By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum
The longest nights of the year are upon us, but at least we’re past the solstice and days begin lengthening again. With the addition of a new dog in our family, I find myself outdoors at night more often than previously. These walks are pleasurable for in spite of the cold, there is an amazing night sky to greet me. Even in early evening, sky-watching is worthwhile, as Orion, a constellation we see only in the winter, is peeking into view as night falls. Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky, also sparkles in the south. It makes for a lovely view!
Orion, known in historical legend as the hunter, shines in prime time during winter's long nights. It can be viewed in the east soon after nightfall. It is perhaps one of the most easily found and identified constellations we can view. Bright stars make up Orion’s three-star belt. Around the belt at similar distances are four bright stars that make up the outline of the hunter’s body. An orange star named Betelgeuse is Orion’s left shoulder, and a blue star named Rigel is brightly showing Orion’s right foot. Moving down from the belt is a small line of three stars that create the hunter’s sword, although technically the middle star is not a star but the Orion Nebula, which can be seen with binoculars as a glowing cloud of material. Sirius, the bright star to the south, is part of Canis Major, the big dog or big dipper.
Orion, the hunter, stands by other night constellations such as the river Eridanus, is accompanied by his faithful dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Together they are said to hunt celestial animals such as Lepus, the rabbit, and Taurus, the bull. There are many stories in different cultures of how Orion came to be in our night sky with his dogs. In Greek mythology, Orion was in love with Metrope, a seven sister who forms the Pleiades constellation. Unfortunately, Metrope did not return his affections. Orion’s tragic life ended when he stepped on the scorpion, Scorpius. The gods then felt badly for him and put him and his dogs in the night sky, along with animals he could continue to hunt. However, Scorpius was placed far away from Orion in the night sky so that Orion could not be hurt again. Hungarian tradition also calls him a hunter, but believes that he is the father of Hungarians. The Chinese thought the three stars were a top a man’s head. Australian aboriginals believe Orion is called Julpan, a canoe. They tell the story of two brothers who went fishing, and caught and ate a forbidden fish. Seeing this, the sun sent a waterspout that carried the two brothers and their canoe up into the sky. Native Americans from a tribe in California thought that the three stars were the footprints of the god of the flea people. This legend states that when his five wives ran away because they were itchy, three times the god of the flea people looked in the sky for them. When his footprints are seen only in the winter months, the flea people go into hiding, a time when there were no fleas. Sumerians thought the pattern was a sheep, and Betelgeuse, meaning armpit, was the armpit of the sheep.
There is more than just Orion to take a peek at in our night sky this time of year. On December 29, the thin crescent moon rises in the southeast with the planet Venus to its lower left. Our Christmas star, Sirius, rises around 7-8 p.m. and is worth looking at with binoculars, as when it’s low in the sky it twinkles in flashing colors. In early January, Uranus and Jupiter can be viewed with binoculars. These are all sights worth getting outdoors in your own back yard!
For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs.