It is not surprising to find a ram in the sky, for rams were frequently sacrificed to the gods, and Zeus was at times identified with a ram. But the mythographers agree that Aries is a special ram, the one whose golden fleece was the object of the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. This ram made its appearance on Earth just as King Athamas of Boeotia was about to sacrifice his son Phrixus to ward off an impending famine.
King Athamas and his wife Nephele had an unhappy marriage, so Athamas turned instead to Ino, daughter of King Cadmus from neighbouring Thebes. Ino resented her step-children, Phrixus and Helle, and she arranged a plot to have them killed. She began by parching the wheat so that the crops would fail. When Athamas appealed for help to the Delphic Oracle, Ino bribed messengers to bring back a false reply that Phrixus must be sacrificed to save the harvest.
Aries, the ram with the golden fleece, from the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729).
Reluctantly, Athamas, took his son to the top of Mount Laphystium, overlooking his palace at Orchomenus. He was about to sacrifice Phrixus to Zeus when Nephele intervened to save her son, sending down from the sky a winged ram with a golden fleece. Phrixus climbed on the ram’s back and was joined by his sister Helle, who feared for her own life. They flew off eastwards to Colchis, which lay on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, under the Caucasus Mountains (the modern Georgia). On the way Helle’s grip failed and she fell into the channel between Europe and Asia, the Dardanelles, which the Greeks named the Hellespont in her memory. On reaching Colchis, Phrixus sacrificed the ram in gratitude to Zeus. He presented its golden fleece to the fearsome King Aeëtes of Colchis who, in return, gave Phrixus the hand of his daughter Chalciope.
After Phrixus died his ghost returned to Greece to haunt his cousin Pelias, who had seized the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. The true successor to the throne was Jason. Pelias promised to give up the throne to Jason if he brought home the golden fleece from Colchis. This was the challenge that led to the epic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts.
When he reached Colchis, Jason first asked King Aeëtes politely for the fleece, which hung on an oak in a sacred wood, guarded by a huge unsleeping serpent. King Aeëtes rejected Jason’s request. Fortunately for the expedition, the king’s daughter, Medea, fell in love with Jason and offered to help him steal the fleece. At night to two crept into the wood where the golden fleece hung, shining like a cloud lit by the rising Sun. Medea bewitched the serpent so that it slept while Jason snatched the fleece. According to Apollonius Rhodius, the fleece was as large as the hide of a young cow, and when Jason slung it over his shoulder it reached his feet. The ground shone from its glittering golden wool as Jason and Medea escaped with it. Once free of the pursuing forces of King Aeëtes, Jason and Medea used the fleece to cover their wedding bed. The final resting place of the fleece was in the temple of Zeus at Orchomenus, where Jason hung it on his return to Greece.
Features of Aries
On old star maps the ram is shown in a crouching position, but without wings, its head turned back towards Taurus. In the sky it is not at all prominent. Its most noticeable feature is a crooked line of three stars, which marks its head. Of these three stars, Alpha Arietis is called Hamal, from the Arabic for lamb; Beta Arietis is Sheratan, from the Arabic meaning ‘two’ of something (possibly two signs or two horns, for it was originally applied to both this star and to its neighbour, Gamma Arietis); and Gamma Arietis is Mesartim, a curiously corrupted form of al-sharatan, the title which it originally shared with Beta Arietis.
In the Almagest, Ptolemy described Alpha Arietis as “the star over the head”; he adds that Hipparchus had placed it on the ram’s muzzle, although we do not have Hipparchus’s catalogue to confirm this. Oddly, Ptolemy regarded Alpha as lying outside the constellation figure proper and so listed it as one of the so-called informata, or unformed stars. (On Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis, above, it is placed on the top of the ram’s head.) Of its two neighbours, Gamma Arietis was described by Ptolemy as “the more advanced of the two stars on the horn”, while Beta Arietis was “the rearmost of them”.
First point of Aries
In astronomy, Aries assumes a far greater importance than its brightness would suggest, for in Greek times it contained the cardinal point known as the vernal equinox. This is the point at which the Sun crosses the celestial equator from north to south. But the vernal equinox is not stationary, because of the slow wobble of the Earth’s axis known as precession.
When the Greek astronomer Hipparchus defined the position of the vernal equinox around 130 BC this point lay south of the star Mesartim (Gamma Arietis). The zodiac was then taken to start from here, and so the vernal equinox was commonly known as the first point of Aries. Because of precession, the vernal equinox has moved some 30 degrees since the time of Hipparchus and currently lies in the neighbouring constellation Pisces. Despite this, the vernal equinox is still sometimes called the first point of Aries.
Chinese astronomers knew the crooked line formed by the stars Alpha, Beta and Gamma Arietis as Lou, usually translated as ‘bond’. Lou was also the name of the 16th lunar mansion. There are various explanations as to what Lou represents, but it appears to be related to the rearing and gathering of cattle for sacrifice. (Alternatively, Ho Peng Yoke translates the name as ‘lasso’, which might well be utilized in the round-up, while Sun and Kistemaker say that Lou was a sickle for harvesting.) At the time the Chinese constellations were established, the full Moon closest to the autumn equinox lay in Lou. According to one story, the Emperor sacrificed a cow or ram just after the equinox, and the lunar mansion Lou was said to be where animals were assembled prior to the sacrifice. The celestial fields where the sacrifice actually took place are represented by Tianyuan in present-day Eridanus.
In the north of present-day Aries is a triangle of 4th- and 5th-magnitude stars (35, 39 and 41 Arietis) that the Chinese called Wèi, referring to a fat stomach. The 17th lunar mansion is named after this group. Confusingly, there are two other lunar mansions whose names also transliterated as Wei, one in Scorpius and the other in Aquarius and Pegasus, although their Chinese characters are different. This Wèi in Aries is said to represent granaries for storing cereals.
Five stars in the centre of Aries (probably Nu, Mu, Omicron, Sigma and Pi) formed Zuogeng, representing a forestry manager. Another five stars farther east, including Delta and Zeta Arietis, formed Tianyin, literally ‘the celestial yin force’, possibly representing the Emperor’s companion on hunting expeditions. To the north of Tianyin was a single star named Tian’e or Tianhe, ‘celestial river’; most likely this was the star we know as HR 999.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved