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Leo the Lion - Stars, Symbols and Myths

Cynthia is a writer, artist, and teacher. She loves studying language, arts, and culture, and sharing that knowledge.

Leo the Lion

The constellation Leo lies between Cancer and Virgo in the sky. It’s a constellation of the zodiac.

Twelve constellations comprise the zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Leo, Cancer, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Capricorn, Sagittarius, Aquarius, and Pisces. All these constellations follow the ecliptic, an imaginary line that the sun follows throughout the year.

If you’re looking at the sky, Leo is 9° east of Cancer and 12° northeast of the constellation Hydra.

The constellations often have a number of stories and legends attached to them. Leo is no different.

Curiously, Leo is one of the most ancient of recognized constellations. Ancient peoples associated it with the sun. From the ancient Babylonians to the Egyptians, Leo has always been one of the signs of the zodiac.

The History of the Constellation

As long as four thousand years ago, the Babylonians measured the longitude of the brightest star in Leo: Regulus.

Then, two thousand years later, Hipparchus did the same. His observations of Regulus coupled with the star Spica helped his endeavor to discover the orbital path of the equinoxes relative to earth, called precession of the equinoxes.

Copernicus named the star Regulus. Its name stands for little king. It had other names as well: King, The Mighty, and The Hero among others.

According to the early Persians, Regulus was one of four guardian stars. The others were Fomalhaut, Aldebaran and Antares.

In mythological history, Hercules killed the Nemean Lion named Leo. Interestingly, Leo Minor and the Sextans—constellations adjacent to Leo —have no known mythological connections.

My rendition of the constellation Leo.

My rendition of the constellation Leo.

Leo in the Night Sky

When you look at this constellation, you’ll notice it has a hook pattern that looks like a backward question mark, called the sickle. This formation of stars makes up Leo’s head. The star Regulus sits at the bottom, with five other main stars – η Leonis, Algeiba, Aldhafera, Rasalas and Asad Australis –making up the rest of the sickle. With the exception of η Leonis, these are the Latin names of the stars. See the chart for the Greek names, which are more commonly used in the scientific community.

Leo is near the constellation Ursa Major, located just south of it in the sky.

Leo’s body extends out from the sickle. The star Denebola makes up the back, with two other stars—Zosma and Chort—forming a triangle.

The Stars in the Constellation Leo

Star - Greek NameLatin NameMagnitude (brightness, "0" = brightest)

α Leonis

Regulus

1.3

β Leonis

Denebola

2

γ Leonis

Algieba

2.3, 3.5 (double star)

δ Leonis

Zosma

3

ε Leonis

Asad Australis

3

ζ Leonis

Aldhafera

4

θ Leonis

Chort

3

λ Leonis

Alterf

4

μ Leonis

Rasalas

4

R Leonis

 

5-11, variable star

Regulus

This star forms the bottom part of the sickle. This star is interesting in that it lies on the ecliptic. Thus, once yearly, the sun eclipses Regulus, on August 23.

This star is 71 light years away and is getting farther away, at a rate of 1.5 miles per second. It’s about 130 times brighter than the Sun and shines as a white to blue-white star. Its magnitude is 1.3, meaning it’s pretty bright. Despite the high magnitude, it’s still only the 19th brightest out of the 20 brightest stars in the sky.

You can see Regulus in the sky about eight months out of the year if you live in the northern hemisphere. Starting January 1st, you can see it in the northeastern sky at about 9 pm. It gets to its highest point in the sky in early spring. By April 8th, it’s high in the northern sky at 9 pm.

Regulus also has a companion star, but it’s a lot dimmer, at the 8th magnitude (level of brightness).

Denebola

Making up the back part of Leo, the star Denebola is most prominent, making up the tail. It’s almost as bright as Regulus, though not quite. It has a magnitude of 2. Ancient peoples calculated its magnitude in the “1” range, but otherwise, its brightness has not changed much over the millennia.

Looking at the sky, Denebola is 25° east of Regulus. It’s 16 times brighter than the sun, 39 light years away, and moving away from us at 1 mile per second.

Denebola is also named β Leonis. Together with δ Leonis and θ Leonis, they make up a triangle shape at the back of Leo, as mentioned above.

My rendition of Leo and nearby galaxies.

My rendition of Leo and nearby galaxies.

Stars in Leo

λ Leonis is a double star, just southwest of the sickle. It’s actually approaching us at 24 miles per second.

It’s a beautiful double star and one that it does well to observe it at moonlight or just before dark. You’ll be able to see the brilliant yellow-orange and green colors of the two stars. The yellow-orange star is brighter than the other with a magnitude of 2.2 and 3.5 respectively.

It’s difficult to see these double stars with the naked eye, but a small telescope should be sufficient to see them. Their revolution isn’t that fast. It takes them just under 100 years to complete one revolution.

Another interesting star is R Leonis. It lies southwest of Regulus, just under the ecliptic. It’s what’s known as a variable star. Its brightness changes, ranging from a magnitude of 5 (at its brightest) to 11 (pretty dim) every 313 days. When R Leonis is at magnitude 5, it looks red and is visible to the naked eye.

One of the most famous images of the Leonids meteor shower.  This public domain engraving was completed in 1889.

One of the most famous images of the Leonids meteor shower. This public domain engraving was completed in 1889.

Galaxies and Leonids Meteor Showers

Just west of Leo’s “body” lie five galaxies. Most notable are M65 and M66. They are 29 million light-years away. You can’t see them with the naked eye, but with binoculars, you can barely make them out.

In November, you can see the Leonids meteor shower. These meteors emanate from Leo’s head and culminate every November 14th or 15th.

Indeed, this is an interesting constellation, with an ancient history and many interesting objects in the sky.

References

Field Book of the Skies. Olcott, William. Van Rees Press: New York. 1974.

Guide to Stars and Planets. Moore, Sir Patrick. Firefly Books: New York. 2005

Seasonal Star Charts. Hubbard Scientific Company, 1972.

The Handy Space Answer Book. Dupuis, Diane and Phillis Engelbert. Visible Ink Press: Canton, MI. 1998.


© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun

Comments

Zaton-Taran from California on June 26, 2017:

The lion is my favorite animal, and Leo is - understandably lol - my favorite Zodiac sign. Even though I'm a Taurus. http://pinstor.us/articles/african-lion-facts-the-...

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 17, 2012:

Carol - yeah, with this one, I focused on the mythology - why did Leo get his name? Thanks so much for stopping by and for your feedback. :)

carol stanley from Arizona on August 17, 2012:

This is very interesting to me. I used to be an Astrologer and I didn't know this. Well explained and easy to read.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 05, 2012:

Tillsontitan - hehe, I'm definitely enjoying writing these. The historical facts are just too fun! Thanks for coming by - I appreciate your feedback. Hubhugs!

Mary Craig from New York on August 05, 2012:

Another great hub on a constellation! You are really educating us with your beautiful writing and information packed hubs. This is great and entertaining too. Loved it.

Voted up, awesome, and beautiful.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

Hey thanks, Alocsin! :) The symbols were arbitrarily drawn by the ancients, but the fact that they've pretty much held over time is remarkable. Scientists have shifted a few of them around and re-named just a couple, but Leo is one of the oldest, with some of the oldest stories associated with it. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

Aviannovice - you know, I DO have a telescope, but it's at my mom's house. :'( See, it was a present a long time ago when I got interested in astronomy and then it's too big for my little car, so I haven't been able to bring it from CO to NC. *sigh* One of these days, I'll get a bigger car and bring it home. :)

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on August 02, 2012:

Not my sign, but a wonderful treatise on the constellation. I imagine the symbol is derived from the shape of the constellation itself? Voting this Up and Interesting.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 02, 2012:

So well done. Do you have a good telescope to see all of these wonderful constellations and stars?

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

John Sarkis - hey there! Yeah, it's fun to know the history and just to understand what we're looking at in the sky. :) Thanks so much for coming by. Cheers! Thanks to Tammy, too, for sharing. :D

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

ChristinS - that's awesome! Two Leos in the family. Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope the weather is clear to watch the Leonids, too. :) Cheers!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

Tammy - the meteor shower is coming up! :D I am going to make a point of getting out of town and going to observe them...hmmm...maybe Max Patch. :D Great to see you. I hope you have a wonderful day!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

Teaches - so fun! Thank you for stopping by. :) I'm definitely having lots of fun researching these. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

ishwaryaa22 - thanks so much! I'm really glad you liked this. It's great to get feedback that lets me know I've helped someone get engaged and understand a hub. Yes! Thanks so much for stopping by. :) Hubhugs!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 02, 2012:

Julie - hehe, I know I'm "hooked" on this theme, LOL. :D Thanks for stoppin' by! Did you get to 10,000?

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on August 02, 2012:

Cyndi, this is a great hub. Additionally, a person doesn't have to believe in astrology in order to appreciate it, which makes it all the more awesome.

Take care

John

PS. Thanks for sharing Tammy!

Christin Sander from Midwest on August 02, 2012:

A very thorough and detailed hub. I love watching the leonids in November when the weather cooperates. Both of my sons are Leo's also so I of course had to check out this hub :). Great job voted up, awesome and interesting.

Tammy from North Carolina on August 02, 2012:

Very interesting. I would love to see a Leondis meteor shower. I never heard of those before.

Dianna Mendez on August 01, 2012:

Next time we have a clear night, I am going to have to look up for this constellation. Enjoyed the history lesson and the many name meanings on this.

Ishwaryaa Dhandapani from Chennai, India on August 01, 2012:

You possessed a great amount of knowledge concerning astronomy! I learnt a lot from this engaging hub. Your renditions pictures and your explainations all are clear and detailed. This informative hub based on this constellation is related to my zodiac sign. Well-done!

Thanks for SHARING. Useful & Interesting. Voted up

Blurter of Indiscretions from Clinton CT on August 01, 2012:

This was so interesting. So much I never knew. Voted up!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 01, 2012:

KDuBarry03 - I haven't been much into mythology myself, but there is something compelling about these constellations. Perhaps it's the idea that we're looking into the past, at the same sky as our ancestors, but whose stories have withstood the test of time. In the words of Spock: "fascinating." :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 01, 2012:

Josh - thanks for stopping by. :) I definitely am having fun with these and I'm trying to keep it interesting. LOL Cheers!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on August 01, 2012:

Patty - thank you so much! I've really gotten into the mythology and history of these constellations. I'll definitely have to publish more. :)

KDuBarry03 on August 01, 2012:

Cyndi, I was amazed at all the information you included in this hub! I am not a buff on mythological creatures, myths, and legends; however, thank you for making me more so into one :) Perhaps I should pick up some astrology classes...

I voted this hub up, useful, and interesting! Great Job :)

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on August 01, 2012:

Cyndi,

Awesome hub dedicated to the constellation Leo! Very enjoyable read packed with lots of information!

Patty Kenyon from Ledyard, Connecticut on August 01, 2012:

Voted UP, Interesting and Awesome!!! Another Great Hub!!! I do enjoy reading these!!

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