The rescue of Andromeda

Reigning over the crisp evening skies of mid-October are the signature constellations of autumn: the 'Great Square' of Pegasus the Winged Horse and Andromeda the Maiden, both of which are near the zenith; W-shaped Cassiopeia the Queen and giraffe-shaped Perseus the Hero lie a little further northeast. Just west of Cassiopeia, hovering around the celestial pole, is the faint constellation Cepheus the King, which is shaped like a child's drawing of a house. These are the main characters in a Greek mytho-drama, the moral of which describes the terrible wages of vanity.

Cassiopeia was the beautiful wife of Cepheus, the Ethiopian king of Jaffa* and the mother of the fair maiden Andromeda. Unfortunately, Cassiopeia was not only beautiful, she was incredibly vain. One day she made the mistake of openly boasting that she was more beautiful than even the sea nymphs. When word got around to the nymphs, they were,

* Also spelled Joppa. Formerly the biblical city of Iope, located northeast of Egypt. Since 1950, it's been a section of Tel Aviv.

needless to say, rather annoyed with Cassiopeia. They took their complaint to the sea god, Poseidon, who especially doted on his sea nymphs. Incensed, Poseidon sent the horrible sea creature, Cetus (in some myths, the sea monster is played by Draco the Dragon), to ravage the Ethiopian coast. During the latter part of October, this dim constellation can be found low in the southeast south of Pisces, well away from the main characters in this starry drama.

As soon as Cetus arrived in Jaffa, he proceeded to devour people and livestock and wreak havoc on the city. Panicking, King Cepheus consulted the powerful Oracle of Ammon. The oracle replied that the monster would be appeased only if the King sacrificed his cherished daughter Andromeda to the monster. Cepheus now found himself faced with the agonizing dilemma of having to choose between his daughter's life and the lives of his people. But as the death and mayhem continued,

Cepheus capitulated to the oracle's counsel and reluctantly ordered Andromeda chained to a rock near the crashing waves.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia were beside themselves with anguish and fear for Andromeda, an innocent victim of her parent's folly. They were standing near their unfortunate daughter, wailing and wringing their hands, when the sea creature appeared riding upon the waves. Just when things looked blackest for Andromeda, Perseus the Hero came upon the scene riding the winged horse Pegasus. He had come from slaying Medusa, one of the three Gorgons whose dreadful glance turned people, and monsters, into stone. (Pegasus, in fact, had sprung from Medusa's blood when it spilled upon the ground.)

Upon beholding the terrible scene, Perseus flew down and, stricken with Andromeda's beauty, offered to rescue her if the King granted him the maiden's hand in marriage. Having no other option, the King agreed. Perseus, who still had the head of the Gorgon, now held it up before the startled sea creature, which promptly turned into a stone. Perseus then gallantly swept up Andromeda on his trusty flying steed, and off they flew, presumably to live happily ever after.

Mythology being what it is (i.e., a series of fabulous tales told and retold), this is only one version of the rescue of Andromeda. In another rendering, for example, Perseus arrives on the scene on winged feet and sans the head of Medusa. He still negotiates his marriage to Andromeda with her father, but slays the creature with his sword in a gory struggle.

No matter how the story played out, the result was the same. The gods honored the participants in the drama by placing them in the sky, although 'honored' might not be the right word for Cassiopeia. For much of her passage across the sky, we see her sitting on her throne upside down. She's only upright when the constellation swings over to the western sky in spring, just before it sets. Ever at her side is Cepheus, brooding, no doubt, over why the oracle didn't suggest that his wife, rather than his daughter, be sacrificed to the sea monster. At least for Perseus, Cassiopeia's vanity paid off.

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