Constellation sets sail

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

Ahoy, mateys. This week we be writing about a mighty constellational ship and its various constituent parts. Those parts include Puppis, the Poop, which doesn’t mean what you think it does, oh ye landlubbers.

According to my online dictionary, the Poop is “some part of a ship. We’re not sure what part. Go ask a sailor.” So much for online dictionaries.

Seriously, the Poop is one of the decks at the stern of a sailing vessel. The stern is, naturally, the back end of the vessel.

So what is the stern of a ship doing out there all by its lonesome self? Puppis was originally part of a much larger constellation called Argo Navis. In fact, Argo is one of the 48 constellations recognized by Ptolemy in the second century CE.

To the ancient Greeks, Argo represented the fifty-oared galley that Jason and his Argonauts used to chase after the Golden Fleece.

According to RH Allen, some sort of ship has been at that stellar location for a long time. To the ancient Egyptians, Argo was the ark that kept the gods Isis and Osiris safe during the Egyptian version of the great flood. India has its own version of the flood with the equivalent gods Isi and Iswara on board the ship. An even earlier Indian myth identified the ship as the Argha and made it the vessel of their wandering sun god.

Is it any wonder then that by the 17th century, some stellar cartographers like Johann Bayer identified the area of the constellation as Archa Noae, Noah’s Ark?

Unfortunately, the old constellation is enormous and much too unwieldy to be used to map the sky for scientific purposes. As a result, in 1752, French astronomer Louis de Lacaille dismembered the mighty Argo into three parts: Vela (The Sails), Carina (the Keel) and, of course, Puppis.

He also added a new constellation near the stern of the ship. Pyxis Nautica, or Mariner’s Compass, represents a magnetic compass. He retasked the compass out of stars that had previously formed the constellation of Malus, the ship’s mast. In fact, Pyxis is in the position where it would be holding up Vela, the sails.

Of course, western sailors didn’t begin to use such compasses until the 12th or 13th century CE. Such devices were unknown to the ancient Greeks. And thus it is that the poor Argo has an anachronistic compass but nothing to hold up its sails. No matter. Nobody said constellation names had to be logical.

But the nautical weirdness doesn’t stop there. In 1801, another stellar cartographer named Johann Bode introduced yet another small constellation near the ship’s stern. Its name, Lochium Funis, means “Log and Line.” A knotted rope attached to a piece of wood is cast into the sea to measure the ship’s speed in “knots.”

The method was common in the 17th century, but if the ancient Greeks used it, that use has been lost in the inky depths of history. Mercifully, Lochium Funis is a pithy example of one of the many constellations that never caught.

The origin of the ship’s name is something of a mystery. Navis is easy. It refers to a ship or boat. Therefore, Argo Navis means “Argo, the Ship.” However, Argo is more problematic. A master Boatwright named Argus, son of Phirixos, built the ship. So the ship is named after its builder.

Some sources say Argus built Argo at Argos, a city in the Greek the Peloponnese and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. So the ship is named after the city.

The Greek word “argos” means “swift,” which is a pretty good name for the Argo, which was very speedy because of its broad sail and 50 stout oarsmen. So the ship is named for its speed.

The ancient Roman statesman Cicero argued that the ship was named after those oarsmen, who were called Argives or, more commonly, Argonauts. So the ship was named after its sailors.

That last one seems like a stretch. It is far more likely that the sailors were named after the ship rather than the other way around.

My own theory is somewhat more controversial. Jason and his Argonauts were essentially pirates — or privateers if you prefer. Thus, Jason’s ship derives its name from the common pirate ejaculation “argh,” as in, “Argh, there be a French schooner off the port bow.” And then again, maybe not.

Those of you with a keen nautical sense will note a problem with the ship’s construction. Only the stern, keel, and sails are represented. What happened to the front half?

The whole story of the Argo’s adventure is too complex to be told here. Suffice it to say that Jason was ordered by the goddess Athena to steal the Golden Fleece from King Aeetes, the many-voweled monarch of the island of Colchis. Jason needed a ship, and Athena asked Argus, the greatest shipbuilder of the age, to construct one.

Argus created the greatest galley ever. It seated 50 oarsmen and even had affixed to its prow (that’s the front end, landlubbers) an oak plank that warned Jason in fluent Greek of any dangers that lay ahead. Yes, that’s right. The Argus had a talking board on board.

Jason also needed a crew of rowers and fighters, and Athena “encouraged” a Who’s Who of celestial celebrities to do the grunt work. They included Hercules, who later got his own summer constellation, Castor and Pollux, who are represented by the twin stars of the constellation Gemini, and the songster Orpheus, represented by his musical instrument in the constellation Lyra, the Lyre.

You’re probably noticing that the sky lacks a constellation called Jason. That omission seems shameful because the mighty goddess Athena commissioned the voyage and subsequent theft of the Golden Fleece.

Jason and his hardy band of pillagers managed to procure the fleece and had many adventures along the way. For one thing, they learned to pronounce King Aeetes’ name. For another, they managed to navigate the fabled Clashing Rocks, which protected the entrance to the Black Sea like a set of out-of-control elevator doors.

When they returned home, Jason honored his vessel by beaching it at Corinth. He then dedicated it to Poseidon, the god of the sea, and left it to rot.

In his dotage, Jason returned to the deteriorating hulk to ruminate upon past glories and reflect on what a mess he had made of his life after the Argo’s momentous voyage. As he sat in deep contemplation, the decaying prow of the ship fell off and crushed him to death. Apparently, the gods had expected him to take better care of the Argo.

Poseidon then placed its remains among the stars, which is why we see only its stern to this very day.

Only the Puppis portion of Argo’s stern is visible from our northern climes. Right now, you will find it underneath Canis Major, very low in the southern sky just after dark. You’d better go and take a look, but watch out for falling stars. One can never tell what the gods might do.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.