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The Scorpion, The Snake, and The Swimming Ducks

Nowadays, the summer stars we know as Scorpius are readily identified in the south, and they represent the shape of a scorpion with a tail curled, ready to strike. The creature is missing the extended claws of the preclassical Greek imagery, however, since those claws were transferred to the constellation Libra, perhaps about 1200 BC. Still, Libra's two brightest stars retain the names Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, meaning "Northern Claw" and "Southern Claw."

Native Americans found different patterns among these stars. For the Pawnee the arrival of spring was the most influential time, beginning the cycle of the year. It was heralded by the rising of the two stars called "The Swimming Ducks." These were Lambda and Upsilon Scorpii, which mark the insect's stinger. In spring, thunder became quite frequent, and the appearance of the Swimming Ducks was the time for the Thunder ritual. To the right of the Ducks, another Pawnee constellation was seen as a Snake, composed of stars of the Scorpion's body, red Antares forming the head.

According to a legend of the people of the Marshall Islands, the mother of all stars (Capella in Auriga) proposed a canoe race to a nearby island. She asked each of her sons to allow her to ride with her possessions in their canoes; all thought this would slow their craft and they would lose the race. All, that is, except the youngest (represented by the Pleiades), who gladly allowed his mother to ride with him because she also brought sails and rigging, and with this to help them their canoe easily pulled ahead. Her eldest son (Antares in Scorpius), frustrated and angry, demanded the canoe and equipment, but his mother said no. The eldest son was so enraged that his younger brother won the race and became king of the stars that he never wanted to see his brother again. That is why the Pleiades and Antares are always separated in the sky, Antares setting in the west as the Pleiades rise in the east.

That story is remarkably similar to the classic Greek story of the separation of Scorpius from Orion in the sky. Orion, representing light and the Sun, was stung by the scorpion, the contemptible insect of darkness and symbol of death. Ancient Egypt, too, kept the similar idea of opposition between evil forces and good, and when the Sun entered Scorpius it marked the reign of the god Set, personification of evil, and the mourning of the beloved Osiris, brother of Set.

Scorpius occupies a rich and wonderful area of the Zodiac, although the modern boundaries of the constellation are host to the Sun for only nine days of the year. The Sun resides in Ophiuchus, the forgotten zodiacal constellation, for twice that time. The greater part of the scorpion lies south of the ecliptic, with Graffias, Beta Scorpii, the only bright star north of the ecliptic. This star is an interesting multiple star which is occulted by the Moon on occasion. The giant red star Antares, rival of Mars, is also a double star, with a faint bluish star circling it close by which was discovered in 1819 during an occultation by the Moon. Antares, too, is one of the bright stars that are sometimes occulted by the Moon. Antares is nearly as large as its counterpart in Orion, Betelgeuse, and only slightly less red in color. Both are variable in magnitude.

Currently, as Scorpius comes into view in the southeast in the evening, the star Dschubba, Delta Scorpii, looks unusually bright. Over the last year, Dschubba, normally magnitude 2.3, has flamed up to around magnitude 1.8, and has changed the appearance of the row of three stars that make up the head or crown of Scorpius. It is not known what Delta Scorpii, a hot star with the luminosity of 3300 Suns, will do next, or why. It may brighten further, or it may fade down. Keep an eye on the sky-perhaps you may witness a naked-eye event that will be part of variable-star history.

Five Messier objects are within the realm of Scorpius. They are globular clusters M4, M62 and M80, and open clusters M6 and M7. Other variable stars, clusters and diffuse and planetary nebulas make Scorpius an important and satisfying destination for observers and astrophotographers.

Scorpius, as seen from Mt. Barcroft in the White Mtns of E.CA. Astrophotographer Axel Mellinger used a Minolta 50mm lens piggybacked to his telescope in July, 1997 for this image. You, too, can have this marvelous view next August. Call Dave Rodrigues at (510) 483-9191 for information


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