By Mike Lynch
Midwinter is a wonderful time to have the majestic winter constellations overwhelm the southern half of the Northwest sky.
There’s Orion the Hunter and his surrounding gang of constellations, like Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins and several others. In a couple of months these stars of the winter show will not be seen again until sometime next fall.
This week in Starwatch I want to feature one of the minor constellations of Orion and his gang, Lepus (pronounced Lee-pus) the Rabbit. What a name for that constellation. Someone had a sense of humor. Look for a group of fainter stars directly below Orion. In the countryside, of course, you’ll see it more easily without the irksome urban lighting.
In mythology, Lepus the Rabbit is a fun little story. It reminds me of the old Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd cartoons. Just like Elmer, Orion was a pretty good hunter. Orion could hunt down any beast on his island, no matter how large or ferocious. He was definitely at the top of the heap when it came to hunters.
Nevertheless, just like Elmer Fudd, there was one beast that constantly eluded the mighty hermit hunter and actually took great pleasure in harassing him. It’s Orion’s version of Bugs Bunny, Lepus the Rabbit.
Here’s what’s up, Doc. Not only was Lepus a normal pesky rabbit that ate everything out of Orion’s garden, he would constantly taunt and tease Orion during his hunting adventures, jumping on his head, or biting the mighty hunter’s backside just as he was about to launch a spear at a wild boar.
Lepus also left surprises in Orion’s sleeping bag. (Let’s just leave it at that.)
Orion wanted this rabbit offed in the worst way, but just like Bugs, Lepus was too clever and fast.
Orion never got to realize his dream of eliminating Lepus, because Orion himself was done in by Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Zeus found out that Orion was fooling around with his daughter Artemis, the goddess of the moon. It turns out that he was secretly meeting Artemis during his nightly hunting adventures.
Zeus did not approve of his daughter messing around with a mortal roughneck hunter and put out a hit on Orion. He sent a giant scorpion that attacked Orion during his daytime slumber. There was a tumultuous battle between the combatants, but, alas, the giant scorpion fatally bit the Elmer Fudd of the night sky.
When Artemis discovered her dead boyfriend, she lifted his body into the heavens and magically transfigured it into the constellation we see in the winter heavens. She wanted to be able to see him every night as she guided the moon across the sky.
She also placed his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor up there with him, along with, yes, that pesky rabbit Lepus.
So that’s what’s up in the sky right now, Doc.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.