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A Creature of the Celestial Sea

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Over past months we have, in this column, glimpsed most of the constellations of the zodiac, the ones the Sun appears to migrate through as we on Earth orbit it. In this exploration of the imaginary solar-related beasts circling the heavens, we enter now the region of the starry sea formed by a host of constellations that represent water. This celestial ocean contains three constellations of the zodiac: Capricornus, a creature that is half goat and half fish, Aquarius, the Water Bearer, and Pisces, a pair of fishes. In addition to these the watery reflection in the sky also has Delphinus, the Dolphin, Cetus the Sea Monster, and even a river called Eridanus. Today we will explore the three water constellations lying along the solar pathway in the sky.

If we look back to the most likely origins of these constellations, it is difficult to separate them and they likely were derived at the very beginning of astronomy in the minds of Chaldeans residing along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These people knew well the significance of water in their lives and it is probable that they were first to visualize the set of water creatures among the stars. Dominant in their mythology was a legendary conflict between chaos and order, good and evil, ending in a battle between Tiamat, the dragon-goddess of the primeval sea, and Marduk, one of the earliest known sun-gods, also symbolized by the planet Jupiter. Tiamat had rebelled against the gods of light, creating a group of monsters each of which was half creature of the water and half from land. They nearly overcame the powers of light, but in the end Marduk prevailed, cleaving the body of the dragon Tiamat to form heaven and earth. Although we can not be certain about the matter, it seems likely that the "watery sky" region is the visage of the heavenly part of Tiamat and that the named aquatic constellations are remnants of the monsters she rallied in her attempt to quench light with darkness.

All of these ideas go back to the time when the Sun stood against the stars of these wet constellations at the most dismal time of year, the date of the winter solstice. This was the age when astrology was invented and the signs of the zodiac were pivotal to the astronomical thinking of Chaldean people. The original winter solstice was in Aquarius, but as time went on it slipped westward into Capricornus, and it was then that the Tropic of Capricornus was derived from the fact that the winter solstice Sun stood in Capricornus at the zenith of the sky for observers located at latitude 23 1/2 degrees south.

Another version of the origins of some of these water constellations, from ancient Babylonia, concerns the god Ea, important to the town Eridu that was said to have once stood on the Persian Gulf until the silt from the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, engulfed the town, leaving it far inland. Ea emerged out of the sea and walked into Eridu bringing knowledge that resulted in civilization: writing, architecture, law and science. He would instruct the people by day, then return to the sea at night. Thought of as half man and half fish, it seems likely that this was the origin of the constellation Capricornus, although along the way the upper half of the body was transformed from man to goat.

This goat transformation must have come from Greece where we find an interesting story of long ago. Once upon a time, when giants still struggled with gods, some of the residents of Mount Olympus had gone into Egypt for a festive party along the Nile. Suddenly the terrible Typhon, most monstrous of giants, appeared and the gods quickly changed themselves into fleet- footed animals in order to escape. It was at this time, for example, that Zeus became a ram, now immortalized as the constellation Aries (see Deseret News article for November 24, 1996). The excitable Pan jumped into the waters of the Nile before he had completed his mutation into a goat. Thus his bottom half, then beneath the water, became the tail of a fish and his upper part a goat. Zeus found the resulting creature so intriguing that he could not resist placing it in the sky as the constellation Capricornus. Incidentally, it is from this tale that the word "panic" comes, another preservation of the impulsive and confused behavior of Pan as he leapt into the water in transition. It is interesting to note that for ancient Egyptians Capricornus, god of waters, was associated with the inundation of the Nile.

So, how can one find the stars of Capricornus, the Sea Goat, in our sky? Capricornus is composed of dim stars, with its brightest ones forming a triangular wedge, or arrowhead with the point of the arrow at the eastern end of the constellation. These stars are just east along the zodiac from the constellation Sagittarius. Well placed in the fall sky, Capricornus is visible at eventide until December, working its way higher into the south, then low toward the southwest.

I hope you will go out into the night and look around the sky. Review all the constellations you know and as you gaze toward Capricornus and consider how ancient ideas produced the labels we use to divide the sky into domains so that we can make sense of what we see in space around us.

Copyright 1999-2004 The Clark Foundation.
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