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Western Slope Skies: Stories of Cassiopeia

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Story is a time-honored way for humans to communicate meaning, to shape minds, to pass along cultural ways, to reach another person’s heart. Maybe this is why there are so many stories for the constellation commonly known as Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia is on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper, high in the Northern sky, connecting the dots of five bright stars. Facing North this time of year, in December, it looks like a large letter M. Other times, it looks like a W.

As humanity looked up at Cassiopeia over thousands of years, the tales proliferated.

The Greeks saw a vain queen who boasted of her own beauty, bringing the wrath of Sea-God Poseidon. She now clings to her throne like the unreliable seat of a dunk-tank, upside down half of each night.

There are other stories, some about nature. The Sami people of Northern Europe see a moose antler. The indigenous people of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean see the tail of an enormous porpoise, so big that it covers four modern constellations.

There are calendar-related stories. Cassiopeia is an extension of the most famous object in the sky for some Arab peoples. That object was called ath-Thuraya, “the little abundant one,” also known as the Pleiades. Ath-Thuraya’s appearance connects with the timing of the rainy season, a critical period for farming whether you live in North Africa or Western Colorado. The little abundant one grew over the years until people saw a large pair of female arms reaching from either side of the Pleiades. The longer arm is called the Henna-Dyed Hand (al-kaf al-khadib), with the bright stars of Cassiopeia as her fingertips. From this point of view, during the rainy season, we on Earth are receiving an enormous hug.

There are science stories too. A bright orange giant star called Schedar, sits at the tip of the steeper peak of Cassiopeia’s M. This star glows Henna orange due to a slightly cooler temperature than our sun.

Can you imagine your own ancestors, wrapped in hand-woven blankets or tucked under animal skins, sitting quietly under these same stars, creating stories? We still do that. Do the peaks of Cassiopeia look like mountains to you? Or bird’s wings? Whether they come from the other side of the globe, the latest scientific research, or your own imagination, the different stories of the constellations remind us that we are an active part of a long legacy of story.

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Park Ranger Alice de Anguera of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.