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Star Lore of the Constellations: Draco the Dragon, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Cygnus: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
07 Vir 27 Thuban Saturn Mars Venus 3.6 Tail of the Dragon 66N 64N
11 Sag 58 Rastaban Saturn Mars Venus 3.0 Nebulous eye of the Dragon 75N 52N
27 Sag 58 Eltanin Saturn Mars Venus 2.4 Head of the Dragon 75N 51N

Draco (Latin: 'dragon') is depicted as a very long serpent which is coiled around the heart of the precessional circle, along which the north pole rotates over 26000 years (see diagram below). Mythologists describe it as the dragon that guards the golden fleece of Aries, whose teeth gave rise to an army of skeleton men (the Cadmus myth); or as the hundred-headed Guardian of the golden apple trees given to Hera as a wedding present by Gaea, goddess of the Earth. Valentia Straiton's Celestial Ship of the North, convincingly ties these myths together in their depiction of Draco as the Biblical Serpent of the Garden of Eden.

Eden has another name, Gen-Eden, which means Paradise, a "Garden of Delight," a "Region of Supreme Loveliness." It also means to encompass, to surround, to clasp, to enclose. It was a circle of space, a cycle of time, a ring... A symbol of sacred knowledge in antiquity was a Tree, ever guarded by a serpent, the serpent or dragon of wisdom. The serpent of Hercules was said to guard the golden apple that hung from the Pole, the Tree of Life, in the midst of the garden of the Hesperides. The serpent that guarded the golden fruit in the garden of the Hesperides and the serpent of the Garden of Eden, which enfolded with its coils that mysterious tree, are the same.[1]

Ptolemy lists the stars of Draco as of the nature of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. He alludes to the constellation's association with poison through his comment that Saturn, in aspect with Mercury from the neighbourhood of the Serpent makes men die from the bites of poisonous creatures. Arabic astrologers knew the constellation as 'the Poisonous Dragon' and believed that when a comet passed through it poison was scattered all over the world.[2]

Manilius's discussion of Draco came at the end of his text and is now lost due to a lengthy lacuna. However, it can be assumed that Firmicus, who followed Manilius closely on the constellations, gave a similar, though less poetical, account. In it we find a further reference to the poisonous nature of the serpent/snake:

Those who have this star rising will be snake charmers and prepare medicine from poisons and pigments of herbs. But if this star is found in its setting, they will die by the bite of poisonous snakes or from drinking poison.[3]

The pale yellow star Thuban, in the 'heart' of the snake, is the alpha (i.e., foremost) star of the constellation. Its name is a corrupted form of an Arabic term meaning 'dragon'. Usually the alpha star indicates the brightest of the group, but Thuban is not especially bright and is difficult to observe in areas where there is light pollution. It holds the alpha-star status because of its historical role as the North Star in the third millennium BC, before precession moved that title on to Polaris of Ursa Minor. The Great Pyramid of Giza is believed by some experts to have been built in alignment with Thuban because between 3400-2200BC the northern descending passage of the king's chamber (a 300ft shaft which ran to a small opening on the pyramid surface) would have lined up with the view of Thuban.[4] According to George Noonan:

When rising, Thuban indicates prospectors of gold and silver or those who are ministers of money (this might include accountants, clerical workers, cashiers etc. nowadays). If setting and if Mars is conjunct the descendant or in harsh aspect with it, it is said to presage the native being burned in his own house or killed by public execution.[5]

The orange star Etamin or Eltanin (from Al Tinnin, the serpent) is the brightest star, usually known as 'the head of the serpent'. The 15th century Persian astronomer Ulug Beg knew it as Al Ras al Tinnin, 'the Serpent's Head', which was transmitted by the 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli as Ras Eltanim.[6] It sometimes takes the name of Rastaban, which is usually reserved for the nearby yellow binary star that marks the dragon's eye. The two stars are separated by about 4 and their names have a confused origin because both terms mean 'the Dragon's Head' and have been used interchangeably. Both have also been known as 'the Dragon's Eyes' and have a similar, unfortunate, influence. Lilly noted that the Moon directed to:

...a cloudy Starre in the eye of the Dragon ... threatens detriment to the Natives eyes, wounds, or contentions, or bruisings in the head; the Native must beware of Guns, Pikes, stings, the Kicks of Buts or Horses, and the deceipt of his enemies.[7]

Vivian Robson followed Lilly in reporting that Rastaban, with the Moon, gives "Blindness, wounds, quarrels, bruises, stabs, blows (operations can be substituted nowadays) and kicks from horses", and that the star is generally associated with "loss of property, violence, criminal inclinations and accidents".[8]

The constellation Draco showing the locations of Thuban, Eltanin and Rastaban. Adapted from Wikimedia Commons image of Johan Bayer's 'Uranometria', 1661.

Since Draco is a circumpolar constellation it remains visible all year round for observers above latitude 40N. Thuban can be found by tracing a line from Phecda and Megrez in the 'bucket' of Ursa Major (Thuban lies 15 of arc from this line); It is opposed on the other side by the end of the 'ladle' in Ursa Minor. Eltanin can be identified as the red star, just to the north of Wega. Its companion Rastaban lies 4 of arc to the side of Eltanin.
The Sun crosses Thuban by celestial longitude around 30th August each year, Rastaban around 3rd December and Eltanin around 19th December each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Valentia Straiton, The Celestial Ship of the North (1900); pp.63 and 65. Available through Kessinger Publishing reprint, 1992. ISBN: 9781564592651.
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  2 ] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (1st century AD), Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library; 1.9, p.433); R.H. Allen, Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning; 1899, Dover Publications, p.205.
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  3 ] Firmicus, Mathesis, (4th cent.) VIII.XVII.7 (Ascella reprint p.281).
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  4 ] Mark Richard Kidger, Astronomical enigmas (JHU Press, 2005) p.28. See also David Pratt, The Great Pyramid; part 1. Online at (November 1997), and J. Hill, The "Air shafts" of the Great Pyramid (Ancient Egypt Online, 2010).
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  5 ] George Noonan, Fixed Stars and Judicial Astrology, (AFA, 1990), p.6.
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  6 ] Allen, pp.207-208.
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  7 ] William Lilly, Christian Astrology (17th cent.) p.702.
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  8 ] Vivian Robson, The Fixed Stars & Constellations, 1923; p.194.
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© Deborah Houlding. First published in The Traditional Astrologer magazine, issue 16; March 1998. Adapted for online reproduction, October 2011.

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