Capricornus the Seagoat
The name Capricornus has been shortened to Carpricorn by some folks. But that is a very recent thing, like only in the last hundred years maybe. Either way, it means Seagoat. And Seagoat is the oldest known name still in use for anything in the whole sky. People have been calling these stars the Seagoat for more than 7000 years. Even the ancient Chinese referred to these stars as the Mo Ki, which is the goat fish.
Nobody really knows why these stars are the Seagoat. Oh there have been some attempts to sort it out. One historian suggested it might somehow be derived from a mythical nurse that took care of the gods when they were babies. The nurse looked Asian and eventually turned into a goat, what? I just don’t know if the story is credible and it sounds a bit racist even. We already have a goat and a fish here. Throw in an Asian nurse who grew horns, I mean, it’s getting pretty complicated and may have something to do with a personal fetish.
Meanwhile we have to consider the ancient Babylonians, from whom we get a lot of the wackier starlore stuff. You always expect a fun little story from the Babylonians, like maybe some kids were playing a card game and kept shouting out Go Fish but the grownups thought they were saying Goat Fish, or something like that. But the Babylonians swore they had learned the name Seagoat from an earlier civilization that had died out and those guys didn’t like to talk about it very much I guess so, no story.
There is however, an interesting story about Capricorn from the middle ages of Europe. When the knights of chivalry donned their armor and helmets, and swords and shields, and went out to do battle for all that is righteous. They also tended to don a special battle amulet. Some of these amulets are still around today in museums and private collections. They each have a constellation engraved on the front so they are referred to as uranographic amulets (skydrawing doodad). Most of them depict the constellation of Capricorn.
You see my friends, it was widely believed in the European ages of darkness, that heaven was somehow located on the other side of the stars. Some people even felt that the stars were merely tiny holes in the barrier where the light of heaven was leaking through. And the pearly gates to heaven, with Saint Peter standing eternally at a podium awaiting cheap humor, was located in Capricorn. So anyone and anything that wanted to enter into glory, had to go through Capricorn. Now to get back, to come down, you had to go through Cancer the Crab on the other side of the sky. It was like two one-way streets. Perhaps they anticipated a lot of traffic what with various plagues, and wars, and with birth control being a capital offense. It was the law of the heavens, a hard and fast rule. It applied to everybody. It applied to the angels. It applied to Satan. It applied even to the one and only true almighty himself, Yahwehmuhammadbuddahshivajesus.
So then it makes perfect sense you see, because battles can be pretty confusing. These war things rarely go as planned and never end the way they begin. Troops get turned around. Troops get lost. But if you got killed in battle, and your soul came out of your body a little disoriented, it could look at your amulet and not head up the wrong street. It is so logical. It may be the most logical religious thing I’ve ever heard.
There is another little piece to this legend. The world is finally going to end when all the planets get together at the big gate in Capricorn. That’s the mythology anyway but you know how these myths tend to treat celestial objects like they are characters in a fantasy ridden fairy tail book. In real life the world won’t come to an end until the Sun becomes a red giant, and then a white dwarf, and then a green elf.
Messier 30 is a decent little globular and the one I like to call, the last Messier. That’s because when you do the Messier Marathon completely it is likely to be the last one you find before you pack up your scope and collapse. The marathon always happens in March, that’s when the Sun is in a little slice of the sky with no Messier objects behind it. So on the new moon in March, astronomy clubs around the world gather with their telescopes in dark rural settings and hope the local yokels don’t call the sheriff to report that “a bunch of weirdos talking a strange language are pointing mortars at the town.”
The whole point of the Messier Marathon is to locate and log observations of as many of the 110 objects as possible in one night. It is really only 108 objects or so, not 110, depending on how you interpret the fact that M101 and M102 are probably the same object, and M40 doesn’t appear to exist at all or at best is just a couple of random stars. That doesn’t matter because you are probably not going to log even a hundred objects before you fall asleep, or run out of coffee, or freeze to death, or head out looking for some all-night dive that has pancakes. I actually nailed 104 of them one year, but it’s pretty rare that anyone finishes the list. I think getting 50 of them is pretty good.
If you stick it out until dawn trying to augment your achievement and impress the handful of people who actually know what the hell a Messier is, then chances are the last Messier on your list is M30. It’s close to the Sun in March so the trick to finding it is to start your search after the stars of Capricorn are high enough above the horizon in the pre-dawn to be seen and used as guide posts, but before the rosy fingers of early light wash M30 completely out. Good luck with that. I’ll save you a seat at IHOP.
Aquarius the Water Bearer
Here we have a constellation that is an excellent example of how a group of stars gets a name without connecting the dots. It was named by the Babylonians. In ancient Babylon, which is essentially Iraq, there between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, when the Sun entered this part of the sky back then, it was their monsoon. The rain came down hard for a whole month and those rivers flooded. So they named this part of the sky The Bringer of Water. Much later people tried to make it into some dude with a big jug of water. In the upper part of it there are four dim stars forming a little “Y” shape that we now call the water jug.
When Aquarius rises high you can see the lonely star Fomalhaut underneath it. We call it “The Lonely One” because it is the only bright star for quite a ways in all directions. It is on the western edge of the Cetus Void which is a large oval area which only has rather dim stars. Down that dark scary hole is where the kraken lives. Try not to release him.
The Sun is in the east side of Aquarius during the Messier Marathon, where it doesn’t block any objects, that’s how it works. But Aquarius wraps all the way up and over the top of Capricorn in an overly friendly uncomfortable way. So it has some objects, a couple of globulars and an open cluster, that are north and west of M30 and therefore slightly, if only slightly, easier to clobber before dawn. M2 isn’t too shabby to look at. M73 is kind of stupid.
Pisces the Fishes
This constellation was named by those party hardy Babylonians also. Once the rain finally stopped, and the rivers settled down, they would load their nets into the boats and it was their best fishing season. Screw the limit! They invited in-laws over and had a big old fashioned fish fry. I don’t think chips had been invented yet, not sure. But they had beer, for sure. They named this part of the sky The Fishes and we of course know it as Pisces. There is no certain star or group of stars that are specifically meant to be fishes, you just connect the dots into a long stringer and throw a couple of fishes in there anywhere you want. Then go get some beer.
There is a rather decent face-on spiral galaxy in Pisces, M74. Creatures living there probably say something similar about us. Maybe our galaxy is on their geeky observation list like the Messiers. If they ever send explorers to come here I hope they are geeky. I for one will welcome our new geeky alien overlords. But I’m going to be so embarrassed if anyone starts telling them how God helped some football team score a touchdown.
Aries the Ram
There is just enough room in the zodiac for one more constellation before we come full circle back to where we started. The Ram is pretty much three dim stars. A small flattened triangle, that’s it. Sorry, that really is it. The Babylonians decided this was the Ram, to the Chinese it was a couple of government inspectors. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
Back thousands of years ago when people first started making a big dramatic deal out of the sun signs, Aries was where you would find the Sun during the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. That’s kind of important.
The equinox has always been a big deal going way back to caveman days. Spring is when the sun god beats some monster’s ass and starts to make stuff grow again. So zodiac lovers especially loved the Ram and every spring would take a real ram, a male sheep, and barbecue it for the sun god. But because of precession of the equinox, the slow wobbling of the Earth in space, the position of the Sun at the equinox moved over to Pisces. It has since moved all the way across Pisces and has almost made it to the border with Aquarius, but not quite. That is the meaning behind the words to the song, “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius, Aquariuuuuuuuuuus.” The dawn is going to last several hundred more years for sure, but eventually it will happen, and finally there will be an era of peace and understanding. So there’s that.Peace out, and carpe noctem.
Seasons of the Night