The Secret Lives of Words column: Watching the Perseids and getting stoned
Rick LaFleur More Content Now
Columns share an author's personal perspective.
Walking back to our barracks from the enlisted men’s club at the Cecil Field (Flordia) Naval Air Station in mid-August 1969, a few of my Navy buddies and I were startled to look up into the night sky and see straight overhead a barrage of missiles, doubtless launched by the Russians, streaking over the base. Just seven years earlier a squadron of RF-8 Crusaders from NAS Cecil Field, accompanied by Marine RF-8s and USAF U2s, had detected the Russian nuclear-armed missile installation on Cuba that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Who knew: maybe Kruschev had not completely dismantled the installation after all?
Thankfully what we’d mistaken for Russian missiles - doubtless influenced by those generous EM club libations - turned out to be the Perseid meteor shower, a celestial phenomenon that astounds professional and amateur star-gazers every August. That 1969 display (which peaked on Aug. 12) was the most dramatic I’ve seen, with at least a dozen meteors flashing across the sky in only a minute or so, some streaking fiery trails behind them. It took a cloudless night and maybe the southerly vantage point to splash the sky’s canvas with that brilliant, unforgettable vision.
The most spectacular of all meteor showers, the number of Perseid sightings per hour ranges from as few as half a dozen to 200 or more, with an average of 60-100 (about one or two a minute) under optimal conditions; 1993 was a peak year with sightings ranging as high as 500 an hour. Essentially debris spun out from the Swift-Tuttle comet, whose orbital path we cross each year, the Perseids begin streaming into view in mid-July and end in mid-August, typically peaking around Aug. 11-13.
Sightings of this meteor cloud were recorded by the Chinese as early as the first century A.D. and sporadically by observers in other countries over the next several hundred years. In the early 19th century a number of scientists more or less independently reached the conclusion that the shower was in fact an annual occurrence, radiating from the constellation named by the second-century A.D. Greek astronomer Ptolemy for the Greek super-hero Perseus. As the event coincided with the date of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, who was executed in Rome on Aug. 10, 258, Catholics since the Middle Ages had been calling the shower "The Fiery Tears of Saint Lawrence." But once the connection to the constellation Perseus was firmly recognized, the name "Perseids" became established.
In Greek mythology, Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, had been dispatched by king Polydectes of Seriphos to slay the gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned anyone looking at her to stone. Perseus killed Medusa (well known to Ray Harryhausen fans from his 1981 film "Clash of the Titans") by looking, not into her face, but at her image reflected from his resplendent mirror-like shield. The winged horse Pegasus sprung forth from the gorgon’s blood and, in some versions of the myth, Perseus flew the steed across the sea to Ethiopia.
Meanwhile the Ethiopian queen Cassiopeia had offended the sea-god Poseidon (the Roman Neptune) by boasting that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than his beloved sea-nymphs, the Nereids. As punishment, Poseidon sent the sea-monster Cetus to ravage the countryside. When Cassiopeia’s husband, king Cepheus, pleaded with the god to spare his country further devastation, Poseidon agreed, on the condition that Andromeda be sacrificed to the monster. Andromeda was chained to a rock to await the creature’s assault, and in the nick of time, straight from slaying Medusa, Perseus flew in riding Pegasus and carrying Medusa’s head, slew the beast, rescued the damsel in distress, and claimed her as his bride - an archetype for later dragon-slayer tales.
The couple later reigned in the Greek kingdoms of Tiryns and Mycenae for many years and had seven sons and two daughters, known collectively as the Perseidai. Both Andromeda and Perseus, upon their deaths, were transformed to constellations (from Latin constellatio, "star-grouping"), and the meteors that seem to shower forth from the Perseus constellation were ultimately named for their children, the Perseids (among whose descendants was another renowned mythic super-hero, the demi-god Herakles/Hercules).
This is the best week for viewing the offspring of Andromeda and Perseus, or even next week as the waning moon makes the meteors easier to spot. Head out in the mid- to late-evening, away from city lights and ideally before moonrise or in a moon-shadow, find a dark place to stretch out on a blanket or chaise lounge, and look northeast. If it’s a clear night and you’re lucky, you just might witness the sort of lightshow John Denver sang about in "Rocky Mountain High," inspired by his sighting of the Perseids while camping near Aspen: "I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky/Friends around the campfire and everybody's high/Rocky mountain high." Perhaps like the late, great John Denver, and my U.S. Navy pals, for the best view have a brew or two - and avert your eyes from gorgons, just so you don’t get stoned.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.