As we gather together this week, traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house or wherever to carve up that Thanksgiving turkey, be thankful that it’s you carving the bird and not the other way around. One of the 66 constellations we can see in the night sky is Aquila the Eagle. According to Greek mythology, Aquila was the favorite pet of Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Like most of the members in the hierarchy of Greek gods, let’s just say he wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy with his supreme power.
Before I continue with Aquila’s ruthless legacy, let me tell you how to find the constellation. Right now in the early evening, around 7pm, Aquila is soaring in the west-southwestern sky, about a third of the way from the horizon to the overhead zenith. The main part of Aquila resembles a sideways diamond that basically outlines the wingspan of the eagle. The faint crooked line of stars adjacent to the sideways diamond makes up the tail of the attacking eagle. Unfortunately there aren’t any real stars that make up the eagle’s head. You need to use your full imagination to see that.
The brightest star of Aquila is Altair, the highest star in the diamond marking Aquila’s heart. Altair is easy to find because it is one of three bright “Summer Triangle” stars presently hanging in the western half of the sky. Now the Summer Triangle isn’t an official constellation, but it’s stars Altair, Vega, and Deneb are the brightest stars in that part of the sky and each one of them is the brightest star in its own constellation. Altair is the moderately bright star on the lower left corner of the triangle.
Getting back to Aquila’s story…before he became Zeus’s favorite pet, the king of the gods commissioned Aquila the Eagle to seek out a servant boy for the gods of Mount Olympus, someone who would do some light housekeeping, change their sheets, and be a highly skilled bartender to the gods. So one day Aquila was swooping and came upon a shepherd named Ganymede who was tending his sheep. Aquila studied how hard and dedicated the young shepherd was and promptly plucked him away from the sheep and flew him up to Mount Olympus. At first Ganymede missed his family and his sheep, but in time the job grew on him. He became buddies with many of the gods and, being a growing boy, he sure didn’t mind being around all the beautiful goddesses!
Zeus couldn’t be more grateful to Aquila and soon the king of the gods adopted the faithful eagle as a pet. After a little training he trusted Aquila with noble duties, such as occasionally delivering Zeus’s thunderbolts to Earth. After a few short years Aquila became Zeus’s personal messenger as well as Zeus’s diabolical “hit bird”. Anytime Zeus felt it necessary to enforce or punish, he called on Aquila with his razor sharp beak to carve the violator up. The evil eagle would punish mortals and gods alike with great dispatch and no mercy.
There’s one story about how Zeus wanted to punish Prometheus, one of the old gods of the Titan family, because he gave humans the gift of fire. Zeus thought this was too great of a gift to bestow on mere mortals. Zeus was so enraged he had Prometheus chained naked to a pillar and every single day from dawn to dusk Aquila tore through his flesh and chewed up his liver. Since Prometheus was a god and immortal, his liver healed up every night, only to be pecked and chewed by the razor beak of Aquila the very next day. This went on day after day until the great Greek hero Hercules finally shot the evil eagle in the heart.
Zeus memorialized his faithful hit bird by placing his body among the stars, soaring in the heavens and reminding all not to mess with the king of the gods!!!
Diagram of Aquila...Click here