Several bird constellations are winging their way across the night sky among the more than 60 constellations we can see, and one of them is Aquila the Eagle. According to Greek mythology, Aquila was the favorite pet of Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Like most of the members in the hierarchy of Greek gods, he wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. He was a tyrant with his supreme power.
Before I continue with Zeus’ ruthless legacy, let me tell you how to find Aquila. As soon as it gets dark, you’ll see Aquila is swooping down in the low western sky. This November, the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn, huddled together above the southwest horizon, happen to lie just below and to the left of Aquila. The central part of the celestial eagle resembles a sideways diamond that, more or less, outlines the wingspan of Aquila. Unfortunately, there aren’t any real stars that make up the eagle’s head. You need to use your full imagination to see that. On the lower right side of the diamond is a faint crooked line of stars that allegedly outlines the tail of the attacking eagle.
The brightest star of Aquila is Altair, marking Aquila’s heart. Altair is easy to find because it is one of three bright stars of the “Summer Triangle.” Even though we’re in late autumn, it’s still hanging out in the western sky. The Summer Triangle isn’t an official constellation, but its stars Altair, Vega and Deneb are the brightest stars in that part of the sky, and each one of them is the brightest star in its respective constellation. Altair is the moderately bright star on the lower right corner of the triangle.
Let’s continue with Aquila’s Greek mythology story. Before he became Zeus’ favorite pet, the king of the gods commissioned Aquila the Eagle to seek out a servant for the gods of Mount Olympus. They needed someone who would tidy up the grounds, tend to the flower gardens, and mow the lawn. In his search, Aquila swooped down and came upon a shepherd named Ganymede, who was tending his sheep. Aquila studied how hard-working and dedicated the young shepherd was and promptly plucked him away from the sheep and flew him up to Mount Olympus. At first Ganymede missed his family and his sheep, but in time the job grew on him. He became buddies with many of the gods, and, being a growing boy, he sure didn’t mind being around all of the beautiful goddesses!
Zeus couldn’t be more grateful to Aquila and soon after, the king of the gods adopted the faithful eagle as a pet. After a little training, he trusted Aquila with noble duties, such as occasionally delivering Zeus’ thunderbolts to Earth. After a few short years, Aquila became Zeus’ personal messenger, as well as Zeus’ diabolical “hit bird.” Any time Zeus felt it necessary to enforce or punish, he called on Aquila with his razor-sharp beak to carve the violator up. The evil eagle would punish mortals and gods alike with great dispatch and no mercy.
There’s one story about how Zeus wanted to punish Prometheus, one of the old gods of the Titan family, because he gave humans the gift of fire. Zeus thought this was too great of a gift to bestow on mere mortals. Zeus was so enraged that he had Prometheus chained naked to a pillar, and every single day from dawn to dusk, Aquila tore through his flesh and chewed up his liver. Since Prometheus was a god and immortal, his liver healed up every night, only to be pecked and chewed again by the razor sharp beak of Aquila the very next day. This went on day after day, until the great Greek hero Hercules finally shot the evil eagle in the heart.
Zeus memorialized his faithful hit bird by placing his body among the stars, soaring in the heavens and reminding all not to mess with the king of the gods!
EARLY MORNING CELESTIAL HAPPENING: The very thin waning crescent moon is going to be passing by both the planets Venus and Mercury in the early morning twilight. Look in the low southeastern sky this coming Thursday and Friday morning. It will be great conjunction both mornings!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at [email protected]
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