Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 45

Stories in the Stars by Stephen James O'Meara
Gateway to the
Underworld
Spring evenings offer us a prime view of where
the Sun crosses the celestial equator in autumn.
W
ith the Northern Hemisphere star
chart (pages 42 and 43) in hand,
go out this month in the evening and
face south. About one-third of the way
up from the horizon shines 1st-magnitude
Spica, the principal star of Virgo,
the Maiden. As you gaze at this sky-blue
stellar beauty, consider that, due to the
tilt of Earth's spin axis relative to the
plane of its orbit, we see the star south
of the celestial equator in the Hades of
the night sky - the immortal realm of
the celestial underworld.
The entry gate to this mythical place
lies about 10° (the width of a fist on
an outstretched arm) west and slightly
north of Gamma (γ) Virginis - the
point on our star chart where the teal
line of the ecliptic meets the blue line
of the celestial equator. That intersection
marks the position of the autumn
equinox - the moment when the Sun
crosses the celestial equator on its yearly
sojourn south. And while we can't
watch it happen (because that's where
the Sun is), the May night sky allows us
a prime view of its location.
Early skywatchers knew of this imaginary
point and worked it into their
mythologies. One of the richest tales
involves Demeter (the Greek goddess
of fertility, who brings forth the fruits
of the Earth) and her daughter Persephone;
her name is commonly derived
from pherein phonon, meaning " to bring
(or cause) death. "
One version of the myth begins
after Athena (the Greek goddess of
war) defeated the hundred-armed giant
Enceladus by throwing the island of Sicily
onto him. Pinned to the ground, the
giant tossed about, causing the Earth to
shake and heave so violently that Hades
(Greek god of the underworld)
worried that the
ground would crack and
bleed unwanted sunlight
into his dark domain.
Furious, he flew out of
the Earth in his chariot
drawn by four black
steeds. Just as he entered
the light, he saw beautiful
Persephone picking
lilies in a Sicilian valley.
Forgetting his anger,
Hades swooped down
from the sky and charioted Persephone
off to the netherworld, where she would
rule as his queen and bride.
When Demeter learned of Persephone's
abduction, she became miserable
and unconcerned with Earth's
fertility. As the years passed, springtime
(which once lasted forever) changed:
Flowers began to wilt, the land dried up,
and cattle died.
Just as all life seemed doomed,
Zeus intervened. He persuaded Hades
to return Persephone to her mother,
provided Persephone had not tasted any
fruits from his underground kingdom.
Hades agreed but didn't keep his word.
By feeding Persephone six pomegranate
seeds, the king of the underworld forced
Zeus into a compromise: Hades would
allow Persephone to return for spring
and summer as long as she returned
to the underworld every autumn and
winter - or one month for each seed
she had consumed.
From a Northern Hemisphere
perspective, Persephone's return to the
underworld mirrors the Sun's annual
north-south passage across the celestial
equator during the autumn equinox.
pPERSEPHONE IN PERIL This woodcut print
(circa 1590-1607) created by Italian printmaker
Giuseppe Scolari portrays Hades' abduction
of Persephone. In this rendering, we see his
horse-drawn chariot (and an unidentified driver)
plunging into a flaming crevasse that leads into
Hades' subterranean realm.
That's when the long, light-filled days
of spring and summer yield to the long,
dark nights of autumn and winter.
Now, return to the constellation
Virgo on the star chart and notice how
half of its stars lie above the celestial
equator (representing the time when
sunlight shines most directly over the
Northern Hemisphere) while the other
half are below the celestial equator
(when most sunlight falls on the Southern
Hemisphere).
Equally telling, Virgo (as Persephone)
prominently graces spring's night sky
with her presence. Her stars remain visible
until September, when they vanish
from view as Persephone returns to the
celestial underworld come autumn.
¢ Contributing Editor STEPHEN JAMES
O'MEARA has been studying the stars
and their lore for more than 50 years.
sk yand tele scope .o r g * MAY 2024 45
PUBLIC DOMAIN / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
http://skyandtelescoper.org

Sky & Telescope - May 2024

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - May 2024

Contents
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover1
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover2
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 1
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Contents
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 3
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Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover4
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