The wiley rabbit of winter
The night sky is a grab bag of constellations of all shapes and sizes, with civilizations all around the world adding their own spin on the patterns of the night sky. Over 80 years ago, astronomers all around the world got together and decided on a standard set of 88 constellations to avoid confusion. Here around southwestern Minnesota we can see about three quarters of them through the course of the year. To view the ones we can’t usually see we have to travel south to overcome the effects of the curvature of the Earth. Most of the names and best known tales about constellations have roots in Greek and Roman mythology around the world, especially in the Western Hemisphere.
At least once a month in this column I like to feature a particular constellation. Most of the time I put the spotlight, or should I say the night light, on one of the major constellations like Orion, Gemini, or Ursa Major the Big Bear, but I also want you to get to know some of the less familiar known deep constellations.
Despite the less than friendly climate, most clear winter nights you’ll be rewarded by bright stars and constellations. The best of them are in what’s called the winter oval or the winter hexagon. My name for it is “Orion and His Gang” because the constellations that surround the great hunter with his star studded belt are nearly as dazzling as Orion himself. The major players are Gemini the Twins, Auriga the Chariot Driver, Taurus the Bull, and Canis Major and Minor, the big and little dogs of the winter heavens.
One of the minor players in Orion’s gang is literally underfoot of the great celestial hunter, Lepus the Rabbit. As you can see in the diagram it’s a real stretch to make this disjointed collection of faint stars into a heavenly hare. If you’re ever out stargazing with me and you can honestly tell me you see a bunny below Orion’s feet in the southwestern sky, I want to party with you!
You can see about one or two of the faint stars than make up Lepus in urban or suburban lit skies, but to really see it you have to be out in the countryside, and even then it’s a stretch of your eyesight and especially your imagination to see the celestial rabbit. One thing is for sure, though, whoever came up with the name Lepus (pronounced Leepus) for the celestial rabbit had a sense of humor.
In mythology, Lepus the Rabbit is a fun little story. It reminds me of the classic Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd cartoons. Just like Elmer, Orion was a pretty good hunter. Orion could hunt down any beast on his island, no matter how large or ferocious they were. But, just like Elmer Fudd, there was one beast that constantly eluded the mighty hermit hunter and actually took great pleasure in harassing him. It’s Orion’s version of Bugs Bunny, Lepus the Rabbit.
Not only was Lepus a normal pesky rabbit that ravaged Orion’s garden, he would constantly taunt and tease Orion during his hunting adventures, jumping on his head, or biting the mighty hunter in the butt just as he was about to launch a spear at a wild boar. Lepus also liked to leave little round souvenirs on the floors and countertops of Orion’s kitchen. He grew to hate the nasty little hare, but just like Bugs Bunny, Lepus was just too clever and fast to get caught but Orion was determined!
Orion never got to realize his dream of eliminating Lepus because Orion himself was done in by Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Zeus found out that Orion was fooling around with his daughter Artemis, the goddess of the moon. Actually it was Artemis who pursued Orion as she deserted her task of guiding the moon across the night sky. It was her duty to guide a team of flying horses that towed a giant flatbed chariot with the moon strapped on to it. She kept seeing this nocturnal hunk of a hunter pursuing his prey night after night and had to meet him. So on a nightly basis she halted her horses in mid-flight so she could have her clandestine meeting with Orion. Artemis enjoyed her nightly hunting adventures and let’s just say they were having quite a time!
Zeus did not approve of his daughter fooling around with this mortal rough neck hunter and put out a hit on Orion. He sent a giant scorpion who attacked Orion during his daytime slumber. There was a tumultuous battle between the combatants, but alas, the giant scorpion fatally bit Artemis’s lover.
When Artemis discovered her dead boyfriend, she lifted his body into the heavens and magically transfigured it into the constellation we see in the winter heavens. She wanted to be able to see him every night as she guided the moon across the sky. She also placed his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor up there with him, along with, yes, that pesky rabbit Lepus tormenting him even in death!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net. Contact Mike Lynch at email@example.com.