Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A terrific time of year to view the crucial constellation of Aries, the Ram

This is a terrific time of year to view Aries the Ram in the dark hours before midnight, and with the  waning moon rising at 3:25 am (and later as the days go on), the sky is currently giving us the perfect levels of darkness needed to make out the fainter stars in this crucially-important constellation.

Aries may not be a very familiar constellation, because it does not really "leap out" at the casual observer of the night sky.  Most of the stars of Aries are very faint, but it does have two bright stars, and they are very easy to find at this time of year.  In his indispensable book The Stars: A New Way to See Them, the beloved author H.A. Rey explains how:
RAM (ARIES):  This constellation is rather inconspicuous and would be less famous if it were not in the zodiac.  Its two brightest stars, in the Ram's head, can be spotted easily halfway between the Pleiades and the Great Square of Pegasus.  42.
So, to find the Ram, the two landmarks that H.A. Rey gives us are the Pleiades and the Great Square of Pegasus.  Both have been discussed previously in this blog (see discussion below), and both are very easy to find, especially this time of year, when Taurus the Bull along with the Pleiades are prominent in the eastern sky after the sun goes down in the "prime-time" viewing hours before midnight, and the Great Square of Pegasus is almost directly overhead between 10pm and midnight (and climbing pretty close to directly overhead in the hours before that).   

To find the Pleiades, you can use the brilliant constellation of Perseus (use the diagrams in previous blog posts here and here), as well as the constellation Taurus (see the diagram in the second of those two Perseus links).

To find the Great Square, see the diagrams in these two previous posts: "The Great Square of Pegasus (and more evidence for ancient contact across the oceans)" and "Aquarius."

Once you have located those two landmarks (Pleiades and Great Square), you will be able to easily locate the two brightest stars of Aries halfway between the silvery cloud of the Pleiades and the unmistakable Square of Pegasus.  Those two stars make up the head of the Ram.  

In the diagram above,  the size of the dot indicates the brightness of the star.  The two largest dots in the chart of Aries are marked with the Greek letters alpha and beta, and their names are shown as Hamal and Sheratan, respectively.

From here, you may be able to trace out the rest of the Ram, especially if you have a nice dark sky.  The constellation stretches from the triangular head down towards the Pleiades, where the Ram's little tail sticks up towards the upper foot of Perseus.  In fact, locating the upper foot of Perseus is helpful in pointing towards the lower (faint) stars which make up the hind part of the constellation Aries the Ram. You can see both of the feet of Perseus coming into the diagram above from the top-left quadrant of the chart.  The "upper" foot is to the right in that chart, and the "lower" foot is to the left.  

I am calling them "upper" and "lower" here because if you go looking for Aries in the hours before midnight, the foot on the right in this chart will be higher in the sky and the foot on the left as you look at this chart will be lower in the sky, closer to the eastern horizon.

Below is a chart without the outlines of H.A. Rey, oriented with the Ram rising up towards the zenith head-first, as he will appear in the hours before midnight.  Note that the feet of Perseus are now "upper" and "lower" (all descriptions here are northern-hemisphere-centric, with apologies to my brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere).

(mobile users please keep scrolling down for the rest of the post)

Note that there is one more very recognizable landmark near Aries, and that is the constellation marked "Triangulum" on the charts, located above the shoulder of the Ram (or to the upper left of the shoulder, when Aries is rising through his upward arc across the eastern part of the sky).  This constellation is very easy to find and can also help you to trace out the rest of Aries, using the charts above.

In spite of the fact that Aries is not extremely easy to trace out in the night sky, doing so is very satisfying, both in its own right and because (as H.A. Rey hints in the passage cited above) Aries is actually an exceedingly important constellation.  For Aries is a member of the zodiac -- those constellations occupying the band of the ecliptic, through which the sun appears to pass as we rotate on our axis -- and not just any member of the zodiac, either.  Aries is from ancient times the acknowledged leader of the zodiac band, the first of the twelve constellations who encircle the heavens along the same burning path traced out by the sun during the day.

For this reason, Aries the Ram figures prominently in almost every sacred tradition of the ancient world.    The connections are too many to mention here -- only a few examples from Hamlet's Mill will be cited to give an idea of the importance of this leader of the zodiac.  The authors of Hamlet's Mill assert on page 318, for instance, that the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts in Greek myth, in their search for the Golden Fleece, was "undertaken in all probability to introduce the Age of Aries" (when the inexorable motion of precession brought the heliacal rising on the March equinox into the house of Aries after an age in the house of Taurus).

They also note that Heimdal of Norse myth is in some way associated with Aries, pointing out that:
Grimm rightly says that it is worthy of remark that Hallinskidi and Heimdal are quoted among the names of the ram.  Heimdal is the "watcher" of the much-trodden Bridge of the gods which finally breaks down at Ragnarok; his "head" measures the crossroads of ecliptic and equator at the vernal equinox in Aries, a constellation which is called "head" also by Cleomedes, and countelss astromedical illustrations show the Ram ruling the head (Pisces the feet).  158-159.
In this important passage, we see that the "gateway to heaven" (which Heimdal guards, Asgard in this case being a type of heaven) is associated with the head and with Aries, and (as the authors of Hamlet's Mill point out), Aries is associated with the head.  You can read more about this important subject, and see a diagram in which the zodiac constellations are paired with their associated part of the human body, in this previous post.  It is also worth noting that Heimdal is described as the "son of nine mothers," and we have just seen that the constellation of Aries rises up from a point just above the stars of the Pleiades.

For much more on the importance of the constellation Aries, the interested reader is encouraged to view the numerous enlightening videos of Santos Bonacci, who explores the subject in great detail. 

For all these reasons, it is well worth the effort to get out and view Aries in person at this time of year, if at all possible.  It is a constellation of ancient and enduring significance.