Ariadne's
Crown
 Corona Borealis
The Shawnee Indians tell of a group of star maidens who came secretly down to Earth to perform a mystical dance within a magical circle drawn upon the great prairie. One day by chance a young hunter saw the twelve beautiful girls just as they decended from their celestial chariot. He hid nearby and watched their strange fairy dances, fascinated not only by the grace of the movement, but also by the beauty of the dancers. On the following day the youth, White Hawk, returned to the place and found that so, too, the dancers came again. Intrigued, White Hawk watched the ceremonies day after day as he found himself falling deeply in love with the fairest and youngest of the maidens.

Knowing that the girls would be frightened away should he approach them, White Hawk used his supernatural powers to change his form into that of a field mouse. In that fashion he crept through the long prairie grass until he was right within the magic circle. When his love danced near, White Hawk suddenly resumed his normal form and rose to seize her firmly in his arms.

The others fled at once and sped away into the heavens, for the young maiden could not escape the lad's grasp and the rest had no choice.

Star Maiden looked at White Hawk and found him to be a handsome young man, and she returned his love. They were warmly welcomed in his village. The two were married and lived happily for many years. A son was born to them.

Yet after a period Star Maiden experienced a longing for her former home and people. She ran away, taking her little son with her, and journeyed to her land above, to the village of white tents in the sky.

But she was not happy there, for she truly loved White Hawk and could not think of living without him. In council, the chiefs of the star kingdom decided to invite White Hawk to make his home with them in the sky. Star Maiden's son, now grown to be a brave youth, was sent as a messenger to Earth; and he was able to persuade his father to return with him to star country.

As a token for his new countrymen, White Hawk took with him gifts such as a feather from an eagle, a horn from a bison, a cast-off skin from a rattleshake. These were accepted with much ceremony and delight, for the sky people had never seen these strange things. For himself and his wife and son, White Hawk took the feathers of a white falcon, and in that guise the three now live not in the land nor in the heavens, but they are free as the wind and can travel to either home.

The dancers no longer come to Earth for their ritual dances, but they can be seen in the sky in the constellation Corona Borealis. There they dance on summer evenings, their circle not fully complete, since Star Maiden is no longer with her sisters.

Many ancient cultures found this pattern in the heavens to suggest a crown, or perhaps a fairy circle. The Pawnee regarded it as their Circle of Chiefs. Another American Indian tribe looked upon these stars as the opening of a cave wherein the Great Bear hibernated all winter. The aboriginal Australians thought it to be a boomerang, while the classical Greek myth makes it the crown of Ariadne, daughter of Minos, King of Crete.

The star maidens of the Shawnee may not always dance as a group, for the individual stars lead separate lives, each traveling in a different direction. They are not linked as a true star cluster. In a hundred thousand years or so, the proper motions of the stars will have scattered them to locations where they won't be able to assemble for their nightly dances.

Corona Borealis is a small but very pretty constellation situated between Boötes and Hercules. In August's 10 p.m. sky it is high overhead in the southwest. Interesting objects in the area include a number of fine double stars, although none of these is a member of the circlet's group of seven (or eight) stars. Eta is a double star with a separation of 1 arcsecond, with components of magnitudes 5.6 and 5.9. Zeta is also a nice double with stars that are greenish white in color and separated by about 6 arcseconds. Their magnitudes are 5.1 and 6.0.

T CrB is a curious star that has earned the nickname Blaze Star. It is a member of a special group of stars known as recurrent novae. For most of the time it is a ninth magnitude star, but in 1866 it suddenly brightened to second magnitude, then faded so that within a week it was no longer visible to the naked eye. It regained its original brightness over a period of about three months. In 1946 it repeated the cycle, this time achieving magnitude 3. At this frequency, look for it to light up again in the year 2026.

Another variable star, but one that dims rather than brightens, is R CrB, lying within the bowl of the crown. Normally a 6th magnitude star that can be viewed with binoculars, on occasion it drops out of sight to magnitude 12. Unpredictably, it may recover promptly, or it may not return to normal for several years. The best explanation for this behavior involves the ejection of carbon clouds that obscure the light until the soot is swept away or reabsorbed. Stars of this class are supergiants, poor in hydrogen and transmuting their helium to carbon.


Sky Photo
This photo of the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown was taken on 9 March 1997 from a dark sky site in Blanford, Massachusetts.

Amateur astrophotographer Joe Roberts used a 135mm f/2.5 Pentax and a K1000 camera loaded with Kodak Royal Gold 1000 film. Exposure duration was 4 minutes.




 
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