Here There Be Dragons!

Seth Jarvis

Did you know that the name of the original vampire, Dracula, in old Romanian translates into “The son of Dracul” and that Vlad Dracul got that name because he was a member of “The Order of Draco?”


What’s the deal with “Draco?”


Draco = Dragon = A fierce creature that exists in various forms in the mythology of many cultures.


Dragons are so important to ancient Greek and Roman mythology that there’s a constellation in the northern sky representing the dragon that the goddess Minerva killed. (And by the way, dragon-slaying is the gold standard for heroic achievement – just ask Saint George.)


Draco is easy to find in the night sky; it’s a “circumpolar” constellation. This means it never sets. Draco, which is quite a large constellation, spends the year spinning in a circle around Polaris, the northern Pole Star, slithering its way between the Big and Little Dippers.

Draco Starry

There’s a lot to say about Draco, but I’ll tell you this one cool thing and then trust that you’ll look up other things about Draco on your own.


Smack in the middle of Draco, about midway between the dragon’s head and tail, and sort of half way between the Big and Little Dippers, is a star called Thuban. This is a special star because roughly 4,500 years ago, when the great pyramids of Egypt were being built it was Thuban, not Polaris, that was the star closest to the North Celestial Pole and around which the sky wheeled every night throughout the year. Thuban was the anchor of the heavens – everything revolved around it, and it was towards Thuban than the ancient Egyptians aligned their pyramids to ensure that the souls of the dead pharaohs would always have a view of the center of the heavens.


Why was Thuban the Pole Star back then, and not the eponymous Polaris?


The answer is because Earth spins like a top in space, and, like all tops, there is both a high speed spinning of one revolution per day and a low speed precession, a kind of wobble, that causes the spin axis to slowly drift in a circle. Spin-up a top or a gyroscope and you’ll see this in action.
















In the case of Earth’s precession one full rotation of the spin axis takes about 26,000 years. This means that the point in space around which the sky appears to rotate drifts very slowly over time – something like one degree every 72 years.

In 2,500 B.C.E. Thuban, the heart of Draco the Dragon, was the star closest to the North Celestial Pole. Today it’s Polaris, the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.


Time changes everything.


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