One of the most graceful and beautiful of all constellations soars high overhead on summer nights -- Cygnus, the swan. It's high in the east at nightfall, gliding through the hazy band of the Milky Way. Its body is roughly parallel to the horizon, with its wings extending above and below. The bright supergiant star Deneb marks its tail, with the double star Albireo representing its head.
Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross. In fact, this pattern is so bright and obvious that quite a few cultures have "seen" a cross in the stars of Cygnus.
To the Maya of Central America, the cross may have played a role in the succession of kings.
Evidence of this role comes from the Temple of the Foliated Cross in the Mayan city of Palenque. Murals in the temple depict starry crosses, which some scientists interpret as Cygnus. The temple is aligned toward the northwest, to the point on the horizon where Deneb set.
Some of the artwork also depicts the life of king Chan Bahlum. He was appointed heir to the throne in June of the year 641. From Palenque, Deneb was rising around sunset on that date. And Chan Bahlum became king in January of 684 -- a time when Deneb was just becoming visible in the morning sky, and dropping from view at dusk -- in perfect view from the temple.
Look for Deneb and the rest of Cygnus throughout the night. They're across the east as darkness falls, and climb high overhead during the night.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2003, 2008
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