The practice of inventing constellations, those imaginary patterns among the stars, predates recorded history and has been done by people around the world. In 140 CE, astronomer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, in his book, The Almagest, listed 48 constellations which came to be the accepted list throughout the Mediterranean region for the next 1,500 years.
During the 16th-18th centuries, as Europeans began exploring the Southern Hemisphere, they saw new and unfamiliar regions of the night sky, and invented new constellations. New ones were also being created in the northern sky, and with no official body to rule on such matters, it didn’t take long for the situation to get out of hand. The lack of uniformity among the catalogs and sky-globes muddied the waters for astronomers.
To clarify things, in 1930 the International Astronomical Union set forth boundaries for 88 official constellations, keeping most of the traditional constellations and some of the newer ones. For most of those rejected, we would probably say, "Good riddance!"
Several were named for kings, but who wants a sky full of monarchs? Two honored astronomers Charles Messier and William Herschel, but how can you select just two? Several rejects were animals—a cat, flamingo, fly, night owl, reindeer, and thrush—but the night sky is already full of animals.
Other rejects recognized technological inventions—a balloon, electric machine, printing office, sun dial, and quadrant. While these were important devices in their day, would we really want laptop computers, microwave ovens, digital cameras, and cell phones in our contemporary night sky?
Given the abundance of constellations and lore devoted to war, killing and such, I would welcome some depicting positive values, such as Scepter, the Hand of Justice, which was rejected. And how about others honoring love, compassion, acceptance, liberty, freedom, and responsibility?
One omitted constellation my gay friends would surely have wanted kept was Antinous, the young lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE). His death at age 19 so bereaved the emperor that he created a constellation in his honor. Situated on the back of Aquila the Eagle, Antinous was lifted into the heavens by the great bird. He appeared in some astronomical catalogs and globes as recently as the 1700s, but didn’t make the final cut.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know of many star patterns invented by other cultures. Surely there were tigers, elephants, and wildebeests in African skies, monkeys and crocodiles looking down on Central and South American, buffaloes stampeding across the skies of North America, and kangaroos bouncing over Australia.
• Naked-eye Planets. Evening: Saturn (upper left), Mars (middle), and brilliant Venus (lower right) are aligned in the west. Morning: Bright Jupiter is in the southeast.
Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or email@example.com. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.
* 6 Tue.: Earth is at aphelion, farthest from the Sun in its elliptical orbit, at 94.5 million miles which is 3.4% more distant than we were at perihelion on Jan. 4.
* 8 Thu. morning: The crescent Moon is below the Pleiades low in the east northeast with the orange star Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull, below.
* 9 & 10, Fri. & Sat. early evening: Brilliant Venus is within two moonwidths of Leo’s brightest star Regulus low in the west after dark.
* 11 Sun.: The new Moon passing between Earth and Sun produces a total solar eclipse that won’t be visible from our hemisphere.
* 12 Mon. evening: The thin crescent Moon is to the lower left of Mercury very low in the west northwest at dusk.
* 14 Wed. evening: The crescent Moon is to the lower left of Venus in the west.
* 15 Thu. evening: The crescent Moon is to the lower left of Mars and below Saturn in the west.
* 16 Fri. evening: The crescent Moon (left), Mars (right), and Saturn (top) form a triangle in the west.
* 17 Sat. evening: The crescent Moon is below the Virgo’s bright star Spica in the southwest.