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The stars of Aquarius are famous - but dim

If you have followed this column over the past months, you have become acquainted with most of the constellations of the zodiac, the ones the sun migrates through in its annual trek around the starry heavens. Beginning last month, we entered the celestial sea, a group of constellations symbolizing the great waters of Earth and the relationships people of old saw in the circulation of water from heaven to Earth.

This month we find ourselves right in the center of this ocean of heaven, at the constellation Aquarius, the Water Carrier.It seems ironical to find that the constellation once conceived to rule the celestial waters consists of very dim stars. Indeed, Aquarius is one of the most difficult of all constellations to locate and recognize. It consists entirely of dim stars, none of which pop out to the unaided eye to make a conspicuous figure.

Nevertheless, the constellation was once thought to govern not only the surrounding heavenly sea but to govern the flow of water on Earth as well. The reason for this is that when the constellations of the zodiac were invented Aquarius marked the region the sun passed through at winter solstice. These dim stars rose with the sun at the time when the sun rose as far south as it ever did, when days were shortest and weather nasty.

In those ancient times it was feared that the sun might possibly keep right on moving south until it vanished entirely. As winter solstice approached, darkness seemed to be overcoming light. People huddled around fires, worrying about reserves of food.

When the sun reached Aquarius, they engaged in rituals designed to help the sun turn northward so that longer days would return. These ceremonies were for the purpose of strengthening the forces of light to overcome the dreaded darkness and associated cold that threatened life.

Whatever those people did to turn the sun, it always worked. When the sun reached the solstice, it always stopped, then people waited and watched to be sure it started back north. When it became apparent that the sun did move north again and that days began to lengthen, a celebration went out from the northern hemisphere of Earth to issue in the springtime.

Thus, in those days, when the sun reached Aquarius, it was noted that the weather changed. Winter did not suddenly abate: indeed it tended to worsen for a spell. The greatest storms often occurred following the winter solstice. Water poured out of heaven in the form of snow and rain to cover mountains, flow down canyons, flood plains and move toward oceans.

This, then, is the probable reason that the dim stars marking Aquarius became the "Water Carrier." The figure of the constellation, superimposed over those stars, was imagined to be that of a man with an upside-down water jar upon his shoulder, water pouring out of the jar into the celestial sea. From there, of course, it could trickle down out of the sky onto the ground with all of its nourishing results. While it heralds the most dreaded part of the year, it also signals the most joyous. Such are the contrasts of life.

Aquarius was imagined on stones in ancient Chaldea as a man pouring water from a bucket. In old atlases of the sky the water flows along a chain of dim stars right into the mouth of a fish, the constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish.

Chaldeans visualized the water as splitting into two streams, symbolic of the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In Egypt Aquarius was said to dip the bucket into the waters, as the constellation disappeared in the west, causing the Nile to flood forth its life-giving fluid.

In Greece, Aquarius was once a symbol of Zeus, pouring out the waters that brought forth life. As time went on, however, and the winter solstice moved out of Aquarius, this dim region of the starry sky lost its vitality to the Greeks and became confused with Ganymede who acted as cupbearer to the Olympian gods. By this, Aquarius was reduced from controller of the waters of earth and sky to celestial bartender.

When you go out and look around to find Aquarius in the sky, you might have a difficult time locating it. I do not know how to help you much with words upon a page.

The stars of Aquarius are dim and located in a dim region of the heavens. It is desirable to know other stars nearby in order to be sure you have found Aquarius. I suggest that you begin by locating brilliant Jupiter, currently east of south at eventide.

As the sky darkens, Saturn, dimmer than Jupiter, will clear the horizon just north of east. Jupiter is in Capricornus (our topic last month) and Saturn is in Pisces (our topic next month). Aquarius is between Capricornus and Pisces. Thus, look midway between these two bright planets to find the dim stars of Aquarius. As it gets dark, about 8:30 p.m., look south to find Aquarius. Brilliant Jupiter will be a ways to the right (west) and Saturn will be to the left (east).

Another brighter feature might help: the star Fomalhault, mouth of the Southern Fish, will be low in the south. Of all the brighter stars of the sky, Fomalhault is the most ignored. You seldom hear much about it. The dim stars going upward from Fomalhault represent the water streaming out of Aquarius' jar.

For many years I have tried to concoct a figure that I could easily remember among the stars of Aquarius. Only a few weeks ago, as I was presenting these stars to students in a planetarium, did a figure pop into my mind. Those dim stars can be pictured as the Anasazi/

Pueblo figure of the hump-backed flute player. The flute is toward the east and the bent back to the west.

This works well enough for me, although I doubt it will for many others. I can even make a vague connection with old ideas about Aquarius, for Navajo people referred to the flute player as "Water Sprinkler."