other constellations were "discovered" when expanding civilization began to peer at the heavens from south of the equator. Most of these constellations have names like "Telescopium," "Microscopium," and "Horologium," or Clock---names bestowed by scientists unimpressed with princesses, monsters and heroes.