Whatever time of year it is, it’s fun to sit outside and gaze at the constellations. Especially fun for the lucky ones that don’t live in the Land of Light Pollution like I do. The night sky is a remarkable, romantic, and wonderful show.
For thousands of years people have looked up at the stars. The ancients gazed up at the night sky and saw their Gods. Astronomers examine the heavens cataloging suns, comets, planets, and galaxys. Children are taught about the constellations and the stories behind them. Stars and constellations change with the seasons.
In winter, one such popular constellation in the night sky is Orion. You can’t mistake Orion’s belt; 3 perfectly aligned stars in a row. Accompanying Orion is his two dogs. Canis Major (Greater Dog) and Canis Minor (Lesser Dog).
Canis Major is easily found because of bright Sirius and its location near Orion. Canis Major sits to the lower left of the form of Orion. Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky. No other star outshines it. Sirius is about 9 light years away making it the nearest star visible from Canada and the United States.
Did you know that Sirius is actually a double star? The visible star is known as Sirius A. It has a faint whitish companion star called Sirius B, or affectionately “the Pup”. This small companion star orbits it’s parent every fify years.
Canis Minor lies a short distance away from the bright shoulder stars in Orion. Another way to find it is by looking beside the twins of Gemini. Only two stars will make the constellation stick out, both of them are relatively bright.
Mythology around these two dogs differ according to culture. It was once believed that Canis Major represented Laelaps, a dog so swift that no prey could outrun it. Near Athens, a vicious fox was ravaging the countryside. The fox was so swift of foot that it was destined never to be caught. Since Laelaps was the hound destined to catch whatever it pursued, he was brought in to hunt down the fox. Imagine the inescapable dog in pursuit of the uncatchable fox. As the chase went on and on and on, Zeus realized that there could be no resolution. So Zeus turned them both to stone, and the dog he placed in the sky as Canis Major…without the fox. Obviously a bit of favoritism going on here but who am I to argue with the Gods.
Canis Minor is usually identified as one of the dogs of Orion. But in one legend, the constellation represents Maera, dog of Icarius, the man whom the god Dionysus first taught to make wine. When Icarius gave his wine to some shepherds for tasting, they rapidly became drunk. Suspecting that Icarius had poisoned them, they killed him. Maera ran howling to Icarius’s daughter and led her to her father’s body. In grief, both the daughter and the dog took their own lives where Icarius lay. Zeus placed their images among the stars as a reminder to all men the perils of overindulgence.
The most popular legend involves Orion and his two dogs. Orion fell in love with a beautiful woman with a suspicious father. The father promised Orion his daughters hand in marriage but only if he successfully completed a few “tasks”. For Orion and his dogs, these few tasks became more and more tasks when finally, Orion gave up and left in disgust. And with a broken heart.
His heart was finally mended when he met Artemis, the huntress daughter of Zeus. Upon finally meeting his soul-mate, Orion burst out “I am so happy I could kill every beast on Earth!”
Well that didn’t go too well with Mother Earth. That night while Artemis was carrying the moon through the sky with Orion wistfully watching with love-struck eyes, Mother Earth sent a scorpion that stung the mighty hunter on his foot, killing Orion instantly.
To ease his daughter’s despair, Zeus picked up Orion’s body and placed it in the sky. So he would never be lonely, Zeus placed Orion’s loyal hunting dogs with him in the sky and called them Canis Major and Canis Minor.
Even the Gods of Olympus knew that the heavens would not be complete without our loving and faithful dogs beside us. And with one more important lesson:
It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.