P is our letter in this year’s A-Z challenge tour through the heavens. There are nine constellations that begin with a “P”: Pavo, Pegasus, Perseus, Phoenix, Pictor, Pisces, Piscis Austrinus, Puppis, and Pyxis. Of those, only three are well known: Pegasus, Perseus and Pisces. There is also Pleiades, the seven sisters, which while not listed as a constellation is certainly a well known formation in the sky. Knowing it was going to be hard to pick, I covered Perseus under “F” for “flying horse.” We could explore Pisces, which is one of the Zodiac constellations, but instead I’m going to go to Perseus. We’re already met Perseus, who saved and then married the lovely Andromeda after he’d beheaded the horrific Medusa. But there’s a lot more to his story.
Perseus is the son of Jupiter (you know, the god who had a thing for beautiful mortal women). His mother was the beautiful Danae, who lived in Argos that was ruled by her father, Acrisius. His was a dysfunctional family if there ever was one. He was afraid that his daughter was going to kill his son, so he locked her up in a tower, not allowing her to marry. But Jupiter, being a god, wasn’t deterred by a tower. From their union came Perseus. Acrisius then cast his daughter and grandson out to sea in a chest. With the gods watching over them, they ended up on the island of Seriphos.
While Perseus was away, the wife of Polydectes, the island’s chief, died. He set his eyes on Danae, but she didn’t love him. In retaliation, he made her his slave. Of course, this didn’t please her son, Perseus, who was ready to kill Polydectes. But instead of killing him, he acted on a dream and the aide of gods and went off to kill Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters. Mercury had loaned him his flying shoes and Minerva loaned him a sword and a bright shield that she suggested he use to look at Medusa, for to look at her head would mean certain death. On the way to find the Gorgons, Perseus stopped by Atlas who was tired of holding up the earth. Atlas gave Perseus a special helmet that allowed him to be invisible, asking Perseus to stop by and show him Medusa’s head when he was done. Perseus cut off the head of Medusa, stopped by and showed it to Atlas (who turned to stone and became a mountain in Africa). As he was making his way home, he saved Andromeda. When he finally got back home, seven years later, there was a banquet where he displayed Medusa, turning the chieftain and his guests into stone.
Perseus is best seen in the autumn sky as he leads his wife, Andromeda, up into the sky. He is just above the Pleiades (the seven sisters). The constellation has a number of interesting stars including Algol, a binary star that significantly changes in magnitude every 69 hours (as one star crosses in front of the other). In the ancient world, this star which would be in Medusa’s head was seen as the winking eye of the beast.
Late at night in mid-August is the Perseids meteors (which I wrote about under the letter M for “meteor”).