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Star Lore of the Constellations: Cygnus the Swan, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Cygnus: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
1 Aqu 15 Albireo Venus Mercury 3.2 Head of swan 49N 28N
5 Pis 20 Deneb Adige Venus Mercury 1.4 Tail of the swan 60N 45N

In ancient times Cygnus was known less specifically as 'the Bird' and variously associated with hens, pigeons and eagles. Much of our understanding of the star appears to come from Roman mythology where it is identified with the figure of a swan placed in the sky by Jupiter, in gratitude for its form which he took to seduce the unsuspecting Leda. The swan is also said to represent the spirit of Orpheus, placed after death next to his favourite Lyre which lies in heaven nearby (see Lyre). The myth of Orpheus declares that he was stricken at the death of his wife and vowed to never fall in love again. A group of Thracian women became so upset with his rejection, that they killed him and threw his Lyre into the river. Like the Lyre, Ptolemy gave the stars of Cygnus a nature like Venus and Mercury.[1]

Manilius attributed to Cygnus a special affinity with all feathered creatures, claiming its natives will often work with, trade or capture birds. Its main star, Deneb Adige, is a brilliant white, 1st magnitude star, positioned in the tail. The name relates to the Orpheus myth: Deneb being the Latin term for 'tail' and the Adige being an Italian river associated with the tale and deriving its own name from a phrase meaning 'to take flight'. A famous Italian song which is at least a thousand years old recants the significance:

O marvellous idol of Venus, in whose substance there is no defect: may the prime-mover, who created the stars and heavens and who founded the seas and land, protect you…

May you have Neptune and Thetis as companions when you are borne over the river Adige.

Why do you take flight - please tell - even though I love you? What shall I do, wretch, since I cannot see you? [2]

Together with Altair in Aquila and Wega in Lyre, Deneb Adige forms an impressive triangle which is prominent in the summer. William Lilly called it 'Cauda Cygni' and said it makes a man ingenious, and apt to any learning or knowledge, a comment which probably stems from Manilius's claim that from this constellation shall flow a thousand human skills.[3]

Lilly added (presumably from some tradition that arises out of the tale of the lust-filled Thracian women), that when the Moon is directed to the tail of the Swan it denotes a time of love and lust - as to women, it shewes him very prone - besides making the native petulant, impudent and scurrilous in his speeches.[4]

The other notable star is Albireo, a 3rd magnitude, topaz and blue binary star of extraordinary appearance and located in the head of the figure, therefore said to give an attractive appearance as well as a loveable disposition.

The best time to view is mid-summer, when the 'Summer Triangle' (comprising Deneb Aldige, Wega and Altair) becomes one of the most noticeable asterism in the sky.
The Sun crosses Albireo around 21st January, and Deneb Aldige around 24th February each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (1st century AD), Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library; 1.9.
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  2 ] Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper - translation: Jan Ziolkowski. Available in PDF format at
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  3 ] Lilly p.538; Manilius 5.370.
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  4 ] Lilly p.702. Back to text


© Deborah Houlding, May 2006.

Stars & Constellations