The majestic sight of a roaring lion; a symbol of nature’s incredible ability to create unrivalled predators. Small wonder then, that these awe-inspiring creatures lent their form to one of the Zodiacal constellations. Leo’s brightest star is Regulus, with an apparent magnitude of 1.4, and its distinctive crouching Lion shape makes it one of the most recognisable star formations across the world. In modern zodiacal astrology, people fall under the sign of Leo if they are born between July 23rd and August 22nd.
Leo is one of the oldest recognised zodiac signs, with evidence that this pattern of stars was considered lion-like as far back Ancient Mesopotamia in 4000BC. In fact, the ancient civilisations of India used to call it ‘Simha’, meaning lion. A name which will be no-doubt familiar to modern audiences as the inspiration behind the name Simba, from the seminal Disney animation The Lion King. Around this time, people may have associated Leo with Humbaba, a lion-headed monster who features in the world’s oldest written stories – The Epic of Gilgamesh.
But it is in Ancient Greek times that the first cast-iron documentation of mythological beliefs around Leo come from. Specifically, a story familiar to anyone who has studied the histories of the Zodiac signs – the Twelve Labours of Heracles. Or, as he is more commonly known today, Hercules. In the first of his twelve epic tasks, Hercules was sent to kill a lion that was terrorising the inhabitants of Nemea in what is now modern Peloponnesus peninsula in Southern Greece.
This particular lion, however, was stab proof – with a thick golden pelt that made it impervious to conventional attacks. Never one to back down from anything as trivial as an unkillable God-Lion however, Hercules simply wrestled it to death. In various versions of the story he strangled it, broke its back or stabbed it with an arrow in its unarmoured mouth. By all accounts the massive feline was felled by Hercules, and Zeus put the image of the lion in the heavens to commemorate the hero’s victory for all eternity.
Pyramus & Thisbe
Another story associated with the stars of Leo is that of Pyramus and Thisbe – usually attributed to the poet Ovid. These two forbidden lovers secretly met by a mulberry tree, until one day Thisbe was attacked by a lion that sprang from behind it. Fleeing the scene, she dropped her shawl, which was pounced upon by the bloody Lion fresh from its latest kill. Sometime later, Pyramus arrived and, upon seeing Thisbe’s blood-spattered shawl, killed himself in grief. If you can’t see where this is going, you probably haven’t read enough of the classics – but to cut it short, Thisbe also killed herself and the story ended in tragedy for everyone involved.
Leo contains seven canonical stars that form the main constellation, the brightest two of which are Regulus (often associated with kingship) and Beta Leonis or Denebola, which means Lions Tail. Regulus usually appears as one point of light from Earth, but modern astronomy has revealed it is actually a four-star system consisting of two pairs. Peering deeply into the constellation of Leo one can also find many galaxies and deep sky objects such as Messier 65, 66 and 105.