Ophiuchus … and You
Hygiene, panacea, snake charmer, snake oil, caduceus, Hippocratic oath,and herbal medicine. No, I’m not about to give a covid-19 update. My topic is the one constellation associated with all of the terms above. In Islamic and later Roman mythology, he is Ophiuchus, the Snake Bearer. Perhaps he has such a wide range of associations because he is identified with a second persona, the Greek Asclepius, the Healer.
Credit: Johann Elert Bode. Public Domain
Ophiuchus is a collection of moderately bright stars taking up most of the space between Hercules above and Scorpius below – reasons why it can be easily overlooked. It is depicted as a human figure with head and shoulders, and … well let’s have Eudoxus, one of the most important mathematicians of antiquity, describe him:.
… brightly set beneath his head appear his gleaming shoulders. They would be clear to mark even at the mid month moon, but his hands are not at all so bright; for faint runs the gleam of stars along on this side and on that. Yet they too can be seen, for they are not feeble. Both firmly clutch the Serpent, which encircles the waist of Ophiuchus, but he, steadfast with both his feet well set, tramples a huge monster, even the Scorpion, standing upright on his eye and breast.
In the chart below, the head of Hercules [remember that Herc is upside down], obstructs a fine triangle of head and sloping shoulders, beta and kappa, within the bounds of the constellation. Oph's arms are low-slung, after all, they are bearing this behemoth of a snake. [See projects below.] Scorpius is below right, and Sagittarius and its Teapot, below left.
Credit: Orthogaffe at fr.wikipedia. GNU Free Documentation License.
Asclepius, the Healer, had an encounter with a snake. He observed one snake using herbs to revive an injured snake. The myth tells us that the Healer used those same herbs to bring the son of King Minos back from a death by drowning. Snakes are seemingly reborn every year when they crawl out of their old skin. When magic elixirs sold by medicine men failed to produce results, they were termed snake oil; however, the rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains to this day a symbol of medicine, the caduceus.
The descendants of the Healer are noteworthy as well. Asclepius had five daughters: Hygieia (“Hygiene,” the goddess of cleanliness), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process ), Aegle (the goddess of good health), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy).
… and You 1. The brightest star in Ophiuchus is alpha, called Rasalhague ("head of the serpent charmer”). It is very near alpha Hercules, the red-green double star mentioned last month [link]. Find these two alphas and note their differences. How far apart are they from our perspective?
2. Ophiuchus has many star clusters which may be viewed with binoculars or the naked eye on dark nights. Use the chart below to see if you can find M9, M10, M12, and M14.
Sources: Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, Audubon Field Guide, and the Internet.