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Leo Mythology

Leo is one of the oldest constellations in the sky. Archaeological evidence suggests that Mesopotamians had a constellation similar to Leo as early as 4000 BC. The Persians knew the constellation as Shir or Ser, Babylonians called it ur.gu.li (“the great lion”), Syrians knew it as Aryo and the Turks as Artan.

Old woodcarving of Leo, the lion

Babylonians knew the star Regulus as “the star that stands at the Lion’s breast,” or the King Star. Both the constellation and its brightest star were well-known in most ancient cultures.

The Greeks associated Leo with the Nemean lion, the beast killed by Heracles during the first of his twelve labours. Both Eratosthenes and Hyginus wrote that the lion was placed among the constellations because it was the king of beasts.

The lion lived in a cave in Nemea, a town located to the south-west of Corinth. It was killing the local inhabitants and could not be killed because its skin could not be pierced by any weapons.

Heracles could not kill the lion with arrows, so he trapped the lion in its cave, grappled with the beast, and eventually choked it to death. He used the lion’s claws to cut off its pelt, and then wore the pelt as a cloak, complete with the lion’s head. The cloak both protected Heracles and made him appear even more fearsome.

The Leo constellation is connected most to the sun. In the zodiac, Leo is a fire sign and represents those born in the summer months. In ancient times, the constellation lined up almost perfectly with the summer solstice. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, was often called the “Red Flame” and was thought to contribute to the heat of summer.

If you cross the sea to Egypt, we see a different take on the constellation Leo myth. The Egyptians also recognised the Leo constellation and its ruling star, Regulus. In Egypt, however, the constellation had more to do with the river Nile than with a mythical beast.

It’s not entirely clear where the Egyptians believed the constellation to have come from directly, but the lion in Egypt is represented as an important animal to the livelihood of the Egyptians. Basically, the Egyptians relied on the Nile River to flood every year and nurture the land for the harvest. During the summer months, the heat in the desert would be so great that the lions of the plains would move closer to the Nile to stay cool and have access to water. This coincided with the river’s yearly inundation – an event so crucial to the survival of the Egyptians that festivals were held to the gods regularly in hopes that the inundation would be good. Statues depicting lion heads can be found in buildings alongside the Nile.

In the sky, the six bright stars that form the Sickle of Leo represent the lion’s head, and the brightest star in the constellation, Regulus (Alpha Leonis), marks the beast’s heart. Another bright star, Denebola (Beta Leonis) marks the tip of the lion’s tail. Algieba (Gamma Leonis) lies on the lion’s neck, even though its name means “the forehead.” Zosma (Delta Leonis) marks the lion’s rump.

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