‘Tis the season when we hang lights from our huts and trees and commemorate our particular rendition of the Winter Solstice festivities.
Such sometimes-garish displays seem almost superfluous to a stargazer. You can go outside and look above your Earthly abode. Since human eyes have looked up, the universe has provided its own more subtly beautiful light show in the form of constellations.
Neither God nor nature lowered the constellation names down from the heavens on a string.
Before the invention of the telescope, the limited grasp of the human eye determined the number of stars. The ancients played connect-the-dots with the brighter stars, and the constellations were born.
Since constellations were based on stars and not sections of the sky as they are today, our forebears ignored entire patches of sky. Some stars were too faint to be bothered with.
In his seminal work Almagest, written around 150 CE, the great astronomer Ptolemy identified 48 constellations. With a couple of notable exceptions, which I discuss below, we still recognize those constellations nearly two millennia later.
Ptolemy observed the sky from Alexandria at 31 degrees north latitude. He had no way of experiencing the part of the sky visible from more southerly latitudes.
During the 16th century, seafarers began to explore the universe of stars below the equator. Astronomers had to add new constellations to accommodate the entire starry sphere. (I discussed those additions in a previous column.)
The great revolution came with the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century. Suddenly, faint naked-eye stars exploded into brilliance and beauty when viewed through the big glass eyes.
Astronomers scrambled to come up with names for the more obscure star groupings. They had little shame about naming them for wealthy or powerful people they thought might provide financial patronage.
A case in point is the constellation we now call Lacerta, the Lizard. You can see it (sort of) by looking high in the WNW right after dark if you observe from dark, rural skies. The Lizard is located in the almost starless gap between Cepheus to the north and a smallish triangle of stars that comprise the southwest side of Pegasus.
The brighter stars in the Lacerta look vaguely lizard-like — a zigzag of stars at the edge of visibility.
French astronomical cartographer Augustin Royer first named the stars in the area in 1679. He borrowed some stars from nearby constellations and called the whole mess, rather gushingly, the “Scepter and the Hand of Justice” to honor King Louis XIV of France. Royer knew what side of the bread his butter was on.
In 1687, Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius published his ornately illustrated star map. At first, he called the constellation “Stellio” after a European newt with star-like spots. At some point, he changed the name to Lacerta.
Hevelius’s name makes the most sense. The zigzagged stars resemble a slithering serpent a bit more than they look like, for example, King Frederick the Great of Prussia.
I didn’t pick that last name out of a hat. An entire century after Royer’s first designation, stellar cartographers still quarreled over the constellation’s name. German astronomer Johann Bode named the constellation “Honores Frederici” in honor of the Prussian king.
Bode’s description of the constellation reaches new heights of astronomical ingratiation: “Below a nimbus, the sign of Royal dignity, hang wreathed with imperishable laurel of fame, a sword, pen, and olive branch to distinguish this ever-to-be-remembered monarch as hero, sage, and peace-maker.”
The “imperishable laurel of fame” perished quickly, but the Lizard stuck.
That didn’t stop other astronomers from creating new constellations and renaming old ones, a process that continued to the 20th century. Of those “new” constellations, the less said, the better. Go out, intrepid stargazers, and witness the glory of Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly. Immerse yourself in the wonder of Turdus Solidarius, a name I don’t even want to think about, let alone translate.
Okay, I can’t help myself. Turdus Solitarius is Latin for “solitary thrush.”
In 1776, French astronomer Pierre Charles Lemonnier constructed Turdus out of stars in the constellation Hydra’s tail. He named it after the Rodrigues solitaire, an extinct flightless bird found only on the island of Rodrigues, which is east of Madagascar.
Turdus was replaced in 1822 by another constellation, Noctua (the Owl), in British astronomer Alexander Jamieson’s A Celestial Atlas. Eventually, the Hydra got its tail back because nobody uses either constellation name anymore.
Sometimes astronomers expunge constellations for purely practical purposes. Such was the case with Argo Navis, one of the 48 constellations recognized by Ptolemy’s Almagest.
To the ancient Greeks, the constellation represented the fifty-oared galley that Jason and his Argonauts used to chase after the Golden Fleece.
According to RH Allen, a ship of some sort 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 earlier Indian myth identified the ship as the Argha and made it the vessel of their wandering sun god.
Is it any wonder 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 much too large and 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 Puppis, the Poop Deck.
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. Weirdly, Pyxis is in the position where it should be holding up Vela, the sails.
Western sailors didn’t use such compasses until the 12th or 13th century CE. Ergo, such devices were unknown to the ancient Greeks. As a result, the good ship 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 another small constellation near the ship’s stern. Its name, Lochium Funis, means “Log and Line.” In those days, a sailor cast a knotted rope attached to a piece of wood 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 disappeared into the inky depths of history. Mercifully, Lochium Funis and Malus are pointed examples of the many constellations that never caught on.
In other words, the constellation Argo was steeped in the lore and legend of multicultural human history. That didn’t stop astronomers from tearing it apart and recycling the pieces.
The most poignant case of constellational renaming arose from Ptolemy’s subdivision of Aquila, the Eagle. Although he didn’t call Antinous an official constellation, he took some faint stars that were part of Aquila and renamed them after the beloved companion of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
Antinous was the love of Hadrian’s life. The lad’s untimely death by drowning hit the Emperor hard. Hadrian scattered statues of Antinous across the Roman Empire. Possibly at Hadrian’s request, Ptolemy honored Antinous even more profoundly. He placed him in the heavens.
Thus it was that 18 years after Hadrian’s death, Ptolemy positioned Antinous beneath the Eagle, the symbol of Roman strength and power.
Miraculously, the constellational subdivision survived into the 19th century. Johann Bode’s Uranometria star map, published in 1801, shows Antinous firmly in the grasp of Aquila’s claws as he is carried majestically across the sky.
By the early 20th century, the sky was a mess. Nomenclatural chaos reigns if anybody can name anything they want. In my own best interest, I might, for example, rename some constellation “Susan, the Long-Suffering Wife of the Stargazer Who is Always Out Showing Some Third Graders the Stars Instead of Staying Home Nights Like a Normal Person.”
Thus, in 1932, the International Astronomical Union met and fixed the constellations at 88 sky patches covering the entire northern and southern hemispheres. The stars are set in the heavens at last — or until the International Astronomical Union changes its mind the way it did with Pluto in 2006.
They probably should make a few changes. Some constellational divisions resemble Ohio’s gerrymandered state legislative districts.
But enough of this inanity. I’ve got to get outside to check out Delawariae Gazettius, the Kind and Gracious Publisher of These Weekly Astronerdish Meanderings.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.