Friday, December 16, 2011

Pegasus the Flying Horse Part II

Sometimes I like the names of stars and their origins just as much as the mythologies of entire constellations. So let's take a closer look at four stars in Pegasus the Flying Horse.

The main feature of Pegasus are four stars marking a Great Square in the almost overhead after sunset. This is Pegasus' body and the Arabic names of three of these stars relate to that. The fourth one... well just you wait.

The alpha star in Pegasus is called Markab which means "the saddle" but can be translated as "ship" or "vehicle" - anything to travel upon. Beta is named Scheat, "the horse's shoulder." And gamma is Algenib, "the side" or "the wing." Those seem pretty straightforward and actually correspond to Pegasus' imagined body parts. The Arabic peoples were very literal when it came to naming the stars. The fourth star in the Great Square is a little more complicated.

This star is known today as Alpheratz, "the horse's navel." Technically Alpheratz is located in another famous constellation: Andromeda the Maiden. Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who was chained to a rock in the ocean as a sacrifice to the dreaded sea monster. So Alpheratz is not only Pegasus' belly but also Andromeda's head. When you see old star maps of the two constellations you can't help but feel sorry for Andromeda. Couldn't they find a little more room for her up there?

I can picture Andromeda discussing the matter with the gods.  Zeus might say, "Well, it's getting pretty crowded up there in the sky - what with all the new constellations."  After a thoughtful pause he continues, "The only empty space is up there by Pegasus' belly.  We'll just have to squeeze you up in there..."