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December 7, 2013

The starry pictures that decorate the night sky are like a giant mural — a complex canvas that never changes. For most of human history, though, that mural was always in flux. Different cultures connected the starry dots to form their own pictures and their own stories. And even cultures that adopted older pictures frequently rewrote the stories that went with them.

Consider Aquarius, one of the constellations of the zodiac. It’s in the south at nightfall, with its most important stars to the left of the Moon.

Today, the constellation represents a young man pouring water from a jug. And that’s been the basic depiction for thousands of years. But the story behind it has changed.

In ancient Babylon, for example, the picture represented the god Ea, who ruled over a portion of the Sun’s path across the sky. He held an overflowing water jug that was associated with flooding. And in Egypt, the constellation was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile River. The story said the Nile overflowed when a boy dipped the water jug into its waters.

The Greeks adopted many of the constellations from the Babylonians and Egyptians, so they kept Aquarius. But they changed the story. One version says the boy was Ganymede, a beautiful young man who was stolen away by Zeus, the king of the gods. Whisked to Olympus, he became the cupbearer to the gods, and was later immortalized in the stars — where he remains today.

More about Aquarius tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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