On Babylonian boundary markers dating from 1500 BCE, we see the 2 brightest stars of Gemini, Pollux and Castor, along with the crescent moon. This depicts the return of spring, indicating the antiquity of this constellation and humankind’s reluctance to adjust to the change of precession. In reality, the vernal equinox had not been there since about 4400 BCE.
Location and Appearance
Of all the very bright stars in the northern sky, there are no pairs as close together as this this dynamic duo. They can be easily found by drawing a line from Rigel in Orion up to the left through Betelgeuse and continuing to the next 2 bright stars.
A good way to remember which one is which is that Pollux has 2 Ls and is on the Left and Castor has an R and is on the Right.
Gemini Stories from Around the World
Gemini is the highest constellation along the Zodiac. The twin’s feet are soaking in the Milky Way. As we look toward this constellation we are looking away from the center of the galaxy. The duplicity of these stars is recorded worldwide with tremendous variation in the storytelling. In Babylon, they were simply the Great Twins. In Egypt, they were the 2 sprouting plants. In biblical accounts they were the twin sons of Rebecca. The people of ancient India saw 2 horsemen of the morning twilight whereas more modern atlases show a man and a woman. The Phoenicians saw 2 gazelles. The Arabs found 2 peacocks here. They also derived a unit of measure, the Ell, derived from the 4.5 degree space between the stars. The Chinese originally saw an ape before the Jesuits introduced Yang-Ying, the lovers, to this region. Another Chinese interpretation is the Northern River, since their heliacal rising coincided with the time to dig new wells for spring crops. The Japanese call this Cat’s Eyes when they are in the west as night begins.
Some Eskimos saw 2 stone doors of an igloo. Ancient Peruvians found Father Sun, Mother Moon here. Some natives of Australia saw 2 young men chasing a kangaroo, represented by the bright star Capella to their right. Certain natives in South Africa saw 2 young women, wives of an Eland. In the American southwest some native peoples call them the warrior twins. The Klamath Indians of the northwest found boy-girl twins here. Similarly, medieval Christians called them Adam and Eve. Some Polynesians call them the “2 Heaven Proppers”, who prop up the sky.
Gemini to the Greeks and Romans
To the Romans these stars were the legendary founders of their city, Romulus and Remus. Before the Romans, the Greeks gave us the names we currently use, Castor and Pollux, twin sons of the god Zeus and Leda, wife of a Spartan king. Castor was a horseman and Pollux was a boxer. We often forget that their sister was Helen of Troy. These stars are symbolic of brotherly love, for when Castor was killed in battle, Pollux, the immortal twin, begged Zeus to let Castor live again.
Among Greeks and Romans, these were the patron saints of navigators, who saw them as the phenomenon we call Saint Elmo’s Fire. If 2 balls of fire were seen on the mast, it meant they would be saved by the twins. If one was seen, it symbolized Helen and portended disaster – literally an “evil star”. The Romans prayed to the Gemini for help and the phrase “By Jiminy” derives from this practice. The Apostle Paul is said to have traveled to Rome on a ship whose figurehead was that of the twins. Into the 1700s Castor was sometimes called Apollo and Pollux was called Hercules.
Astronomy in Gemini
The Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year, occurs in mid December. As many as 60 per hour may be seen. If their trails are traced back they appear to radiate from a point near Castor. Most showers are the result of incoming cometary debris, however the Geminids are thought to be the remnants of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Both Uranus and the dwarf planet Pluto were discovered among the stars of Gemini. Castor is known to be a system of 3 binaries, for a total of 6 stars. Pollux is the brightest star so far known to have a planet.
These stars are best seen at 9pm in late February, but can be found from mid November to late May. The astrological dates extend 31 days from May 21 to June 20. The astronomical dates are June 22 to July 20, a total of 29 days. Gemini contains 514 square degrees, the 30th largest constellation. It has 21 stars 4.8 or brighter in magnitude. 20 of these are in the Zodiac.