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March 11, 2021

One of the most ancient of all constellations soars high across the sky on March nights. Boötes the herdsman climbs into good view in the east-northeast by 9 or 10 p.m. Its brightest stars form an outline that resembles an ice cream cone. Its brightest star of all, Arcturus, is at the bottom of the cone. The rest of the herdsman stretches to the left of Arcturus as they rise, and above it later on. Arcturus is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, so you can’t miss it.

Boötes is thought to be one of the oldest of all the constellations. It was drawn so long ago that no one is sure just when it first came along. But the figure shows up in the skylore of China, Egypt, Greece, and many other cultures.

Perhaps not surprisingly for so ancient a star pattern, its mythology is a bit confused. There are several competing stories from Greek mythology, each giving a different origin and significance to the herdsman.

One story says that Boötes created agriculture by plowing the fields with the nearby Big Dipper, which represented a plow. Another saw him as a hunter in pursuit of two bears — the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. And yet another saw him as the overseer of a herd of oxen — hence the figure’s nickname, “the herdsman.”

Like many Greek myths, the details of Boötes involve deception, betrayal, and even murder — adding even more mystery to this ancient constellation.

We’ll have more about Arcturus tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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