Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Argo Navis

Jason's Ship

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690. The Ship is said to be moving stern-forward

"Then famed Argo, raised to the skies from the sea which it was the first to cross, occupies the heaven it earned through grievous perils in a bygone age, made a god for having given safety to gods" [Manilius, Astronomica, book 1, p.37].

Argo Navis
Johann Rost, Atlas portatalis coelestis, 1723 1

Argo Navis is no longer an officially recognized constellation, it has been split up into three constellations; Carina the Keel, Vela the Sails, Puppis the Stern, plus a subordinate division of Argo now called Pyxis Nautica, the Nautical Box or Mariner's Compass, and which used to be called Malus, the Mast. In Greek Mythology Argo Navis represents the Ship used by Jason and fifty Argonauts to sail to fetch the Golden Fleece from Colchis (Iolcus) in the Black Sea. The Argo was built by the shipwright Argos or Argus. It was built at the port of Pagasae, using timber from nearby Mount Pelion.

Most of what we know about the Argo comes from the Greek poet Apollonius Rhodius, 3rd century B.C. from his epic poem, The Argonautica, a translation of which can be read online: http://omacl.org/Argonautica/

"Ancient authors were divided about the origin of the name of the ship. Some ascribed it to the name of the person who built it, Argus, son of Phrixus; others to the Greek word argos, 'swift', as being a light sailor; others to the city of Argos, where they suppose it was built; yet others to the Argives, who went on board it, according to the distich quoted from ancient Roman statesman Cicero, in his first Tusculan" [1].

The -naut of argonaut and the Navis of Argo Navis come from the same indo-European root *náu- 'Boat or ship'. Derivatives: naval, nave¹ (from Latin navis), navicular bone (also called scaphoid; shaped like a boat), navigate, navy, navy, nausea, nautical, noise, aeronaut, aquanaut, Argonaut, astronaut, cosmonaut, from Greek naus, ship, and nautes, sailor. [Pokorny 1. naus- 755. Watkins] The color navy derived from the navy uniforms worn in the navy. [These words are not related to the word 'navel' meaning umbilicus.]

Argo has been identified with a number of arks (the word 'ark' might also relate to the constellation Ara?):

"Egyptian story said that it was the ark that bore Isis and Osiris over the Deluge; while the Hindus thought that it performed the same office for their equivalent Isi and Iswara. And their prehistoric tradition made it the ship Argha for their wandering sun, steered by Agastya, the alpha star of Carina, Canopus. In this Sanskrit argha we perhaps may see our title" [Star Names].

Canopus is the alpha star of Carina. Plutarch says:

"Moreover, they give to Osiris the title of general, and the title of pilot to Canopus, from whom they say that the star derives its name; also that the vessel which the Greeks call Argo, in form like the ship of Osiris, has been set among the constellations in his honour, and its course lies not far from that of Orion and the Dog-star; of these the Egyptians believe that one is sacred to Horus and the other to Isis." [Plutarch, Moralia]

Christian legend identifies the constellation as Noah's Ark:

"The biblical school of course called it Noah’s Ark, the Arca Noachi, or Archa Noae as Bayer wrote it; Jacob Bryant, the English mythologist of the last century, making its story another form of that of Noah. Indeed in the 17th century the Ark seems to have been its popular title" [Star Names].

Nature gives hints on how to build a ship:

 "Learn of the little nautilus to sail, Spread the thin oar, and catch the driving gale. [Line 177, An Essay on Man, a poem by Alexander Pope, 1733.]

The argonauts (genus Argonauta, the only extant genus in the Argonautidae family) are a group of pelagic octopuses, the Nautilus, Argonaut, or sailor-fish, a shell-fish found in the Mediterranean and in the Indian Ocean, and usually at the bottom of the sea, yet is able to rise to the surface, which it is fond of doing in calm weather. The shell is so thin that it is called the paper Nautilus. It lies on its back floating on the water. It employs some of its arms as oars to make progress, but if a gentle breeze arises it raises two of them upright, and extending them, spreads the membrane between them into a sail, which catches the wind ; its other arms hang out as a rudder to steer it the way it wishes [Significant etymology]. Female argonauts produce a laterally-compressed calcareous eggcase in which they reside. This "shell" has a double keel fringed by two rows of alternating tubercles.

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

"Lord of the flock and conqueror of the sea, to which, a horn lost and robbed even of its fleece, it gave its burden [Helle] and a name, the Ram [Aries], which bade the magic arts of Colchian Medea (who married Jason) journey to Iolcos (Colchis) and spread her poisons throughout the world, even now draws Argo by the poop to its side, as though still on the seas, through the stars on its right [translator's note: An error: Argo is a southern constellation and rises to the left of the zodiac, but never contemporaneously with Aries]. But the foremost part of the poop emerges to show its fires only when the Ram has brought four degrees of his countenance above the horizon.

"Whoever is born on earth at the rising of Argo will be the captain of a ship; holding fast to his helm, he will forsake dry land for the sea and pursue his fortune with the winds; he will crave to traverse the entire ocean with his fleet, visit foreign climes and the deep Phasis, and better the speed of Tiphys towards the rocks (the Symplegades). Take away the births of men situated beneath this constellation, and you will take away the Trojan war and the fleet which both set sail and made land fall with bloodshed (of Iphigenia and Erotenlaus); then will no Xerxes launch Persia on the main or open up a new sea (by cutting a canal through Athos) and cover over the old (by the vastness of his fleet, some interpreters see an allusion to the bridging of the Hellespont, but Housman considers this unlikely); no reversal of Salamis at Syracuse will overwhelm Athens, nor will Punic prows ride every sea, the world within Actium's bays hang in the balance between opposing forces, and heaven's destiny float at the mercy of the waves. Men born under Argo 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 divers needs". [Manilius, Astronomica, book 5, p.303].

© Anne Wright 2008.

In 1763 the French cartographer De Lacaille divided the larger constellation of Argo Navis into its constituent sections, Carina, Puppis, Pyxis, and Vela.
Fixed stars in Carina the Keel
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
Canopus alpha (α) 13CAN35 14CAN58 6h 23m 57.1s -52° 41' 45" -75 49 50 -0.70 F0
chi (χ) 29LEO22 00VIR45 7h 56m 46.7s -52° 58' 56" -70 19 46 3.60 B3
Avior epsilon (ε) 21VIR47 23VIR08 8h 22m 30.8s -59° 30' 35" -72 40 48 1.74 K0
Tureis iota (ι) 03LIB58 05LIB20 9h 17m 5.4s -59° 16' 31" -67 36 02 2.25 F0
Foramen eta (η) 20LIB47 22LIB09 10h 45m 3.6s -59° 41' 3" -58 55 09 1.90 var P
upsilon (υ) 21LIB31 22LIB54 9h 47m 6.1s -65° 4' 19" -67 29 43 3.15 F0
Miaplacidus beta (β) 00SCO37 01SCO58 9h 13m 12s -69° 43' 2" -72 13 48 1.80 A0
omega (ω) 06SCO04 07SCO27 10h 13m 44.2s -70° 2' 17" -67 22 39 3.56 B8
Fixed stars in Puppis the Stern
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
nu (ν) 15CAN46 17CAN09 6h 37m 45.7s -43° 11' 46" -66 04 49 3.18 B8
tau (τ) 26CAN21 27CAN44 6h 49m 56.2s -50° 36' 53" -72 51 29 2.83 G8
pi (π) 28CAN56 00GEM19 7h 17m 8.6s -37° 5' 51" -58 31 49 2.74 K5
L (L1) 02LEO03 03LEO26 7h 13m 13.4s -45° 10' 59" -65 58 08 var M5
Azmidiske xi (ξ) 04LEO39 06LEO02 7h 49m 17.7s -24° 51' 35" -44 56 40 3.47 G6
sigma (σ) 07LEO19 08LEO42 7h 29m 13.8s -43° 18' 5" -63 46 54 3.27 M0
rho (ρ) (15 Puppis) 10LEO01 11LEO24 8h 7m 32.6s -24° 18' 15" -43 16 29 2.88 F5
Naos zeta (ζ) 17LEO10 18LEO33 8h 3m 35.1s -40° 0' 12" -58 21 06 2.27 O5
Fixed stars in Pyxis the Mariner's Compass
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
gamma (γ) 24LEO06 25LEO29 8h 50m 31.9s -27° 42' 36" -43 17 42 4.19 K4
alpha (α) 25LEO08 26LEO31 8h 43m 35.5s -33° 11' 11" -48 55 34 3.70 B1
beta (β) 25LEO26 26LEO49 8h 40m 6.2s -35° 18' 30" -51 09 30 4.04 G5
Fixed stars in Vela the sail
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
gamma (γ) 25LEO59 27LEO22 8h 9m 32s -47° 20' 12" -64 28 44 1.70 var B3
Alsuhail lambda (λ) 09VIR49 11VIR11 9h 7m 59.8s -43° 25' 57" -55 52 21 2.22 K4
psi (ψ) 13VIR22 14VIR45 9h 30m 42s -40° 28' 0" -51 09 53 3.64 A7
delta (δ) 17VIR35 18VIR58 8h 44m 42.2s -54° 42' 30" -67 11 51 2.01 A0
q 25VIR37 27VIR00 10h 14m 44.2s -42° 7' 19" -48 15 31 4.09 A2
Markeb kappa (κ) 27VIR31 28VIR54 9h 22m 6.8s -55° 0' 39" -63 43 16 2.63 B3
phi (φ) 04LIB35 05LIB58 9h 56m 51.8s -54° 34' 4" -59 56 56 3.70 B7
mu (μ) 09LIB08 10LIB31 10h 46m 46.2s -49° 25' 12" -51 05 10 2.84 G5
Urania's Mirror 1825

from Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Argo Navis, the Ship Argo, generally plain Argo, — erroneously Argus, from confusion with its genitive case (Argus Panoptes, Argus "all eyes"), — and Navis, is the German Schiff, the French Navire Argo, and the Italian Nave Argo.

It lies entirely in the southern hemisphere, east of Canis Major, south of Monoceros and Hydra, largely in the Milky Way, showing above the horizon of New York city only a few of its unimportant stars; but it covers a great extent of sky, nearly seventy-five degrees in length, — Manilius calling it nobilis Argo,   and contains 829 naked-eye components. The centre culminates on the 1st of March.

La Caille used for it nearly 180 letters, many of them of course duplicated, so that although this notation was adopted in the British Association Catalogue, recent astronomers have subdivided the figure for convenience in reference, and now know its three divisions as Carina, the Keel, with 268 stars, Puppis, the Stern, with 313, and Vela, the Sail, with 248. This last is the German Segel.

La Caille, moreover, formed from stars in the early subordinate division Malus, the Mast, Pyxis Nautica, the Nautical Box or Mariner's Compass, the German See Compass, the French Boussole or Compas de Mer, and the Italian Bussola; and this is still recognized by some good astronomers as Pyxis.{Page 65} From other stars Bode formed Lochium Funis, his Logleine, our Log and Line, now entirely fallen into disuse.

The Ship appears to have no bow, thus presenting the same sectional character noticeable in Equuleus, Pegasus, and Taurus, and generally is so shown on the maps. It was in reference to this that Aratos wrote:

"Sternforward Argo by the Great Dog's tail

Is drawn; for hers is not a usual course,

But backward turned she comes, as vessels do

When sailors have transposed the crooked stern

On entering harbour; all the ship reverse,

And gliding backward on the beach it grounds.

Sternforward thus is Jason's Argo drawn.

This loss of its bow is said to have occurred when Argo

"pass'd Through Bosporus betwixt the justling rocks  — "

the Symplegades, the Cyanean (azure), or the Planctae Rocks at the mouth of the Euxine Sea. Yet Aratos may have thought it complete, for he wrote: "All Argo stands aloft in sky," and

"Part moves dim and starless from the prow

Up to the mast, but all the rest is bright;"

and it has often been so illustrated and described by artists and authors. The Alfonsine Tables show it as a complete double-masted vessel with oars, and Lubienitzki, in the Theatrum Cometicum of 1667, as a three-masted argosy with a tier of ports and all sails set full to the wind.

Mythology insisted that it was built by Glaucus, or by Argos, for Jason, leader of the fifty Argonauts, whose number equaled that of the oars of the ship, aided by Pallas Athene, who herself set in the prow a piece from the speaking oak of Dodona; the Argo being "thus endowed with the power of warning and guiding the chieftains who form its crew." She carried the famous expedition from Colchis in Thessaly to Aea in Colchis, (Colchis was the district along the eastern shore of the Euxine Sea, now Mingrelia.] in search of the golden fleece, and when the voyage was over Athene placed the boat in the sky.

Another Greek tradition, according to Eratosthenes, asserted that our constellation represented the first ship to sail the ocean, which long before {Page 66} Jason's time carried Danaos with his fifty daughters from Egypt to Rhodes and Argos, and, as Dante wrote, "Startled Neptune with the aid of Argo."

Egyptian story said that it was the ark that bore Isis and Osiris over the Deluge; while the Hindus thought that it performed the same office for their equivalent Isi and Iswara. And their prehistoric tradition made it the ship Argha for their wandering sun, steered by Agastya, the star Canopus. In this Sanskrit argha we perhaps may see our title; but Lindsay derives Argo from arek, a Semitic word, used by the Phoenicians, signifying "long," this vessel having been the first large one launched.

Sir Isaac Newton devoted much attention to the famous craft, fixing the date of its building about 936 B.C., forty-two years after King Solomon.

With the Romans it always was Argo and Navis, Vitruvius writing Navis quae nominatur Argo: but Cicero called it Argolica Navis and Argolica Puppis; Germanicus, Argoa Puppis; Propertius, the elegiac poet of the 1st century before our era, Iasonia Carina; Ovid, Pagasaea Carina and Pagasaea Puppis, from the Thessalian seaport where it was built; Manilius, Ratis Heroum, the Heroes' Raft, "which now midst Stars doth sail"; and others, Navis Jasonis, or Osiridis, Celox Jasonis, Carina Argoa, Argo Ratis, and Navigium Praedatorium, the Pirate Ship. While somewhat similar are Currus Maris, the Sea Chariot, the Currus Volitans of Catullus, who said that in Egypt it had been the Vehiculum Lunae.

It also was Equus Neptunias; indeed Ptolemy asserted that it was known as a Horse by the inhabitants of Azania, the modern Ajan, on the northeastern coast of Africa, south of Cape Gardafui.

The Arabians called it Al Safinah, a Ship, and Markab, something to ride upon, that two or three centuries ago in Europe were transcribed Alsephina and Merkeb.

Grotius mentioned Cautel as a title for Puppis, "from the Tables," but he added Hoc quid sit nescio.

The biblical school of course called it Noahs Ark, the Arca Noachi, or Archa Noae as Bayer wrote it; Jacob Bryant, the English mythologist of the last century, making its story another form of that of Noah. Indeed in the 17th century the Ark seems to have been its popular title.

In Hewitt's Essays we find a reference to "the four stars which marked the four quarters of the heavens in the Zendavesta, the four Loka-palas, or "nourishers of the world," of the Hindus; and that author claims these for {Page 67} Sirius in the east, the seven stars of the Greater Bear in the north, Corvus in the west, and Argo in the south. He gives the latter's title as Sata Vaesa, the One Hundred Creators; all these imagined as forming a great cross in the sky. The differing Persian conception of this appears in the remarks on Regulus, — alpha Leonis.

The Chinese asterism Tien Meaou probably was formed from some components of Argo.

The constellation is noticeable in lower latitudes not only from its great extent and the splendor of Canopus, but also from possessing the remarkable variable eta (eta Carina, Foramen) and its inclosing nebula.

Near the star s' Carinae appeared, between March 5 and April 8, 1895, a nova with a spectrum similar to those of the recent novae in Auriga and Norma.

. . . like a meadow which no scythe has shaven,

Which rain could never bend or whirl-blast shake,

With the Antarctic constellations paven,

Canopus and his crew, lay the Austral lake.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Witch of Atlas.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]