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Constellations

Mark Wagner


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Perseus from Poeticon astronomicon. Venice, 1482. The woodcut reproduced here is that of Perseus, holding the newly-severed head of the Gorgon. In the Renaissance the work was usually attributed to the Roman historian C. Julius Hyginus, who lived in the first century B.C., but we now know it was probably composed by some other Hyginus at a later date. The order of the constellations follows that of the catalog in Ptolemy's Almagest, so the work may date from the second century A.D or later.

Cor Caroli by Edward Sherburne. London, 1675. This is a small detail of a larger region which shows a new constellation, Cor Caroli Regis Martyris, that was invented by Sir Charles Scarborough only two years earlier to honor Charles I. The constellation, containing only a single star, would later be incorporated into Canes Venatici, but Cor Caroli has stayed on as a name for the star.

Centaurus and Lupus, by Christoph Semler, Coelum stellatum. Magdeburg, 1731. Semler is another one of those celestial cartographers who is unknown except through his atlas. The Semler atlas is immediately distinguishable from all its predecessors by the black background on the plates. Each plate was printed from a woodblock, cut only to outline the constellations and pinpoint the stars. Each of the 35 woodcuts has a different orientation, which can sometimes be disconcerting, although celestial north is indicated by an arrow on each plate. Some of the illustrations are quite attractive, such as the one that depicts Centaurus, standing over the Southern Cross, engaging Lupus the Wolf.

 

Recently at Houge Park some of the more interested visitors looking through my telescope would ask where the object they'd just seen was located in the sky. I would guide them through some of the more familiar or easy to recognize constellations. Objects such as M3, M94 and M104, or some of the good doubles were favorites and people enjoyed "star hopping" to them. It was fun too to turn my telescope over to a few people and describe to them where to point it.

When I returned home I began looking through some old Internet bookmarks and rediscovered this one:

Out of This World - The Golden Age of the Celestial Atlas - An Exhibition of Rare Books from the Collection of the Linda Hall Library http://www.lhl.lib.mo.us/pubserv/hos/stars/welcome.htm

The historical depictions of our recognizable star patterns as shown on the web-page reminded me of the people at Houge Park, and made me think of how ancient this practice of personifying the stars is. I think the Internet "exhibition" is unique and provides an interesting historical overview.

Coincidentally, I found a nice book about constellations at The Santa Cruz Bookstore a week later... The Starlore Handbook - An Essential Guide to the Night Sky by Geoffrey Cornelius, ISBN 0-8118-1604-4. I recommend this book for those who like to attach some of the history and myth (starlore) to your experience outside at night. Contained between the covers are handy small maps for each constellation showing the major stars and describing some details about them.

From the inside front cover:

"The Starlore Handbook is the first beautiful and practical, fully illustrated guide to explore the infinite night sky. Combining astronomy, myth, and symbolism, it gives a detailed and rich understanding of the cosmos. Original maps help identify each of the constellations and the stars within them, while thorough explanations of the intriguing symbolic significance attributed to the heavens throughout the ages bring star watching vividly to life.

You don't need a prior knowledge of astronomy to use this striking book, which concentrates on features that can be made out both with the naked eye and binoculars of average power. Each of the 88 constellations is given separate treatment with a constellation map and star table indicating Greek letter designations, brightness, and other points of interest. The celestial symbolism and mythology of each constellation are covered in fascinating detail. Where appropriate, a "signpost chart" explains how to locate the constellation by reference to easily identifiable landmarks such as the pole star Polaris or the "saucepan" of the Big Dipper. In addition, a series of "whole sky" charts plots the movements of the stars during the course of the year, while easy-to-use tables enable you to determine the positions of the visible planets. Brief sections on the Sun, the Moon and the planets complete this celestial tapestry.

Rich with both traditional lore and compelling science, The Starlore Handbook opens our eyes to the beauty and wonder of the heavens, and the rich interpretations of the night skies that have come down to us through history."

If you know of other interesting books or Internet sites covering this topic, please let me know.

Clear skies!

[The exhibition contains forty-three star atlases and maps, covering the period from 1482 to 1851. Focal points include all five of the "Grand" celestial atlases - Johann Bayer's Uranometria (1603), Julius Schiller's Coelum Christianum, Johann Hevelius's Firmamentum (1690), John Flamsteed's Atlas coelestis (1729), and Johann Bode's Uranographia (1801) - as well as such colorful jewels as Andreas Cellarius's monumental Harmonia macrocosmica (1661) and Johann Rost's tiny Atlas portatalis coelestis (1723). ]

 


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