The Lion and the Crab

Finding The Celestial Lion

To find Leo start at our old friend the Plough and follow the two pointer stars in the opposite direction from the Pole Star. Just under a quarter of the way across the sky look out for a group of stars shaped like a backwards question mark.

This is the Sickle – the head of Leo the Lion. The star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, his shining heart and one of the brightest stars in the night sky.

Starhop to Leo

Leo The Lion

In Greek mythology, Leo was said to be the Nemean Lion, killed by Hercules during the first of his twelve labours. The Nemean Lion would take young women as hostages to its lair in a cave. Warriors from a nearby town had all been eaten in their attempts to rescue them because the lion’s hide was proof against all known weapons. Hercules quickly realised that in order to defeat the Lion it was going to be a bare knuckle job. Slipping quietly into the cave Hercules engaged it at close quarters. As the Lion pounced he grabbed it in mid air, catching the Lion’s forelegs in one hand and it’s hind legs in the other. Bending it backwards he broke its back and freed the trapped maidens. Zeus, chief of the Greek gods commemorated his efforts by putting the Lion in the sky.

The Beehive (M44)

Move 25 degrees west from the centre of Leo (the distance between your outstretched thumb and little finger at arm’s length) and look for a fuzzy patch. This is the Beehive cluster in the constellation of Cancer the Crab.

The Beehive cluster looks like a nebulous patch of light to the naked eye under dark skies. Through binoculars it looks like a swarm of bees buzzing round a hive. It has been known since ancient times and is sometimes called Praesepe meaning “the manger” from Latin.

Also known as Messier 44, the Beehive is one of the nearest open clusters to the solar system. Even so the light that we see today started on it’s way here during the Wars of the Roses. The Beehive contains around a thousand stars – more than most other nearby clusters.

The Beehive Cluster
The Beehive Cluster (wiki commons)
The Crab

The Beehive cluster lies in the middle of the constellation of Cancer the Crab. Cancer is such a faint constellation that it could easily be missed if it were not for the Beehive cluster.

During Hercules’ epic battle with the multi headed Hydra, Hera sent Karkinos the crab to distract him. However quick witted Hercules swiftly dispatched the crab by kicking it with such force that it ended up in the sky. Hera gave Karkinos a permanent place in the starry heavens in gratitude for it’s efforts.