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Star Lore of the Constellations: Argo the Ship - by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Argo: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
14 Ca. 58 Canopus Saturn Jupiter 0.70 Oar in keel of Ship 76S 53S
28 Vi. 54 Markeb Saturn Jupiter 2.63 Sail in rear of ship 64S 55S
22 Li. 10 Foramen Saturn Jupiter 1.9 (var) Stern of Ship 59S 59S

Mythology claims the ship Argo was built for Jason, leader of the Argonauts, who went in search of the Golden Fleece of Aries. It was under the protection of the goddess Athene whose figure was set in the bow in a piece of the speaking oak of Dodona. Athene helped the sailors during the perils of their journey and when the quest was completed placed the ship in the sky to commemorate their valour. It is recognised for its general influence over sailors, shipping, and voyages by water. Manilius called it the 'Heroes Ship' and said that men born under its influence are:

the guides who guide our ships over the trackless deep; it is through them that land meets land and the whole world's wares are summoned with the winds to supply men's needs.[1]

Robson continues the view that it is linked to trade and voyages and notes that it appears to accompany cases of drowning, especially when Saturn afflicts the Moon in or from this constellation.[2]

The main star of the figure, located in one of the oars in the keel of the ship, is Canopus, whose name derives from an Egyptian Coptic phrase Kahi Nub 'Golden Earth', (referring to the way it appears in Egypt near the horizon, reddened by atmospheric emissions). Canopus is a very brilliant 1st magnitude white star, second only to Sirius in brightness. These two stars are closely aligned within a degree of longitude but they are widely separated by latitude. At latitude 76 S Canopus is the most southerly star of astrological note, never visible to locations above 37 degrees north.

Because of its brilliance, Canopus has always been an important 'marker' star by which directions and bearings were taken. Thus it became inextricably linked to navigational matters. Known as the 'lighthouse of the universe' [3] it was also invested with the symbolic meaning of spiritual guidance for 'journeys of the soul'. Another Greek legend tells of Canopus, the Pilot of the fleet of Menelaus, who died of a snakebite after calling into the coast of Egypt on the journey home from the destruction of Troy. The ancient city of Canopus, about 20 kilometers northeast of Alexandria, is said to have been named in his honour and it was from here, according to Olympiodoro [4] that Ptolemy charted the sky. This is now a ruined port on the mouth of the Nile, presently known as Aboukir - the site of Nelson's naval 'Battle of the Nile' in 1798 and Napoleon's naval victory over the Turks in 1799.

There are many other references to Canopus being connected with water - in Southern Egypt it was seen as the god of the waters and the Hindus called it Agastya, a son of the goddess of the waters. Not surprisingly, the people of the desert areas looked upon it most favourably and in Arabia its name was used as a personal title to say that someone was brilliant, glorious and beautiful. [5] Lilly used the direction of the Midheaven to Canopus to indicate a period of increased authority, glory, fame and wealth".[6]

Ptolemy listed the influence of all Argo's stars to be like Saturn and Jupiter. Other stars of note include Foramen, a reddish star of variable magnitude (known to be prone to violent outbursts and thought to be on the verge of collapse as a supernova), situated on the stern of the ship; and Markeb, a 2nd magnitude star in the buckler of the ship. Both, like Canopus, were said by Robson to offer strength of mind and spirit, as well as prosperity in trade and voyages and a danger of death by drowning.

The constellation Argo (or Argo Navis), was broken up in the late 18th century into three smaller constellations: Carina (the keel), Puppis (the stern or poop deck), and Vela (the sail).
Canopus, the alpha star, is easy to identify as the 2nd brightest star in the heavens. However, it is a southern circumpolar star and cannot be viewed from locations exceeding 37N Lat.
The Sun crosses Canopus around 7th July each year. It crosses Markeb around 9th September and Foramen around 15th October.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Manilius, Astronomica, (c. 10 AD) trans. G.P. Goold, 1997, published by Harvard Heinemann, Loeb classical library, London. 5.15-60 (Loeb pp.301-305).
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  2 ] Vivian Robson, The Fixed Stars & Constellations, 1923; republished by Ascella Publications, p.30.
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  3 ] Allen, Star Names, their Lore and Meaning, Dover, 1963; pp.67-72
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  4 ] "According to Olympiodoros Ptolemy made astronomical observations at Canopus a place 20 kilometer northeast of Alexandria over a period of 40 years." Back to text

  5 ] Allen, pp.67-72
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  6 ] William Lilly, Christian Astrology, 1647, p.678.
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© Deborah Houlding, Published online Nov 2004.

Stars & Constellations