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Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer
 
 
Ophiuchus is a large constellation just to the east of Scorpius that hosts the Sun for a substantial part of the year, hence the claim it is the thirteenth sign of the zodiac.  But the ancients who created this figure never associated him with the path of the Sun, only with a giant figure in the sky.  The name we use today for this constellation is Greek in origin.   He is depicted in the sky holding a great snake, which is split into two parts that we know as the constellation of Serpens (Serpens Kaput, the head of the snake, and Serpens Cauda, the tail).

In ancient Greek mythology he represents Aesculapius, the first great surgeon (it was claimed that Hippocrates was a direct descendant of his).  Aesculapius was the son of the god Apollo and the mortal woman Coronis.  Just before he was born Coronis decided to marry a mortal and in a jealous rage Apollo killed her and her lover but took the babe and gave him to Chiron the Centaur to raise.  Chiron taught him medicine and healing and he became well known as a great physician.  Aesculapius voyaged with the Argo as their doctor but he became even more famous when he discovered a way to bring people back from the dead.  After killing a snake, he watched as the snake's mate came forth from the bushes and feed the dead snake a herb, which then revived it.  Quickly Aesculapius snatched a piece of this herb and so gained the power to restore life to the dead.  He was so successful with the herb that Hades complained to Zeus he was being cheated of the dead and his underworld in ruins because of this. Zeus sent an eagle with a thunderbolt (represented by nearby Aquila in the sky) to strike Aesculapius down, but then placed him in the sky so his knowledge of healing wouldn't be lost.  Snakes were connected to healing as they shed their skin once a year and so seemed to be re-born. 


An excerpt from Johan van Keulen's Boeck zee-kaardt, 1709.
Ophiuchus is depicted holding a giant snake, which is known
seperately as Serpens.  We can clearly see that the ecliptic runs
through part of Ophiuchus, between Scorpius and Sagittarius.
  The picture is shown as if the observer was
looking down towards earth, rather than as we view looking up and outwards.

The brightest star in Ophiuchus has the proper name of Rasalhague, which is a corruption of the Arabic name for the Head of the Serpent Charmer.  It lies at the northern tip of the constellation.  Delta (d) and epsilon (e) Ophiuchi lie together on the western side of the constellation, marking one of the giant's hands that is holding Serpens.  Yed Prior, delta, means the Forward Hand and Yed Posterior, epsilon, is the Behind Hand.  Lambda (l) Ophiuchi is called Marfic, the Elbow.  Despite his large size and easily seen shape Ophiuchus does not have many named stars (a similar circumstance to Centaurus)

The supernova of 1604 was located within Ophiuchus, near the star xi (x) Ophiuchi.  Mars and Jupiter were nearby in conjuction with each other, so the supernova's appearance was quickly noted.  Word was passed to Johannes Kepler, who finally saw the exploding star a week later when a cloudy spell passed.  Kepler studied the star closely, which was similar to the supernova seen by Tycho Brahe in 1572, and the star was often called Kepler's Star in his honour.  It peaked at magnitude -2.25, similar to that of Jupiter, and was visible to the naked eye for another 18 months. It was fourth and last supernova to be seen within our own galaxy during the last millenium, the previous three being the supernova of 1006 in Lupus, which was recorded by Chinese astronomers, the widely seen supernova of 1054 which spawned the Crab Nebula in Taurus, and the aforementioned supernova seen by Tycho Brahe.  The one seen in 1987 was in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way and though seen with the naked eye it never reached the brilliancy that a more local supernova can reach.

Another famous star in Ophiuchus is Barnard's Star, named after the sharp-eyed American astronomer E. E. Barnard, who discovered it's nature by studying photgraphic plates.  It is the second closest star to the Sun that we know, only 6 light years away, and has the largest proper motion of any star in the sky.  This means it is changing it's position very rapidly, covering the apparent diameter of the moon every 180 years.  We can see it move an appreciable distance in our own lifetimes!  You will need a telescope to see this star, as it is a red dwarf star that shines at only magnitude 9.5 
 
 

This article is ©2001 Stargazers Astronomy Shop

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