Argo Navis

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The constellation Argo Navis drawn by Johannes Hevelius

Argo Navis (the Ship Argo), or simply Argo, was a large constellation in the southern sky. The genitive was "Argus Navis", abbreviated "Arg". Flamsteed and other early modern astronomers called it Navis (the Ship), genitive "Navis", abbreviated "Nav".

The constellation proved to be of unwieldy size, as it was 28% larger than the next largest constellation and had more than 160 easily visible stars. The 1755 catalogue of Nicolas Louis de Lacaille divided it into the three modern constellations that occupy much of the same area: Carina (the keel), Puppis (the poop deck) and Vela (the sails).

Argo derived from the ship Argo in Greek mythology, sailed by Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece.[1] Some stars of Puppis and Vela can be seen from Mediterranean latitudes in winter and spring, the ship appearing to skim along the "river of the Milky Way."[2] Due to precession of the equinoxes, the position of the stars from Earth's viewpoint has shifted southward, and though most of the constellation was visible in Classical times, the constellation is now not easily visible from most of the northern hemisphere.[3] All the stars of Argo Navis are easily visible from the tropics southward, and pass near zenith from southern temperate latitudes. The brightest of these is Canopus (α Carinae), the second-brightest night-time star, now assigned to Carina.


Development of the Greek constellation[edit]

Argo Navis was long-known to Greek observers, who are theorised to have derived it from Egypt around 1000 BCE. Plutarch attributed it to the Egyptian "Boat of Osiris." Some academics theorized a Sumerian origin related to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a hypothesis rejected for lack of evidence that the Sumerians or other Mesopotamian culture considered these stars, or any portion of them, to form a boat.[4]

Over time, Argo became identified exclusively with ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. In his Almagest, Claudius 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",[5] which continued to be reflected in cartographic representations in celestial atlases into the nineteenth century (see below). The ship appeared to rotate about the pole sternwards, so nautically in reverse. Aratus, the Greek poet / historian living in the third century BCE, 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 ...".[6]

The constituent modern constellations[edit]

In modern times, Argo Navis was considered unwieldy due to its enormous size (28% larger than Hydra, the largest modern constellation).[1] In his 1763 star atlas, 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), "Argûs in puppi" (Puppis, the poop deck or stern), and "Argûs in velis" (Vela, the sails).[7] 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 unlettered stars were listed only as in "Argûs".[8]

The final breakup and abolition of Argo Navis was proposed by Sir John Herschel in 1841 and again in 1844.[9] 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.[10] 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, and declaring Argo obsolete.[11] Lacaille's designations were kept in the offspring, so Carina has α, β, and ε; Vela has γ and δ; Puppis has ζ; and so on.[12]: 82  As a result of this breakup, Argo Navis is the only one of the 48 listed by Ptolemy in his Almagest no longer officially recognized as a single constellation.[13]

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 recent authors state that modern Pyxis was part of the ancient Greek conception of Argo Navis,[14][15] but magnetic compasses were unknown in ancient Greek times, nor does it appear that the stars now in Pyxis were included in the original conception of Argo Navis.[1] Lacaille considered it a separate constellation representing a modern scientific instrument (like Microscopium and Telescopium), that he created for maps of the stars of the southern hemisphere. Pyxis was listed among his 14 new constellations, separate from Argo.[a][8][12]: 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.[1] 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 King Charles II, his patron, was unsuccessful.[16]

Representations in other cultures[edit]

In Vedic astronomy, Indian observers also saw the asterism as "the Boat".[17]

The Māori had several names for what was the constellation, including Te Waka-o-Tamarereti (the canoe of Tamarereti),[18] Te Kohi-a-Autahi (an expression meaning "cold of autumn settling down on land and water"),[19] and Te Kohi.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d Ridpath, Ian. "Argo Navis". Star Tales. Retrieved 14 Mar 2019.
  2. ^ Massey, Gerald. Ancient Egypt – Light Of The World, Volume 2. Jazzybee Verlag. p. 30. ISBN 978-3-8496-7820-3.
  3. ^ Eastlick, P. "Argo Navis".
  4. ^ Barentine, John (2015). A History of Obsolete, Extinct, or Forgotten Star Lore. Springer. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-3-319-22795-5 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Toomer, G.J. (1984). Ptolemy's Almagest (PDF). Duckworth & Co. Ltd. p. 403. ISBN 0715615882.
  6. ^ Brown, Robert Jr. (1885). The Phainomena, or the Heavenly Display of Aratos, done into English Verse. Oxford University: Longmans, Green. p. 40.
  7. ^ de Lacaille, Nicolas-Louis (1763). Coelum Australe Stelliferum.
  8. ^ a b c de Lacaille, N.L. (1763). Coelum australe stelliferum. H.L. Guerin & L.F. Delatour. pp. 7ff.
  9. ^ Herschel, John F. W. (1844). "Further remarks on the revision of the constellations". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 6 (5): 60. Bibcode:1844MNRAS...6...60H. doi:10.1093/mnras/6.5.60.
  10. ^ Russell, Henry Norris (1922). "The New International Symbols for the Constellations". Popular Astronomy. 30: 469. Bibcode:1922PA.....30..469R.
  11. ^ del Porte, E. (1930). Delimitation scientifique des constellations (tables et cartes). Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ a b Wagman, M. (2003). Lost Stars: Lost, missing, and troublesome stars from the catalogues of Johannes Bayer, Nicholas-Louis de Lacaille, John Flamsteed, and sundry others. McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-939923-78-6.
  13. ^ Ley, Willy (December 1963). "The Names of the Constellations". For Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 90–99.
  14. ^ Scalzi, John (1 May 2008). Rough Guide to the Universe. Rough Guides Limited. ISBN 978-1-84353-800-4.
  15. ^ Kelley, David H.; Milone, Eugene F. (16 February 2011). Exploring Ancient Skies: A survey of ancient and cultural astronomy. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-1-4419-7624-6.
  16. ^ Barnetine, John C. (2015). The Lost Constellations: A history of obsolete, extinct, or forgotten star lore. Springer. p. 73. ISBN 978-3-319-22795-5 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Selin, Helaine (6 December 2012). Astronomy Across Cultures: The history of non-western astronomy. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 308. ISBN 978-94-011-4179-6 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ Robertson, Margaret; Po Eung, Eric (June 1, 2016). Everyday Knowledge, Education, and Sustainable Futures: Transdisciplinary approaches in the Asia-Pacific region. Springer. p. 63. ISBN 978-9811002168.
  19. ^ Best, Elsdon (July 1903). "Food Products of Tuhoeland: being notes on the food-supplies of non-agricultural tribes of the natives of New Zealand; together with some account of various customs, superstitions, &c., pertaining to foods". Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand. 35: 78.
  20. ^ Maud Worcester Makemson (1941). The Morning Star Rises: An account of Polynesian astronomy. Yale University Press – via Google Books.

External links[edit]