For decades, I have avoided telling the stories associated with Sagittarius, the Archer. Frankly, the origins and development of the constellation are a tangled mess.
Ancient stargazers divided the constellation into two distinct starry groupings. The brighter stars form what modern stargazers call the Teapot, one of the few star names that reflect the actual connect-the-dot appearance of the constellation.
The Teapot stars represent the more-ancient bow and arrow of the Archer. The four stars on the left of the Teapot form the handle of the bow. To the right, the four stars of the spout are the Archer’s arrow.
In his Phaenomena, Aratus, the early third-century BCE Greek mythographer, spends most of his time describing the more distinctive bow. He calls the rest of the constellation Toxotes, a generic Greek foot soldier who carried a short sword and a small Greek bow.
Significantly, Aratus’s work is a poetic rendition of the first systematic Greek treatment of the constellations by Eudoxus of Cnidus from a century earlier.
Contemporary stargazers assume that the Archer is a centaur, as did some classical writers. First-century BCE Roman writer Manilius repeatedly refers to Sagittarius as “Centaurus” in his Astronomica.
A 10th-century CE rendition of Aratus’s Phaenomena depicts the constellation as a centaur. Modern illustrated star maps show him that way from the 17th century onward.
Physically and intellectually, centaurs were magnificent creatures. They had the head, chest, and arms of a man and the legs and body of a horse. They thus possessed a horse’s strength and speed combined with a human’s mental acuity.
However, they were savage creatures who regularly performed evil deeds and cruel acts.
Twentieth-century mythographers trace the centaur identification to the Sumerian god Pabilsag, the god of war and hunting, who later morphed into the Babylonian god Nergal.
The Sumerians depict Pabilsag as a centaur-like figure with wings and a cloak. The Greeks appear to have adopted the Sumerian/ Babylonian character sans wings.
However, some ancient mythographers were skeptical of the centaur connection. Pseudo-Eratosthenes, a Greek constellation writer of the first century BCE, notes that the constellation appears to have only two legs, not four.
Hyginus, a first-century CE Roman mythographer, acknowledges that “many say that this is Centaurus.” But he also says that “this cannot be … (because) no centaur uses arrows.”
Neither writer mentions the most obvious objection — another constellation already represented the centaur — the southern star grouping called Centaurus.
Both writers conclude that Sagittarius is a satyr, not a centaur. Satyrs shared many qualities with centaurs. Denizens of the woodlands and forests, they were wild, lustful creatures. They often accompanied the wine god Dionysus on his drunken debauches.
There the comparison ends. Satyrs were two-legged creatures. Granted, they had horses’ tails, but they also had the legs and horns of goats.
The satyr represented by Sagittarius is the notable exception to the wantonness of most satyrs. He is Crotus, who Hyginus describes as the “nurse of the Muses,” who “delighted in their company.” He was also an avid hunter who supplied the Muses with food.
The nine Muses were the goddesses, inspiration, and guardians of literature, the arts, and the sciences.
As satyrs go, Crotus was a comparatively gentle soul. He was the inventor of archery and was a skilled horseman. Inspired by the Muses, he began obtaining food from wild animals.
Pseudo-Eratosthenes describes him as a “pious person.” Hyginus depicts him as “accomplished in the musical arts.”
His greatest accomplishment was the invention of musical rhythm. He was fond of listening to the Muses as they sang. As he did so, he signified his pleasure by clapping.
According to Pseudo-Eratosthenes, his applause began to mark “time to their rhythmless song” for the first time.
Hyginus writes that the Muses asked Jupiter, the king of the gods, to place him in the heavens. Jupiter honored his many attributes: his hands for his invention of rhythm, his horse legs because of his riding skills, a bow and arrow to signify his talent as an archer, and a satyr’s tail to identify the Muses’ love for him.
Still, the centaur designation, though dubious, has survived into contemporary times and therefore deserves to have its story told. More on that next week.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.