Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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O: Modern Western Constellations

32: The constellating of the southern sky


Depiction of the southern constellations in the (original edition of) Harmonia Macrocosmica of the Dutch-German mathematician and cosmographer Andreas Cellarius (circa 1595-1665). The Harmonia Macrocosmica was a folio-sized work first published in 1660. It was a major celestial atlas and considered one of the most spectacular celestial atlases published in the second half of the seventeenth century. Andreas Cellarius was born in Germany but latter settled in Holland.

The southern hemisphere is "richer" in stars and apparent star configurations than the northern hemisphere.

The charting of the Southern Hemisphere created the need for new constellations. The 48 classical constellations of the Greeks did not map the entire celestial sphere. Until the end of the 16th-century CE European star charts contained only the 48 constellations canonised by Ptolemy in the 2nd-century CE. The stars of the southern sky which did not rise above the horizon of the ancient Greeks remained un-constellated on European celestial maps until the European voyages to the southern hemisphere in the 16th-century. The 16th-centuy has been termed the Age of Exploration. During the 16th- and 17th-centuries the Dutch, French, and English (and Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian navigators) made numerous voyages of discovery to the southern hemisphere. The result is the origin of the constellations surrounding the South Pole is involved in some obscurity.

Little useful knowledge of the southern stars was contributed by the early exploratory voyages of the Italian Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), the Italian Andrea Corsali (1487-1524), and the Spaniard Pedro de Medina (1493-1567). At the end of the 16th-century, European knowledge of the southern sky was still vague. In 1501 the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci charted what seems to have been Alpha and Beta Centauri and the stars of Crux. However, the most accurate early depiction was made by the Italian navigator Andrea Corsali in 1515. In more modern times explorers of the southern oceans used the Crux (as they called it) as an important guide as the lowest pointer always points to the South.

The largest contribution to new constellations came from the early European sea voyages to the southern hemisphere. The southern sky observations made by members of a Dutch trading expedition to the Far East in the years 1595 t0 1597 comprised the first reasonably extensive set of star observations of the southern sky region. The process of constellating the southern celestial sky was begun by Petrus Plancius (Dutch: Pieter Platvoet) (1552-1622). He included 2 new southern constellations (Crux (as a separate constellation, the stars of which are given in Ptolemy's Almagest) and Triangulus Antarcticus (Eridanus continued from Ptolemy's 34th star to α Eridani)) on his sky globe published in 1589 and then 2 more (Columba (the stars of which are given in Ptolemy's Almagest) and Polophylax (the figure of a man consisting of 7 stars)) on his sky globe published in 1592. These constellations appeared on his 1594 map of the world (the earliest existing map of the southern heavens) entitled "Orbis terrarum typus de integro multis in locis emendatus Pedro Plancio, 1594." Of the 10 constellations invented by Petrus Plancius 3 (2?/4?) are still recognised today. (Sources vary on this issue.) These are Monoceros, Columba, and Camelopardalis. (Petrus Plancius was one of the founders of, and advisors to, the Dutch East India Company.)

An influential voyage for the invention and naming of southern constellation on European sky maps was the 1st Dutch trading expedition of 4 ships which left Holland for the East Indies in 1595. A 2nd Dutch voyage which sailed in 1598 for the East Indies was important for the accuracy of its observations. The duration of the 1st trading expedition was April 1595-August 1597. (In 1596 the south pole star was Tau Octantis (Octantis = the constellation Octans), positioned about ˝ degree (more exactly 31') from the Pole. However, it was too faint for the Dutch to see from Jakarta - the magnitude of Tau Octantis with extinction was approximately 7.1. Beta Hydri (Plancius called one of his new constellations Hydrus Polaris) was the closest bright star to the Pole, manitude 3.4 with extinction, but is was over 10 degrees away from it.) The chief pilot (navigator) on the Hollandia (later on the Mauritius) was Pieter Dirckszoon Keyzer [also spelled Keyser] (circa 1540-1596). The Dutch navigator Pieter Keyzer was adept in both mathematics and astronomy and his cooperation to chart the southern sky was sought by the Amsterdam geographer and theologian Petrus Plancius. Plancius devised a scientific program for Keyzer that also appears to have included 3 other persons on the expedition. Keyzer was trained by Petrus Plancius to chart (using an astrolabe given to him by Plancius or navigator's cross-staff) the southern stars in the then constellation-free zone around the south celestial pole. Probably he mapped the stars of the southern sky from Madagascar and also perhaps near the island of Sumatra. The 4 expeditionary ships arrived in Madagascar in September 1595 and remained anchored there for several months. It appears that Keyzer conducted his observations from the crow's nest. It is considered the instrument used is most likely to have been an astrolabium catholicum (universal astrolabe). Keyzer was apparently assisted in his observations by the Dutch navigator Frederick de Houtman (1571-1627), the younger brother of Cornelis de Houtman, the expedition's leader. The scientific program instigated by Plancius is indicated as comprising/including not only Keyzer and Houtman but also Vechter Willemsz (the original pilot of the Mauritius) and Pieter Stockmans. Willemsz died during the voyage in January 1596, after the fleet had left Madagascar. Keyzer died during the voyage (in September 1596) while the trading fleet was at Banten (western Java). When the trading fleet returned to Holland in 1597 his catalogue of 135 stars, divided into 12 newly invented constellations, was given by Houtman to Plancius who then added these constellations to his sky globe published in 1598. It was the first catalogue of the southern stars with any pretence to accuracy. (Another version (incorrect) is that Plancius used Keyzer's data to form 12 new southern constellations and these were added to his 1598 globe. However, the version still exists that Plancius used the survey information to delineate 12 new constellations around the celestial south pole.) Petrus Plancius is the likely source for the southern constellations depicted in Johann Bayer's Uranometria.

Plancius called one of his new constellations Hydrus Polaris, Beta Hydri was the closest bright star to the south celestial pole (magnitude 3.4 with extinction) but it was still over 10 degrees away from it. (Prior to the voyages and observations of the 15th and 16th centuries a general belief prevailed in Europe that the southern heavens contained a constellation similar to Ursa Major (Big Dipper) near the pole. For example: the Roman poet and astrologer Marcus Manilius (flourished 1st-century CE).)

According to de Houtman he initially made some observations of the southern stars on his first voyage in 1595-1597; and during his 2nd voyage in 1598-1602 he revised and increased the number of coordinates.

The 12 southern constellations created by Frederick de Houtman (and likely Keyzer and also Plancius for visualising the iconography) were: (1) Apus (Dutch: De Paradijs Voghel), (2) Chamaeleon (Dutch: Het Chameljoen), (3) Dorado (Dutch: Den Dorado), (4) Grus (Dutch: Den Reygher), (5) Hydrus (Dutch: De Water slang), (6) Indus (Dutch: De Indiaen), (7) Musca (Dutch: De Vlieghe), (8) Pavo (Dutch: De Pauw), (9) Phoenix (Dutch: Den voghel Fenicx), (10) Triangulum Australe (Dutch: Den Zuyder Trianghel), (11) Tucana (Dutch: Den Indiaenschen Exster, op Indiesch ghenaemt Tucan), and (12) Volans (Dutch: De vlieghende). Some are named after exotic birds such as the toucan, peacock, and phoenix.

(1) Apus is a faint constellation whose name means "no feet" in Greek, and it represents a bird-of-paradise (once believed to lack feet). It first appeared on a 35 cm diameter celestial globe published in 1597 (or 1598) in Amsterdam by Plancius with Jodocus Hondius. (2) Chamaeleon is named after the chameleon, a kind of lizard. (3) Dorado remains as one of the 88 modern constellations. Dorado has been represented historically as a dolphinfish and a swordfish. (4) Grus is Latin for the crane, a species of bird. The stars that form Grus were originally considered part of Piscis Austrinus (the southern fish). (5) Hydrus' name means "male water snake." (6) Indus represents an Indian, a word that could refer at the time to any native of Asia or the Americas. (7) Musca is one of the minor southern constellations. It first appeared on a 35-cm diameter celestial globe published in 1597 (or 1598) in Amsterdam by Plancius and Hondius. The first depiction of this constellation in a celestial atlas was in Johann Bayer's Uranometria of 1603. (8) Pavo is Latin for peacock. (9) Phoenix is a minor southern constellation, named after the mythical phoenix. It was the largest of the 12. (10) Triangulum Australe is Latin for "the southern triangle," which distinguishes it from Triangulum in the northern sky and is derived from the almost equilateral pattern of its 3 brightest stars. It was first depicted on a celestial globe as Triangulus Antarcticus by Plancius in 1589, and later with more accuracy and its current name by Johann Bayer in his 1603 Uranometria. (11) Tucana is Latin for the toucan, a South American bird. (12) Volans represents a flying fish; its name is a shortened form of its original name, Piscis Volans.

Camelopardalis was created by Plancius in 1613 to represent the animal Rebecca rode to marry Isaac in the Bible. One year later, Jakob Bartsch featured it in his atlas. Johannes Hevelius gave it the official name of "Camelopardus" or "Camelopardalis" because he saw the constellation's many faint stars as the spots of a giraffe. Monoceros is a relatively modern creation. Its first certain appearance was on a globe created by Plancius in 1612 or 1613. It was later charted by Bartsch as Unicornus in his 1624 star chart.

Initially the new southern hemisphere constellations appeared on a few celestial globes (1598 globe by Petrus Plancius, 1600 globe (some versions state 1599 or 1601) by Jodocus Hondius, and 1603 globe by Willem Blaeu.) Petrus Plancius was a Dutch theologian and cartographer; Jodocus Hondius (= Jodocus de Hondt Senior) (1563-1612) was a Dutch cartographer; and Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) was also a Dutch cartographer. Jodocus Hondius included Petrus Plancius' new southern constellations on the celestial globe he published in 1600. (The 1598 globe by Petrus Plancius contained the 12 new Dutch non classical constellations plus constellations he invented. No copies of this globe are known to have survived to the present-day.)

On Blaeu's first 2 celestial globes of circa 1598 the region around the celestial south pole had to be left empty as the results from Keyzer and de Houtman survey were either not yet available or were copyright protected. Not to be outdone by his competitor Hondius, Blaeu requested Frederick de Houtman to undertake a second and improved survey of the southern skies during a (2nd) trade journey to the East Indies organised by merchants from the town of Middelburg, which sailed March 1598. He and his brother Cornelis sailed again for the East Indies, with Frederick as captain of one of the ships. This expedition proved to be much less successful than the first. His elder brother Cornelis was killed and Frederick de Houtman only managed to return to Holland in July 1602, after he and several other crew members had been held captive for 26 months by the Sultan of Atjeh on the island of Sumatra. During his imprisonment Frederick de Houtman studied the local Malay language and also observed the southern stars. The location of Houtman during his 26 months of incarceration was northern Sumatra (approximately 5.5° north). From this location he would be unable to observe the immediate region of the southern celestial pole. The region of the south celestial pole was observed during his 1st voyage, likely by Keyzer and likely when the small fleet was anchored at Madagascar. It appears not to have been done during his 2nd voyage. Meanwhile, Blaeu, who had been working on a new celestial globe and was anxiously awaiting the results of de Houtman's new survey, finally decided he could wait no longer and, in direct violation of the exclusive rights of Plancius, blatantly copied the new constellations from the Hondius globe onto his own globe of 1602. When de Houtman did return in the summer of 1602 this globe was published with a dedication mentioning that the charted stars around the southern region of the celestial globe had been derived from de Houtman's 2nd survey, while they were in fact based on the 1st survey. However, within a year the results of de Houtman's survey had been abridged and published (as an appendix to de Houtman's Malay and Madagascan vocabulary) and Blaeu was able to publish a reissue of his 1st celestial globe that was truly based on the 2nd survey. It is indicated that Houtman had kept his own copy of the observations made. After Keyzer's death, Houtman was likely the custodian and collator of the team's observations. (The first catalogues/globes of southern stars with any pretence to accuracy were those based on the 2nd survey of the Dutch navigator Frederick de Houtman, published in 1603. This 2nd survey was reprinted by Edward Knoebel in MNRAS, Volume 77, 1917, Pages 421-430. The southernmost star in Houtman's 2nd survey was Beta Octantis (apparent magnitude 4.14, declination -83° 40'.)

These constellation figures were immediately copied from the Hondius and/or Blaeu globes by Johann Bayer in his  Uranometria (1603). Bayer did not add southern constellations of his own.

The first celestial atlas to include the 12 new southern constellations was the Uranometria by Johann Bayer (a German astronomer) published in 1603. Their appearance in plate 49 of Johann Bayer's celestial atlas canonised their acceptance and use. According to Elly Dekker, Bayer simply copied the star positions from the celestial globes published by Hondius in 1600 and 1601. The Uranometria is considered the first great celestial atlas. It contained a separate plate for each of the 48 traditional constellation figures. It was also based on Tycho Brahe's newly determined star positions and magnitudes. (In his atlas Johann Bayer also devised a cohesive system for designating (labelling) the stars.)

 In 1603 Frederick de Houtman (1571-1627) published a Catalogue of Southern Stars at the end of his Malay and Madagascan vocabulary (as an appendix), entitled Spraeckende woordboeck Inde Maleysche ende Madagaskarche Talen met vele Arabische ende Turksche woorden. (Publishing navigational information as part of a language dictionary was practical.) Houtman's catalogue consists of the right ascensions, declinations, and magnitudes of 303 stars. (Houtman listed 304 stars but did not give coordinates for a star in the tail of the constellation Scorpius.) However, 107 stars were already given in Ptolemy's Almagest. The other 196 stars were new discoveries. Interestingly, Houtman did not mention the work of Keyzer. It may be because of a dispute that occurred between Keyzer and the Houtman brothers. It may also explain why Plancius never referred to Houtman's observations. Keyzer was Plancius' deputy in the initial observing program. The astronomer Edward Knobel ("On Frederick de Houtman's Catalogue of Southern Stars, and the Origin of the Southern constellations." (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1917, Volume 77, Pages 414-432.)) concluded that Frederick de Houtman had published as his own work the southern sky observations of the recently deceased navigator Pieter Dircksz Keyzer. This conclusion was researched and supported by the astronomer Helen Hogg (Out of Old Books - "Pieter Dircksz Keijser, Delineator of the Southern Constellations." (Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 1951, Volume 45, Pages 215-220)). Only about 6 remaining copies of Houtman's catalogue/survey are known. In 1927 the British astronomers Herbert Turner (1861-1930) and Edward Knobel (1841-1930, a businessman and amateur astronomer) privately published a facsimile copy of it.

Plate 49 of Johann Bayer's Uranometria shows the constellations Phoenix, Hydrus, Tucana, Grus, Indus, Pavo, Apus, Triangulum Australe, Musca, Chamćleon, Volans, and Doradus. Bayer stated that these particular constellations were observed partly by Amerigo Vespucci, partly by Andrea Corsali and Pedro de Medina, but their places were determined by Petrus Theodorus. (In reality Amerigo Vespucci (Sensuyt le nouveau monde et navigations faictes par Emeric de Vespuce (1510)) contributed no constellations. Andrea Corsali (in two letters dated 1517) described the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds, the 5 stars forming the Southern Cross, and 13 other stars which cannot be identified. Pedro de Medina (Arte de navegar (1545) only makes mention to the stars in the Crux (i.e., determining latitude in the southern hemisphere by observations of α Crucis.) In his Celestial globe, published in 1603, Willem Blaeu attributed all of these constellations to Frederick de Houtman. The eminent astronomer and historian Ludwig Ideler gave equal merit to Petrus Theodorus and Frederick de Houtman. (Note: The Cosmografia by Pedro de Medina (which was published in 1545) was the first European navigation manual written. The Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation published in 1490 by the Arabic scholar Ahmad ibn Majid was the first occidental navigation manual published.)

In 1612 Petrus Plancius published a new sky globe and introduced his 3 newly invented southern constellations Camelopardalis, Columba, and Monoceros. 

A later celestial atlas that introduced new constellations was the Firmamentum Sobiescianum by Johannes Hevelius (a German-Polish astronomer, 1611-1687) published posthumously in 1690. It contained 56 large, double page star maps and improved the accuracy in the position of the southern stars. He introduced 10(11?) more constellations. They were listed in his star catalogue dated 1687 and were depicted on his accompanying star atlas called Firmamentum Sobiescianum, both published posthumously in 1690. The 10 new constellations introduced by Hevelius were all north sky constellations - filling the remaining gaps in the northern sky. Although Hevelius introduced new constellations, he didn't add any southern constellations that were his own as his atlas was largely based on the stars that were visible from his observatory at Dantzig (Poland). He did, however, include a few maps of the southern hemisphere with the constellations of Keyzer/De Houtman and the constellation Robur Caroli introduced in 1677 by Edmund Halley. The atlas was engraved by Johannes Hevelius himself to accompany his catalogue of over 1500 star positions (and the catalogue was also published posthumously in 1690). Seven of the new constellations (visible from mid-northern latitudes) invented by Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) are still recognized today by the International Astronomical union. One of the new constellations included Sextens (the sextant) named for one of his own astronomical instruments (and based on the octant, a measuring instrument). He made very accurate stellar coordinate observations without the use of telescopes.  A fine facsimile of his star atlas was published in the 1960's in Tashkent (Uzbekistan).

The French astronomer and surveyor Nicolas Louis de LaCaille (1713-1762) invented 14 southern sky constellations which became standard and are still recognized today. The majority of these new constellations were named after new scientific inventions. Following his visit to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in 1750 he introduced them in the Memoires of the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1752 (published in 1756). In his southern star catalogue Coelum Australe Stelliferum, which was published posthumously in 1763) he also introduced the division of Argo Navis into 4 parts, the 4 smaller constellations named Vela (the sail), Pyxis (the compass (but literally "the little box" as there is no Latin word for compass as the Greeks and Romans did not have compasses for navigation)), Puppis (the stern), and Carina (the keel). (The French cartographer Didier Robert de Vaugondy (1723-1826) became the first to actually illustrate (in 1764) Nicolas LaCaille's 4 divisions of Argo Navis. These 4 constellations became the last new constellations to be officially recognised.

The star atlases produced by the 19th-century cartographers Friedrich Argelander (Uranometria Nova, published 1843), and Benjamin Gould (Uranometria Argentina, published 1877-1879), standardised the list of constellations to those we use today. They both followed Nicolas LaCaille and divided Argo Navis (the ship) (Ptolemy's largest constellation) into 4 parts: Vela (the sail), Pyxis (the compass), Puppis (the stern), and Carina (the keel).

The process of constellation invention was continued by numerous other astronomers of the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-centuries but these constellations were never officially recognised or adopted and quickly disappeared.

Appendix 1: The Southern Cross (Crux)

The 4 bright stars forming the Southern Cross (Crux) were described circa 1500 CE by various European explorers without their realizing they had actually already been observed by Ptolemy. This was only realized in the late 16th-century. It appears that Petrus Plancius, using the observations of the first modern survey of the southernmost stars by the Dutch navigator Pieter Keyzer, was the first person to realize that the 4 bright stars forming the Southern Cross had already been catalogued by Ptolemy (among the stars in the hind legs of Centaurus). The oldest record mentioning the first European to sight the Southern Cross (a star configuration to be related with the Southern Cross) appears to be the manuscript description by the Venetian navigator Alvise Da Mosto (Alvise Cadamosto) (from the Gambia River, latitude 13.5 degrees North). Setting out in 1454 in the service of the king of Portugal he navigated from Portugal along the African Coast until Gambia in 1455, and later wrote a manuscript description. On a 32.5-cm celestial globe published in Amsterdam in 1589 (by the Dutch cartographer Jacob van Langren and his sons), the Southern Cross (Crux) is prominently depicted (but placed in a completely wrong position). The particular globe was the earliest attempt to use the sparse information available about southern celestial features. (Note: Jacob van Langren and his sons produced globes from 1580, both terrestrial and celestial.) On a celestial globe, published by Jodocus Hondius the Elder in Amsterdam in late 1597 (or early 1598), the Southern Cross is correctly placed close to the hind legs of Centaurus.

See: Dekker, Elly (1990). "The light and the dark: A reassessment of the discovery of the Coalsack Nebula, the Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Cross." (Annals of Science, Volume 47, Issue 6, Pages 529-560). Also, Crone, Gerald. (1937). (Editor). The Voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on Western Africa in the second half of the fifteenth century.

Appendix 2: References:

Dekker, Elly. (1987). "Early Explorations of the Southern Celestial Sky." (Annals of Science, Volume 44, Pages 439-470). [Note: This article contains full details of the Dutch involvement in the mapping of the southern stars.]

Kanas, Nick. (2008). "Celestial Mapping of the Southern Heavens." (Journal of the International Map Collectors Society, Number 114, Autumn, Pages 7-13).

Knobel, Edward. (1917). "On Frederick de Houtman's Catalogue of Southern Stars, and the Origin of the Southern constellations." (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 77).

MacKenzie, Theodore. (1925). "The Story of the Southern constellations." (Journal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, Volume 1). [Note: The author was an active South African amateur astronomer. He started the Johannesburg Astronomical Association.]

Ridpath, Ian. (2014). "Identifying the stars on Johann Bayer's Chart of the Southern Polar Sky." (The Antiquarian Astronomer. Journal of the Society for the History of Astronomy, Issue 8, April, Pages 97-108). [Note: An interesting and wide-ranging discussion.]

Warner, Deborah. (1980). "History of Southern Constellations." (Sky and Telescope, Volume 60).

Note: When time permits this essay will be suitably edited.


[I am grateful to the Dutch astronomer Robert van Gent for his advice with corrections, and also for providing additional information.]

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