Guardians of the Poles

Polophylax

Polophylax, Guardian of the South Pole, wears a blue robe and stands next to an imaginary 1)Every constellation is a function of the imagination, but I am calling imaginary constellations the ones that have no stars to back them up. southern cross2)There is a real Southern Cross, but it isn’t this one..  Full map

Polophylax was one of the shorter-lived constellations, appearing only on a couple of maps made by Petrus Planicus in the 1592 and 1594, depicting the constellations near the south pole. The name comes from Greek words meaning “Guardian of the Pole,” but it appears only here, sort of a back construction of a mythological figure. Planicus never actually saw these stars. His constellations in the Southern Hemisphere were based on astronomical observations made by sailors, and when they brought him more detailed data in the late 1590s, Polophylax dissolved into two birds: the toucan and the crane. The responsibility of watching over the south pole now falls to them. It’s a difficult job! They have the phoenix and the peacock to help them3)The constellations Tucana, Grus, Phoenix, and Pavo are known as the Southern Birds., but I’d much rather have the blue-robed guardian of the south pole back. Since he has no mythology – he was probably created as a counterpart to the guardians of the north pole – I’m going to make up a story for him:

Polophylax, like Petrus Planicus, fled from Brussels to escape the Spanish Inquisition, but instead of ending up in Amsterdam and becoming a cartographer like Planicus did, Polophylax kept fleeing all the way down to the south pole, pursued relentlessly by evil inquisitors and unable to find any rest or safety anywhere. He left his home in Belgium a young man, but by the time he finally arrived in Antarctica, he was very old, with long white hair that blended in with the frozen landscape. And of course, he wore a big, shapeless blue gown. He was immediately surrounded by a herd of friendly penguins, who carried him off to a warm cave, leaving the inquisitors to be eaten by killer whales. Polophylax was so happy to finally find a safe home where he was welcomed and protected, that he decided to do everything he could to protect it. And so, he became the Guardian of the Pole. The end. Unfortunately, he turned into a couple of birds only three years later and the tracks the inquisitors left behind them as they chased him across the globe turned into fire and creeping ash, and within a couple centuries the whole planet became uninhabitable.4)As for Petrus Planicus, he had a much more peaceful life. He became a cartographer and astronomer in Amsterdam, soon becoming the expert on shipping routes to India, and was one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company. Currently, he exists as an asteroid called 10648 Planicus.

guardians of the [north] pole

Kochab and Pherkad, two stars in the bowl of the Little Dipper, circle close around Polaris and are called the Guardians of the Pole. In the northern hemisphere, these two stars never set, and circle around Polaris once in a day – so they can be used to tell the time. Sometime I’ll show you how to make a star-clock out of paper. This will be a very useful & handy thing for you, because you don’t wear a watch anymore but when it’s dark out your sundial doesn’t work.

Ursa Minor could use a couple of guardians right here, getting rudely kicked.

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1. Every constellation is a function of the imagination, but I am calling imaginary constellations the ones that have no stars to back them up.
2. There is a real Southern Cross, but it isn’t this one.
3. The constellations Tucana, Grus, Phoenix, and Pavo are known as the Southern Birds.
4. As for Petrus Planicus, he had a much more peaceful life. He became a cartographer and astronomer in Amsterdam, soon becoming the expert on shipping routes to India, and was one of the founders of the Dutch East India Company. Currently, he exists as an asteroid called 10648 Planicus.

Felis the Cat

Once upon a time there was a constellation called Felis, the cat. What happens to a constellation when it dies? It’s already up among the stars, so where else can it go? Does a constellation only exist if it’s on a map? There is our definition of a constellation: a drawing on a piece of paper, or a figment of the collective imagination. You don’t have your own personal constellations, you follow faithfully the 88 prescribed by the International Astronomical Union. The IAU are in charge of the names of everything in the sky. We gave them that power. It’s safer to have a governing body in charge of the naming of things.

Jerome Lalande

Joseph Jerome Lalande

Felis was invented in 1799 by Joseph Jerome Lalande, a French astronomer and lover of cats. The illustration of Felis that appeared in Bode’s Uranographia in 1801 (pictured below) bears a striking resemblance to Lalande. I think this might give us a clue as to where the cat went when he was removed from the heavens. Or what happened to Lalande when he died in 1807.

the cat constellation

There’s no myth behind the cat. This is just a cat for cat’s sake. She digs her claws into Draco’s tail. She laps up the Milky Way and then vomits it into Libra’s scales.

Where I live, the streetlights are too loud to see anything at night. They fill the air with a cicada-like buzzing. Sometimes, in the neighborhoods to the west where the lights are dimmer and farther spaced, I can see a few pieces of constellations — Orion’s belt, a fragment of the big dipper***not a constellation but an asterism*** — but mostly the sky is covered at night with dull orange clouds. That there are any constellations left at all we have to take on the word of the IAU.

But maybe you live in the countryside, where it’s always dark. The stars are still there, and you can peer through the figures of dragons and warriors that crowd the night sky to see what remains of the cat, his skeleton, a few faint stars. (I’m going there this weekend, I’ll let you know.)