Stories Under the Stars: Cygnus

I told two stories, a comedy and a tragedy, on March 9, 2017 in my site-specific installation Hemisphere at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.  My intention was to weave together ancient myths about the constellations with the contemporary science exploring those same stars.  This is the tragedy.

by Megan Gafford


Cygnus, the swan constellation, represents the legendary musician Orpheus, son of Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry. He plays a lyre, represented by the constellation Lyra.  The Orpheus myth is about loneliness.
It is said that while Hermes invented the lyre, Orpheus perfected it. His music shook the Earth the way Louis Armstrong’s bellowing trumpet made New Orleans throb and tremble. His voice was so booming and bewitching that he could drown out the Siren’s song. No wonder the ancient Greeks venerated him as the greatest of all poets and musicians.
Orpheus fell in love with a tree nymph named Eurydice, but a viper bit her ankle as she danced on their wedding day.  In mere minutes the venom made Orpheus a widow, and in that moment the sound of his lyre stretched into a wail. His wedding guests could not help but howl along with a broken feeling. Without pausing his song, Orpheus walked away and traveled to the Underworld. When he arrived, the three-headed guard dog Cerberus, who prevents the dead from rejoining the living, whimpered at the first note.
He stepped pass Cerberus, who pined and yelped like a dog chained outside a corner store. Hades was already sobbing as Orpheus approached the cold throne. His wife Persephone sat slumped beside him, and her silent tears smelled faintly of moist soil and pomegranate seeds. Then, suddenly, Orpheus fell silent.  It was the silence of a body that has stopped breathing and beating.
Hades’ heart was stirred, so he permitted Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to the land of the living. But if he looked back at her before they both emerged into the sunlight, she would be pulled away into the Underworld with no chance of resurrection. Orpheus played no music during the ascent, straining his ears for the sound of his wife’s footsteps behind him; they were so quiet he could not be sure she was really there. The moment the sunlight struck his skin he spun around to embrace her, but he only got a glimpse of her gray face before she fell back. He had turned around too soon; the sunlight had not touched her yet.
Orpheus spent the rest of his life wandering the Earth, singing the blues. When he died, and arrived in Hades a second time, the god of the Underworld remembered his song and said, “I tremble to take you.” Upon realizing that he would not see Eurydice even after death, his perfect voice cracked. His cries reached Apollo, the god of music and poetry, who took pity on him, and turned his soul into a swan and placed him in the sky beside his lyre. This is how Orpheus became the constellation Cygnus.
Maybe it was the musician’s forlorn warble that transfixed humanity’s gaze. Something about the loneliness in his voice is familiar to us, adrift in the inky universe on a pale blue dot, looking up at the stars and wondering if anyone else is out there.  We might be alone in the void, as solitary as Orpheus wandering in listless mourning.
The contemporary story about Cygnus is still about loneliness.  Like Orpheus, astronomers have traveled into the dark in search of life.  They built the Kepler telescope to look closely at Cygnus and Lyra, to search for other planets like our Earth. Since life could evolve here, then it might have evolved on another planet just like this one. If humanity finds companions in the cosmos, they will probably be in these constellations.
A couple years ago, astronomers found the first Earth-sized planet in Cygnus. The red dwarf star warming that world is so dim that high noon is like twilight; there may be chilly oceans on its surface. There are also water worlds far larger than Earth, each covered by a singular, titanic ocean. Life might have evolved under these alien waves just as it came to be within our own history. But of the thousands of planets observed with the Kepler telescope, only 21 might harbor life.
Soon, either this year or the next, the Kepler spacecraft will cease functioning. It has grown old since its launch in 2009. Part of its machinery failed four years ago, spurring NASA to declare a state of emergency. Astronomers brought Kepler back from the dead, but the telescope was crippled. Like Eurydice, Kepler will fall back into the darkness, unable to gaze at Cygnus any longer.