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Star Lore of the Constellations: Perseus the Hero, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Perseus: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
24 Tau 12 Capulus Mars Mercury 4 Hilt of sword 40N 57N
26 Tau 10 Algol Saturn Mars 2 (v) Gorgon's head 22N 41N
27 Tau 42 Misam Jupiter Saturn 4 Hero's left arm 26N 45N
28 Tau 41 Miram Jupiter Saturn 4 Hero's right shoulder 37N 56N
1 Gem 09 Atik Jupiter Saturn 4 Hero's left foot 12N 32N
2 Gem 05 Mirfak Jupiter Saturn 1.8 Hero's chest 30N 50N
4 Gem 58 Menkib Jupiter Saturn 4 Hero's left ankle 15N 36N

The constellation Perseus lies between Cassiopeia and the Pleiades. It is represented by Perseus holding a sword above his head in his right hand and the decapitated head of the gorgon Medusa in his left. On his feet are winged sandals, given to him as a gift from Mercury.

The myth of Perseus tells how he was sent on a quest to bring back a gorgon's head to king Polydectes. The gorgons were three sisters, only one of whom, Medusa, was mortal. Originally a beautiful maiden, Medusa was transformed into a hideous monster by the goddess Minerva; a jealous and revenge-filled punishment for allowing herself to be seduced by Neptune in one of Minerva's temples. Her hair was turned into a mass of poisonous snakes and her general appearance became so horrifying that anyone who looked upon her was petrified with terror. Perseus was able to cut off her head only by avoiding her direct gaze and monitoring her reflection in his shield. On his way back to Polydectes he rescued the princess Andromeda by petrifying the sea-monster (Cetus) with his revelation of Medusa's head.

Although Manilius gives a detailed rendering of the myth of this constellation he neglects to describe its rising influence. Ptolemy lists the stars of Perseus as like Jupiter and Saturn, with the exception of 'the cluster in the hilt of the sword', which he describes as akin to the influence of Mars and Mercury. [1] This cluster is better known as Capulus - from a Roman term used to describe the richly engraved hilt of a sword. Al Biruni refers to it as one of the four most nebulous stars but dismisses the suggestion (frequently attached to nebulous clusters) that it causes blindness, arguing that vision is represented by the luminaries and this cluster is too high in latitude to fall on their path.[2]

Nonetheless Capulus continues to be related to a notion of blindness, (spiritual or emotional if not actually physical), reinforced by a myth where our hero is not able to look directly at the opponent that confronts him. Instead, the willingness to go on the offensive as suggested by the sword, (Mars), must be tempered by cunning or intellect, (Mercury); otherwise Capulus will suggest a passionate energy which dissipates or turns inwards through a lack of focus.

As a whole, the constellation is said to give a bold, courageous and intelligent nature, but the group depicting the head of the gorgon is considered quite evil. Pliny and Hipparchus referred to this as a separate constellation and it was usual for the whole group to be referred to as 'Perseus and the Gorgon's Head'.

The brightest star of the constellation is Mirfak, located in the side of the breast and therefore sometimes referred to as Algenib, Arabic for 'side'. This is a bright yellow-blue star, slightly less than 1st magnitude, and as the alpha star of the constellation embodies the principles of courage, and success through trials. Ingenuity is also a hallmark of this constellation, and may be the reason why authors such as Robson and Noonan describe it as offering an adventurous nature but with a tendency to lie 'or be less than honest in their dealings with others'. Other important stars which share this reputation include Misam on the left arm, Miram on the right shoulder, Atik on the winged sandal of the left foot and Menkib, also on the left ankle.

There is a clear distinction between the characteristics of the stars of Perseus and those of the Gorgon's Head, which Ptolemy fails to acknowledge in his list of planetary natures. Since most astrologers follow Ptolemy, Algol, (the main star in the Gorgon's head) is usually described as like Jupiter and Saturn in influence; but in view of its widespread and overwhelmingly malevolent reputation Lilly was probably more correct when he likened it to Saturn and Mars. [3] It is alleged to be the most unfortunate and dangerous star in the heavens and has a reputation for causing violence and unnatural death. Even Ptolemy remarked upon its influence in bringing 'death by decapitation or mutilation', when tied into the hostile aspect of Mars to the Sun or Moon. [4]

The name Algol comes from the Arabic Al Ghul, the 'Ghoul' or 'Demon'. Usually it is classed as a white star but it has also been listed as red. It seems, always, to have been connected with death, tragedy and bloody violence: the Hebrews knew it as Rosh ha Satan, 'Satan's Head', and the Chinese as Tseih She, 'Piled-up Corpses'. According to Dr Lomer in Kosmobiologie Arabic commanders ensured that no important battle began when the light of Algol was weak.[5]

In ancient times it was referred to as 'the Winking Demon' or 'the blinking eye of the Gorgon', because it is one of the most variable stars in the northern sky, alternating its brilliance from 2nd to 3rd magnitude in a particularly notable fashion due to its short cycle of variability which completes in three days. Most probably, its malefic reputation arose out of this variability, which threw a direct challenge to Aristotle's doctrine of the pure immutability of the heavens, by which celestial harmony was associated with perfect and constant motion. The inconstancy is caused by the fact that Algol is a binary system in which the brighter star is regularly eclipsed by its partner for a period of around 8 hours. Thus we get the ominous reference to an evil pulsating eye - a very powerful and provocative image and recently put to great effect by Tolkien as a representation of the evil Mordor in Lord of the Rings. [6]

Lilly considered Algol to be one of the most portentous stars, noting its affliction as an indication of decapitation, hanging or danger to the head. In his system of scoring planetary strength, any planet within five degrees of Algol is detrimented by 4 points of debility. When placed with the Part of Fortune it threatens poverty or the loss of wealth, and with the 'significator of manners' it:

"begets in the Native a certaine dogged nature and violence, whereby he either procures sudden death unto himself, or is the cause of it to others". [7]

Of the direction of the midheaven to this star Lilly writes:

It perplexes and casts the Native into extreame danger by reason of Murder, Man-slaughter, or the sudden death of someone or other, the Native being either author or assistant, it endangers the Head: if other Directions concurre in good, it gives the Native power of putting others to death; but I ever found it an ill Direction, even in mean mens Genitures. [8]

GoodrickeAn astronomer whose name has become linked to Algol is John Goodricke, who in 1782 began the first scientific study of "variable stars" after having his attention caught by Algol and the way it had changed from bright to dim within a few hours.

At the age of five Goodricke had contracted scarlet fever which left him totally deaf. He learned to lip-read to pursue his education, and made his discovery of Algol when he was just 18. He communicated his interest to his cousin Edward Pigott and throughout the following winter the two men measured Algol's brightness every evening. Goodricke found that Algol's light changed every two days, 20 hours, and 45 minutes - within four minutes of the modern measure.

It was Goodricke who theorized that Algol was really two stars, a bright star and a dim star, and that the two stars orbited each other in space. It would be 100 years before Goodricke's theory on binary stars would be proved correct, but the Royal Society recognised the value of his work and awarded him Britain's highest scientific medal, the Godfrey Copley Medal. He was later admitted into the membership of the Royal Society, but died of pneumonia (said to be after contracting a cold while observing in the cold night air) before hearing the news of this, on 20th April 1786.

Both his deafness and the nature of his death are Saturn-ruled. Goodricke was born on 17th September 1764 with Saturn retrograde at 21° 35' Taurus, conjunct Algol then at 22° 53' Taurus. Algol brought him fame but it also brought him tragedy. He was only 21 years old when he died.

The best time to view Perseus is in the late autumn months. It appears as a distorted 'K' shaped constellation (some say giraffe shaped), located to the north of Taurus and the south of the easily identifiable 'w-shape' of Cassiopeia. The brightest star, Mirfak, lies north of Algol and on a line from Cassiopeia to Capella in the west.

The Sun crosses Capulus around 15th May, Algol around 17th May, and Mirfak around 23rd May each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (1st cent. AD), trans. Robbins, published by Harvard Heinemann, Loeb classical library, London. I.9 (Loeb p.55).
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  2 ] AlBiruni, Elements of the Art of Astrology, 1029; (trans. R. Ramsay Wright), v.460, (p.272).
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  3 ] Lilly, Christian Astrology, 1647; p.644.
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  4 ] Ptolemy, IV.9 (Loeb p.435). Ptolemy referred to it as 'the Gorgon of Perseus'.

Literary references to the malevolence of the Gorgon's Head can be found in sources as early as Homer's Illiad "...the Gorgon's head, a ghastly sight, deformed and dreadful, and a sight of woe" (Bk V), and as recently as the works of Oscar Wilde "Like a red rod of flame, stony and steeled, The Gorgon's head its leaden eyeballs rolled, And writhed its snaky horrors through the shield, And gaped aghast with bloodless lips and cold" (Charmides, 1890)
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 5 ] Ebertin & Hoffman, Fixed Stars and their Interpretation, 1971, p.24
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  6 ] Some commentators on Tolkien's works have considered that his references to Mordor's orcs as "'gorgun' creatures" are allusions to the three gorgon sisters of Greek mythology.
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  7 ] Lilly, Christian Astrology, p.115, p.534 & p.536.
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  8 ] Ibid., p.679
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See also: The Horror-Scope of Algol, by Nick Kollerstrom

© Deborah Houlding. First published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 4; Spring 1994. Published online April 2005.

Stars & Constellations