Finding Stars the Way Bo Peep Finds Sheep

Constellation-hopping is one of the ways you can find your way around the night sky, and this week it can help you to the radiant, or center point of an early summer meteor shower, called the Boötids.

The Boötids take their name from the constellation Boötes, the herdsman, and even though the falling stars don’t really come from the constellation itself, this kind of naming practice makes for some great storytelling.

So what story can we find in the Boötes region of the sky that might suggest that the meteor shower is his gift to humanity? First, let’s find the constellation: About an hour after sunset, locate the Big Dipper, then follow the arc of its handle to the star Arcturus; this is the brightest star in the Boötes constellation. Boötes looks like a kite extending northeast from Arcturus and this star is one of the first things you’ll see straight up in the sky after the Sun goes down.

Now, Boötes is called the herdsman because he seems to herd the bears, Ursa Major and Urs Minor, in a circle around the sky, the way a shepherd herds his flock. But who ever heard of a bear-herder? If you scratch the surface of some of the star names in this region of the sky, you find that they refer to sheep, like the star Alioth in Dipper’s handle, which means the “fat tail of the eastern sheep.”

Boötes becomes Bo Peep in the world of the Star Lore Historian, and the Dippers her sheep! From the book The Star Tales of Mother Goose by Mary Stewart Adams, with illustration by Patricia DeLisa

In the storyteller’s world, that makes Boötes Bo Peep, and the “bears” her “sheep”! And the fact that she’s told in rhyme not to lament the loss of her sheep, to just “leave them alone cause they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them”, is a rather whimsical way of describing what’s technically called “circumpolarity”, or stars that circle around the pole star, always coming back to the place from whence they started.

So this week, now the high constellations of summer have arrived, get yourself outside, follow the arc of the Dipper’s handle to Arcturus, and recite the rhyme of “Little Bo Peep”, and see if a starry wish falls into your lap!

Hear this Storyteller’s Night Sky segment on Bo Peep from the Interlochen Public Radio archives here!

To the stars!