Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/386

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By Professor SIMON NEWCOMB, U. S. N.

Constellations and Star Names.

IN ancient times the practice was adopted of imagining the figures of heroes and animals to be so outlined in the heavens as to include in each figure a large group of the brighter stars. In a few cases some vague resemblance may be traced between the configurations of the stars and the features of the object they are supposed to represent; in general, however, the arrangement seems quite arbitrary. One animal or man could be fitted in as well as another. There is no historic record or trace as to the time when the constellations were mapped out, or of the process by which the outlines were traced. The names of heroes, such as Perseus, Cepheus, Hercules, etc., intermingled with the names of goddesses, show that the constellations were probably mapped out during the heroic age. No maps are extant showing exactly how each figure was placed in the constellation; but in the catalogue of stars given by Ptolemy in his 'Almagest,' the positions of particular stars on the supposed body of the hero, goddess or animal are designated with such precision as he had at command, in some fairly precise position of the figure. For example, Aldebaran is said to have formed the eye of the Bull. Two other stars marked the right and left shoulders of Orion, and a small cluster marked the position of his head. A row of three stars in a horizontal line showed his belt, three stars in a vertical line below them his sword. In this way the position of the figure can be reproduced with a fair degree of certainty.

In the well-known constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, familiarly known as the Dipper, three stars form the tail of the animal, and four others a part of his body. This formation is not unnatural, yet the figure of a dipper fits the stars much better than that of a bear. In Cassiopeia, which is on the opposite side of the pole from the Dipper, the brighter stars may easily be imagined to form a chair in which a lady may be seated without further difficulty. As a general rule, however, the resemblances of the stars to the figure are so vague that the latter might be interchanged to any extent without detracting from their appropriateness.

In any case, it was impossible so to arrange the figures that they should cover the entire heavens; blank spaces were inevitably left in