Let’s Get SIRIUS

Let’s Get SIRIUS

1/8/12- Let’s Get SIRIUS

Canis Major, as seen with the naked eye.

Canis Major, as seen with the naked eye.

The facts Are These:
  • Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, which can be viewed with the naked eye. It is 20 times brighter than our sun, but appears darker because it is 8 light years away.
  • Its name is ancient Greek for “Searing” or “Scorching”
  • When you observe it low on the horizon, it twinkles with many different colors.
  • Sirius sometimes appears around New Years Day. One famous example occurred in Egypt during  the reign of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 139.
  • Sirius is part of the constellation “Canis Major,” the Big Dog. You can observe it by looking just below the constellation Orion
  • It is actually two stars, Sirius A, a very bright star about 8 light years away, and Sirius B, a very old dim white dwarf star. Sirius B can only be seen with a telescope because it is 10,000 times fainter than Sirius A.

Western Myths about Sirius

Astronomy Plate of Canis Major created by Sidney Hall in 1825.

Astronomy Plate of Canis Major created by Sidney Hall in 1825.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, Sirius was the brightest star of the constellation Canis Major, the beloved hunting dog or Orion, son of the sea God Poseidon. When Orion died, he begged to Dianna the goddess of hunting to place him in the heavens next to the two dogs, and they continue to follow him across the night sky forever.

Before Orion obtained the dog, the hunting goddess Dianna gave it to numerous owners, including King Cephalus, who used it to chase away a vicious fox that was ravaging the countryside. However, both animals were so fast that neither could truly catch the other. This pleased the god Zeus, so he gave the dog a place in the heavens to resolve the conflict, but turned the fox to stone.

Isis, radiate, riding facing on dog Sirius running right, LKA below.Since Canis Major  sometimes appears at the start of a new year, it has become part of history:  the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, commissioned a new coin in 139 AD to commemorate Sirius appearing at the start of the new year. This coin depicts the goddess Diana riding on the back of Canis Major.

Cerberus, the guardian of the Greek underworld. Greek vase, c. 525BC

Cerberus, the guardian of the Greek underworld. Greek vase, c. 525BC

Some people view Canis major as an evil omen, which explains why JK Rowling chose to use Sirius as the name as a wanted killer in the book “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban.” Many cultures refer to Sirius as the bright, burning mouth of a fearful, black hound. Some even go so far as to call Canis Major part of the the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus. The Greek poet Aratus writes thus about the poor dog:

In his fell jaw

Flames a star above all others, with searing beams

fiercely burning, called by mortals “Sirius.”

Similar myths exist in Native American tribes such as the Blackfoot, the Pawnee tribes, and the Cherokee, who view Sirius as the path of the dead. Even the poet Homer himself feared the burning power of the Dog Star’s mouth, and called it an ill omen. This is probably why Rowling chose to give the dubious character Sirius Black such a suggestive name. To read more about the Harry Potter connection with astronomy, click here: http://www.harrypotterforseekers.com/

Eastern Myths about Sirius

The Egyptian goddess Sodpet, with the star Sirius on her head.

The Egyptian goddess Sodpet, with the star Sirius on her head.

Ancient Egyptians believed that Sirius was part of the goddess Sopdet, who helped with the flooding of the Nile River, without which Egypt would perish in drought. She carries the star on her head to signify her approach. In some versions of the story, Sodpet is a manifestation of the most powerful Egyptian female, the goddess Isis, and Orion is her husband Osiris. The temple of Isis in Dendera supports this theory with its beautiful stone zodiac, that depicts Sirius twice, as a cow with a star on its head (Sopdet or possibly Hathor), and as the companion to Osirus as he paddles down the river of the dead. For more info, please click here: http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterOne/TranslateDenderah.htm.

Here is a short tour of another temple of Isis with an interview with Egyptologist Hassen Khalil. Once again, Sirius or Isis plays a great role in the foundations of this temple:

Asian Myths of Sirius

Like many western cultures, the Chinese choose to view Sirius as part of a large canine. The Chinese name for Canis Major is “Tiānláng,” ‘celestial wolf’. As you can see in the following video, Astronomy was as important to Chinese culture as it was to the Ancient Greeks and Romans:

So there you go, here are a few insights into a star that has been interwoven into books, poems, religions, and of course, myths and legends. Later this week, I’ll talk a little about Sirius’ companion Orion, and why, in addition to being a legendary hunter, his constellation is also full of astronomical wonders!

Till next time,

Paul Rycik.

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