April 20, 2014

Constellations of Yore.

Hunting Cerberus…

(From Johann Bode’s 1801 Uranographia, in the Public Domain).

Sure, you’re familiar with the constellations of Orion and Ursa Major. Or perhaps you even know the difference between a constellation and an asterism such as the “Teapot” or the “Sickle” of Leo, or maybe you can even successfully pronounce such tongue-twisting names as Vulpecula or Camelopardalis… But have you ever heard of Gallus the Rooster or  Polophylax the “Pole Keeper?” Our modern 88 constellations were formalized in 1922 by the International Astronomical Union; most of the northern hemisphere ones date back to the time of Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. In 1763, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille scooped the world, and in one of the most unimaginative sweeps in astronomical history, established such southern hemisphere icons as Caelum the Engraving Tool, and Norma the Carpenters Square. But prior to that era, many spurious constellations crept onto stellar cartographers maps. Some fell to the wayside, while others were broken apart or incorporated into other constellations. A very few find curious use in the realm of astronomical taxonomy today. What follows is a baker’s dozen of these strange beasts; the list is by no means exhaustive (Hey, we gotta have a part II, right?) And doesn’t account for the rich mythos of the Egyptians, Chinese, Mayans, etc… (yet more posts!) Also, one final caveat; the illustrations are meant to peg a rough position of these obsolete asterisms; look at 3 different star charts today and you’ll see 3 different outlines for Gemini, for example. Anyway, on with those constellations that no longer are;

- Apis the Bee: Renamed as the modern constellation Musca the Fly by our friend Lacaille, Apis first found its way into star charts of Johann Bayer in 1603. The constellation also had a twin “northern fly” Musca Borealis near the modern constellation of Aries in the zodiac. It’s perhaps just as well that Apis fell to the wayside, as it would be confused with another southern constellation, Apus the Bird of Paradise.

Quadrans rising…

- Quadrans Muralis, the Mural Quadrant: Every January, a meteor shower that goes by the bizarre name of the Quadrantids occurs. This shower radiates from a constellation that no longer exists; created by Joseph Jerome le Francais de La Lande in 1975, this constellation was divided up between the modern constellations of Hercules, Draco and Bootes. While the “Mural Quadrant” isn’t all that appealing, we think it’s great that folks scratch their heads and wonder where such a bizarre moniker came from every year for a few days after New Year’s Eve.

- Argo Navis, the ship of the Argonauts: This large, rambling constellation was first established by Ptolemy, and had it survived, would easily be the largest constellation in the sky today. As the southern skies became better established, Lacaille divided up the huge constellation into the modern day Carina (the Keel), Puppis (the Deck), and Vela (The Sails). The Twins Castor and Gemini were part of the cast and crew of Jason’s Argonauts, and thus stand due north of the ship in the sky. Confusingly, Johann Bayer made his stellar designations when Argo Navis was a single constellation, and thus the alpha, beta, etc designations are now scattered amongst the three constellations. Even today, the grouping is sometimes informally referred to as “Argo Navis”.

The Print Office; paper training for the Great Dog?

- Officina Typographica, the Printing Office: Folks in the post-Renaissance era seemed to be proud of their whirly-gig inventions. East of Sirius and Canis Major once sat the bizarre constellation of the Printing Office, first established by Johann Bode in 1801 and mentioned as late as 1878 on the planisphere of Father Angelo Secchi. The area has since thankfully become incorporated into modern day Monoceros.

- Cerberus, the Three Headed Dog: In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the tri-headed dog who welcomed souls to Hades. This constellation was first depicted by Johannes Hevelius and later Johann Bode (see intro) and has also been attributed to Eudoxos of Cnidus by Flammarion before falling into disuse.  This grouping of 4th to 5th magnitude stars lay between Hercules and Cygnus the Swan.

A heavenly telescope!

- Telescopium Hershelii, Herschel’s telescope: This constellation was established by Father Abbe Maximilan Hell (an ironic name for a priest!) using faint stars that lay between the constellations of the Lynx, Gemini and Auriga. This telescopic constellation remained on the atlases of Johann Bode and Elijah Burritt in the 19th century. Perhaps it’s just as well, as a tribute to optics now exists in the southern hemisphere in the form of the modern constellation Telescopium.

- Limax the Slug: One of the more uncanny offerings that turns up in astronomer and naturalist John Hill’s 1754 book Urania. This was to comprise part of Lepus the hare just below Orion. What the slug has to do with the mythology of Orion is unclear; perhaps it’s crawling out of the nearby river, Eridanus!

A constellation in “Cancer Minor.”

- Cancer Minor, the Lesser Crab: Many constellations such as Canis Major and Leo where so “great” in the minds of olden astronomers that they apparently merited a “minor”… or were they just being unimaginative? A grouping of stars in Gemini near Cancer was established by Petrus Plancius in 1612 as “Cancer Minor” perhaps he was referring to a “Shrimp” or a “Crayfish?” The tiny constellation can also be found on the star maps of 17th century astronomer Andreas Cellarius. Modern stars 85, 81, 74, 68 Geminorum and HIP 36616 formed the Sagitta-like arrow shape outline of this constellation.

- Uranoscopus, the “Star-Gazer fish”: Another bid for fame in John Hill’s 1754 Urania, Uranoscopus was “composed of certain conspicuous and stars between the constellation Lynx and the sign of Gemini.” Perhaps it is with the invention and use of the telescope a century before that caused astronomers to organize fainter star patterns into meaningful constellations. We can be thankful, however, that this convention did not come to pass, as we would now be swapped with thousands of constellations!

- Phoenicopterus the Flamingo: Astronomy podcasters are forever grateful that they no longer have to pronounce this tongue-twisting constellation. Originally part of Piscis Austrinus, the area came into its own due to the efforts of Petrus Plancius and was first depicted on Johann Bayer’s influential Uranometria in 1603. The name Phoenicopterus pops up occasionally throughout the 17th century, and is now thankfully known as Grus the Crane today.

- Gallus the Rooster: Another constellation introduced by Petrus Plancius in 1612… notice how the constellation name-game leads us back to the same half dozen or so characters? Gallus the Rooster was erroneously attributed to Isaac Habrecht by Jacob Bartsch after noting its inclusion on a 1621 globe; Bartsch cited Gallus as the Rooster who crowed in the New Testament after Peter denied Jesus. The idea of adding biblical stories to the heavens never really caught on. Gallus occupied the area of northern Puppis.

- Polophylax the Guardian of the Pole: No, this isn’t a character straight out of Dungeons and Dragons. This is another Petrus Plancius creation, situated near the asterism of the Southern Cross and now comprising the constellations Tucana and Grus. This appeared as a blue-robbed man on various charts starting in 1594 before falling into disuse.

So there you have it, twelve constellations of yore. There are plenty more where that came from; if we get enough feedback, there may be a part II and III for this post, as well as discussion on the constellations of other cultures. Keep in mind that constellations are like political borders on a map; largely arbitrary, they simply serve as a way that we can establish a location of something in the sky. And remember, the patterns you see tonight are only a product of your vantage point in time and space; change either parameter drastically, and the patterns change! Also, feel free to establish your own personal constellations like several of our dramatis personae in this week’s post did; no one can tell you otherwise. Persuade a friend or two that you see an IPad or a hybrid car in the sky, and well…

In addition to the research cited the copious links included, we’d also like to mention the following invaluable print references used in researching this esoteric post;

-Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning by Richard Hinckley Allen

-Peterson Field Guides Stars & Planets by Jay Pasachoff & Donald Menzel

-The New Patterns in the Sky by Julius Staal

-Uranometria 2000.0 Tirion, Rapport, and Lovi

All good resources worth hunting down in your quest for obscure constellations!

(All fanciful asterism(s) created from author images).



  1. [...] up is everyone’s favorite meteor shower named after an obsolete constellation; the Quadrantids peak the morning of January 4th in what is the first large meteor [...]

  2. [...] heck did the name come from? Ah, for that little bit of trivia, we refer you to our handy post on obsolete constellations of yore. The Quadrantids derive their name from an obsolete constellation known as the Mural [...]

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