Perseids Meteor Shower

Blend the tale of the mythic hero Perseus with that of martyred Saint Lawrence of Rome; set it against the backdrop of the cosmos, and you have the story of the Perseids Meteor Shower.

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Perseids near Cassiopeia

This spectacular annual cosmic event…one steeped in myth, religion, and science…takes place during the month of August.  The Perseids meteor shower repeats each year, with peak viewing within a few days of August 10th. A phenomenon named for the Perseus constellation (from where it appears to emanate), it enlivens the sky with its dazzling display; at times raining down dozens of meteors per hour. This glorious spectacle has ties to ancient myth and religion.

 

The Hero

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Hero Perseus with head of Medusa

The Greeks honor the hero Perseus for many noble deeds. He is son of Zeus and the mortal woman Danae, a demigod who donned a helmet of invisibility and winged sandals, slayed the Medusa Gorgon and took her head as his prize, then rode the winged horse Pegasus which sprang from her corpse. He rescued the princess Andromeda (daughter of the boastful Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus) who had been chained to a rock awaiting sacrifice to the beastly sea monster Cetus. Upon his death, Perseus was cast into the sky as a constellation, immortalizing his story.

To find Perseus, look above for a star formation resembling the English alphabet letter “W” (the constellation Cassiopeia) wherein sits the boastful Queen on her throne; sometimes upright, and sometimes upside down as punishment for her disrespect of the gods. Perseus looms nearby.

 

The Martyred Saint

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Deacon Lawrence burned on gridiron

The Perseids meteor shower is also called The Tears of Saint Lawrence, in honor of the 3rd century Roman church’s martyred saint. Lore tells a colorful tale of his cruel fate…burned to death by slow roast on a gridiron. (In the Catholic religion, he is named as Patron Saint of Cooks.)

A victim of Roman Emperor Valerian’s persecution, Deacon Lawrence was put to death on August 10th…a date still celebrated in remembrance. That date is known as the feast day of Saint Lawrence, and nicely coincides with the time of year when the Perseid meteors are near peak.

 

Science

The Perseids meteors are particles from the Swift-Tuttle comet. The comet’s name bears that of its two “discoverers”, Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle. While the comet was named in modern times, records of its observation extend back 2,000 years. Although the meteor shower is annually swept into sight, the comet itself returns to earth’s orbital viewing approximately every 130 years.

During the month of August, take a few moments to look skyward and bear witness to the magnificent spectacle that has graced our presence for many, many centuries. It is a rare instance in the space of time where myth, religion and science merge as one to put on a glorious show.

 

 

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