Cassiopeia and Cepheus: Vanity Gets You Nowhere
The northern sky holds many familiar constellations and asterisms such as Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, and the Little Dipper. These circumpolar constellations are always visible in the night sky if you live in the northern hemisphere.
Nearly all constellations have some sort of story to tell. Different cultures from various ages all around the world look up at their sky and tell the stories of what they see. They might see a grouping of stars in a slightly different way than another culture and thus have different stories. Stories evolve, change and morph into new stories. Cultures build upon other cultures lore. There may be more than one story for a constellation, even among the same culture.
Oftentimes, star lore can combine not just one, but several constellations into a larger story. Such is the case with the constellations of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Both constellations are best seen in late summer and fall, when they are high in the northern sky. Both constellations lie along the northern Milky Way, and are rich with many deep sky objects. Cassiopeia is easily recognized as it looks like the letter ‘W’. Cepheus looks like a lopsided house drawn by a child.
In Greek mythology, Cepheus and Cassiopeia were the king and queen of Ethiopia. Cassiopeia was very beautiful, but also boastful and vain about her beauty. She was not afraid to tell people how beautiful she was. One day, she dared to say that she, along with her daughter, Andromeda, were more beautiful than the sea nymphs, known as the Nereids. The Nerieds were taken aback at Cassiopeia’s claim, and went to complain to their father, Poseidon, who did not take kindly to this slight from Cassiopeia. Angered, he decided to send a sea monster, Cetus, to ravage King Cepheus’ territory. Trying to find a way to stop Cetus from destroying his kingdom, Cepheus went to the Oracle and asked what could be done to stop the monster and save his people from certain destruction. The Oracle stated the only way to save the kingdom was to sacrifice his beloved daughter, Andromeda, to the sea monster. Reluctantly, Cepheus and Cassiopeia agreed to chain Andromeda to a rock on the shoreline, and await her fate.
Shortly thereafter, Perseus came by on his winged horse, Pegasus. He was returning home after slaying Medusa, whose snake-filled head he carried in his bag. It was said that just one look from Medusa’s stare could turn anything into stone. Seeing Andromeda’s plight and how beautiful she was, he instantly fell in love with her. Perseus offered to kill the sea monster and save Andromeda, provided he could have her hand in marriage. Cepheus gladly accepted the offer. Anything to save his precious daughter. Telling Andromeda to keep her eyes closed, Perseus hid behind the rocks near Andromeda. When Cetus rose from the waves to kill Andromeda, Perseus, with his eyes shut tightly, pulled the head of Medusa out from his bag. When Cetus gazed upon Medusa’s eyes, he was instantly transformed into stone, and sank back down to the bottom of the ocean. Andromeda was saved from a horrible death, the kingdom was rescued from ruin, and the wedding was planned.
During the ceremony, a man named Phineus, claimed that Andromeda had been promised to him first. Standing at the altar, ready to say, “I do,” Perseus was understandably shaken by this claim, and a fight ensued. Fearing he would lose, Perseus once again pulled the writhing head of Medusa out of his bag, turning Phineus to stone. Unfortunately, Cepheus and Cassiopeia, caught in the glare of Medusa’s eyes, were also turned to stone. Andromeda and Perseus, however, lived happily ever after.
Poseidon was still a bit miffed at Cassiopeia’s bragging and vanity, so he decided to place her on a chair, high in the sky. For twelve hours of every day, and for about six months out of the year, Cassiopeia is forced to sit on her head, holding on for dear life as she endlessly rotates around the pole star. Such a humiliating position is definitely not queenlike or very beautiful. Cepheus, consisting of much fainter stars, stands nearby, leading his vain queen around in a ceaseless circle.