The Hounds of the Heavens
Of the 88 official constellations over our heads, nearly half are animals, serpents, birds and fishes. Admired for their beauty or feared for their strength, these are wild creatures, beasts you wouldn’t want to encounter, let alone have in the house. In fact, of them all, only a few are domesticated animals. One of the oldest recognized constellations is Taurus the bull. Goats have played a role in civilization at least as long as have cows, but their celestial reward is the constellation Capricornus, the sea goat, a mythical creature half goat and half fish. Guess those early constellation namers had tasted goat’s milk.
But man’s best friend has been rewarded with not one, not two, but three constellations.
The most familiar of the three is Canis Major, the great dog, who follows at the heels of Orion the hunter. The constellation is highlighted by the brightest star in the heavens. In the time of the ancient Greeks, Sirius rose with the rising sun in late July and early August, fueling the belief that the dog star’s added heat led to these ever-so-hot dog days of summer.
The little dog, Canis Minor, is the second of Orion’s hunting dogs, leading its larger brethren. Its lead star, Procyon, is the eighth-brightest star of all and its name means before the dog. A less-known myth has Canis Minor as Maera, the dog of Icarius, the first man to make wine. When he offered some to travelers, they thought he had poisoned them and killed him. Maera, the ever-loyal companion, ran home and led Icarius’ children to his body.
Then there is Canes Venatici, an obscure constellation between Boötes and Ursa Major. A more recent constellation, Canes Venatici was charted in 1690 by Johannes Hevelius. The stars represent the herdsman’s own two hunting dogs, Asterion and Chara, chasing the bear around the North Pole.