Scorpius in the Night Sky
Lurking low in the south in the heat of summer, with bright Antares at its heart, is Scorpius. This is one of the few constellations that really looks like its namesake. From Antares, the head is above and to the right. The body extends down and left, with the tail curling above. The tail is so low, however, that it may be blocked by objects to your south, and it will be below the horizon as you approach 50 degrees N latitude.
Scorpius and the Autumn Equinox
About 3000 BCE, the stellar scorpion marked the Autumn equinox for the northern hemisphere. The symbolism of this animal, associated with darkness and death was appropriate for this time of the year. The sun’s position is getting lower in the sky, bringing colder weather and signaling the “death” of the natural world.
Scorpius Legends in the Sky
Our celestial stinger, as no other member of the zodiac, engages in numerous conflicts with other constellations. The Greek legend of Orion and the Scorpion plays out in the May evening sky, as mighty Orion sets in the west, bitten by the Scorpion rising in the east. Sagittarius aims his arrow at the heart of the Scorpion. As summer progresses, it appears that Sagittarius is chasing the scorpion from the night sky. Ophiuchus, the first healer, tramples on the scorpion symbolically conquering illness and disease.
The Romans and the Mid-East
The Scorpion with its outstretched claws was the largest zodiacal constellation in ancient times. The Romans separated the claws and made the constellation Libra, the scales of Justice, to honor Julius Caesar. The claws of the modern scorpion are withdrawn closer to the bright star Antares, and Scorpius is now only half of its original size.
Babylonians and Jews originally had an eagle in this part of the sky. In ancient Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq), people saw “the celestial tree in the garden of light” among the stars of the modern claws. Interestingly, half a world away, the Incas saw “an immortal tree” in the same location.
Scorpius in Asia and the Pacific
The Chinese had a Hare among these stars in their early lunar zodiac. This part of the sky is also part of the “Azure Dragon of Springtime.” Among the Jains of India, there were three constellations here. In our modern claws was a crown, the stars around Antares were an elephant tusk, and the only the modern tail was their scorpion.
In Polynesia, the natives saw the fishhook of Maui, which he used to raise the islands of Hawaii and New Zealand. In the Micronesian islands, the stars around Antares signified a month of hunger in the month of January. These stars were seen at dawn midway between horizon and zenith. In the western Pacific, islanders saw an ocean ray.
Scorpius in the Americas
In the Peruvian highlands, part of the scorpion was seen as a large cross at their November planting time. Certain natives of Brazil called it the “Great Serpent”. To the Mayans, these stars were a sign of the Death God.
In North America, the Navaho saw the star Antares as Coyote the trickster. To the Pawnee, this was simply “The Red Star.” The Navaho called stars of the tail the Rabbit Tracks, while the Pawnee called them the Swimming Ducks. They are seen before dawn in early February signaling the return of spring, and again in September evenings as birds migrated for winter.
Scorpius to the Alchemists and Astrologers
Alchemists of the Dark Ages believed that only when the sun was in the sign of the scorpion could lead be turned to gold. In contrast, astrologers considered these to be the most evil of stars. A comet seen here “portended a plague of reptiles and locusts”.
Astronomy of Scorpius
Scorpius is a star group rich with clusters, bright stars, naked eye double stars, and the strongest x-ray source in the night sky, SCO X-1. It is composed of mostly hot, young , very luminous bluish stars which formed together quite recently, perhaps about 20 million years ago. Antares, the Alpha star, is the most massive and so is the first of them to become a red supergiant.
Scorpius is seen from early June to mid-September and is best seen in mid July. It is always very low in the south. Despite its prominent stars, it has one of the smallest areas of the zodiac constellations, 497 square degrees. It has 36 stars brighter than magnitude 4.8 as well as 2 easily seen bright clusters, M6 and M7. 19 of these stars and M6 are in the zodiac. The astrological dates for this sign are 30 days from October 23 to November 21. Astronomically, the sun is here for only 6 days from November 24 to 29. It was probably chosen over Ophiuchus as a sign because of its obvious star pattern and the bright red star Antares.