Ophiuchus to the Greeks and Romans

A large, dimly-starred, sprawling constellation, Ophiuchus is seen on summer evenings. It is found mid-heaven (about halfway up) in the southern sky above the brighter and more famous Scorpion. Ophiuchus is not a name, but means “man who holds the serpent”. The person represented is Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans), son of Apollo. He learned the art of medical healing from the centaur Chiron. Although Asklepios is largely forgotten, we owe much of our medical symbolism to him. Hippocrates, considered the first doctor, was said to be a direct relative. The original Hippocratic oath began, “I swear by Apollo the Physician, and by Asklepios . . . and all the Gods”. The symbol of medicine, a snake entwined around a rod, represents the rod of Asklepios. Today this has been mistakenly replaced in many cases by the Caduceus, the rod of Hermes, which has 2 snakes. Ophiuchus is seen in the sky holding a poisonous snake and stomping on the scorpion, signifying his power to conquer illness and disease.

Asklepios eventually became so talented that he was able to bring people back to life after dying. This angered Pluto, god of the underworld, who convinced Zeus to put an end to this activity. As Asklepios tended to a new patient, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt. Later Zeus relented and gave Asklepios a place in the heavens where we see him today.

 Ophiuchus in the Mid-East and India

In India, these stars were seen as the god Krishna, suggestion wisdom and eternity. Among his many exploits, he was victorious over the serpent Kaliya. The Persians saw Eve and the Serpent here. The ancient, pre-Islamic Arabs saw “The Pastures” among these stars, and filled it with sheep, a shepherd, dogs, and surrounded it with fences. The medieval Islamics called these stars the “Snake Charmer”, and showed him with his feet in the zodiac treading on the scorpion. To the Jews it was Aaron, whose staff became a serpent. To Christians of the Middle Ages it was Moses “Lifting the Brazen Serpent”.

 Ophiuchus and Hercules in Ancient Sumeria

The head of Ophiuchus touches the head of Hercules. Long ago, about 4000 BCE, they were both circumpolar and their heads were at the zenith (directly overhead) in springtime. In some sources from ancient Iraq, this represented the famous Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu.

Ophiuchus Divides Serpens

This constellation was one of the original 48 of Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. At that time the stars of Ophiuchus were mixed with the stars of Serpens. Today, Ophiuchus is the only constellation that divides another – Serpens – into head and tail.

Astronomy of  Ophiuchus

The celestial equator bisects this constellation, and its legs dip into the zodiac. One leg extends into the milky way, with its dark nebulae, globular clusters, and one particular temporary star. In 1604, the last supernova in our Milky Way galaxy was seen here. This massive exploding star was visible for 18 months! The famous astronomer Kepler wrote a book about this supernova, demonstrating change in the heavens, and starting a scientific revolution.

Observing  Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus is seen high in the south above bright Antares from early June to late September, with the best viewing 10pm in late July. It has 36 stars brighter than magnitude 4.8. 12 of these are in the zodiac. Less than one third of its 948 square degrees are in the zodiac – about the same amount of area as Scorpius has in the zodiac. In fact the sun crosses through this constellation from November 30 to December 17, a total of 18 days. The sun is among the stars of the scorpion for only 6 days. Thus Ophiuchus can be considered the forgotten or ignored 13th sign of the zodiac.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *