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Hero For Old World Greeks Was a Snake For New World Maya

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

October 14, 1998

Everyone familiar with Greek Mythology will recall the story of how the hero Perseus rescued the beautiful Andromeda from being eaten by the sea monster Cetus. Andromeda's plight resulted from the pride of her mother Cassiopeia and father Cepheus, queen and king of Ethiopia. The entire cast of characters is now in the sky, nicely visible on October evenings. Cepheus is just above the North Star, Polaris. Cassiopeia is on his east side. Andromeda is immediately southeast of Cassiopeia and Cetus is low in the southeast. The hero Perseus, the topic of this article, is rising upward from the northeast, imbedded in the Milky Way below Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia is easy to find, resembling the letter W, located high in the northeast on October evenings. If you face Cassiopeia and scan directly downward toward the northeast horizon your gaze will pass through Perseus. The brighter stars of Perseus form a crooked line coming away from Cassiopeia and continuing nearly to the famous Pleiades, the tiny cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. Midway along the line of stars in Perseus another shorter line intersects from the right, and the brightest star in this shorter line, named Algol, is one of the most famous stars in the sky. One more feature of special note is a blob of light located in the upper part of Perseus, almost into Cassiopeia.

This is the double cluster of Perseus. It appears as a dim blur between the brighter stars of Perseus and those of Cassiopeia. A pair of binoculars will reveal its true character, a pair of interacting clusters of stars. Thus, we have star clusters bracketing both ends of Perseus: the double cluster at the top and the Pleiades at the bottom.

Perseus is depicted in our sky at a critical moment in his exciting career. His life was anything but normal from start to end. Because an oracle had foretold that King Acrisius of Argos would be killed by his grandson, the King locked his daughter Danae in a dungeon. This was no deterrent to Zeus, however, who visited Danae in the form of a golden shower of rain falling through the skylight of Danae's cell. Thus, she gave birth to Perseus. In response, Acrisius put both Danae and her infant son into a wooden chest and cast them into the sea. Dictys, a fisherman on the island of Seriphos, rescued them and raised Perseus as his own son.

This was only the beginning of the unconventional life of Perseus. Polydectes, brother of Dictys and King of Seriphos, desired Danae for his wife, but the grown Perseus protected his mother from such advances. Not to be put off, Polydectes sent Perseus on an impossible mission, to find the Gorgans and bring back the head of one of them, Medusa by name. The hideous Medusa had snakes for hair and it was known that anyone who looked directly at her would be turned to stone.

The Olympian gods befriended Perseus. Athena gave him a polished bronze shield and Hermes awarded him winged sandals. Hephaestus presented him with a gleaming sword made of diamond. Under the guidance of the gods, Perseus followed the trail of men and animals turned to stone by their contact with Medusa. Approaching her with great care, looking only at her reflected image in his shield, Perseus decapitated Medusa and put her head in a leather bag.

Perseus flew toward his home to check on his mother, but in route came upon a dreadful scene: a beautiful girl, Andromeda, was chained to a rock on the seashore and a great sea creature was swimming in to devour her. Perseus saved and married her and took her back to the island of Seriphos. They arrived to find Dictys and Danae hiding in a temple with King Polydectes searching for them. Perseus solved the problem by waving the horrible head of Medusa in front of Polydectes, transforming him into a statue.

Athena placed the head of Medusa in the middle of her own shield. Andromeda and Perseus lived happy lives marred by one tragedy. Engaged in an athletic contest, Perseus hurled a discus that accidentally killed King Acrisius, fulfilling the oracle that started the entire story.

When you go out and look around to find Perseus, you can recall this dramatic story. The star Algol, also known as the Demon Star, represents the eye of Medusa. If you are bold enough to watch it without fear of petrification, carefully comparing it with the brightness of nearby stars, you can see that it changes its brightness over a period of 2.9 days. This variability is due to the fact that Algol is really two stars orbiting each other so that they undergo eclipses to change the amount of light coming to us.

Just to make sure you can find Perseus in the sky, let me introduce you to another way of visualizing these stars. The Maya Indians of Mesoamerica described a snake in the sky, indicating that the stars we know as the Pleiades were the rattles of the snake. Art historian Susan Milbrath studied the evidence and came to the conclusion that the body of the Maya snake was composed of the stars of Perseus. Since learning this idea it has been easier for me to locate Perseus. Using the Pleiades as the rattles of a snake, one can follow the crooked line of stars in Perseus, the snake's body, along the Milky Way toward the W-shape of Cassiopeia. Right at the head of the snake is the wonderful double cluster; many hundreds of stars bunched together just waiting for you to look at them through binoculars.

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