jeudi 18 septembre 2008

Draco 1

Coiled around the sky’s north pole is the celestial dragon, Draco. Legend has it that this is the dragon slain by Heracles during one of his labours, and in the sky the dragon is depicted with one foot of Heracles (in the form of the neighbouring constellation Hercules) planted firmly upon its head. This dragon, named Ladon, guarded the precious tree on which grew the golden apples.
Hera had been given the golden apple tree as a wedding present when she married Zeus. She was so delighted with it that she planted it in her garden on the slopes of Mount Atlas and set the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas, to guard it. Most authorities say there were three Hesperides, but Apollodorus names four. They proved untrustworthy guards, for they kept picking the apples. Sterner measures were required, so Hera placed the dragon Ladon around the tree to ward off pilferers.

According to Apollodorus, Ladon was the offspring of the monster Typhon and Echidna, a creature half woman and half serpent. Ladon had one hundred heads, says Apollodorus, and could talk in different voices. Hesiod, though, says that the dragon was the offspring of the sea deities Phorcys and Ceto, and he does not mention the number of heads. In the sky, the dragon is single-headed.
The great hero Heracles was required to steal some apples from the tree as one of his labours. He did so by killing the dragon with his poisoned arrows. Apollonius Rhodius recounts that the Argonauts came across the body of Ladon the day after Heracles had shot him. The dragon lay by the trunk of the apple tree, its tail still twitching but the rest of its coiled body bereft of life. Flies died in the poison of its festering wounds while nearby the Hesperides bewailed the dragon’s death, covering their golden heads with their white arms. Hera placed the image of the dragon in the sky as the constellation Draco.
Despite its considerable size, the eighth-largest constellation, Draco is not particularly prominent. Its brightest star is second-magnitude Gamma Draconis, called Etamin or Eltanin, from the Arabic al-tinnin meaning ‘the serpent’. Alpha Draconis is called Thuban, from a highly corrupted form of the Arabic ra’s al-tinnin, ‘the serpent’s head’. Beta Draconis is called Rastaban, another corrupted form of the same Arabic name. The stars Beta, Gamma, Nu, and Zeta Draconis form a shape which we regard as the dragon’s head, but which bedouin Arabs visualized as four mother camels with a baby camel at the centre, the baby being represented by an unnamed 6th-magnitude star.

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