Of the 88 officially recognized constellations, it’s one of the largest, taking up some 804 square degrees of the nighttime sky. For centuries, this elegant grouping of heavenly luminaries has been identified as both a swan and a cross.
One of the most prominent legends of Cygnus as a swan involves the close friendship of Cycnus and Phaethon. Cycnus, as the story is told, succumbed to inconsolable grief as a result of his friend’s disastrously wild ride through the heavens in Phaethon’s father’s chariot.
This was no ordinary chariot, though. It’s four heavenly steeds, chomping and sparking at their bits, smoke rising from their hooves, their manes and necks ablaze with fury and strength, could only be controlled by the might and wisdom of Helios, Phaeton’s father.
For this chariot, according to legend, pulled the very sun itself.
The only one who had the requisite strength and ability to negotiate the blazing steeds and their massive, life-giving luminary was Helios himself. In the hands of anyone else, the reins would be certain death.
Legend has it that Helios, wanting to prove his paternal love and affection to his son, told Phaeton to ask for anything. When the youth asked to take the reins of the chariot, Helios’ heart sank like the sun dropping into the depths of the ocean at eventide. Not wanting to go back on a promise, however, the king, with much reluctance, granted his son’s naïve request (kind of like a dad handing over the keys to a $300,000 Ferrari to his 15-year-old son who’s never so much as used a clutch).
It was a short ride. The horses knew Helios’ hands were not on the reins and thus went wildly careening through the sky, creating droughts and setting the earth ablaze; nearly vaporizing the entirety of man’s terrestrial existence. Zeus, however, quickly put a stop to Phaeton’s egregiously errant trajectory of fiery doom (the smoke of which is said to be the Milky Way) and conducted a lightning bolt directly at the chariot, hurling Phaeton to his death into the mythical Eridanes River.
Phaeton’s closest friend, Cycnus, according to legend, observed the entirety of this tragic ordeal first-hand. He became so grief stricken that he repeatedly dove into the Eridanes River in search of his friend’s remains. It is said the gods were so moved by Cycnus’ love for Phaeton that they changed him into a swan and emblazoned him forever in the heavens.
Right in the midst of the Milky Way.
Another legend of Cygnus as a swan involves the adulterous machinations of Zeus, who changed himself into a swan to hide from his wife after an immoral liaison with Leda, the wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta. Leda and Zeus’ brief affair produced the famous mythical twins, Pollux the immortal boxer and judge, and Castor, the mortal laborer and breaker of horses.
And right now, curiously enough, the planet Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus) is actually in the constellation of Gemini which includes the “twin” stars of Pollux and Castor.
Like Dad’s checking up on the kiddos!
With the naked eye, you can see father and sons in the evening looking northeast just after dark. Jupiter is just about the brightest object in the nighttime sky right now. And just to the left of the king of the planets are the two stars of Pollux (nearest the planet) and Castor, just above his brother.
But getting back to our Swan, the myths aren’t the only intriguing things which surround Cygnus. This unique constellation is also circumscribed by a host of other remarkable heavenly objects. Three spectacular nebulas are found nearby – the North American Nebula, the Pelican Nebula and the Veil Nebula, all named in accordance with the shapes their luminous gas clouds resemble.
Also close to Cygnus are the well-known constellations of Draco and Lyra, as well as a lesser known constellation called Vulpecula, Latin for “little fox”; a stellar critter sometimes portrayed as having a goose in its mouth.
Just above Cygnus is the ancient constellation of Cepheus, the king of Aethiopia and father to the legendary Andromeda. Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother, boasted of her daughter’s beauty, claiming her to be even more beautiful than the sea-faring Nereids. Upon hearing this boast, the enchanted oceanic maidens complained to Poseidon who intended to flood Cepheus’ kingdom for such blasphemy.
To appease the gods and avoid destruction to the entire kingdom, it was decided that Andromeda be chained to a rocky sea cliff (or island, as some legends suggest) to be sacrificed to the sea beast. Some renditions of the constellation of Cepheus portray him as petitioning the gods to spare his daughter’s life.
But if you’re up on your mythology, you know the gods answered Cepheus’ prayers. From out of the sky on his valiant, winged steed Pegasus, Perseus descends upon the voracious, melancholy beast and slays it – using the severed head of Medusa, legends tell us – freeing Andromeda from the sea monster’s terrible jaws.
As far as I know, Perseus and Andromeda lived rather contented and happy lives thereafter.
The constellation of Pegasus, by the way, is also in close proximity to Cygnus, dropping down a bit from the star Deneb by about thirty degrees.
The sea monster which intended to consume Andromeda has been associated with the constellations of Cetus, Serpens and Draco, all of which, to greater or lesser extents throughout their respective mythical histories, have been considered a malignant, serpentine-like creature generally opposed to the ways of man and the gods.
The “head” of constellation of Draco is seen just a bit to the right of Cygnus, almost as if this massive mythical dragon has a curiously vested interest in what the swan is doing.
But it is the lesser-known nomenclature of Cygnus which I think could possibly tie together a lot of what just seems like a hodge-podge of disparate and imaginative myths of a bygone era.
The Northern Cross.
I’ve always wondered why we hang on to the myths in the skies like we do. Some of the stories behind the constellations can be traced back some 5,000 years or more. Is there some lost meaning behind them all which might explain why the stories of Cygnus, Perseus, Andromeda and Draco are still with us, even after the cultures who gave us these myths have long since faded into their historical sunsets?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s possible to know for sure. If you study the lore of the heavens to any degree, you quickly realize if there were any original manuscripts for the meanings behind the constellations, we’ve lost them. All we have are copies of copies of copies of the originals.
But that doesn’t mean one can’t find some glimmers of truth among the legends themselves.
The stars in their courses and all the stellar beauty of the 88 constellations we know today are in many ways like good poetry. And, it goes without saying, a poem requires a poet. And it is certain that when a poet writes a poem he or she is intending to make a statement (God’s glory, for example – Psalm 19). But really good poetry, like quantum theory suggests regarding the physical world, has built into it the idea that the one doing the observing, the one reading the text, will affect the poem’s meaning itself.
It’s an amazing fact that cutting-edge, high-tech, modern science has discovered that human observation of the physical world actually affects the physical world. At the quantum level, the physical world looks like it was designed with observers in mind and that those observers and their observations of the physical world, actually have significant impact the data and conclusions drawn from those observations.
In simpler terms, when I want to look at light for example, trying to deduce its two natures of wave and particle through observation and experiment, I’m going to have to turn on a light to do so. I cannot look at light in total darkness. I need light to see light. The simple act of wanting to observe light requires light. I will therefore turn on some lights and my eyes will simultaneously absorb and reflect the light I see. The luminescent mystery of light’s particle/wave duality literally will become a part of me. Light will enter my brain via the rods and cones and lenses of my eyes, dancing along the sinewy connectivity of neurons and dendrites and stir within me a host of thought and wonder.
Not only that, the light of the lab as well as the reflected light of my eyes and skin will have an impact on the particles and waves I’m attempting to observe. I can’t see the behavior of light without seeing it, but when I do see it, light kind of “sees” me, too. I know that sounds rather strange and a bit tautological, but it is nonetheless one of the more profound insights into the nature of the created order that science has ever given us.
Our observations of the world around us actually impact what we’re observing.
With our light experiment, for example, I will eventually interpret the elusive and elegiac nature of light’s mysteries and record what I see and think. Maybe I’ll sing about it, write an abstract for a scientific journal, write poetry or paint a picture. Whatever the nature of my expressions take, my simple observation of light will, in turn, produce an interpretation which will then add to humanity’s collective understanding of this simple, wondrous gift we call “light.”
Just think, for example, how Charles Darwin’s interpretation of the created order has impacted our culture for the last 150 years.
But is this not also the case with the constellations? The “meanings” of these have been determined by those of us on the ground doing the observing and such observations still resonate with us centuries later. For the Christian, it is a truth that the “Poet” has written and named all the starry hosts (Genesis 1:14-15; Isaiah 40:26), but has also seemed to allow for us to have some input into their meaning. So the “stories” we have of our ancient luminary companions high above are both at once the prose (John 1:1-5) of a divine Author and also a kind of a poetic collective of our shared human experiences.
The reason for the enduring nature of the constellation myths themselves is perhaps that they contain kernels of truth regarding what it means to be human.
In addition, not only is it amazing to think that the light and lore of a star so many thousands of light years away actually finds its way into the tiny aperture of my eye and mind, but that the stars themselves actually produce the chemical element which comprises a majority of my physical composition.
The “dust” from which God has formed us is produced in the stellar nuclear furnaces of stars. So when Daniel tells us that God’s children will “shine like stars” (Daniel 12:3), he’s not kidding! In Psalm 8, king David proclaims the heavens and all their hosts and being the work of God’s “fingers”.
Those hands which made the stars have also made us. We are, according to Scripture, fearfully and wonderfully knitted together from “star stuff” in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139).
Ok, wow. But what’s any of that got to do with pelicans, veils, dragons, swans, foxes and Greco-Roman mythology of adulterous gods, and fabled creatures of ignoble dispositions and the likes?
It is the poetry of the Northern Cross which I think holds it all together and sheds a little “light” on the subjects we’ve been discussing.
It is remarkable and awe-inspiring to consider that the stars and their ancient patterns in the black velvet canvas of the night sky seem to come to us, like the cross itself. Whether we believe the message of the cross or not, it is unmistakable that in our collective human experience, the story has found its way to us. Like the stars in their courses, we cannot help but notice the cross. Even at incomprehensible distances of time and space, the luminous narratives of the cross and the stars themselves nevertheless seem to find their way to our very doorstep.
As Emily Dickinson once wrote,
“And what a privilege to be
But the remotest Star –
For Certainty She take Her Way
Beside Your Palace Door -“
The late astronomer Carl Sagan once asked if God existed, why didn’t he put a hundred-kilometer crucifix in orbit around the earth?
“God could certainly do that. Right? Certainly, create the universe? A simple thing like putting a crucifix in Earth orbit? Perfectly possible. Why didn’t God do things of that sort? Or, put another way, why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?”
But why did He need to? As Paul tells the Athenians gathered on Mars Hill,
“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” (Acts 17:27-28)
Those short verses of Athenian poetry were written with Zeus in mind, by the way.
But it is nonetheless a perplexing dilemma for sinful man. If God is so close to us, why does He often seem so veiled? God’s “obscurity” has been a perplexing conundrum for most of our human existence. Where is He? What’s He doing? What’s He like? Where’d He go? Why doesn’t He give us a sign? Why is there evil in the world? Why all the multitude of religions and mythologies? Why war? God where are you?
For myself personally, I’ll have to begin with Job. Ninth chapter, eleventh verse.
“Behold, He passes by me, and I see Him not;
He moves on, but I do not perceive Him.”
That’s me in simple Hebraic poetry. Two lines – a chiasm the scholars call it – each line expressing the same idea in different words. In this case, Job admits twice that God does in fact “move” but that when He does, Job admits he doesn’t notice Him. I know the feeling.
God is thus kind of like a blue whale in some respects. The most massive mammal in the known universe is also, according to blue whale theologians, the most elusive and relatively unknown. Now there is some divine irony.
Dan Bortolotti writes, “The blue whale is at once the largest animal in the world and one of the most mysterious. It is the longest, heaviest and loudest living creature, and yet it can be remarkably inconspicuous.”
He goes on, “Only a tiny percentage of people will ever have the good fortune of seeing or hearing one in the wild.”
If one does, words kind of fail to describe the encounter, for “the blue whale’s dimensions are so gargantuan that humans have a hard time comprehending them.”
For all of our scientific discovery, Bortolotti says, “One might think that an animal so large would be thoroughly understood by scientists.”
But nothing could be more remote from the reality of what little scientists know of this massive, but enigmatically elusive creature.
There are striking theological parallels with the blue whale. Wouldn’t a Being whose fingers made the sun, moon and stars, the very One who also created us, be more “visible” to us than He is?
In three preceding verses of Job’s confession of his ignorance of God’s workings in the world, he admits what he has seen of God’s works. Job knows it is God
“who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea;
who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
who does great things beyond searching out,
and marvelous things beyond number.”
So we can “see” what God has done, but we don’t often “see” God the way we demand to see Him. Pythagoreans found beauty in numerical harmony but fell short of seeing God Himself. Human experience attests to the fact that a man can gaze in the heavens and completely repudiate God’s existence or fall to His knees in awe of Him. Why that is the case, I cannot rightly ascertain, except to say that the devastating consequences of sin have had something to do with it.
But God often does things “beyond number.” His glory in the heavens is often “beyond searching out.” Even as a Christian, I’m not always going to “get it.” Like Job, I must confess God is often at work, but He passes me by and I do not see it. My “eyes” are too dull. My heart too heavy. Now I see Him, now I don’t.
It’s often ironic listening to arguments opposed to God’s existence which discuss God’s omniscience. Various objections are given for how God could not possibly be omniscient and loving at the same time, etc. But as human beings who discuss “omniscience” do we have an omniscient perspective on the subject ourselves, or might our human limitations prevent us from exhaustively understanding the concept?
To answer Dr. Sagan’s question, consider Ms. Dickinson’s simple verse above. If we take some poetic license and interpret the “Star” as the cross, we realize, like the ancient light of stars which has taken thousands of light years to reach us, that has the cross has likewise spanned millennia, its Light gently and graciously arriving beside our Palace Doors, knocking on the chamber of our hearts. Paul is right. He is not far from each one of us. We want the cross in the sky, not the knock at our doors.
It’s a little disconcerting to have the God of the universe show up on our doorstep.
It’s happened to me. “That’s God knocking, Bubba. Better hide,” I say. So I peer out through the curtains or quietly look through the tiny aperture of the “who-is-it” peep hole. Funny how I often demand to “see” God and then when He does show up, I go and hide.
“No thanks, Jesus. Not in the mood for holiness today. Don’t particularly feel like dying. The world’s hatred is too much for my beleaguered soul at the moment. My life’s a mess. Too messy to be telling others about You, really.”
But He’s rather indifferent to my protestations of being unqualified to be His emissary. Should I persist in my willful recalcitrance, however, something akin to a blue whale awaits to transport me to the proper field of duty. He still knocks. And knock He will until I answer.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus tells the church in Laodicea. “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to Him and eat with Him, and He with me.” (Rev. 3:20)
To conclude, there are echoes of Christ’s knocking upon the doors of our hearts within the Cygnus nebula. I cannot prove any of this conclusively by any means, any more than I can prove I’ve correctly interpreted Ms. Dickinson’s poetry or Dr. Sagan’s theological musings. But the echoes are there, for me at least. May He grant you eyes to see them as well.
First echo for me is the friendship of Cycnus and Phaeton and Cycnus’ grief over the loss of his friend. At first glance, the incredible bond of friendship between them reminded me instantly of David’s friendship with Jonathan and David’s grief over Jonathan’s death. Consider 2 Samuel 1:17-27, especially the last few verses.
“How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!”
David often honestly confesses his grief to God throughout many of the Psalms. Most pertinent to our discussion of Cygnus is David’s wish he had the “wings of a dove” to fly away from his troubles.
“And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
yes, I would wander far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah
I would hurry to find a shelter
from the raging wind and tempest.’”
In addition, it was also King David who had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers. From their adulterous affair came King Solomon and, eventually, the Lord Jesus. According to Matthew’s genealogy, David and Solomon are direct descendants of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.
An adulterous liaison of a king which produced the mortal “judge” King Solomon and the immortal Lord Jesus Christ, a Laborer and Sufferer.
Zeus, Leda, Pollux and Castor anyone? I mean, I can’t and don’t want to hoist any kind of dogmatic certitude upon this interpretation of the mythologies or suggest this is the only way to view them, but only to point out some the intriguing parallels which nevertheless seem to exist.
Enter the Lord Jesus.
Consider the cross once more as it is portrayed against the Milky Way in Dan Lessmann’s stunning photo of Cygnus (Mr. Lessmann and his website, it should be noted, do not promote or endorse the theological interpretations of Cygnus and the cross offered herein). In the myth, the Milky Way was thought to be the “smoke” left behind by Phaeton’s fatal excursion. Phaeton wanted to be like his sun-god father but had not nearly the requisite strength or wisdom to handle it.
In a similar way, man wanted to be like God and partook of the knowledge of the tree of good and evil. The result was death. The residual affect of our first parent’s decision to take the reins and be like God has left a trail of smoke and death over our terrestrial existence. But right over that fatal path God has placed the cross. It is now the only way to escape the fiery doom of human volition hell-bent on becoming god-like.
The cross is in front of, on top of, barring the way to hell, keeping back the eternal flame, beckoning sinners with its remarkable, almost unimaginable grace and mercy.
But like Cycnus, Jesus was also a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53). He was grieved unto death for the cup which had been given to Him to drink – the sin of the entire world was laid upon His shoulders and He could scarcely face it, praying to let the cup of crucifixion pass from Him (Matt. 26:39). His exceeding sorrow was as a result of His exceedingly great love for us in our fatal condition.
As David loved Jonathan and Cycnus loved Phaeton, “God so loved the world.” You know the verse (John 3:16). He laid down His life for us, His friends.
Jesus began His earthly ministry through means of baptism by His cousin John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Shortly after arising out of the water, the Scriptures tell us the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:13-17).
Perhaps there are some similarities between a sorrowful Cycnus descending into the mythical Eridanes on behalf of his dear friend, Phaeton and Jesus Christ, a “man of sorrows”, being baptized in the Jordan for our sakes, for His “friends” (John 15:14-15), rescuing us from sin and death. Indeed it seems David’s prayer in Psalm 55 was indeed answered in Jesus’ baptism, which, interestingly enough, also occurred in the “wilderness” – the very place to which David wished to escape.
So how might this tie in to the Pelican Nebula? The pelican has actually been a symbol for the Church for centuries. It is said that during times of food scarcity, the mother pelican stabs herself to feed her little ones with her own blood. Legends of pelican self-wounding may have originated from the fact that pelicans will press their bills against their chest in order to completely empty their food pouch. For the Church, this image of what appears to be a self-wounding pelican has come to symbolize Christ being wounded for our transgressions and making atonement for our sins, spiritually nourishing and cleansing us through His blood.
Is it merely coincidental that the Pelican Nebula is so closely associated with the Northern Cross? I can’t say for sure. I certainly don’t wish to be dogmatic about it, but only suggest a possibility or two, as Paul did with Athenian poetry on Mars Hill (Acts 17).
For of course these heavenly objects existed long before the events of the Gospels took place. But if God is a Master Poet, He certainly knew how to write stellar verse in such a way as to leave room for man to interpret the heavens in a way which would bring glory to Him (Psalm 8; 19).
What about the “little fox”, Vulpecula? Consider it has a goose in its mouth and compare what little we know of this little critter to a few verses from Luke’s Gospel.
“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.'””
Herod wanted Jesus dead. Jesus called him a “fox.”
How about the Veil Nebula?
Might it be symbolic of the temple veil which separated God and man in the sanctuary? Upon Jesus’ death on the cross, this veil was torn in two, giving man full access to God through the atoning death Christ. No one comes to the Father except through Christ.
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (Matthew 27:50-52)
It is a remarkably curious thing that the Veil Nebula itself is as a result of a massive supernova – an exploding star.
The death of a star, no less.
And what of Cepheus, Perseus, Andromeda and Pegasus?
Consider the dragon of old, the devil and Satan, who makes perpetual war with God’s people. Andromeda might be poetically interpreted as either Mary or the Church or both.
“Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.” (Revelation 12:17)
And of Cepheus, the king, making intercession for his daughter?
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:31-34)
Consider what Scripture says about what the Lord Jesus will eventually do to this ancient serpentine-like adversary of man and God. Cepheus’ prayers are answered in the swift, salvific grace and strength of Perseus’ bold rescue of Andromeda.
“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1)
“And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to Him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.” (Rev 6:2)
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems, and He has a name written that no one knows but Himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which He is called is The Word of God.” (Rev. 19:11-13)
I’m not sure children’s author E.B. White had all this in mind when he wrote his heartwarming tale of a mute swan named Louis who learns to communicate by adroitly playing the trumpet, but the conclusion of the book nonetheless serves as a fitting conclusion to our story of the constellation Cygnus.
Sam Beaver is the main character who helps Louis throughout the story. At the end of the book, Sam has grown up and is camping in the Canadian wilderness when he hears the distinct elegiac refrains of Louis’ trumpet. Sam writes in his journal,
“Tonight I heard Louis’s horn. My father heard it, too. The wind was right, and I could hear the notes of taps, just as darkness fell. There is nothing in all the world I like better than the trumpet of the swan.”
Jesus, help us to hear the elegiac and wondrous refrain of Your call, of Your knocking. Give us all grace to love nothing else more than You today, this year and always. Be merciful to us this year. In your grace, be merciful to us.