Etymology – the Lion
The constellation Leo is one of many familiar constellations that form the classical Greek Zodiac. It is often represented as a sickle-shape series of stars, with the sickle part being the lion’s head and the rest forming the body and tail of the lion.
Astronomy & Astrology
Much of the foundations of Western knowledge regarding the fields of Astronomy and Astrology owe its roots to Ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Many ancient cultures studied the stars, seeing in them patterns that are called constellations. These ancient astronomers were able to make predictable, annual turnings of the heavens that they could divide and mark for the passing of the Seasons and time. For the ancients, Astrology served as a precursor to Astronomy and they believed that by studying the heavens, they could foretell future events and even a person’s life path.
These ancient cultures would also meet and exchange ideas frequently and in this fashion, when the Greeks encountered the Persians, there was an exchange of knowledge regarding Astronomy that becomes the constellations and zodiacs so many know today. Eventually, there is no clear distinction between what ancient Mesopotamian Astronomers and Greeks Philosophers knew. Or who influenced who regarding the stories and myths behind the constellations. Even in current, modern times, the influence of these ancients is still known.
Leo is one of the oldest recognized constellations and was one of 48 constellations that were identified by Ptolemy, an astronomer who lived during the second century. In modern times, it is one of 88 known or recognized constellations. It is the 12th largest constellation in the night sky. The Leo constellation is a rather small constellation and is found between Cancer to the west and Virgo to the east. Other constellations bordering with Leo are Cancer, Coma Berenices, Crater, Hydra, Leo Minor, Lynx, Sextans, Ursa Major and Virgo.
Several other cultures have known of Leo throughout the millennia. Hindu astronomers have known of Leo as Asleha and Sinha, The Persians referred to this constellation as Ser or Shir, to the Turks as Artan, the Syrians as Aryo, the Jews as Arye, the Tamil as Simham and the Babylonians, Aru; all of which mean Lion in their respective languages.
The Chinese know of the constellation Leo, or at least know most of that stars that make up Leo as their constellation: Xuanyuan, the Yellow Dragon. In the Chinese zodiac, the stars that make up Leo are thought to represent a horse.
The star Beta Leonis while not part of Xuanyuan, was part of the myth connected to this constellation. It was called Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, a legendary ruler and founder of Chinese civilization. His image, along with the Yellow Dragon, Yuanyuan were immortalized up in the heavens as a constellation.
A set of four stars to the north, south, west and east of Huangdi controlled and ruled the four season. These stars along with Huangdi formed an asterism known as Wudi, the Emperors. The chariots of the Emperors were represented by the five stars that outline the constellation Auriga. North of this group of stars was the Emperor’s heir, Taizi (93 Leonis), his personal assistant Congguan (92 Leonis) and a bodyguard Huben (72 Leonis) who kept watch.
Wudi, Taizi and Congguan fall within a larger area called Taiwei which represented a court where the Emperor met with his private council. Taiwei extends out into the constellation of Virgo. A chain of five stars along the south of Delta, Theta, Iota and Sigma and up to Beta Virginis form one of the boundary walls for Taiwei.
Another fainter line of four stars from the north of Leo into Leo Minor form Shaowei, represent either a delegation of nobility welcoming Huangdi or a group of scholarly advisors. Its unclear which stars were meant to represent Shaowei. Some sources say they are 53 Leonis to 41 Leonis Minoris. This same line of stars later forms Changyuan, an outer wall protecting Taiwei.
There are a few other smaller constellations that the Chinese saw in the area of Leo. The stars Xi Leonis and a couple other stars formed Jiuqi, a banner of a wine maker or merchant. Jiuqi is probably meant to be connected to the kitchen, Waichu seen in the constellation of Hydra to the south.
The stars Chi, 58 and 59 Leonis represent Lingtai, an astronomical observatory. The star Upsilon Leonis and two more stars formed Mingtang, the “bright hall”, an administrative center where the Emperor announced the forecast of events for the coming year. The “brightness” part of this asterism’s title may refer to the Emperor’s presence.
The sickle part of the Leo constellation is recognized as a completely different constellation. One that forms a snaking line up into the Lynx constellation.
The ancient Egyptians were known to have worshiped lion headed gods. They also believed that the world was created during a time when the Sun rose in the Leo constellation near the star known as Denebola. The Sun in Leo during the time of the Egyptians marked the annual flooding of the Nile River, the life blood of the Empire’s agriculture.
Greek and Roman Mythology
The Twelve Labors of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. The first of these tasks was to slay the Nemean Lion, one of many children of the giant Typhon and the monstrous Echidna. Other sources say the lion was the offspring of the god Zeus and Selene and that Selene may have deliberately set the monster against the people of Nemea for not giving her proper dues and respect as a goddess. Some sources will add too that the Nemean Lion was the brother of the Theban Sphinx. And finally, there is also mention of the dog Orthrus having sired the Nemean Lion.
When heading out to accomplish this task, Hercules stopped at the town of Cleonae where he stayed with a poor man known as Molorchus. When Molorchus heard of Hercules’ task, he offered to do a sacrifice to ensure a successful lion hunt. Hercules convinced Molorchus to wait thirty days. That way then, if Hercules returned with the slain beast, a sacrifice would be made to Zeus. If Hercules didn’t return, Molorchus would make a sacrifice to honor the fallen hero.
The nefarious beast was well known and Hercules lost no time at all in finding the beast’s lair; a cave with two entrances. When Hercules arrived, the lion showed itself and the hero began his battle in earnest with it. The lion was said to have a hide so tough that no weapon could pierce it as Hercules quickly discovered when his arrows had no effect on it. Hercules decided to seal off one of the cave entrances before pursuing the beast. Eventually Hercules caught up with the beast and ended up strangling the Lion to death by ramming his fist down its throat.
Obviously, Hercules was able to return to Cleonae where he and Molorchus made a sacrifice to Zeus, King of the Gods. And with the lion now dead, Hercules used one of its claws to skin it for its pelt. Wearing the pelt as a cloak, along with the lion’s head, Hercules returned to King Eurystheus to show proof of having finished the first of his twelve labors. Eurystheus was so frightened of the beast that he fled in terror from it. In any event, Hercules skinned the lion and used its hide for a shield.
Depending on the version of the story of Hercules and his first labor, it will be either Hera or Zeus who places the lion up in the heavens to become the constellation of Leo.
Pyramus and Thisbe
A story told by the poet Ovid, it tells how the parents of the title characters Pyramus and Thisbe, believed them too young to marry and forbade the two from seeing each other. As is the nature of rebellious youth passionately in love, the two still arranged to meet secretly with each other under a mulberry tree with white berries.
When Thisbe arrived to wait for Pyramus, a lion sprung out from under some bushes and she ran away in terror from it. As she did so, her veil fell to the ground and the lion already bloody from an earlier kill, pounced on it.
So later, when Pyramus arrives, he sees the bloodied veil of Thisbe and believes it as proof of her having been killed. Beside himself with grief and unable to see life without her, Pyramus thrusts himself on his sword. As he lays dying, Thisbe returns and seeing that her love is dead, takes up the sword to kill herself too. This tragedy was used to explain why mulberries are red as its believed the blood of the lovers colored them so. Other sources will say that Zeus placed Thisbe’s veil up in the heavens as the constellation Coma Berenices.
Other Names and Zodiac
Leo was also known as Bacchi Sidus, the star of Bacchus and identified with the god Bacchus. Roman poets like Ovid called the Leo constellation Herculeus Leo and Violentus Leo. Others like Manilius referred to this constellation as Jovis et Junonis Side, the Star of Jupiter and Juno. The Greek scholar Eratosthenes and Roman author Hyginus both have said that the lion was placed in the heavens as it is the king of beasts.
In regards to the zodiac and summer solstice, the Greeks and Romans had many various lion-headed fountains that may or may not have symbolized the strong connection of Leo to the life-giving waters and rains that the Egyptians revered.
Like many of the classic constellations, the Leo constellation was known as far back as 4000 B.C.E. by the Mesopotamians. The Babylonians called this constellation UR.GU.LA, the “Great Lion.” The star Regulus was known as “the star that stands at the Lion’s breast” and held distinct regal authority as it was also known as the “King Star” or Star of the King.” The ancient Chaldeans associated Leo with the sun as back during their time; the sun was in the sky during the summer solstice.
King Of The Beasts
The ancient Greeks Eratosthenes and Hyginus both mention that the shape of a lion to have placed in the night sky as it is the King of the Beasts.
Loosing A Tail
Around 240 B.C.E., the Leo constellation lost its tail when an astronomer-priest under Ptolemy III reassigned the stars to make up the constellation of Coma Berenices or Berenice’s Hair.
Stars In Leo
Alpha Leonis – Also known as Regulus and believed to be so named by the astronomer Copernicus, it is the brightest star in Leo and it is the 22nd brightest star in the sky. In the northern hemisphere, Regulus is best seen in late winter and spring evenings. Due to the earth’s orbit and rotation around the sun, Regulus can’t be seen for about a two month’s time during August and September. The name Regulus means “little king” or “prince” in Latin. The Greek name Basiliscos also holds the same meaning. And the Arabic name for this star, Qalb al-Asad means: “the heart of the lion.” Among those civilizations located around the Euphrates river, Regulus was known as “The Flame” or “Red Fire” as it had been believed anciently that this star was responsible for the hotness of Summer.
Another name with the same meanings is Cor Leonis. Regulus was known anciently as one of the four “Royal Stars” of Heaven. The other three are Aldebaran, Fomalhaut, and Antares.
Beta Leonis – Also known as Denebola or the tail of the lion. It is the second brightest star in the Leo constellation. The name Denebola comes from the Arabic name ðanab al-asad.
Gamma Leonis – Also known as Algieba, it is a double star. The name Algieba or Al Gieba comes from the Arabic word Al-Jabhah which means “the forehead” or “lion’s mane.” The star is also known by a Latin name of Juba. Along with other stars, Adhafera or Zeta Leonis and Al Jabbah or Eta Leonis, they are sometimes called the Sickle.
Delta Leonis – Or Zosma from the Greek language for “girdle,” it refers to this star’s location on the lion’s hip.
Wolf 359 – This star is a red dwarf and is one of the lowest-mass stars discovered to date. After Alpha Centauri and Barnad’s Star, it is one of the closest stars to our Sun. As a result of this, Wolf 359 has enjoyed some claim to fame by being mentioned shows like Star Trek and location of the Battle of Wolf 359 where the Borg destroyed a number of Star Fleet ships. Wolf 359 also has mention made in an episode of The Outer Limits.
One of the more interesting celestial objects found in the Leo constellation is the Leo Ring is a huge ancient cloud of helium and hydrogen gas that orbits between two galaxies. Astronomers have determined that it is left over material from the event known as the Big Bang. This gas cloud was discovered by radio astronomers in 1983.
The Leonids are the meteor showers associated with the Leo constellation. They’re seen in November and peak around November 14-15 with 10-20 meteors per hour. These meteors are known to come from the Tempel-Tuttle comet which orbits the sun every 33 years. Three times a century, this meteor shower will become particularly dense with several hundred to even bursts of 1,000 meteors per hour. These denser showers typically happen in years ending in 33, 66 and 99.
There is another minor January Leonid shower that typically occurs between January 1 and January 7.
The constellation Leo had at one time been associated with the Summer Solstice. This has changed over the millennia, with progression of the equinoxes and shifts in the Earth’s axis as it rotates around the sun.
Anciently, it had been believed that the star known as Regulus was responsible for the excessive heat at the height of summer. Around 2,300 B.C.E. the Summer Solstice was located near Regulus and marked the beginning of summer. Nowadays, we’re close to the end of summer and getting to head into autumn. The role of the summer star has changed to that of Sirius and the dog days of summer.
The ancient Egyptians believed the world to have been created during a time with the Sun in Leo and close to the star known as Denebola. On the Temple ceiling in Dendera Temple complex in Egypt, there is a night sky painting depicting the whole zodiac and their constellations. All of which shows a strong Greco-Roman influence.
The constellation of Leo is the fifth sign of twelve signs that form the Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from July 22 to August 22. Due to the changes of the earth’s orbit and tilt, the best time to see this constellation is during April around 9 p.m. The Sun is said to rule this Zodiacal sign and constellation. Its element is Fire, an extroverted sign and is one of four fixed signs.
Those born under the sign of Leo are thought to love taking the spot light and center stage in everything they do as they are very outgoing and enthusiastic. This can cause a seeming appearance and belief that the world revolves around them. Leos are also seen as being rather ambitious and take up a lot of different creative activities. The down side to Leos is that they can be seen as brash and arrogant in their self-confidence. Leos can be rather opinionated about matters and may rub others the wrong way. Leos can be very generous in spirit, fierce in their determination and loyal.