Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The serpent handler

Satan's confrontation with Death, II.704 ff:
So spake the grieslie terror, and in shape,
So speaking and so threatning, grew tenfold [ 705 ]
More dreadful and deform: on th' other side
Incenst with indignation Satan stood
Unterrifi'd, and like a Comet burn'd,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In th' Artick Sky, and from his horrid hair [ 710 ]
Shakes Pestilence and Warr.

It takes a Milton to pull an Ophiucus out of the sky, but why this constellation in particular? The more one learns about Miltonic allusions, the richer they become. Here are a few elements:

 Ophiuchus is depicted as a man grasping a serpent; the interposition of his body divides the snake constellation Serpens into two parts, Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda, which are nonetheless counted as one constellation.

The supernova of 1604 was first observed on October 9, 1604, near θ Ophiuchi. Johannes Kepler saw it first on October 16 and studied it so extensively that the supernova was subsequently called Kepler's Supernova. He published his findings in a book titled De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in Ophiuchus' Foot).Galileo used its brief appearance to counter the Aristotelian dogma that the heavens are changeless.

There exist a number of theories as to whom the figure represents.
The most recent interpretation is that the figure represents the healer Asclepius, who learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another healing herbs. To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius' care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning, but later placed his image in the heavens to honor his good works. It has also been noted that the constellation Ophiuchus is in close proximity in the sky to that of Sagittarius, which has at times been believed to represent Chiron (the mentor of Asclepius and many other Greek demigods), though Chiron was originally associated with the constellation Centaurus.

With tragic irony, then, the myth tells of a demigod healer who discovers a way for mortals to overcome death; his reward from Zeus is to be struck dead. More mythological material from another site:

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.

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.

It will not come as a surprise that there is much, much more about Ophiuchus if Googled.

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