Monthly Archives: March 2022
Etymology – The Keel
Also known as: Ἀργώ (Greek for the Argo Navis)
Argo Navis – Obsolete Constellation
The name Argo Navis is the name of a now-obsolete constellation, it had long been known and observed by the ancient Greeks and other stargazers. For the Greeks and much of the Western World, the Argo Navis is associated with the story of Jason and the Argonauts
Early modern astronomers simply referred to this constellation as Navis. This constellation was rather large, taking up much of the southern sky. By the time we get to 1763, French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille decided to divide the Argo Navis into three smaller constellations of Carina, Puppis, and Vela. This final, breaking up Argo Navis into smaller constellations came in 1841 and 1844 by Sir John Herschel. In 1930, the IAU officially acknowledged this break up with the formalization of the 88 modern constellations used. While Carina is the smallest of the three newish appointed constellations, it does represent the bulk of the ship, The Argo.
The constellation Pyxis, the compass locates an area of the night sky near the mast of the Argo Navis. Some scholars will include and say it was part of the Argo Navis, others will point out that magnetic compasses were not known or used by the ancient Greeks. Lacaille thought of Pyxis as separate from the Argo Navis. Herschel proposed Pyxis be formalized as part of a new constellation, Malus in 1844 to replace Lacaille’s Pyxis.
Had Argo Navis not been divided up, it would be the largest constellation in the night sky. Nowadays, Hydra claims that spot as the largest constellation.
The First Ship?
Going by Greek mythology and history, Eratosthenes said that Argo Navis represented the first-ever ocean ship built. Even the later Roman writer Manilius agreed with that idea. Those paying attention to the mythology are quick to point out that this distinction belongs to the myth or story of Danaus as building the first ship. Danaus is the father of the 50 Danaids and with the help of the goddess Athena, set sail to Argos from Libya.
The constellation known as Carina is one of three constellations that make up the Argo Navis and once one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Ptolemy describes the Argo Navis as sitting in the night sky between Canis Major and Centaurus. He goes on to describe asterisms for the “little shield,” the “steering-oar,” the “mast-holder,” and the “stern-ornament.” With the appearance of moving backward through the heavens, the Greek poet and historian Aratus calls the Argo Navis “Argo by the Great Dog’s tail drawn,” referring to Canis Major. Today Carina is one of the 88 current or modern constellations. The Carina constellation is found in a region of the sky called “The Sea” with other water-based constellations of Aquarius, Capricornus, Eridanus, Piscis Austrinus, and Pisces.
As Argo Navis, Carina would appear along the southern horizon in the Mediterranean during winter and spring, where the ship appears to be sailing along the Milky Way. Due to the equinox precessions over the millennia, Carina, Puppis, and Vela are no longer easily seen from the northern hemisphere. Carina is the 34th largest constellation found in the night sky and best seen during the month of March. Bordering constellations to Carina are Centaurus, Chamaeleon, Musca, Pictor, Puppis, Vela, and Volans.
Nowadays, only the stern of the Argo can be seen in the night sky. Cartographers have tried explaining this by saying that’s because the prow has vanished into a bank of mist or the other half has passed through the Clashing Rocks. Mythographers like Robert Graves said the missing prow is due to when Jason returned to Corinth and while sitting beneath the rotting ship, the prow fell off, killing the hero. That’s when Poseidon is to have placed the ship up in the heavens.
In northern China, the constellation of Carina can barely be seen.
The star Canopus is identified as the south polar star and the Star of the Old Man. This Old Man of the South Pole is the deified version of the star in Taoism, the symbol of longevity and happiness. This star is also associated with the Vermilion Bird of the South or Nán Fāng Zhū Què. With access to Western star charts, the rest of the stars were classified by Xu Guanggi during the Ming Dynasty and placed with The Southern Asterisms or Jìnnánjíxīngōu.
The star Eta Carinae is sometimes called Tseen She or “Heaven’s Altar”
It is thought perhaps that the ancient Greeks got their constellation of Argo Navis from the Egyptians circa 1000 B.C.E. Plutarch makes mention of the “Boat of Osiris” that the god Osiris would travel in as he traveled the lands of the dead.
Other scholars had suggested that the Greeks got the myth of the Argo Navis from Sumerian myths, specifically the Epic of Gilgamesh. Due to the lack of evidence, this idea is discarded.
The Maori of New Zealand called this group of stars by several names. Te Waka-o-Tamarereti or “canoe of Tamarereti,” Te Kohi-a-Autahi, an expression meaning “cold of Autumn settling down on the land and water,” and Te Kohi.
The star Canopus is called Ariki or “High-Born” by the Maori and Ke Alii-o-kona-i-ka-lewa” or “The Chief of the Southern Expanse” by the Hawaiians. Due to Canopus’ seeming solitary nature and being the last star seen before sunrise, it is also known as Atutahi, “First Light” or “Single Light, the Tuamotu Te Tau-rari. Marere-te-tavahi or “He who stands alone” by the Maori. There are also the names Kapae-poto for “Short horizon” and Kauanga for “Solitary.”
In India, people saw this constellation as “the Boat.”
Stars of Carina
Alpha Carinae – Also known as Canopus, it is the second brightest star in the night sky behind Sirius. It is a white supergiant star located some 313 lightyears from the Earth. The name Canopus is the Latinized spelling for the Greek Kanobos who the pilot of King Menlaus’ fleet of ships. This star is seen as the rudder, steering the ship across the night sky. Canopus is also the namesake city for where he died along the northern coast of Egypt on their way home from Troy. Menelaus founded the city there in his pilot’s honor. It was known as the star of Osiris was worshipped by many ancient cultures. It is the star used by Posidonus in Alexandria, in 260 B.C.E. to plot out the degrees of the Earth’s surface. Additionally, Canopus is the star that modern spacecraft use for celestial navigation.
Beta Carinae – Also known as Miaplacidus is a blue-white star. It is the second brightest star in the Carina constellation. The name Miaplacidus means “placid waters” and comes from the Arabic word miyah for waters and the Latin word placidus for placid.
Epsilon Carinae – Also known as Avior, it gained this name in 1930. It is published in a navigational almanac that the British Royal Air Force uses for navigating.
Eta Carinae – Also known as Foramen and Tseen She (“Heaven’s Altar” in Chinese). A prominent variable star has approximately 100 solar masses and is 4 million times as bright as the Sun. It was discovered by Edmond Halley in 1677. Eta Carinae is located inside the Carina Nebula. Eta Carinae is also a binary star. Because of the activity or outbursts that this star has shown, it is expected to go supernova or hypernova in the next million years or so.
Iota Carinae – Also known as Aspidiske, Turais, and Scutulum, all meaning “shield” in Greek, Arabic and Latin. Iota Carinae is part of the False Cross asterism.
Theta Carinae – This star forms part of the Diamond Cross asterism. It is also part of a cluster of stars sometimes called the Southern Pleiades as they look very similar to the Pleiades asterism found in Taurus.
Upsilon Carinae – Also known as Vathorz Prior from the Old Norse-Latin words meaning “Preceding One of the Waterline.” It is part of the Diamond Cross asterism.
This is an asterism found within Carina, that while larger than the Southern Cross constellation, is fainter. The stars Beta, Theta, Upsilon, and Omega Carinae form this asterism.
This is an asterism often confused for the Southern Cross constellation. The stars Iota Carinae and Epsilon Carinae along with two stars each from Kappa, Vela, Velorum, and Delta Velorum make up this asterism.
The Southern Pleiades
Also known as the Theta Carinae Cluster. The brightest star within this cluster is Theta Carinae. This cluster is called the Southern Pleiades because it resembles the Pleides of the Taurus constellation. It was by Lacaille in 1751.
Also called NGC 3372, this is the nebula that Carina got its name from when French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille discovered it in 1751. The Carina Nebula contains several nebulae within it. It covers a region of space that is some 8,000 light-years away and 300 light-years wide. The central region of the Carina Nebula is covered by another, smaller Nebula called the Keyhole Nebula.
Covering the central part of the Carina Nebula, the Keyhole Nebula or Keyhole appears as a dark cloud with bright filaments of fluorescent gas. The Keyhole Nebula is roughly seven light-years wide. It was described in 1847 by John Herschel and it got its name from Emma Converse who named it the Keyhole in 1873.
This is a planetary nebula that can be seen by the naked eye and has the erratic Eta Carinae star within it. The word Homunculus means “little man” in Latin.
Wishing Well Cluster
Also known as NGC 3532, this open cluster of stars gets it name as when seen through a telescope, the stars appear like coins tossed into a Wishing Well. Speaking of telescopes, the Wishing Well Cluster was the first object observed by Hubble Space Telescope. This cluster can be found between the Crux constellation and the False Cross asterism.
Heavenly Waters Family
There are two meteor showers associated with the Carina constellation, they are the Alpha Carinids and the Eta Carinids which occur between January 14th and 27th each year. The Eta Carinids was first discovered in 1961 in Australia.
Jason & The Argonauts – Part 1
This is the myth that is identified with the Argo Navis by the ancient Greeks. The constellation represents the 50-oared galley that Jason and his crew sailed when heading off to Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The kingdom of Colchis was located somewhere near the eastern shores of the Black Sea in modern-day Georgia. This Golden Fleece is the fleece from the Golden Ram forming the constellation of Aries. The same Golden Ram that flew Nephele’s children, Helle (who fell off on the way) and Phryxus to safety in Colchis.
Apollonius Rhodius is the ancient Greek poet and scholar who wrote the Argonautica chronicling the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts that we know this epic from. Apollonius describes the Argo as the finest ship that ever sailed, she would ride before the wind when her crew pulled at the oars.
Now, to start the story proper, it begins with Jason’s grandfather, King Athamas of Boeotia. When Athamas died, his eldest son Aeson was to inherit the throne. The younger son, Pelias held other plans. Aeson was a pacifist and abdicated the throne to Pelias’ ambitions on the condition that when his son, Jason reached his majority, the throne was to be returned to him.
Shortly after ascending to the throne, an oracle approached Pelias and warned him that Aeson’s son would retake the throne by force. This same oracle also told Pelias to beware of the man with one sandal.
Pelias couldn’t do anything about the later prophecy, but he could do something about the former. He sent his soldiers to go kill his nephew. Before the soldiers ever arrived, Athamas had already sent his son, Jason on to learn from the centaur Chiron. So, when the soldiers did come, Athamas informed them that Jason was dead and the soldiers returned to Pelias to relay the news.
Years later, Chiron told Jason of what happened between his father and uncle. Angry, Jason headed home to right some wrongs. Aeson was more than happy to see his son again and after that bit of family reunion, Jason set off to confront his uncle.
While on his way to Boeotia, Jason needed to cross a river. An old woman greeted Jason, asking him to help her across. Jason agreed and as he carried the old woman, he lost one of his sandals. In some accounts, this old woman is the goddess Hera in disguise, aiding Jason on his quest and forcing a prophecy to be self-fulling.
Thus, Jason entered Boeotia with only one sandal. Seeing the youth with only one sandal, reminded Pelias of the prophecy given to him years ago and he became worried. Jason requests an audience with Pelias, demanding that the throne be given back to him.
Seeking to postpone the inevitable, a worried Pelias says that he will give up the throne only if Jason can prove himself by bringing back the Golden Fleece in Colchis. Pelias tells Jason that this golden fleece is rightly theirs. Secretly, Pelias hoped this quest would prove futile. Either Jason would die along the way on the 2,000-mile journey or get lost.
Building The Ship
Such a voyage would require a ship to undertake it. Jason enlisted the services of Argus to construct this vessel. The gods had a vested interest in this journey as well and the goddess Athena supervised Argus as he built the ship with timber from nearby Mount Pelion brought down to the port of Pagasae.
For the prow of the ship, Athena used an oak beam from the oracle of Zeus at Dodona. By the time Argus finished the ship, this oak beam allowed the Argo to speak, calling out for action. Jason would take with him, 50 of the greatest Greek heroes.
These are some of the more notable crew. Sometimes the names can vary slightly, notably if Atlanta will be listed as part of the crew.
Argus – The shipwright and name’s sake of the Argos
Atlanta – An archer and the only woman on the crew
Castor & Polydeuces – Twins
Calais & Zetes – The sons of the North Wind
Glaucus – The Argo’s helmsman
Orpheus – One of the greatest musicians of the Greek era.
Heracles – The strongest man alive in ancient Greece, taking a break from his Twelve Labors.
Theseus – Slayer of the Minotaur
Launching The Argo
If there was one flaw to Argus’ ability as a shipwright, it is that the Argo was too heavy that they could move the ship into the water. Enter stage right, Orpheus who played his lyre as he sang, that the oak beam of the Argo’s bow began to move, taking the whole ship into the water.
Visiting The Mentor
As the Argonauts sailed, the ship passed near Mount Pelion, where Chiron lived. Jason decided to visit his old mentor and the crew spent a night resting there. To help Jason and the Argonauts on their quest, Chiron placed a likeness of himself up in the heavens. One version of the story says that this constellation is Sagittarius, though scholars will disagree and say that it is the constellation Centaurus that represents Chiron. Either way, throughout his journey, Jason would speak with Chiron through the stars of this constellation.
As the Argo sailed, they reached a point where they needed to resupply their stores of freshwater. Hercules and Hylas were the two who volunteered to go ashore and get more water. After a bit of searching, the two found a well and as they were pulling water up, Hylas was suddenly pulled down by the naiads living there. It is here that Hercules parted ways with the Argonauts as he decided to try and find a way to rescue Hylas.
Side Note: An old 1963 Ray Harryhaussen movie for Jason and the Argonauts sees Hercules and Hylas encountering a giant statue named Talos that attacks everyone when they take some treasure.
To Be Continued…
Argo Navis – Puppis for Part 2
Argo Navis – Vela for Part 3