Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Aries-the Ram: First Sign of the Zodiac

Like most of the star groups making up the 88 official constellations, the zodiac stars are associated with stories about the exploits of mythical gods, animals, creatures, and heroes. The myths were first told to explain events ancient cultures did not understand, as well as being used to explore and describe human feelings.

Consider the constellation of Aries, the Ram—a figure that appears in more than one Greek myth. There is the intriguing story of Odysseus’s escape from the man-eating Cyclops, thanks to a flock of sheep. Another story tells of the origin of the Golden Fleece, later sought by Jason and the Argonauts. This story takes place in the land of Thessaly.

After the goddess Nephele married King Athamas, they had two children—a boy called Phrixus and a girl, Helle. Athamas tired of his wife and drove her away, keeping the children and eventually marrying Ino, daughter of the goddess Harmonia. Nephele heard the king was marrying again and resentfully complained of this betrayal to Hera, goddess of marriage and birth.

Ino was a poor stepmother. She did not like the king’s children and wanted one of her own son’s to be the one to eventually take over the throne. She constantly worried about her sons’ inheritance, finally coming up with a plan to be rid of Phrixes.

Ino arranged the roasting of some seed corn, ensuring it would not sprout when planted. The seeds were placed in the ground but no crop grew. Athamus sent messengers to ask an oracle for advice but Ino bribed the messengers to report that the oracle said “If Phrixus is sacrificed, the fields will grow a bountiful crop.”

Athamas ordered Phrixes to be placed on an alter. He was about to be sacrificed when Nephele saw her precious son in danger. She sent a ram with golden fleece to spirit both her children away. The ram flew through the air with Phrixes and Helle on its back, but Helle fell off the ram over the straits between the northern Aegean and the Propontis—a spot still called Hellespont.

Phrixus arrived safely at Colchis, where he married the daughter of King Aeetes. To show thanks for his survival, Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the Golden Fleece to Aeetes. The king kept the fleece in an oak tree, guarded by a dragon. It remained here until Jason and the Argonauts arrived on their quest to claim the Golden Fleece for King Pelias of Iolcos.

Remember the story of the Golden Fleece as you search the sky for the constellation Aries—the Ram. It is the second smallest of the zodiac constellations. Start at Taurus and jump through the Pleiades to the Ram. Aries represents the first sign of the zodiac. It is traditionally considered the constellation of people born between March 21 and April 19.

NASA/courtesy of

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