High in the northern sky and nearly overhead at around 11 p.m. local daylight time is the zigzag row of bright stars that make up the constellation of Cassiopeia, the Queen. In terms of popularity, she probably ranks fourth among the star patterns behind the Big Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades.
Certainly her shape is easy to remember: an irregular letter “M” or “W” formed by its five brightest stars, depending on how you look at it. At this particular season, with Cassiopeia hovering high above Polaris, the North Star, the “M” shape is most recognizable. When two fainter stars are added, the seven together outline Cassiopeia’s chair or throne which was set close to the Pole of the sky. Cassiopeia and Ursa Major (the Big Bear) appear to whirl around opposite to each other from Polaris. In the fall and early winter evenings when the Queen is high, the Bear appears to be hibernating near the northern horizon. The Milky Way also runs straight through Cassiopeia. This star-rich region has long been considered a happy-hunting ground for skywatchers with binoculars and small telescopes scouting out many bright and easy to see star clusters.
Here too we also have one of the earliest examples of a soap opera, with two independent plots becoming intertwined into one. We’ve already met Cassiopeia, the Queen. Her husband was Cepheus, the King of Ethiopia, who sits to the left of Cassiopeia and is upside-down. Rather than a king, he seems to resemble a church with a steeple or perhaps an Alpine ski lodge with a steep, snow-shedding roof.
Cassiopeia inadvertently had offended the sea god Neptune by boasting that her beauty rivaled that of the Nereides (sea nymphs). Neptune answered Cassiopeia’s boasts by flooding the seacoast and sending a vicious sea monster (Cetus, in the southeast, who appears to be rising out of the southeast part of the sky) to ravage the land. To save Ethiopia, Cepheus followed the advice of the oracle of Ammon in Libya and chained his daughter, the princess Andromeda (now overhead) on the rocky shore as a sacrifice. As Cetus approached, however, Perseus appeared on the winged horse, Pegasus. He was returning from a mission to slay the Gorgon Medusa, who had snakes for hair and whose hideous gaze turned the viewer to stone. Perseus removed her severed head from his pouch and held it front of Cetus, petrifying him. So Andromeda was saved, became betrothed to Perseus and all lived happily ever after.
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