Hydrus – the male water snake

May 14, 2017



There is a southern constellation called Hydrus which is not to be confused with the constellation Hydra. They are both water snakes but Hydrus is the lesser water snake in both size and mythical importance, and also it is male. Having two slithering sky serpents confirms the old adage that “snakes travel in pairs” which is a phrase I assume actually refers to con-artists and other capricious mountebanks.

When sea-faring Dutch explorers sailed south they needed to find their way across new skies. It just makes it that much harder to navigate the oceans if your team is constantly asking “Which star? That star? That star there? Or that one? That one?” etc. So they sharpened their quills and dipped them in ink and began scribbling little dots and bigger dots and dotted lines on parchment. Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman were especially industrious in this regard and when they got back to Amsterdam they met the preacher-astronomer Petrus Plancius who was there hiding from the Spanish Inquisition.

Plancius added Hydrus to his collection in 1598 and it quickly caught on with others who were tired of having big blank areas on their maps. Technically speaking, the Dutch guys simply called it “The Water Snake” in Flemish, but then a French guy called it “The Boy Water Snake” in French and that made more sense because there was already a water snake of the female persuasion up north. Later everyone converted everything to Latin because nobody speaks that.

Beta Hydri is arguably the only bright-ish star anywhere close to the south celestial pole. Yaay.

Hydrus has one claim to fame in that it gets mentioned by Herman Melville in the classic south sea adventure, Moby Dick.

“And beneath the effulgent Antarctic skies I have boarded the Argo-Navis, and joined the chase against the starry Cetus far beyond the utmost stretch of Hydrus and the Flying Fish.”

No one remembers the Melville quote because no one has ever actually read Moby Dick all the way through, except me and maybe one or two other people.

Carpe Noctem

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