It is a great story, one that has everything: conceit, vanity, envy, brutality, monsters, and family deception. There is a bright side, though, and for some characters in the story, a happy, fairy-tale ending.
The bright side is the luminous shine of the stars. It is these stars that make up the constellations of a royal family that inhabit the fall night sky and give us this epic drama.
Look up to the heavens and you can see it playing out on the largest screen of all. When the weather cooperates and the clouds stay away, you may catch a glimpse of the regal couple, Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus.
After the Big Dipper and Orion, Cassiopeia may be the simplest constellation for even the non-astronomers to identify. This time of year, Cassiopeia looks like a great big W or a very wide M. To see her husband, King Cepheus, look northwest of her constellation for a group of five stars shaped like a triangle attached to a square. Being married to a king, and considering herself very beautiful, made Cassiopeia vain.
By declaring herself more beautiful than all of the Nereids (the sea nymphs of the ocean), she enraged Neptune, king of the seas and protector of the Nereids. In anger, he sent the sea monster Cetus to destroy the city of Cassiopeia and Cepheus. Neptune insisted that they surrender their daughter Andromeda to the sea monster Cetus to stop the destruction. They complied. Neither Cassiopeia nor Cepheus would have won any parents-of-the-year awards (any more than Neptune would for anger management skills) for giving up their daughter to her death.
In order to save the city, the parents chained daughter Andromeda to a rock to be sacrificed. Up in the sky, you can still see this part of the story. Andromeda, chained to her rock in the night sky, is frozen in time waiting for her doom in the shape of the sea serpent Cetus. Look for Andromeda as a V-shaped constellation southeast of Cassiopeia, and Cetus, safely far southeast of Andromeda in the heavens.
Queen Cassiopeia eventually (and perpetually) suffered for her vanity (and perhaps bad parenting) when placed in her heavenly home. Half of the year she remains in the sky in pain because she is chained to her throne and hangs upside-down, holding on by her toes. This fate was decreed to her by the god of the gods, Zeus, who meted out the ultimate justice. One might say that it is also a bit of revenge for Andromeda, Neptune, and the Nereid.
But the story does not end there — and neither do the scenes captured in the constellations. Cetus got no satisfaction in his attempt to devour Andromeda — and even worse was in store for him.
Andromeda’s savior was none other than Perseus, one of the ancients’ favorite heroes. He was aided by Pegasus, the winged horse that still courses through the sky adjacent to Andromeda. (You’ll probably need a star chart to make out these more difficult constellations.)
Pegasus and Andromeda share a bright star called Alpheratz, which means horse’s navel.
Perseus, a night-sky knight in shining armor, saved Andromeda by using the head of Medusa to turn Cetus to stone. Today, we can think of the Perseid meteor shower as chips falling off that stone. Not all of the images in the night sky are motionless!
So I promised a fairy-tale ending and here it is. Perseus and Andromeda were married and lived happily ever after. Rather than bound to her rock, we can view Andromeda’s constellation as bound instead to Perseus, the two of them together in the sky forever.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.