Friday, April 14, 2017

The Letter L is for "Lots" in our Heavenly Body Journey

I apologize that this is later than my other post and is probably not sufficiently proofed...  but it's out the day it was due!

We’re taking a stop today at the letter L in our A-Z Challenge.  As it was with the letter C, there are a host of constellations that begin with an L.  Three of the most well-known ones are Leo, Libra and Lyra.  Among the half dozen not well known ones is Lynx, which has no bright stars and can only be seen where the sky is truly black.  The elusive nature of the Lynx, like the wild variety of which I’ve only seen once (in Northern Ontario), made it worth a mention.

Leo the Lion, is best seen in the northern hemisphere during the Spring.  You can find it under the Big Dipper.  Look for the star Regulus, which makes up Leo’s front hip.  It is a bright star (the 20th brightest in the sky).  The shape of the other stars make out a lion.  This is an old constellation, existing in mythology long before Ptolemy created his classification of 48 constellations in the 2nd Century.  Leo is also in the Zodiac, the swath of stars in which the sun travels through the sky.  It is also from this constellation that the Leonid meteors seem to come (around November 17th each year).  Leo was one of the challenges that Hercules faced (see the Letter H).  The strong man killed the lion which is now set into the sky.

Lyra is a small constellation located in the northern sky during summer, between Hercules and Cygnus, on the edge of the Milky Way.  The star, Vega, the fourth brightest in the sky and of a blue color is located at the top of the constellation and an easy point to make out the rest of the stars (which appears to form a box of which Vega is a handle) It is often depicted as a stringed musical instrument.  According to mythology, Mercury found a shell along the banks of the Nile, which he noticed had an echo.  He decided to attach strings to it, which when plucked, created a pleasing sound.  Apollo became interested in this instrument and traded his staff (which allowed one to fly) for it.  Apollos then passed the instrument on to his son, Orpheus.  Orpheus married Eurydice, but she died from a snake bite. Grief stricken, Orpheus headed underground and charmed Pluto, the god of the underworld, through his music.  Pluto agreed to release his wife. The condition was that she could follow Orpheus from the underworld, but he couldn’t look back.  Like Lot’s wife, Orpheus couldn’t resist the temptation to make sure his wife was following and when glanced back, his wife was doomed to remain in Pluto’s realm.  Orpheus then traveled around, the Harry Chapin of the day,singing sad love songs.  Many women fell in love with him through his music.  They tried to seduce him, but he would have none of it.  Finally, he was killed by some of the potential lovers that he had rejected.  "If you can't love 'em, kill 'em" was their motto.  These murdering seductresses threw the lyre into river, but Jupiter sent a vulture to retrieve the instrument.  He had it placed safely in the sky.  

Libra is another constellation within the Zodiac and is seen as a set of ancient scales that is used to weighing out goods in a market place (or the scales of justice as the stars are also sometimes placed in the hand of Virgo, the goddess of justice).  Originally, these stars were seen as a part of scorpion’s claws, but was broken off from Scorpius to form this constellation.  It was through this occurred around twelves centuries before Christ, when the constellation would have been seen with the Autumnal Equinox and the scales were depicted as weighing out equal time for day and night. 

I have been collecting and checking my information from these post from a collection of books about the stars that I own along with the internet.  However, my main source is Julius D. W. Staal’s The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the Stars. The book was originally published in 1961, but the new version came out in 1988.  It is a delightful book that tells the stories of the stars (this is not the book to find the constellations, for that I would suggest one of several field guides to the stars or an “app” on a smart phone.

Although not heavenly bodies, I should mention two other “L’s”: Longitude and Latitude.  These imaginary lines that dissect our global home have a linkage to the stars.  Latitudes run east and west and in the northern hemisphere can be easily determined by the angle of height the North Star is above the horizon.  If you’re at the pole, the star would be straight overhead (90 degrees) and at the equator the star would be right on the horizon (0 degrees).  Longitude was a harder one to determine.  They run north and south (and easy way to remember is that these lines are all the same length--hence "Long" unlike latitudes in which the line becomes smaller as they approach the poles).  The solution to finding one's longitude involved science, mechanics and politics.  First of all, there wasn’t a pole and equator in which to establish a baseline.  And then there was no “North Star.”  Eventually, such a baseline was established running through Greenwich England and, once timepieces became accurate enough to maintain time, one could figure out the precise time at a particular site and compare that to the time in Greenwich to determine the correct longitude.  Dava Sobel wrote a fascinating book, titled Longitude that tells of the politics and mechanical struggles that led to the determination of one’s location.


  1. Your posts always remind me of Girl Scout camp. We learned about a lot of these constellations. I remember Leo, Libra, and Lyra.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. Lyra is a beautiful name for a constellation, or a person

  3. Just a correction for your last paragraph. Latitudes run east and west, not north and south as stated.

    I never realized that they used the North Star to calculate latitude. I thought it was always just the sun. I would assume they still have some sort of calculation depending on the tilt of the earth at the time they took the measurement. Writing this, I realize I am woefully ignorant on the physics involved.

    1. You are right! I knew that, but as I said, this post didn't go through much editing. I added the way I learned to distinguish longitude and latitude. You are also correct that the measurement from the north star isn't precisely correct, and you can also figure it by the position of the sun. Solar positioning is used to tell the correct local time which allows one to determine the longitude by comparing it to GMT

  4. I hadn't heard of Lynx either. I really only know the well known ones.

  5. Thanks to you, my celestial knowledge continues to grow.

  6. Interesting post--I'm learning more every day.

  7. "Lots" of interesting information in this post! I especially enjoyed the story about Lyra.

  8. Good one, and one I've never heard of. Thanks for this.

  9. I think it's amazing how sailors used the North star to navigate in times past. But it makes sense given you can determine latitude that way. Longitude sounds a bit more complex, though. Interesting post.

  10. Lots of good info here. :) Seems fitting that the Lynx is difficult to find/see in the sky. And I had no idea the Leonids came from the constellation Leo, but now it seems obvious hehe.

    A to Z 2017: Magical and Medicinal Herbs

  11. Good thing Jupiter hung Lyra in the sky. That instrument caused a lot of problems. I always taught latitude and longitude to my 2nd/3rd graders ~ used the "long" trick to help them remember which was which. You've certainly put a lot of work into this series. Thank you. Hoe cool you saw a lynx in Northern Ontario! I've only seen the pelts. :( Have a good one!