Draco: A Dragon Made of Stars in the Night Sky

Long, long ago people looked up into the night sky and connected the stars into groups, like a dot to dot puzzle, forming pictures that today we call constellations. In between the Big Dipper and Little Dipper constellations is one of the biggest constellations in the sky. It’s called Draco, which is Latin for “dragon.” But how did the dragon get there?

Golden Dragon over sky image by Josch13 on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/dragon-broncefigur-golden-dragon-238931/.
Golden Dragon over sky image by Josch13 on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/dragon-broncefigur-golden-dragon-238931/.

The ancient Greeks have a story to explain how the dragon took his place among the stars, and it involves Hercules.

You may have heard of the Labors of Hercules. (Hercules is actually his Roman name; the Greeks called him Heracles.) According to Greek mythology, Hercules stole the golden apples out of the garden of Hesperides to complete his eleventh labor. (In case you’re wondering, the Hesperides were the evening nymphs of the amber light of sunset.)

Now these golden apples weren’t just any old apples—they grew on trees in a garden given as a wedding present to Juno (or Hera, according to some versions). The Hesperides tended the garden, but Juno didn’t trust them, so she put a fierce dragon named Laden in the garden to protect the golden apples.

Hercules and the Dragon Ladon, from the workshop of Giambologna, early 17th century, photo from the Walters Art Museum at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giambologna_-_Hercules_and_the_Dragon_Ladon_-_Walters_54695.jpg.
Hercules and the Dragon Ladon, from the workshop of Giambologna, early 17th century, photo from the Walters Art Museum at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giambologna_-_Hercules_and_the_Dragon_Ladon_-_Walters_54695.jpg.

Some versions of the story say Hercules tricked Atlas (the titan ordered by Zeus to hold the sky on his shoulders) into stealing the golden apples from the garden, while other versions claim Hercules entered the garden himself, battled Laden the dragon, and killed him. Because of his loyal service, Juno then placed the dragon among the stars.

This is one explanation of how a dragon came to rest in the sky.

Another tale—this one Greco-Roman—tells of Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare) throwing the dragon Draco into the sky while they fought. Draco froze in place before he could unwind his body.

"Draco and Ursa Minor", plate 1 in Urania's Mirror, a set of celestial cards accompanied by A familiar treatise on astronomy ... by Jehoshaphat Aspin. London. Astronomical chart, 1 print on layered paper board : etching, hand-colored, Sidney Hall image from Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draco_(constellation)#/media/File:Sidney_Hall_-_Urania%27s_Mirror_-_Draco_and_Ursa_Minor.jpg of the plate available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g10050.
“Draco and Ursa Minor”, plate 1 in Urania’s Mirror, a set of celestial cards accompanied by A familiar treatise on astronomy … by Jehoshaphat Aspin. London. Astronomical chart, 1 print on layered paper board : etching, hand-colored, Sidney Hall image from Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draco_(constellation)#/media/File:Sidney_Hall_-_Urania%27s_Mirror_-_Draco_and_Ursa_Minor.jpg of the plate available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g10050.

However, not everyone sees a dragon when they look at this array of stars. The ancient Arabic people also grouped stars together in the nighttime sky. They formed a pattern called Mother Camels in the same place as Draco. In the Mother Camels asterism (very similar to a constellation), four female camels circle around a baby camel while two hyenas attack. The four mother camels are represented by the same four stars that make up the dragon’s head according to Ptolemy’s version of the Draco constellation. (Claudius Ptolemy cataloged 1022 stars and illustrated the Greek constellations in a treatise called the Almagest.)

Can you find Draco in the night sky? You can if you know where to look. First find the Big and Little Dippers. Right in between is the dragon’s tail. It winds over the top of the bucket part of the Little Dipper, then twists back up to where its head is—the part formed out of four stars in a sort-of square shape. Two of these four stars—named Rastaban and Eltanin—make up Draco’s eyes, which glare down at you in the summertime. If you can find the bright star called Vega, imagine a line going from it to the tip of the dragon’s tail by the edge of the bucket of the Big Dipper. Rastaban and Eltanin are the first stars in Draco you’ll hit.

Draco constellation mapped out by IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg), IAU Draco chart 5 June 2011 from Wikipedia at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Draco_IAU.svg.
Draco constellation mapped out by IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg), IAU Draco chart 5 June 2011 from Wikipedia at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Draco_IAU.svg.

Because Draco circles around Polaris, also known as the North Star, it can be seen year round in the northern hemisphere—called a circumpolar constellation. And if you find Draco in October, you might spy a meteor. Meteors are what you see when a small bit of debris floating through space passes through the Earth’s atmosphere and burns. Every year, the Draconid meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a lot of space debris left over from a comet that passed by Earth eons ago.

Today, Draco the dragon is still stuck in the stars, waiting for you to look up and find him sparkling in the night sky.

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