Nearly everyone knows a little something about astrology — even if it’s only where to find the daily horoscope section in the local newspaper. Whether you truly believe the stars control your destiny, think it’s all bunk, or just like to have fun with it, the 12 signs of the zodiac are part of our cultural heritage. Over the next year, the Farmers’ Almanac will introduce you to the facts and mythology behind each constellation in the traditional Western zodiac. This month, Leo.
Leo is the fifth constellation of the zodiac. Its name is the Latin word meaning “lion.”
The astrological symbol for Leo is ♌, and the constellation sits in the sky between Cancer to the west and Virgo to the east. Other nearby constellations include Leo Minor to the north, Lynx to the northeast, and Sextans and Hydra to the south.
The constellation itself consists of a sickle-shaped set of stars some describe as a “backwards question mark” connected to a large, vaguely trapezoidal shape. At the base of the sickle is Regulus, one of the brightest stars in the night sky, known as the “star of kings.” Other stars in the sickle include Al Jabbah, Algieba, Adhafera, Ras Elased Borealis, and Ras Elased Australis. Together, they represent the lion’s mane. Two straight lines comprise the lion’s body, ending in the sharp triangle of his flank to the west.
Leo is an impressive constellation to view on a clear night because it contains a number of bright galaxies, including M65, M66, M95, M96, and M105, some of the deep sky objects identified by French astronomers Charles Messier and Pierre Méchain during the 18th Century.
In Greek mythology, Leo is said to be the great Nemean lion slain by Hercules during the first of his famous 12 Labors. According to the myth, the lion was a supernatural creature with claws that could cut through any armor. It terrorized the people of Nemea for years, unhindered because its magical golden fur rendered all weapons useless. Hercules was sent to kill the beast by his cousin, King Eurystheus. Though he was expected to fail, Hercules defeated the lion and made himself a cloak and helmet from the beast’s pelt. In honor of Hercules’ victory, his father, the god Zeus, placed the shape of the lion in the night sky for all to remember.
Another myth, recounted by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, tells of the tragic lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, whose parents forbade them to marry. The pair made a secret plan to meet outside the city beside a mulberry tree with white berries. When Thisbe arrived, she became frightened by a lion, still bloody from its latest kill, and ran away. As she did, her veil slipped off and was snatched up in the lion’s paw. When Pyramus arrived, the sight of the bloody lion holding Thisbe’s veil led him to believe that that his love had been eaten. Anguished, Pyramus drew his sword and killed himself. When Thisbe discovered him, she turned the sword onto herself to join her dead lover. Their blood stained the white mulberries red, which is why all mulberries are now red. In memory of the lovers, Zeus placed Thisbe’s veil in the sky near Leo. It can be seen today as the constellation Coma Berenices. If you think you recognize this story, it may be because it was the inspiration behind WIlliam Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet.
Astrologically, the Sun resides in the house of Leo from July 23 to August 22 each year. People born during this period have Leo as their Sun sign. Proponents of astrological determinism believe that people born under the same Sun sign share certain character traits. Leo people are most often described as confident, outgoing, generous, honest, open-minded, affectionate, creative, and dramatic.