Capricornus – the sea goat

November 19, 2017

Astronomy, History

For those of us who could use the extra help.The name of the constellation “Capricornus” has been shortened to Carpricorn by some folks. But that is a very recent thing, perhaps only in the last hundred years or so. Long or short, 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 this group of stars the Seagoat for more than 7000 years. Even the ancient Chinese referred to the stars in this constellation as the Mo Ki, which is the goat fish.

Nobody really knows why these stars are the Seagoat. What the bloody hell is a seagoat? Oh there have been some attempts to sort it out. One historian suggested it might somehow be derived from a mythical nurse who took care of the gods when they were babies. According to this analysis, the baby-god nurse looked like she might be Asian and she eventually turned into a goat. 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 for some reason, I mean, it’s getting pretty complicated and may have something to do with the researcher’s personal fetish.

The head and front legs of a goat on the left, and a tail like a mermaid on the left. Whatever.

Meanwhile we have to consider the ancient Babylonians, from whom we get a lot of our 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 so, no story.

There is however one rather interesting story about Capricornus which comes from all those bellicose European nations struggling to survive the tumultuous middle ages. It has to do with the brave knights of chivalry, who donned their shiny armor and helmets, and swords and shields, and went out to do battle against evil for all that is righteous and holy.

Those dudes also tended to don special battle amulets. Some of these amulets are still around today in museums and private collections and what not. They each have a constellation engraved on the front so they are referred to as uranographic amulets (skydrawing doodads). Most of them depict the constellation of Capricornus.

This one over here I got for coming in on a Saturday.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 pope jokes and other 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 to earth, 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 pearly gates 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 tale 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.

M30. The last MessierMessier 30 is a pretty decent little globular cluster 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 from fatigue.

The Messier 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 stupid 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 in one night is 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 Marathon is, then chances are the very last Messier on your list is going to be M30. It’s so close to the Sun in March that the trick to finding it is to start your search after the stars of Capricorn are at last high enough above the horizon in the pre-dawn sky to be seen, and used as guide posts, but before those damn rosy fingers of early light wash M30 completely out. Good luck with that. I’ll save you a seat at IHOP.

Carpe Noctem

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