During this most wonderful time of the year, I would love to be able to have you look for a constellation that has something to do with Christmas but I'm afraid I'm coming up empty. Of the 66 or so constellations available in the Minnesota and Western Wisconsin skies, not one of them really has much to do with Christmas. That's not too surprising, though, because in the Western Hemisphere the names and stories of constellations come mostly from early Greek and Roman mythology. Those folks back then didn't exactly deck their halls with boughs of holly.
There is one constellation that kind of has something to do with Christmas, but it may be a bit of a stretch. It's Taurus, the Bull. This celestial beast doesn't have a red nose like Rudolph, and as far as I know he's never guided Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve or any other night. Taurus the Bull does have a bright red eye, however, and it can guide you around the early winter sky.
The constellation Taurus the Bull is actually easy to find in the early evening. Just grab some hot chocolate or warm eggnog, head outside and gaze toward the east. Right away you'll see that there are a lot of bright stars in the eastern heavens. It's as if Clark Griswold decorated that part of the sky. You're seeing the annual rise of the winter constellations, the best and brightest of the year.
The first thing to do when you are celestial bull hunting is to look for the bright and dazzling Pleiades Star Cluster, marking the heart of Taurus. You can't miss it! Just look a little more than halfway between the eastern horizon and the overhead zenith. You'll see a bright cluster of stars, over 2400 trillion miles away, that kind of looks like a miniature Big Dipper. Most people can see six stars in the cluster with the naked eye, but if you eat a lot of carrots you might see seven little stars. Through binoculars or a small telescope the Pleiades are some really sweet eye candy. You'll also see many more stars crammed together. Astronomically the Pleiades are a group of young stars, around 100 million years old that formed out of the same embryonic hydrogen birth cloud.
Just below the Pleiades, about the width of your clenched fist held at arm's length, you'll see a distinct little arrow pointing to the right. That little arrow, or V, outlines the face of Taurus the Bull. One of the stars on the lower side of the arrow is a lot brighter than the others and has a definite reddish hue. That's Aldebaran, the angry eye of Taurus. As you can see on the diagram, if you extend the left side of the arrow with your mind's eye you'll eventually run into two other stars that mark the tip of the bull's very long and menacing horns. The higher of the two stars, Elanath, is actually part of the neighboring constellation Auriga the Chariot Driver, which will be featured in a Skywatch column next month.
The mythological tale of Taurus the Bull isn't exactly like "A Wonderful Life" or any other warm fuzzy holiday story, but rather a tale of deception.
Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus, had a reputation for being a real ladies man and did a lot of chasing. One of his pursuits was Princess Europa, the daughter of a Phoenician king. Zeus met her at many royal functions and tried repeatedly to woo Europa, but she was under whelmed.
Zeus refused to give up and resorted to trickery to lure her. He knew that she liked to raise bulls on her hobby farm. In fact, Europa won many awards riding on her prize bulls at the royal Phoenician fair every year. So Zeus got an evil idea. He would bull his way into her heart by magically changing himself into a beautiful white bull, a Trojan bull if you will. One day Zeus the bull wandered into Europa's ranch and the lovely princess was immediately taken by his beauty. She brought him into her barn complex, brushed him, fed him the finest food, and had a custom saddle made for her new favorite bull.
When the saddle was ready, Europa hopped on her prize bull. This was Zeus' big chance! What she thought would be a gentle ride turned into a terrifying ordeal. Zeus took off like a rocket with Europa hanging on for dear life. He took her all the way to the Greek island of Crete, where he revealed his true identity. You would think Europa would be disgusted by this deceit, but oddly enough she fell in love with Zeus on the spot.
They were engaged to be married and everything was going well with the happy couple. However, Zeus could not help himself. He was still a playboy at heart and after a few weeks he started chasing the girls again behind Europa's back. She eventually found out and it was all over. Even though he wasn't a bull anymore, Europa still put Zeus out to pasture.
Diagram of the Taurus...Click