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This webpage reproduces a section of
Star Names
Their Lore and Meaning

Richard Hinckley Allen

as reprinted
in the Dover edition, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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The four that glorify the night!

Ah! how forget when to my ravish'd sight

The Cross shone forth in everlasting light!

Samuel Rogers's The Voyage of Columbus.​1

Crux, the Cross,

is the German Kreuz, the Italian Croce, the French Croix and, in the 1776 edition of Flamsteed's Atlas, Croisade. With us it is the Southern Cross.

It was unknown to the ancients by its present title, its four chief stars being noted by Ptolemy as a part of the Centaur, which now surrounds it on three sides. As such Bayer outlined it over the hind feet, lettering it εζν,  p185 and ξ Centauri; but these now are αβγ, and δ Crucis, — the 1.3‑magnitude lucida at the foot, the 2nd‑magnitude γ at the top, with β and δ, the early ξ and ν, as the transverse: these last, respectively, of 1.7 and 3.4 magnitudes. A fifth star, ε, of the 4th magnitude, between α and δ, somewhat interferes with the regularity of the figure; and there are forty-nine others visible to the naked eye within the constellation boundaries.

The statement that it was mentioned by Hipparchos probably is erroneous, although he distinctly alluded to its β as of the Centaur; but Pliny [II.178] may have known it as Thronos Caesaris in honor of the emperor Augustus; yet it was then invisible from Italy, though plainly visible from Alexandria, where it may have been thus named by some courtly astronomer. And Al Bīrūnī wrote that a star could be seen from Multan in India, in 30°12′ of north latitude, "which they call Sūla," the Beam of Crucifixion. This, if a reference to the Cross, is a striking anticipation of the modern figure. Hewitt, repeating this title as Ṣhūla, claimed it for the south pole of Hindu astronomers.

Whittier said, in his Cry of a Lost Soul:

The Cross of pardon lights the tropic skies;

which is correct for our day, as it is not now entirely visible above 27°30′ of north latitude. It was last seen on the horizon of Jerusalem — 31°46′45″ — about the time that Christ was crucified. But 3000 years previously all its stars were 7° above the horizon of the savages along the shores of the Baltic Sea, in latitude 52°30′.

Its invention as a constellation is often attributed to Royer as of 1679, but it had been the theme of much description for nearly two centuries before him, and we know that it was illustrated by Mollineux of England, in 1592, on his celestial globe, with others of the new southern figures; and Bayer drew it over the hind legs of the Centaur, giving it in his text as modernis crux, Ptolemaeo pedes Centauri. Bartschius had it separately in 1624, and Caesius catalogued it in 1662 as though well known; hence it seems remarkable that it was only outlined over the Centaur in the Flamsteed Atlas.

Crux lies in the Milky Way, — here a brilliant but narrow stream three or four degrees wide, — and is noticeable from its compression as well as its form, being only 6° in extent from north to south, and less in width, the upper star a clear orange in color, and the rest white; the general effect being that of a badly made kite rather than of a cross. So that, notwithstanding all the poetry and romance associated with it, — perhaps owing to these, — it usually disappoints those from northern latitudes who see it for the first time.

 p186  For twelve centuries, from Pliny to Dante, we find no allusion to its stars till that great poet, turning from his contemplation, in the Purgatorio, of Venus "veiling the Fishes,"

posi mente

Al altro polo e vidi quatro stelle

Non viste mai fuor che alia prima gente,

in which Baron Alexander von Humboldt, in his Examen Criticum, insists that he refers to the Cross; while Longfellow, translating the passage

and fixed my mind

Upon the other pole and saw four stars

Ne'er seen before save by the primal people,

calls it an acknowledged reference to the same, figuring, as it were, the cardinal virtues, Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance, attributes of Cato as the Guardian of Purgatory, claiming that

We here are Nymphs and in the Heaven are Stars.

Later on in the same canto we read again of Cato:

The rays of the four consecrated stars

Did so adorn his countenance with light.

But this reference to the "primal people" is not, Barlow says in his Study of Dante, to our first parents, as Gary's translation has it, but to the early races of mankind, who 5000 years ago could see the Cross from latitudes very much higher even than that of Italy. In the same passage Dante alludes to its local invisibility in his apostrophe to the northern heavens:

O! thou septentrional and widowed site

Because thou art deprived of seeing these!

and in the 8th canto calls them Le quatro chiare stelle.

Whence Dante learned all this we do not know, for it was not till 200 years later that we have any published account of the constellation; but that he paid great attention to the heavens is evident from his frequent and intelligent allusions to them throughout the Divine Comedy. He was, too, a man of erudition as well as of imagination and poetical genius, — Carlyle called him the spokesman of ten silent centuries, — and may have seen some of the Arabic celestial globes, on at least one of which — probably the Borgian of 1225 — we know that the stars of the Centaur were represented; and he doubtless had frequent opportunities of intercourse with learned  p187 travelers,​2 or some of the many returned voyagers among his own adventurous countrymen, worthy successors to their ancient neighbors the Phoenicians. This should be sufficient to account for these allusions without attributing them to prophetic inspiration. And here, although in no way connected with the Cross, I would call attention to a fact pleasing to star-lovers — viz., "the beauti­ful and endless aspiration, so artistically and silently suggested by Dante, in closing each part of his poem with the word stelle."

The Inferno ends with:

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars;

the Purgatorio:

Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars;

and the Paradiso [XXXIII.145]:

The love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Note, too, the poet's perhaps unconscious advance in astronomical knowledge beyond his contemporaries in associating the sun with the stars.

Vespucci, on his third voyage in 1501, called to mind the passages from Dante, insisting that he himself was the first of Europeans to see the Four Stars, but did not use the title of the Cross, and called them Mandorla.​3 Vasco da Gama said of it in the Lusiadas:

A group quite new in the new hemisphere,

Not seen by others yet;

while nearly four centuries after him, in our day, Lord Lytton (Owen Meredith) has something similar in his Queen Guenevere:

Then did I feel as one who, much perplext,

Led by strange legends and the light of stars

Over long regions of the midnight sand

Beyond the red tract of the Pyramids,

Is suddenly drawn to look upon the sky,

From sense of unfamiliar light, and sees,

Reveal'd against the constellated cope,

The great cross of the South.

Writers of the 16th century made frequent mention of it in their accounts of southern navigation; Corsali saying in 1517, as translated by Eden:

 p188  Above these [the Magellanic Clouds] appeareth a marveylous crosse in the myddest of fyve notable starres which compasse it abowt (as doth Charles Wayne the northe pole) with other starres whiche move with them abowt .xxx. degrees distant from the pole, and make their course in .xxiiii. houres. This cross is so fayre and beauti­ful, that none other hevenly sygne may be compared to it as may appear by this fygure.​4

[image ALT: A very vague schematic map of the southern sky; it is a 16c woodcut that is meant to show the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds; it is discussed in the text of this webpage.]

Subsequently, in 1520, Pigafetta, the companion of Magellan, mentioned it as El Crucero, and una croce maravigliosa used for the determination of altitudes, saying that Dante first described it; Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa called it the Star Crucero and the Stars of Crucero; Blundevill, in 1574,  p189 Crosier and, very differently, the South Triangle, but this was twenty-nine years before Bayer gave this title to other stars. Eden also cited the Crossiers and Crosse Stars; Chilmead, Crusero and Crusiers; Sir John Narborough, Crosers; and Halley, in 1679, Crosiers.

A century before Halley, the Portuguese naturalist Cristoval d'Acosta, writing the title Cruzero, — the old Spanish Cruciero, — termed the Cross the Southern Celestial Clock; and as such it has served a useful purpose for nearly 400 years. Von Humboldt, in his Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, alluding to the Portuguese and Spaniards, wrote:

A religious sentiment attaches them to a constellation the form of which recalls the sign of the faith planted by their ancestors in the deserts of the New World; —

a thought which Mrs. Hemans beautifully expressed in her Cross of the South where the Spanish traveler says:

But to thee, as thy lode-stars resplendently burn

In their clear depths of blue, with devotion I turn,

Bright Cross of the South! and beholding thee shine,

Scarce regret the loved land of the olive and vine.

Thou recallest the ages when first o'er the main

My fathers unfolded the ensign of Spain,

And planted their faith in the regions that see

Its imperishing symbol ever blazoned in thee.

Von Humboldt adds:

The two great stars, which mark the summit and the foot of the Cross, having nearly the same right ascension, it follows that the constellation is almost perpendicular at the moment when it passes the meridian. This circumstance is known to the people of every nation situated beyond the Tropics or in the southern hemisphere.

It has been observed at what hour of the night, in different seasons, the Cross is erect or inclined.

It is a time piece, which advances very regularly nearly four minutes a day, and no other group of stars affords to the naked eye an observation of time so easily made.

How often have we heard our guides exclaim in the savannahs of Venezuela and in the desert extending from Lima to Truxillo, "Midnight is past, the Cross begins to bend." How often these words reminded us of that affecting scene when Paul and Virginia, seated near the source of the river of Lataniers, conversed together for the last time, and when the old man, at the sight of the Cross, warns them that it is time to separate, saying, "la Croix du Sud est droite sur I'horizon."

Von Humboldt thought it remarkable that these so striking and well-defined stars should not have been earlier separated from the large ancient constellation of the Centaur, especially since Kazwini and other Muhammadan astronomers took pains to discover crosses elsewhere in the sky; and he  p190 said that the ancient Persians, who knew the Cross well, celebrated a feast by its name, their descendants, to whom it was lost by precession, finding its successor in the Dolphin.

The Pareni Indians of his day made much of the stars of the Cross, calling them Bahumehi, after one of their principal fishes.

Lockyer alludes to it as the Pole-star of the South, which it may be when on the meridian, as the most prominent constellation in the vicinity of the pole, although its base star is nearly 28° from that point, about four and one half times the length of the Cross. But this idea is an old one; Minsheu's Guide having, at the word "Cruzero," Quatuor stella poli, Foure starres crossing; and Sarmiento, even earlier, had much the same, but asserted that, "with God's help," he was enabled to select another pole-star nearer the true point.

In modern China it has been Shih Tsze Kea, the equivalent of our word.

The five stars are shown on postage stamps of Brazil, — Camões' Realms of the Holy Cross, — surrounded by twenty-one stars symbolizing the twenty-one states, and some of the coins bear the same. But this name for that country was not new with the poet, for it was given by the discoverer Cabral, on the 1st of May, 1500; and the fine Ptolemaeus printed at Rome in 1508, with the first engraved map of the new continent, carries as its title for South America, Terra sancte crucis.

Partly within the constellation's boundaries, and at the point of the nearest approach of the Milky Way to the south pole, is the pear-shaped Coal-sack, or Soot-bag, 8° in length by 5° in breadth, containing only one star visible to the naked eye, and that very small, although it has many that are telescopic, and a photograph taken at Sydney in 1890 shows about as many in proportion as in the surrounding region. This singular vacancy was first formally described by Peter Martyr, although observed in 1499 by Vicente Yañez Pinzon, and designated by Vespucci as il Canopo fosco, and perhaps alluded to by Camões. Narborough wrote of it in 1671 as "a small black cloud which the foot of the Cross is in"; but before him it was Macula Magellani, Magellan's Spot, and fifty years ago Smyth mentioned it as the Black Magellanic Cloud. Froude described it in his Oceana as "the inky spot — an opening into the awful solitude of unoccupied space." A native Australian legend, which "reads almost like a Christian parable," says that it was "the embodiment of evil in the shape of an Emu, who lies in wait at the foot of a tree, represented by the stars of the Cross, for an opossum driven by his persecutions to take refuge among its branches."

The Peruvians imagined it a heavenly Doe suckling its fawn.

Although this is the most remarkable of those "curious vacancies through  p191 which we seem to gaze out into an uninterrupted infinity," there are many other such in the heavens; an extended list of forty-nine being given by Sir John Herschel in his Observations at the Cape of Good Hope, and an abbreviated one by Espin in Webb's Celestial Objects.

α, Triple, 1, 2, and 6.

Acrux, in Bayer's Atlas, probably is a word of his own coining from α Crucis. All Tizini defined its position as near the ankle-bone of the right hind foot of the Centaur, in which Bayer's plate agrees, lettering it ζ.

It was discovered to be double by some Jesuit missionaries sent by King Louis XIV to Siam in 1685; and another companion, of the 6th magnitude, is 60″ away. The two larger stars are 5″ apart, with a position angle of 120°.

α lies 2° east of the equinoctial colure, and, at its culmination, touches the horizon in latitude 27°30′ on the 13th of May, due south from Corvus.

γ, the uppermost star, is on the horizon of the Lowe Observatory, at an elevation of 3700 feet, in latitude 34°20′. Gould thinks it variable, for it has been variously estimated, even by the same observer, as from 1.8 to 2.4.

Around the 6½‑magnitude κ is the celebrated cluster of colored star, NGC 4755, occupying one forty-eighth of a square degree of space; the central and principal one being of a deep red, surrounded by about 130 others, green, blue, and of various shades; but Miss Clerke writes:

It must be confessed that, with moderate telescopic apertures, it fails to realize the effect of colour implied by Sir John Herschel's [its discoverer] comparison to "a gorgeous piece of fancy jewellery." A few reddish stars catch the eye at once; but the blues, greens and yellows belonging to their companions are pale tints, more than half drowned in white light.

Gould, however, called it exquisitely beauti­ful.

The Author's Notes:

1 In this poem Rogers makes the great discoverer bring the telescope into use a century before its invention!

2 Marco Polo was his contemporary.

3 This, literally "an Almond," is the word used in Italian art for the vescica piscis, the oblong glory, surrounding the bodies of saints ascending to heaven.

4 I use this "fygure" not for its artistic excellence, but as illustrating the early ignorance of locations and magnitudes of southern stars. The Clouds here especially are misplaced with respect to the pole.

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Page updated: 1 Nov 17