Jan Ridpath’ STAR TALES
Ophiuchus (pronounced off-ee-YOO-cuss) represents a man with a snake coiled around his waist. He holds the head of the snake in his left hand and its tail in his right hand. The snake is represented by the constellation Serpens.
Ophiuchus holds a huge snake, Serpens, in both hands as shown in the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed. Serpens is unique in being divided into two halves.
The Greeks identified him as Asclepius, the god of medicine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and Coronis (although some say that his mother was Arsinoë). The story goes that Coronis two-timed Apollo by sleeping with a mortal, Ischys, while she was pregnant by Apollo. A crow brought Apollo the unwelcome news, but instead of the expected reward the crow, which until then had been snow-white, was cursed by Apollo and turned black.
In a rage of jealousy, Apollo shot Coronis with an arrow. Rather than see his child perish with her, Apollo snatched the unborn baby from its mother’s womb as the flames of the funeral pyre engulfed her, and took the infant to Chiron, the wise centaur (represented in the sky by the constellation Centaurus).
Chiron raised Asclepius as his own son, teaching him the arts of healing and hunting. Asclepius became so skilled in medicine that not only could he save lives, he could also raise the dead. On one occasion in Crete, Glaucus, the young son of King Minos, fell into jar of honey and drowned while at play. As Asclepius contemplated the body of Glaucus, a snake slithered towards it. He killed the snake with his staff; then another snake came along with a herb in its mouth and placed it on the body of the dead snake, which magically returned to life. Asclepius took the same herb and laid it on the body of Glaucus, who too was magically resurrected. (Robert Graves suggests that the herb was mistletoe, which the ancients thought had great regenerative properties, but perhaps it was actually willow bark, the source of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.) Because of this incident, says Hyginus, Ophiuchus is shown in the sky holding a snake, which became the symbol of healing from the fact that snakes shed their skin every year and are thus seemingly reborn.
Others, though, say that Asclepius received from the goddess Athene the blood of Medusa the Gorgon. The blood that flowed from the veins on her left side was a poison, but the blood from the right side could raise the dead.
Someone else supposedly resurrected by Asclepius was Hippolytus, son of Theseus, who died when he was thrown from his chariot (some identify him with the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer). Reaching for his healing herbs, Asclepius touched the youth’s chest three times, uttering healing words, and Hippolytus raised his head.
Hades, god of the Underworld, began to realize that the flow of dead souls into his domain would soon dry up if this technique became widely known. He complained to his brother god Zeus who struck down Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Apollo was outraged at this harsh treatment of his son and retaliated by killing the three Cyclopes who forged Zeus’ thunderbolts. To mollify Apollo, Zeus made Asclepius immortal (in the circumstances he could hardly bring him back to life again) and set him among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus.
The brightest star in Ophiuchus is second-magnitude Alpha Ophiuchi, called Rasalhague from the Arabic meaning ‘the head of the serpent collector’. Beta Ophiuchi is called Cebalrai from the Arabic for ‘the shepherd’s dog’; the Arabs visualized a shepherd (the star Alpha Ophiuchi) along with his dog and some sheep in this area.
Delta and Epsilon Ophiuchi are called Yed Prior and Yed Posterior. These are compound names, formed from the Arabic al-yad, meaning ‘hand’, with the Latin words Prior and Posterior added to give names meaning the ‘leading’ and ‘following’ part of the hand.