Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Canopus in Argo Navis

Members of my family are now reading Shikasta, both in paper and e-book formats. Shikasta is the first novel in a work by Doris Lessing titled Canopus in Argos, first discovered and introduced into Ghulfdom by Michelle, years ago already, but such works march through the clan at a royal pace, as it were. It was when I’d first read it, also years ago, that I became aware of an interesting fact. There really is a constellation Lessing called Argos, and the giant star Canopus is indeed its anchor. The official name of it is Argo Navis. Jason and his Argonauts are responsible for this projection onto the southern skies. And yes. The constellation is a ship. That constellation itself makes a spellbinding story in its own way.

Argo Navis has two unique features. It used to be the largest of the constellations, featuring the second brightest star visible in our skies: Canopus, of course. The brightest is Sirius. The second distinction Argo merits is that it is the only constellation, of the 48 that Ptolemy (90-168) listed in his Almagest, that has since been, well, chopped apart, dismissed, subdivided, what have you. It is no longer officially recognized as a constellation. As Doris Lessing no doubt believes, we are still living in the dark ages dominated by Shammat (read Devil), who wants to distract our eyes from Canopus.

Not surprisingly for me (temperamentally, obdurately, perversely traditionalist that I’ve become), the dismemberment of Argo took place at the hand of Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762), the French astronomer. It took place in 1752, thus close to the period called the Enlightenment, the death of which I date to the French Revolution. What did de Lacaille do? He divided Argo Navis into Carina, Puppis, and Vela, the keel, stern, and sails of the old ship. Am I hearing cheers for Progress?

Now for some pictures.

This outline shows Argo Navis as the ancients probably depicted it, meaning the stars they connected to form it. Note the central, anchoring position of Canopus. You can also see Sirius high above at the right edge of the image. The sails are triangular in shape. The long line extending from the deck upward through the sails was once known as the Malus, the Mast but is now the constellation Pyxis, the Compass. The ancients once also drew lines downward from stars here marked b and n to represent oars. Next I show the constellations as de Lacaille drew them, first how the sky looks to human eyes, next the lines that form today’s Carina, Vela, and Puppis.

In the diagram above, the sails have been enlarged. Maybe the winds of modernity had really picked up by de Lacaille’s time. The French astronomer’s Carina does not have the diamond-shaped figure shown here atop its left extremity in blue (the red outlining is mine), but my source on Wikipedia commons (link), one Michelet B, includes it. To see these details, its best to click through, of course. The old ship, in other words, is still there, and not all that modified. But the name has been lost. But thanks to science fiction, as this work by Doris Lessing’s is classified, the lost memory of Canopus in Argos has been recovered.

I hesitate to say much about that opus beyond noting that the most stunning science fiction always transcends the genre. These books, beginning with Shikasta, are not really entertainment reading, do not fit the rubric of aesthetics, but are certainly something difficult and special.

Let me conclude with a stylized and popularized diagram I’ve found on a crossword puzzle page (link) (and nowhere else), without indication of its source. It’s the most pleasing image, but I for one can’t make any kind of sense of it. If true, however, Canopus is not in but out of Argos. And that’s a bit of a disqualifier.

Added November 14, 2011. In a comment to this post Claire Grace Watson informed that she is the source of the image shown above. The lovely diagram is the way the Minoan Age (27th to 15th century BC) saw this constellation. Claire's own site, Disk of the World, is a beauty and a wonder (link). She is a Florida-based writer and artist. Thank you!


  1. Actually, I am the artist of that constellation Argo. The guy you link took it from my site without giving me credit. You can see it This is the drawing from the Phaistos Disk. This image is nearly 4,000 years old and is concealed on the disk and revealed by connecting the matching pictographs with lines, like the connect the dots. This is how the constellation looked during the Bronze Age.

    Claire Watson

  2. Thanks very much for that clarification, Claire. Google might have found your site way too wondrous to index it properly. The arrival of your comment on the 13th is meaningful to me. I thank you. I've revised the post to give you credit!

  3. Thank you, Arsen, for your kind words about my website and for your link. I am working on some links on my site and I will include your very interesting site. I am curious about your comment regarding the 13th. That number by natural addition is 4, my good, mystical number and so I have a fondness for 13 as well :)


  4. Thirteen plays a big role in our family. Posts relating to it are reachable by the index on the left. And, yes, Claire! It does make a 4, the mandala, the Disk of the World!!

  5. Hi again, Arsen :) I was interested in your comment above about Canopus being "out of Argo," and it seemed to me you questioned that. I, too, was very interested in that many years ago so I investigated it by reading a very good book, "Thrice-Greatest Hermes" by G.R.S. Mead, in which I found Plutarch's "On Isis and Osiris." Plutarch is probably our oldest written connection to that ancient mystery-myth of the Egyptians.

    Plutarch writes that at the prow of the Argo is the pilot, the star "'Kanobus' (Canopus), or 'Pilot'--from whom, they say, the star got its name." And, "Osiris is the General and Kanobus is the Pilot."

    The Argo on the disk is drawn by connecting together the signs that could be the "fruit" distributed by Osiris when he famously fed the people, and it is shown as a "triangle fruit," which seems to indicate he also gifted geometry to the people. In a typical syncretism of the age, the fruit can represent a fruit, geometry, a star and also a pomegranate, used by the Greeks later on to represent a star. The extended meaning would be that Osiris was credited with distributing the fruit on the earth and the stars in the sky, and he did so while sailing across the skies in the Argo that was piloted by Canopus. This would explain the prominence of Canopus at the bow of the Argo in the image above found concealed on the Phaistos Disk.

    I just love this stuff :)


  6. Hi, Claire. Canopus being a very bright star -- and appearing at the bottom of the other images posted -- I assumed that in your illustration it is the bright star south of the word Markeb, hence "outside."

    Like you, I love this sort of thing, and deviations from pattern are just fine with me if the myth is on target...

  7. Hi my name is Vigil and I too really love this stuff.

    I have a couple questions for you or Claire.

    I am studying the star "pPup" and wonder if you can tell me where it apears in the phastos disk depiction of argo? It looks to me to be the top right star in this depiction of Argo.

    Keep at it you are both awsome.

    Also do you have any idea why the spiral was made?

  8. What you appear to be looking for, ViGil, is the constellation called Puppis. It is marked in the third photo shown. You can see it even better in the first, where it is the top-most end of the ship. And you are right. It is probably the structure on the right of the last image. Puppis has two named stars inside it, Azmidiske and Naos. Asmidiske's location is actually called out in that image, and Naos is the star it points to to the right.


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