With COVID-19 confining us to our homes, we’ve had the opportunity to pick up new hobbies and interests. Some of us chose to simply look up – and found an entire zoo! Today we want to talk about this brilliant menagerie in the sky, and the celestial proof of the importance of animals in history, culture, art, astronomy, and practically every aspect of our lives.
Humanity’s desire to discover, create, and assign meaning to the universe has always existed. The Northern Hemisphere has, over the centuries, been teeming with philosophers, explorers, mathematicians and astronomers who have sought to create life and culture as we know it.
A constellation is a group of stars that form a pattern that can be recognised, and is usually named after its shape or a mythological figure. While different cultures throughout the centuries and the world each have their own star stories, there are 88 constellations officially recognised today by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Of the 88 constellations, 42 are in the shape of animals. Today we want to tell you about some of our favourite ones.
The Big & Little Bear
The astronomer Ptolemy identified 48 of the official constellations all the way back in the second century. Let that sink in for a moment. We are living in the 21st century, and in the 2nd century, animals emerged from star patterns to astronomers. The skies were of the utmost importance centuries ago.
Cultures throughout the world have used the stars to navigate, both physically and in their lives. The most important star in a navigational sense is Polaris, also known as the North Star. Sailors use the North Star to navigate their ships across the seas. In Guyana today, learning to find the North Star without technology is an element in land surveying. The North Star can be found in the tail of the constellation ‘Ursa Minor’, which is Latin for ‘small bear’, and forms a very recognisable shape. The ‘Ursa Major’ (big she-bear) constellation contains the Big Dipper, another hugely important collection of stars in navigation. It is the third largest constellation in the sky.
Many cultures have independently identified this constellation as a bear with an exceptionally large tail, and while stories about the bear vary, the thread remains surprisingly the same.
Without bringing GPL into this, the darker it is where you are, the more likely you are to see complete constellations. In the ‘winter/spring’ months, even in the most-well-lit areas, you’re likely to see Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is part of the ‘Canis Major’ constellation, and is known as the ‘dog star’. The Canis Major (the ‘bigger dog’ in Latin) constellation itself is meant to represent a dog, one of the hunter Orion’s two hunting companions in the night sky, the other being ‘Canis Minor’ (the ‘smaller dog’ in Latin).
There are many stories as to how the Orion constellation ended up in the sky. The most popular one, however, is that while Orion was a great hunter, he was very pompous. One night, he bragged that he was the greatest hunter on earth, and to prove it, he would wipe out all life.
This angered Gaia, Mother Earth. It was decided that he needed some humbling, and she thought it would be ironic if he were to die by one of the smallest creatures on earth – the scorpion. Orion and the Scorpius constellation are never visible in the sky at the same time, and it is said that they continue to chase each other through the heavens for eternity.
To soften the blow of his defeat, the Gods allowed Orion’s two dogs to join him in the sky. His canine companions were fated to follow Orion through the skies. There you have it laid out every night – celestial proof of canine loyalty.
Back to earth for a second: Apart from the symbolic loyalty, Sirius has always been a boon to the survival of many cultures. For example, when the dog star Sirius appeared, ancient Romans knew that the hottest days of the year were imminent – which led to the coining of the phrase ‘dog days of summer’. Ancient Egyptians knew that the appearance of the star meant that the Nile was about to flood.
Doctor’s Note: Paws for a Cause – Guyana (“Paws”) is a local animal welfare group operating and registered in Guyana as a non-profit inc. The group works to prevent animal cruelty; to promote humane, ethical, and responsible pet ownership; to advocate for controlling the animal population via spay and neuter campaigns; to educate the public; and to assist in cases of reported animal neglect and abuse. The group’s work extends beyond dogs and cats, and includes all wildlife in Guyana. Occasionally, the group would contribute a “Paws Perspective” to the Sunday Times’ “Pet Care” column, detailing its experiences in animal welfare.
To be continued in Monday November 8, 2021 edition