Without a doubt you can't help but be wowed by all of the bright winter constellations rising in the southeastern sky. Orion and his gang of winter star patterns are in firm control of the evening sky and I promise to write more about them in the coming weeks. However I do have a little unfinished business concerning one of the autumn constellations still hanging high in the western sky. The constellation Aries the Ram is a small and quite honestly not all that impressive example of the 66 or so constellations seen from around here, but despite that I've always had a soft celestial spot in my heart for the diminutive Aries.
Locating Aries in the early evening December sky is a bit of a challenge, but what helps is that it's in the very high southeast sky near the overhead zenith. In that same general area of the sky you'll see a bunch of bright stars in a tight, bright, little cluster that kind of looks like a tiny Big Dipper. That's the famous Pleiades star cluster. A family of very young stars well over 2300 trillion miles away! Anyway, 20 degrees or about two fist-widths at arm's length to the right of the Pleiades, you'll find Aries, the little ram.
The actual constellation Aries is made up of is two moderately bright stars and a dim star, and looks like the horn of a ram or the horn on the side of a Minnesota Vikings helmet. The two brighter stars are Hamel and Sheratan, and the dimmer star off to the lower right is Mesarthim. Hamel is a giant star in our Milky Way galaxy, over 850 trillion miles or 66 light-years away from Earth. It's 37 times larger than our own sun and over 426 times as bright.
Even though Aries the Ram is a tiny constellation it has a big story. Aries used to be the backdrop constellation the sun was in when it crossed into the northern sky. This happened on the first day of spring around March 21st, called the Vernal Equinox. Because of the wobble in the Earth's axis, the constellation Aries is no longer in the background during the equinox. It's been replaced by the constellation Pisces the Fish.
The Greek mythological story of Aries the Ram is a sweet one. It kind of reminds me of the old Lassie TV show. Zeus, the king of the gods, had a pet ram that he named Aries. He was a grand ram with a coat made of golden fleece. Aries also had wings so he could soar in the skies above Mount Olympus.
One day Zeus and one of his many girlfriends were having a picnic in a lush valley at the foot of Olympus when out of the distance he could hear Apollo, the god of the sun, shouting at him from high in the sky. The god of the sun noticed that two small children about 10 miles away were about to be eaten by a lion. The kids had slipped away from their mother at a market place and were in some nearby brush, about to become lion lunch. Zeus was in a good mood that day and he knew that his pet ram loved kids. So Zeus pointed Aries in the right direction and sent him flying off on a rescue mission.
The lion was within 20 feet of bagging the kids when out of the blue Aries swooped from the sky like a cruise missile. He scooped the children up on his back and flew them off to safety. Aries winged his way back to the local market place and reunited the kids with their greatly relieved mother.
One of the Aries most notable missions was his rescue of Phrixus, son of King Athamus of Boetia. King Athamus was married to Ino. Phrixus and his sister Helle were Athamus's children from a previous marriage and Ino resented them. She thought that they were just "in the way" so the evil stepmother set upon a scheme to do them in. The corn crop in Boetia was failing that year and mass starvation was lurking for the kingdom. Ino took advantage of this and connived with a crooked oracle to convince Athamus that the only way to appease the gods and rescue the crops was to sacrifice Phrixus and Helle.
Athamus was heartsick about sacrificing his own flesh and blood but he had no choice. Word got to Zeus about Ino's evil plan and just before Phrixus and Helle were about to be burned on an altar Aries swooped in to rescue the kids and fly them to safety in the land of Colchis. Tragically, through, Helle fell out of Aries saddle and met her demise. Phrixus was in deep grief about losing his sister but grateful to Aries and Zeus for saving his skin.
All the rest of his life Aries went on missions of mercy and rescue and when he died, Zeus rewarded Aries for his bravery and placed his body into the heavens to become the constellation we see today. The little ram did a lot of good!
Diagram of the constellation Aries...Click