Constellational scholars, both ancient and modern, have had difficulties determining the identity of the constellation Sagittarius. The Latin name “Sagittarius” literally means “the man pertaining to (or associated with) arrows,” i.e., “the archer.” But what specific archer are we talking about?
Much of the evidence from ancient mythological scholars points to a satyr, a person with the upper body of a man and the lower torso and legs of a goat.
However, a second alternative has taken hold and refuses to go away, even into contemporary times. In that scenario, the Archer is the centaur Chiron, even though centaurs never used arrows. In addition, the centaur is already represented by a southern constellation, more aptly named Centaurus, only part of which peaks above the horizon from our latitude.
But never mind. You can’t fight fashion, so here is the story of the centaur named Chiron (pronounced KEY-ron).
The centaurs were mythical beasts with the body and legs of a horse but the legs, chest, and arms of a man. They were intelligent like humans but often “beastly” — prone to wild, impulsive, and cruel actions. They were frequently drunk and violent.
As Greek translator Robin Hard gently puts it, they were “uncivilized in character.” I suppose that kidnapping, cruel war-making, and wine-soaked debauchery are uncivilized, but Hard’s characterization seems slightly understated.
Centaurs don’t seem worthy of constellational status. But by convention, they got two of them. One was the aptly named Centaurus. The other was Sagittarius, the Archer.
By all accounts, Chiron, the centaur most associated with Sagittarius, was a gentle scholar and teacher, a nerd trapped in the middle of a riotous kegger. Monarchs and civic leaders sent their children to be educated by him.
Moreover, Chiron adhered to strict moral and ethical beliefs that the other centaurs decidedly lacked. Pseudo-Eratosthenes, a first-century BCE constellational scholar, writes that Chiron “surpassed all men in righteousness.”
However, the most significant difference between Chiron and the other centaurs was that they would all eventually die, but Chiron was immortal. Oddly, Chiron’s immortality features in his death, which I’ll discuss in a subsequent column.
Several of his pupils even achieved constellational status. Castor and Pollux became the winter constellation Gemini. The great physician Asclepius became Ophiuchus, the Snake Handler.
Jason and his Argonauts owed him the most significant debt of Chiron’s many human friends and students.
When Jason sailed searching for the Golden Fleece, maritime navigation was in its infancy. The Argo was the first ship large enough to venture far from the shoreline into fearsome, uncharted waters.
Jason depended on Chiron’s help because of the Centaur’s intimate knowledge of the nighttime sky.
Centuries would pass before humans invented the compass. The Argonauts were forced to sail the Mediterranean Sea at night when the sun was not visible to provide the cardinal directions. The intrepid seafarers could not tell which way they were going.
Chiron had studied the stars for a very long time. He realized the stars rose in the east and set in the west like the sun. More importantly, Chiron knew the rising and setting times for the brighter stars during all the seasons of the year.
However, keeping track of all those stars was a difficult task. Chiron realized that it would be easier if he grouped the stars by laying them out into constellations for the first time.
So, Jason asked Chiron to teach the Argonaut navigators how to recognize the constellations and use them to steer by.
As 18th-century Welsh poet John Dyer writes,
“Now first, they learned their bold steerage over ocean waves,
Led by the golden stars, as Chiron’s art
Had marked the sphere celestial.”
Virtually all the ancient constellations honor vicious and deadly beasts or vainglorious heroes of war and death. As a constellation, Chiron/Sagittarius stands out, not because its stars are brighter than the rest, but because it represents a kind and intelligent creature, more human than any human.
Chiron gave us the glorious gift of the constellations. We can, I think, forgive him for the somewhat egocentric act of naming one, perhaps two, constellations after himself and his species.
Nerds deserve their own constellation. I, for one, am glad to call Sagittarius my own.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.