Romance in the night sky
Most definitely love is in the air this time of year, especially in the night air under a starry sky, even if your starry skies are partially obscured by city lights. Take that special someone you love for a stroll under the celestial sea. It can be very romantic, provided you’re bundled up, but hopefully the love between you will also heat up the night.
I want to share with you the best love story I know of in the Marshall night sky. It’s the sappy saga of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia and their never-ending celestial romance. Cassiopeia is one of the brightest constellations in the night sky, and this time of year it’s easy to spot. Just look for the diagonally hanging “W” or “M” arrangement of stars in the northwestern sky. Cassiopeia’s stars are as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper. Cepheus the King is a little more challenging to find, but unless you’re blitzed with urban light pollution you should be able to see it. Just look below Cassiopeia for five stars that outline a house with a steep roof leaning slightly to the right (nothing to do with its politics). The star at the apex of the roof is fairly close to Polaris the North Star.
This story certainly doesn’t start out as a love story, but hang in there. Love is on the way! According to Greek legend, Cassiopeia and her husband King Cepheus were the royalty that ruled ancient Ethiopia. King Cepheus was a mellow dude who liked a good time. He loved to go fishing and hunting with his buddies and hang out at the bars. He just enjoyed life.
Queen Cassiopeia was anything but mellow. She was a totally self-absorbed, type “A” tyrant who single handedly ran the kingdom with an iron fist! She was also a very beautiful woman with a very high opinion of herself. In fact, whenever I gaze on Cassiopeia in the heavens I think of the old Carly Simon song, “You’re so Vain.” She was also just like the queen in Snow White who did the “mirror, mirror on the wall” thing. She unashamedly paraded along the streets, boasting of her beauty to peasants and the elite alike. She would belt out, “I am the most beautiful woman in the world!” over and over again. Everyone, of course, had to bow in adoration or wind up with their head chopped off! Cassiopeia’s ego grew exponentially until she became impossible to live with. Maybe that’s why her husband King Cepheus hung out with his buddies and didn’t spend much time in the royal court. Despite her despicable personality, Cepheus still loved his wife very much, believe it or not.
One day when Cassiopeia was walking along the seashore and her opinion of herself was going off the scale, she got herself and the kingdom in a real mess. She impulsively blurted out at Poseidon, the god of sea, that she was more beautiful than Poseidon’s wife and all 10 of his daughters put together. Poseidon, like a lot of the gods in Greek mythology, was very thin-skinned and went nuts when he heard this. He drudged up a giant sea monster and sent it on a mission to destroy the entire kingdom of Ethiopia. This was the closest thing at the time to a nuclear bomb!
Cassiopeia dodged this bullet by offering to sacrifice her daughter Princess Andromeda to the sea monster in order to pacify him and spare the kingdom. Nice mom! As it turned out, the Greek hero Perseus rescued Andromeda and killed the giant sea monster, but that’s a story for another day.
Despite this close call Cassiopeia didn’t learn her lesson. She doubled down on her vanity and one day she really went over the top. Early one morning she shook her fist in the direction of Mount Olympus, home of the hierarchy of the Greek gods and goddesses, and screamed at the top of her royal lungs that she was even more beautiful than Hera, the queen of the gods. Hera possessed an ego on strong steroids that made Cassiopeia’s ego look like kid’s stuff! Hera was enraged and shot down from Mount Olympus. The you-know-what hit the fan! Hera got right into Cassiopeia’s face with her piercing green eyes and confronted her. Violently waving her finger, Hera asked Cassiopeia if she really, really thought that she had better looks than Hera’s godly self. Cassiopeia was not intimidated. She repeated her claim even louder into Hera’s face.
This verbal skirmish quickly turned to physical violence. Hera grabbed some rope and tied up Cassiopeia in her throne. She then launched Cassiopeia, throne and all, so high into the sky that she got stuck in the stars, hanging nearly upside down but held in by the ropes. Hera then belted back to a shocked and stunned Cassiopeia, “So you think you’re so beautiful? Now you show the entire world how beautiful you think you are for all eternity.” We can see Cassiopeia still tied up in her throne against her will to this day.
Now finally, here’s the love angle of this long tale. Cepheus came home after a day of chariot racing with his buddies. When he arrived home at the castle his aides informed him of his wife’s fate. Cepheus went crazy with grief. He was heartsick at the prospect of going through the rest of his life without his beloved queen, bloated ego and all. Cepheus called out to Mount Olympus to his fishing buddy Zeus, who also happened to be the king of the gods. He begged Zeus to send him up to the stars to be with his wife and share her celestial exile. As much as Zeus wanted to help Cepheus, he was afraid of ticking off his wife Hera. Do you blame him?
Cepheus, though, wouldn’t let up on the king of the gods. The tears flooded out of his eyes and he started to scream like a baby. Zeus couldn’t take it anymore and flung his friend with pinpoint precision up to the stars, landing right next to his wife. Despite their predicament the love between them exploded. To this night they’re still clinging to each other in the stars, more in love than ever.
Make sure you cling to the one you love!
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.