Serpens and Ophiuchus - Ancient Tales

Serpens and Ophiuchus - Ancient Tales
The Serpent Bearer and the Serpent are ancient Greek constellations catalogued nearly 2000 years ago by Ptolemy in his work Almagest. They're also among the 88 modern constellations, of which Serpens (the serpent) is the only one to be divided. It's split in two by the serpent bearer Ophiuchus [pronounced].

The header image shows how the two constellations were depicted in Firmamentum Sobiescianum, the celestial atlas of the renowned Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687). The snake's head, which is the western half of the constellation, is called Serpens Caput, and the tail, which is the eastern half, is Serpens Cauda.

Interestingly, Hevelius's depictions are unique among the grand atlases. If you were actually observing this pair of constellations, you'd realize that the atlas reverses what you'd see in the sky. Hevelius was one of the great astronomers of the 17th century, but he chose a rather old convention for the point of view of his star maps. He showed the sky as it would appear on a globe if the viewer were on the outside looking in. Usually, the sky is shown from the point of view of an Earthly observer.

Serpent and Serpent Bearer
To the modern eye, there are questions. Why is there a big snake in the sky? Who is the serpent bearer? And why is a rod with a snake twined around it a familiar symbol for medical institutions?

There is no definitive version of the story of the serpent and serpent bearer. The name Ophiuchus comes from the Greek for serpent bearer. The constellation, as with all of the ancient ones, has been associated with numerous traditions. For example, in a very early myth, the huge snake was guarding the Oracle of Delphi and Apollo was wrestling with it. Although it was an important site for the worship of Apollo in classical times, the oracle existed long before then. Apollo ousted the existing guardian.

However, in the best known tales Asclepius is the serpent bearer. Asclepius, son of a mortal woman and Apollo, was trained as a healer. Some myths describe Apollo as his teacher, and others say that he was taught by Chiron the Centaur, who's represented by the constellation Centaurus.

The offspring of Asclepius were also devoted to aspects of medicine, notably Hygeia his daughter and assistant. The bowl of Hygeia is a common symbol for pharmaceuticals — it's a stemmed cup with a snake twisted around it. Asclepius was closely associated with snakes, and he was depicted with a snake twined around his staff. The rod of Asclepius is a symbol that we still see today.

Snakes — then and now
Despite the rod of Asclepius and the bowl of Hygeia, modern medicine doesn't rely on snakes. Nonetheless other traditions have considered snakes in quite a different light. Snakes have had important roles in religion and in the healing arts. They represented wisdom, and they've been symbols of healing and rebirth. This probably sprang from the way they shed their skin to reveal new skin underneath, leaving them apparently rejuvenated.

Asclepius and snakes
In some versions of the stories of Asclepius, he accidentally killed a snake. Amazingly, another snake came along with a herb which it placed on the dead snake, bringing it back to life. Asclepius then searched, and having found this herb, was also able to revive the dead.

But Asclepius's success with restoring the dead to life wasn't going down well with some of the gods. Hades — the god of the underworld and Greek equivalent of Pluto — was particularly aggrieved that he was losing his subjects to this new human immortality. So he complained to Zeus.

Zeus — the Roman Jupiter — was very strict about maintaining the gap between gods and men. As the son of Apollo, Asclepius was a demigod, but the humans he was resurrecting shouldn't be immortals. Not one to issue a stern warning when violent action was an option, Zeus killed the physician with a thunderbolt. Later on, as a conciliatory gesture to the furious Apollo, Zeus put Asclepius into the sky.

At one time, Asclepius was worshipped as the god of healing. His cult spread throughout most of Greece and its colonies. In his cult, non-poisonous snakes moved unhindered in the temples where sick and injured slept.

Stars and deep-sky objects
We see objects in the sky as though they're projected onto a sphere surrounding the Earth. It's called the celestial sphere and is divided into 88 constellations with no gaps or overlaps. The stars and other objects that we see within the boundaries of a constellation are at various distances — from a few light years to billions of light years away.

Serpens and Ophiuchus are rich in interesting deep-sky objects. Click the link below the article for a tour of Serpens.

You Should Also Read:
Serpens – a Tour of the Celestial Snake
Johannes Hevelius
Milky Way - Our Galaxy

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