Leo the Lion
Leo is well known as one of the constellations of the zodiac.  He also one of the few constellations that has a easily recognisable shape and does look somewhat like a crouching lion.  The mane of the lion is marked by a distinctive curve of stars known as the sickle, which is often described as an back-to-front question mark.  In the southern hemisphere Leo can be found lying on his back in the northern sky during the autumn evenings.   The ancient arabs saw a much larger lion in this area, which reached from the present day Gemini to Libra.  He shrunk to his current form when the Zodiac was formed.  In Greek mythology Leo represented the Nemean Lion, which came down to Earth from the Moon and rampaged across the country-side until Hercules killed and skinned it as one of his Twelve Tasks.  Zeus then returned the lion to the stars.

An excerpt from Johan van Keulen's Boeck zee-kaardt, 1709.
The regal form of the Lion stands between Cancer the Crab and Virgo.
Just above is a paw of the Great Bear, Ursa Major 
and below curls the snakey length of Hydra. 

The brightest star in Leo was named by Copernicus as Regulus, which means "the little king" but on many older charts it was known as Cor Leonis, "the heart of the lion."  It has long been associated with royalty - it was one of the Four Royal Stars of ancient Persia (the others being Aldebaran, Antares and Fomalhaut).  For at least 3000 years it was thought to rule the affairs of the heavens.  It also lies right next to the Ecliptic (the path the sun and planets take through the sky) so is on ocassion occullted by the Moon.  The last series of occultations occured from June 1998 to October 1999,  the next series of occultations will run from January 2007 to May 2008.

Beta (b) Leonis is known as Denebola, which is an abbreviation of Al Dhanab al Asad, the Lion's Tail in Arabic.  It was thought by the Egyptian king Necepsos that the Sun was orginally created near this star; from this belief Leo has long been associated with the House of the Sun.  Around 2700 B.C., when Leo was most likely created in it's current shape, the summer solstice occurred while the sun was in Leo, which would have strengthened Leo's association with the Sun.

Algieba, gamma (g) Leonis, is a corruption of the Arabic Al jeb-bah, meaning the forehead.  It is near this star the famous Leonid meteor shower radiates from.  Every 33 years or so over the last couple of centuries great 'storms' of meteors have been witnessed falling from this region.  The great storm of 1833 was witnessed by many people but before this event it was thought meteors were entirely an atmospheric phenomenon (such as gas released from plants catching fire), but the spectacular display changed that thought and a new branch of astronomy was created.  High rates  were also seen in 1998, 1999 and 2001, although nothing like that last seen in 1966.  While prediction of meteor showers is a very new science high rates are also expected in 2002 and 2006.  

Lying far from the clouds of the Milky Way there are no open clusters or nebulae to be seen in Leo, but plenty of galaxies for those who enjoy the thrill of the hunt.  Two of the Milky Way's dwarf companion galaxies lie within the boundaries of Leo but they are too faint too be seen with small telescopes. 

This article is ©2001 Stargazers Astronomy Shop

Return to  Star Lore Index