Argo Navis (the Ship Argo), or simply Argo, was a large constellation in the southern sky that has since been divided into the three constellations of Carina, Puppis and Vela. The genitive was "Argus Navis", abbreviated "Arg". Flamsteed and other early modern astronomers called the constellation just Navis (the Ship), genitive "Navis", abbreviated "Nav".
It was identified in Greek mythology with the Argo, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts that sailed to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. The original constellation is presently found near the southern horizon of the Mediterranean sky, becoming visible in springtime and sailed westward, skimming along the "river of the Milky Way." Due to precession of the equinoxes, many of the stars of Argo have been shifted farther south since Classical times, and far fewer of its stars are visible today from the latitudes of the Mediterranean. This includes its brightest 1st-magnitude star, Canopus or α Carinae. All the stars of Argo Navis are easily visible south of the equator, and pass near zenith from southern temperate latitudes.
Development of the Greek Constellation
Argo Navis was long-known to Greek observers, who are believed to have derived it from Egypt around 1000 BC. For example, Plutarch identified Argo with the Egyptian constellation called the "Boat of Osiris." Although some academics theorized a Sumerian origin related to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this hypothesis has been rejected as there is no evidence that the Sumerians or other Mesopotamian culture considered these stars, or any portion of them, to form a vessel.
Over time, the constellation became identified specifically with ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. In his Almagest, Ptolemy described Argo Navis as occupying the portion of the Milky Way between Canis Major and Centaurus, and identified stars comprising such details as the "little shield," the "steering-oar," the "mast-holder," and the "stern-ornament", which continued to be reflected in cartographic representations in celestial atlases into the nineteenth century (see accompanying). Another interesting feature of the constellation is that it appeared to be moving backwards against the backdrop of the night sky. Aratus, the Greek poet/historian living in the third century BC, noted this backward progression writing, "Argo by the Great Dog's [Canis Major's] tail is drawn; for hers is not a usual course, but backward turned she comes ...".
The Constituent Modern Constellations
In modern times, Argo Navis was considered unwieldy for scientific purposes due to its enormous size (28% larger than Hydra, the largest modern constellation). In his Coelum Australe Stelliferum, published in 1763, the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille explained that there were more than a hundred and sixty stars clearly visible to the naked eye in Navis, and so he used the set of lowercase and uppercase Latin letters three times on portions of the constellation referred to as "Argûs in carina" (Carina, the keel or hull), "Argûs in puppi" (Puppis, the poop deck or stern), and "Argûs in velis" (Vela, the sails). Lacaille replaced Bayer's designations with new ones that followed stellar magnitudes more closely, but used only a single Greek-letter sequence and described the constellation for those stars as "Argûs". Similarly, faint non-lettered stars were listed only as in "Argûs".
The final breakup and abolition of Argo Navis was proposed by Sir John Herschel in 1841 and again in 1844. Despite this, the constellation remained in use in parallel with its constituent parts into the 20th century. In 1922, along with the other constellations, it received a three-letter abbreviation: Arg. The breakup and relegation to a former constellation occurred in 1930 when the IAU defined the 88 modern constellations, formally instituting Carina, Puppis, and Vela. Lacaille's designations were kept in the three separate constellations, so Carina has α, β and ε, Vela has γ and δ, Puppis has ζ, and so on.:82 As a result of this breakup, Argo Navis is the only one of the 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy in his Almagest that is no longer officially recognized as a single constellation.
In addition, the constellation Pyxis (the mariner's compass) occupies an area near that which in antiquity was considered part of Argo's mast. Some authors state that Pyxis was part of the Greek conception of Argo Navis, but magnetic compasses were unknown in ancient Greek times, and it does not appear that its stars were included in the original conception. Lacaille considered it a separate constellation, representing one of the modern scientific instruments he placed among the constellations (like Microscopium and Telescopium). Pyxis was listed separately, among his 14 new constellations. Lacaille assigned Bayer designations to Pyxis separate from those of Argo, and his illustration shows an isolated instrument not related to the figure of the ship.:262 In 1844, John Herschel suggested formalizing the mast as a new constellation, Malus, to replace Lacaille's Pyxis, but the idea did not catch on. Similarly, an effort by Edmond Halley to detach the "cloud of mist" at the prow of Argo Navis to form a new constellation named "Robur Carolinum" (Charles' Oak) in honor of his patron, King Charles II, was unsuccessful.
Representations in Other Cultures
The Māori had several names for what was the constellation Argo, including Te Waka-o-Tamarereti (the canoe of Tamarereti), Te Kohi-a-Autahi (an expression meaning "cold of autumn settling down on land and water"), and Te Kohi.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Argo Navis.|
- Starry Night Photography : Argo Navis Image
- Star Tales – Argo Navis
- Warburg Institute Iconographic Database – Argo (Navis) (over 160 medieval and early modern images of Argo Navis)