Cancer – the crab

December 17, 2017

Astronomy

Cancer is a constellation of the zodiac, which is the circle of animals defined by the yearly path of the sun. The zodiac is the oldest known method of finding ones way across the sky.

Folks figured out a long time ago that the sun travels around a seemingly changeless, be-speckled sphere. There are thirteen groups of stars on this path, depending on who’s doing the counting. The people who mattered most were beholden to twelve, and Cancer is one of those.

Unlike some constellations, the Crab is not a connect-the-dots thing, unless you are trying to draw Paul Revere’s hat. You know, the triangular one that looks like his horse stepped on it. And smack dab in the middle of the crusty crustacean is M44, the Beehive Cluster. This is one of those open door clusters where young families of stellar siblings are reared up before being cast out that door and into the wide galactic sprawl. It’s a long way from earth so to us the stars are tiny, but there are about a thousand of them so it does somewhat resemble a swarm of bees, I guess.

The interesting starlore about the Beehive comes from the European dark ages. There was a time in days of yore when some zealously pious Christians attempted to rename and re-story everything in the sky to give it a biblical spin. Leo the Lion became the one that didn’t eat Daniel, and so forth. The campaign had mixed results. Most of the pagan-ish names and stories were too well ingrained and had been for thousands of years. With the Beehive cluster they decided it would be the manger, you know, the animal’s dinner trough where the adorable baby Jesus lay all swaddled.

Actually the ancient Greeks had called it a manger first, but a regular manger, not the Christmas swaddled infant variety, so the pope figured what the hell, let’s just go with it and add a glowing omniscient baby.

Now days the holy rug-rat in your neighborhood nativity scene is probably played by an LED bulb due to fire codes. When I was young there was an incident at a local church where an incandescent manger caused a lot of damage, but in the interest of peace on earth good will towards men, we’ll let that one slide.

The Christians were in charge of pretty much every aspect of western culture in olden times, you can take that on faith, but burning a few witches and what not just wasn’t enough to get the manger moniker for M44 to totally catch on with all the everyday sinners. But get this, on either side of the Beehive cluster are bright foreground stars which the Greeks called two donkeys, and Catholics later dubbed “the ox and ass” which are the traditional barnyard critters bracketing the nativity scene even today.

Ox-Ass nativity scenes go back to the 4th century when the whole “no room at the inn” story seems to have its roots. The ecclesiastical discussion over the centuries has centered on the ox being a “clean” animal (like the Jews) and the ass being a non-clean animal (like non-Jews) and the idea that Jesus is king for both. I guess that makes me an ass, and I’m okay with that.

So here’s the thing. M44’s ox and ass idea resonated even though the manger thing didn’t! The animal names caught on even with those blasphemous heretical astronomers. So today seasoned star hoppers talk about the M44 cluster in terms of a couple of beasts of burden guarding a swarm of buzzing insects on the back of a giant crab. That’s freakin’ awesome.

Carpe Noctem

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