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August 2, 2010

If you feel a craving for tea and scones after watching the night sky this month, it may be a subliminal message from the stars: A giant teapot floats low across the south, with a "steam" of stars rising from its spout.

The teapot is formed by the brightest stars of Sagittarius. The constellation is in the southeast at nightfall, and due south around midnight.

The alignment of those stars in our sky is just a coincidence. But our brains look for patterns in everything we see. Today, we see the stars of Sagittarius as a teapot because it's a familiar object.

But the people who first "drew" the constellation saw a different pattern: a centaur holding a bow and arrow. A centaur is a mythological creature with the head and upper torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse.

There weren't a lot of real centaurs roaming around the countryside, but mythology played a large role in defining the constellations. Each star pattern told a story.

In this case, though, the story seems a little confused. The constellation originated in Sumeria, then was picked up by the Greeks. But they appear to have missed something in the translation. The original story may have described a satyr, which was part man and part goat. One of these creatures was credited with inventing archery, which was why he was depicted in the sky with a bow and arrow. The Greeks kept the bow and arrow, but changed the creature -- creating a centaur that looks like a teapot.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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