Location and Appearance
Leo is easily found during northern hemisphere spring below the Big Dipper. It is marked by a bright backwards question-mark accompanied by a triangle to the left. Leo is one of the most prominent and famous of the zodiac constellations. It marked the summer solstice about 5000 years ago as the first star groups were designated. At this time of year, Egyptian desert lions sought the Nile River Valley, which has just flooded, to seek relief from the heat. The flooding was a time of rejoicing for the agrarian people as it brought nourishing sediment to fertilize their fields. Thus the lion was held in high esteem and these stars received their name. Figures of lion’s heads were carved on the canal gates that opened the Nile for irrigation. Even today, such figures are found adorning fountains in city parks throughout the western world.
Leo Stories from Around the World
In ancient Babylon these stars were seen as the Great Dog. The flag of ancient Persia, now Iran, depicted the sun among the stars of Leo. Early Arabs visualized a gigantic lion that extended from Gemini to Libra! Leo was the emblem of Judah, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The word “Jew” is derived from this tribe.
To the Greeks, Leo was the ferocious Nemean Lion, which fell to Earth as a shooting star originating from the moon. It ravaged the land until Hercules strangled it as the first of his 12 labors. Zeus then returned the lion to the sky as the constellation we know.
Early Christians saw this constellation as one of the lions in the den where Daniel was thrown. The chief druid of Britain was called a lion, and the lion’s paw grip is still familiar to the Masons. Among these stars, the Chinese saw a horse, ancient Mexicans saw a mountain lion, and similarly, the Incas saw a puma. Some Brazilian natives see a crayfish. One of these tribes, the Taulipang, associate their god of thunder and lightning, Tauna, with Leo. From equatorial regions, Leo rises upright in the eastern skies.
Early physicians believed that medicine was poisonous when the sun lay in these stars – even bath water was considered dangerous.
Leo Loses the Tuft of its Tail and a New Constellation is Born
Leo lost the tuft of its tail in 243 BCE. According to legend, at this time a new constellation called Coma Berenices, the Hair of Berenice, was formed. She was a queen of Greek-ruled Egypt. She was renowned for her beautiful long hair, which she sacrificed to the gods in return for the safe return of her husband, King Ptolemy III, from a war. The hair was stolen from the temple and to cover this theft, the priests pointed to this dim gossamer cluster of stars as the resting place of the hair, too beautiful to be held in any one temple. This wide, barely naked-eye cluster, in the shape of an inverted Y, lies above the bright star Denebola.
The Leonid meteor shower radiates from a point near the star gamma in Leo. The peak occurs on November 17. It usually weak in intensity, about 20 per hour. However, it is famous for tremendous outbursts. In 1833, 200,000 per hour were seen on the east coast of America. In 1966, there 150,000 were seen in 3 hours in the American southwest. Most recently, in 1999, 2001, and 2002, levels of more than 1000 per hour were seen. This shower originates from the dust cloud of the comet Temple-Tuttle, which next returns in 2031.
Leo is the 12th largest constellation with 947 square degrees. It is best seen at 10 pm daylight time in mid-April, ranging from early Feb to early July. It has 27 stars brighter than 4.8 magnitude, 19 of these are in the Zodiac. The sun is now found here from August 11 to September 16, 37 days. The astrological dates are July 23 to August 22, 31 days.