The Sky Bull

Move ‘em on, head ‘em up, head ‘em up, move ‘em out, move ‘em on, head ‘em out—Rawhide!

Those of a certain age will remember these bouncy lyrics from the theme of the old TV show about rough-and-tumble cowpokes drivin’ a herd to market. The winter sky also has some cowhide on display, but nobody drives it anywhere save for the turning of the sky.

Taurus the bull rides high on the midevenings of winter, backing up as he moves west, keeping an eye on Orion the hunter and the large club he swings over his head. The bull’s V-shaped head is down, and his fine, star-tipped horns are at the ready to keep the hunter at bay.

The mythological pedigree of this ancient bull also gives Orion a run for his money. Taurus is said to be the disguise chosen by Zeus to spirit away the fair Europa from the shores of Phoenicia where her father, Agenor, was king. Having taken a shine to the maid, Zeus transformed himself into an impressive and placid white bull wandering along the shore where Europa was walking one day. Captivated by the lovely and gentle beast, Europa hopped on his back—at which point the bull became less gentle and plowed into the surf, swimming all the way to the island of Crete with the helpless Europa clinging to his back.

Once again safely ashore, Zeus revealed his true identity and did what Zeus usually did. The union produced a son named Minos, who became king of Crete. As a consolation for her troubles, Europa’s name was subsequently lent to the continent lying to the northwest of the island.

But that wasn’t the end of troublesome bulls—or gods—for Europa’s family. Some time later, King Minos offered to sacrifice another beautiful white bull from his herd to the sea god Poseidon if Poseidon would give him mastery of the shipping lanes. Poseidon agreed and Crete flourished, but when it came time to off the bull, King Minos craftily substituted a lesser prize. The craftier Poseidon noticed and took his revenge by enchanting the wife of Minos, Queen Pasiphae, who ended up doing something she shouldn’t have with the white bull. The result was the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull beast who ran amuck, had to be enclosed in a labyrinth, and was finally done in by the hero Theseus. With the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne and her famous ball of thread that helped him find his way into and out of the labyrinth, Theseus bashed the Minotaur with a club of his own. Theseus married Ariadne, became king of Crete in due course, and was presumably more cautious about his promises regarding livestock.

Taurus is a blue-ribbon bull indeed, with much to admire, from the red glint in his eye revealing the bright star Aldebaran (a “red giant” star some 65 light-years away), to his V-shaped face made up of a scattered star cluster called the Hyades, to the tighter cluster of the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) adorning his muscled shoulder at about 400 light-years away.

Amorous adventures seem to swirl about this constellation, and that includes the Pleiades. According to the Greeks, these lovely maids were enjoying themselves in a forest glade when the hunter Orion came upon them, was immediately smitten, and began to chase the sisters. They cried out to the gods, who turned them into snowy doves escaping into heaven. There they remained, unput-upon, until Orion ended up in the sky as well. He spied them, was smitten again, and now continues the chase them with the turning of the sky. It is said that another bull was grabbed by the gods and swung up in between Orion and the objects of his affection, just to make sure there was no catching. The bull keeps his head low and keeps a close, red eye on Orion, for he knows to be wary of clubs.

And so it goes, the timeless stories of love, pursuit, and prize-winning bulls emblazoned in the sparkling stars riding above the snowy pastures of winter. Bundle up and enjoy the view!

Jim Manning is currently executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco, but lived outside Bozeman for many years and visits regularly.