What a dirty trick!
Old Zeus couldn’t get the girl, so he had to create a complicated ruse to possess her. In Roman poet Ovid’s book, Metamorphoses, Zeus’s subterfuge is described:
“Majesty and love go ill together, nor can they long share one abode. Abandoning the dignity of his sceptre, the father and ruler of the gods, whose hand wields the flaming three-forked bolt, whose nod shakes the universe, adopted the guise of a bull . . . and ambled in the tender grass, a fair sight to see. His hide was white as untrodden snow, snow not yet melted by the rainy south wind. The muscles stood out on his neck, and deep folds of skin hung along his flanks. His horns were small, it is true, but so beautifully made that you would swear they were the work of an artist, more polished and shining than any jewel. There was no menace in the set of his head or in his eyes; he looked completely placid.”
With this guise, Zeus won the trust of his desired Phoenician princess, Europa, who was picking flowers in a field. The bull knelt down and Europa mounted him. Once she was on his back, the bull sprang to its feet and took off, running, then swimming through the Mediterranean Sea and finally coming ashore on the island of Crete. Zeus then made himself known to Europa and she grudgingly became his mistress.
The bull in question is no other than Taurus, immortalized forever in the sky as a constellation. Winter is the time to see this assemblage of stars in the heavens. There are a few ways to find the mighty bull’s v-shaped star cluster. Look to the southeast to see Taurus charging through the sky.
If you can find Orion, follow his belt like an arrow to the right. It will lead you to the 14th brightest star in the sky, called Aldebaran, which is the bull’s eye, both literally and figuratively. The word Aldebaran comes from an Arabic word meaning follower. This describes the star’s position, which seems to be ‘following’ a group of stars known as the Pleiades (also called the Seven Sisters), found in the shoulder of Taurus.
The constellation Taurus contains a lot of notable stars and collections of stars. The Hyades star cluster is found in the face of the beast, above its nose. The Crab Nebula is at the tip of the bottom horn; and El Nath, a bright star, is at the tip of the other horn. And this beast is also the center of attention once each year for another reason: the annual Taurid meteor shower takes place in November and seems to emerge from this star cluster.
Finding the bull in the sky puts you in good and ancient company. The identification of this constellation goes way back, perhaps to 15,000 B.C. Cave paintings during the Bronze Age show its starry image. Throughout history, the bull has been a sign of strength and fertility, for obvious reasons, from the Minoans to the Egyptians to the Romans and, even now, in modern times.
Today’s astronomers may be more interested in what they can learn about the way the universe works by studying Taurus, compared to our ancestors, who were more interested in the stories that could be told about it. But the fascination is the same. Taking the bull by the horns, they’ve all equally tried to describe the relationship of this great, charging celestial creature to our earthbound lives.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.