The Constellation: Leo
There are two strong contenders as to which mythical lion is represented by the constellation Leo. The first is the Nemean lion which Hercules had to kill as the first of his 12 Labors. This fearsome beast terrorized the land, killing all who ventured near it. Not only was it more fierce, larger and stronger than other lions, but it also had the added advantage of possessing a skin, which was impervious to metal, stone and wood. Since Hercules could not kill the lion with any weapon, he wrestled it with his bare hands, and finally managed to strangle the animal. Seeing at once the unique protective qualities of the pelt, he removed it with one of the lion’s own claws, and thereafter wore it as a cloak. Leo was placed in the sky as a reminder of Hercules’ heroism and bravery.
The second contender is the lion featured in the poet Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Both sets of parents of this young couple considered them too young to marry and stopped them seeing each other. However, the pair made arrangements to meet secretly by a mulberry tree with white berries. When Thisbe arrived at the appointed place, a lion sprang out from some bushes and she ran away in fright. Unfortunately, her veil fluttered to the ground as she ran and the lion, bloody from its latest kill, pounced on it. A short time later Pyramus arrived, saw his beloved’s bloody veil and believed that she had been killed. Totally distraught, and unable to face life without her, he threw himself on his sword. As he lay dying, Thisbe returned, took his sword and killed herself. The blood of the tragic pair coloured the berries of the mulberry tree red, and so they remain to this day. Some suggest that Zeus placed Thisbe’s veil in the heavens as Coma Berenices.
Can you find Leo?
Once you have found Leo, you will be able to see why the ancients visualized this asterism as a lion and you will find it very easy to spot in the night sky. However, if you have never had anyone point out this constellation, looking for Leo can be very much like trying to spot a lion hiding in the grasslands of the African Savannah.
Much like any time you are looking for something new, it is usually easier to start with something you already know. In the case of the night sky, one of the most recognizable constellations is that of the Big Dipper. Look for it in the North. You can trace it’s curved handle to the four stars that make up the bowl of the dipper. The two stars that delineate the far side of the bowl are often called pointer stars. If you follow them to the North, they point right at the North Star (Polaris), which also happens to be the first star in the handle of the Little Dipper. Following the pointer stars to the South will point you right to Leo.
Another way to think about using the Big Dipper to find Leo is to think about poking holes in the bottom of the dipper. The water that falls through the holes rains on Leo.
So now you know where to start looking, but you need to know what to look for. The pointer stars of the Big Dipper point to the head of Leo, which is made up of stars the form an arc or backward question mark. The “dot” of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in the asterism. Regulus means “little king” – fitting for the constellation Leo, and is actually a double star system that can be viewed with binoculars. Regulus and the second brightest star in the backward question mark form a trapezoid with two other stars of similar brightness nearby. The brighter of the two other stars is Denebola, which means “tail of the lion,” another fitting name, as it marks Leo’s tail.