Diamond Midnight: Star Stories

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You can reference this page as: Urban, Shawn. (2015). Lynx: Ancient Myths of a Modern Constellation. Diamond Midnight: Star Stories. http://www.ualberta.ca/~urban/Samples/Stars/Myths.htm.

Thanks, enjoy and keeping watching the skies,
Shawn Urban

Ancient Myths of a Modern Constellation

Myths of the Lynx

Sometimes the brightest things come in the darkest packages. Johannes Hevelius's new constellations are modern additions, making them void of ancient mythology which so embed the first constellations in the mysteries and beliefs of long-past cultures. This makes these new constellations less romantic than their ancient counterparts. However, the faintest of these modern constellations, Lynx, is reminiscent of not one, but three ancient myths, probably by intent, giving Lynx a standing otherwise reserved for the ancients.

Hevelius's Boast: The Eyes of the Lynx

Hevelius named the constellation between Gemini, Auriga and Ursa Major Lynx mainly because it is so dark that one, like Hevelius, needs the superb eyesight of the nocturnal European lynx to see objects in it. Hevelius was proud of his eyesight, often challenging his contemporaries who used telescopes to better his bare-eye observations and measurements. But he also relished the challenge to unveil the secrets that Lynx's darkness hid. Like a lynx, he stealthily scrutinized the darkness of Lynx for shadowed treasures. To Hevelius, the lynx had three delightful qualities: it seeks, it sees and it cannot be seen. Lynx's darkness represented his renowned eyesight and the thrill of hunting for, stalking and descrying new wonders in Space or Nature. This hunt is symbolic of the quintessential scientist's quest.

Devil in the Dark

But where did the cat get its name?

Lynceus of Greece was said to have the ability to see in the dark of night and underground, and through trees, walls and earth (Hunter 1997). He used this ability to help his brother, Idas, and himself through many adventures, including the Calydonian Boar hunt and the Argonaut quest for the Golden Fleece. His last act was to use his sight to save the life of his brother who was about to be ambushed. The story of this ambush (told elsewhere) is one of the myths associated with Lynx. Hevelius likely capitalized on Lynx's position beside, and contrast with, Gemini, in associating Lynx with the battle and death of the Aphareides — Lynceus and Idas — and Dioskouroi — Castor and Pollux — over the Leucippides.

For millenia, people ascribed to the cat, lynx, the ability to also see in the dark, and through walls. This led to the wildcat being named after Lynceus, and to a symbolic superstition that linked the lynx to the Devil in medieval times. The lynx used the dark to hide itself, like Lynx, while at the same time it used its sight, like Lynceus and Hevelius, to see features hidden in the dark. Because of this triangle of connections, Hevelius named the constellation well.

Torches of the Lychnobioi

Another Lynceus in another Greek tragedy (Leadbetter 1999, Lindemans 1999a and Smedley 1845) was the son of Aegyptus and the sole survivor of the Aegyptiides, who were killed by their cousins, the Danaides. In a time when quantity of children ensured and signified power in Egypt, King Belus of Egypt, son of Poseidon, had two sons (of many children), who in their turn had fifty children each. King Danaus fathered fifty daughters, the Danaides, while his twin, King Aegyptus, fathered fifty sons, the Aegyptiides. When these in turn were old enough to marry, Aegyptus compelled Danaus to marry off his daughters to Aegyptus's sons. Danaus's daughters, on Danaus's order, avenged this disgrace by killing their husbands on their wedding night. However, Lynceus escaped, being spared by his wife, Amymone (Hypermestra), because he had spared her virginity.

Lynceus took refuge on the high plain of Lyrcea near Argos, where the nymph Io, ancestor of Belus, was born and where the town Lyrcea or Lyrceia was erected. Amymone hid in Larissa, the citadel of Argos. Until Danaus died, they lived apart and signalled each other by waving torches. So they became known as the Lychnobioi, the ones who live ('bios') by lamplight ('lychnos').

There finally came a time when Danaus died (some versions have Lynceus or Amymone killing him) and Aegyptus left to rule Egypt after his sons' murders. Lynceus and Amymone left their sanctuaries, reunited and came to rule Argos. The Danaides, except for Amymone, were punished for the murder of their husbands by spending eternity filling colanders with water in Tartarus.

And in memory of the torch signalling of Lynceus and Amymone the Argives, citizens of Argos, long held an annual torchlight festival.

Lynx, coming from the Indo-European root *leuk-, means 'light' or 'brightness' (Wright 2008), rather ironic given the dark nature of the cat, Lyncei and constellation. In Greece, it took the form of lychnos, and in Rome until Roman Imperial times, it was lychnus, both meaning 'lamp'. This story therefore suggests that Lynx is not named for its dark emptiness, but for the spots of light shining, like eyes, at us from within the black constellation. The name then honors the shining objects or "lamps" which populate the night sky, without which the night would be truly dark and barren.

There is one connection between the Lynceus of this story and the Son of Aphareus of the Leucippides myth (mentioned above). Both had brothers named Idas, the one from this story being married to the Danaide Hippodice.

The Price of Treachery and Greed

Lynceus was not the only name linked to Lynx. The ancient Greeks told a story about Hades, God of the Underworld, Demeter, Goddess of Agriculture, and Persephone, daughter of Demeter (Lindemans 2005 and 2003). Most people are familiar with an abridged version of this tale. The unabridged version also has as key figures Lyncus, King of Scythia, and Triptolemos, messenger of Demeter and son of Keleus, King of Eleusis (Trckova-Flamee 2005 and Lindemans 1999b). As the story goes, Hades took Persephone into the Underworld. Demeter was grief-stricken and neglected to sow seeds on the Earth as she searched for Persephone. The Earth lay barren until Zeus, hearing the plight of the Greeks, stepped in and ordered Hades to release Persephone. Hades agreed; however, upon releasing Persephone, he gave her a pomegranate, which she ate. She became Goddess of the Underworld and could not return to her mother. Zeus again intervened and decreed that Persephone would live in the Underworld for only four months (winter, the season when nothing grows) and then for eight months she would live with her mother in the Upperworld (summer, the season when crops grow and mature). This placated Demeter's rage and sorrows enough for her to send a messenger, Triptolemos, in her dragon-drawn Chariot to rain seeds of harvest across the Earth.

Triptolemos planned to begin this task over Scythia, in the Caucasus north of Greece, where Lyncus ruled. But Lyncus was a jealous and envious ruler and he plotted to kill Triptolemos and take the credit for the good harvest over Scythia and the rest of the known Earth. He gave Triptolemos his blessing to rain seeds over Scythia, and Triptolemus began his labor. Just as Lyncus was about to ambush Triptolemus though, Demeter, who wanted to watch her seeds shower the Earth, appeared and changed Lyncus into a lynx. She placed him in the sky where the stars were so dim nobody could see him, except with "the eyes of a lynx". So, according to modern interpretation, came Lynx to the sky (Deprest 2001).

These Ancient Stories

These ancient stories just go to show you even modern constellations sometimes have myths associated with them. The imagery of darkness, obscurity, keen nocturnal and "x-ray" vision, death and evil common to these three stories suggests an enduring theme associated with Lynx. Perhaps Hevelius had the stories of Persephone and the Lyncei, as well as his own famed vision, in mind when he created and named Lynx.


Deprest, M. S. (2001.) Lynx. Reflections of the University Lowbrow Astronomers. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.umich.edu/~lowbrows/guide/lynx.html.

Hunter, J. (1997.) Lynceus. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/l/lynceus.html.

Leadbetter, R. (1999.) Danaus. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/d/danaus.html.

Lindemans, M. F. (2005.) Persephone. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/p/persephone.html.

Lindemans, M. F. (2003.) Demeter. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/d/demeter.html.

Lindemans, M. F. (1999a.) Lynceus. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/l/lynceus2.html.

Lindemans, M. F. (1999b.) Lyncus. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/l/lyncus.html.

Smedley, E. (1845.) Encylopaedia Metropolitana, or the Universal Dictionary of Knowledge, on an Original Plan: Comprising the Twofold Advantage of a Philosophical and an Alphabetical Arrangement, with Appropriate Engravings. Fourth Division. (Eds.) Smedley, E., Rose, H. J. and Rose, H. J. Bavaria: B. Fellowes, Rivington, Ducan, Malcolm, Suttaby and Hodgson. Pp. 402. Retrieved on July 25, 2010, from http://books.google.ca/books?id=Pm5BAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA402#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Trckova-Flamee, A. (2005.) Triptolemus. Encyclopedia Mythica. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/triptolemus.html.

Wright, A. (2008.) Lynx, the Lynx. Constellations of Words. Retrieved on October 1, 2008, from http://www.constellationsofwords.com/Constellations/Lynx.htm.

Before Lynx was mapped by Hevelius, it, Leo Minor and part of Canes Venatici and Camelopardalis formed an asterism which represented the River Jordan. This asterism, called Jordanis or Jordanus, was never popular and is generally forgotten today. Lynx was also called Tigris, the Tiger; however, again this name remained obscure, probably because another "lost" asterism, named after the Tigris River, shared the same name creating confusion.


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