Taurus, the Bull
is nicely placed for viewing in the early evenings in March. Home to the open clusters of the Pleiades and the Hyades, the constellation claims two first-magnitude stars, Aldebaran, which marks the red eye of the Bull, and El Nath, at the tip on one of the horns. The Crab Nebula is here, too.

[Editor's note: The following story is R-rated for violence. Parental guidance is suggested.]

Minerva, daughter of Jupiter and goddess of wisdom, presided over the useful and decorative arts: agriculture and navigation of men; and spinning, weaving and needlework of women. King Cecrops had named the city of Athens for her (her Greek name was Athene), and it was there that Minerva kept counsel. One of her mortal subjects in the city of Athens, Arachne, had mastered the skill of embroidery to such a high level that even the nymphs would come to admire her work. Arachne thought her work to be the equal to Minerva’s, and challenged the goddess to a contest.

Minerva created a tapestry of great power, representing Jupiter and Neptune in a central circle, with the four corners illustrating scenes of the displeasure of the gods at such presumptuous mortals who dared contend with them. These were meant to discourage her rival before it was too late.

Arachne chose to depict subjects showing the failings and errors of the gods. It was in one of these scenes that the story of Jupiter’s seduction of Europa, Princess of Phoenicia, was stitched. Jupiter had assumed the form of a snow-white bull with golden horns and enchanted the young girl to mount his back, whereupon he dashed into the sea and swam with her to Crete. There he revealed himself as Jupiter, king of the gods, and claimed her as his bride. Arachne’s embroidery was so fine that the nymphs thought the scene to be real. Europa seemed to look back to shore with longing eyes to summon her friends for help.

Minerva sensed that Arachne was superbly skilled, beyond even her own abilities, and she could not tolerate it. She slashed the piece to ribbons, and she berated the girl, making her feel the guilt of her actions. Arachne could not endure the shame and she went and hanged herself.

Minerva found the girl suspended from the rope and took pity on her, restoring her to life. But as a punishment for her presumption, she sprinkled Arachne with potent juices which caused her hair to come off and her body to shrink. Her fingers moved to her sides and served for legs. Her body remained suspended from the silken rope. Her descendents are known as arachnids, and they are often found spinning and weaving their exquisite designs.

So, Taurus is Jupiter in the guise of the Bull, according to Roman and Greek lore. The constellation was called the Bull by virtually all of the ancient civilizations.

Four thousand years ago, the Sun was in this constellation at the time of the spring equinox—New Year’s Day for many peoples—and the most important date in the year, marking the time for plowing and planting. Taurus was the first sign of the Zodiac. To the Hebrews the constellation was known as Aleph, the first letter of their alphabet.

In 1758, the famous French comet hunter Charles Messier observed a fuzzy patch of light near the star Beta Tauri. The spot did not move, and Messier began a catalog of such objects in order that he and other observers should not confuse them for comets. So M1 is the first of the deep-sky objects in his list of 45 that was published in 1771. By 1781 his list had grown to 103, and with later additions the Messier Catalog now stands at 110.

This photo of M1, the Crab Nebula, is by Conrad Jung.
Early in the 18th century a small patch of light was discovered by John Bevis. It was rediscovered in 1758 by Charles Messier, and it is the first in Messier's catalog of nebulous objects, M1. In 1844 the Earl of Rosse observed and sketched the object and named it the Crab Nebula. Known as Taurus A to radioastronomers, in 1948 it became the first radio source to be identified with a known visible object. This was accomplished by an unusual method by John Bolton. He constructed a special radio telescope set facing the sea and located on a high clifftop. By receiving radio signals directly from the Crab Nebula and by reflection from the sea, he was able to achieve the same precision as a single radio telescope whose diameter is twice the height of the cliff.

A second Messier object in Taurus is the Pleiades cluster, M45. Many know this beautiful grouping of stars as the Seven Sisters. Myths of many cultures have been told. Some were presented in the February, 1996 issue of The Refractor.

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