Horny Goat

Do you feel the first stirrings of spring? I know some do.

On January 20 the Sun enters Capricornus.

SunEntersCapSf

In this diagran of a sphere of space, showing the sightline from Earth to Sun at Jan. 20, the Earth is exaggerated 500 times in size. The Sun (the white dot at the center of the glow) is at true scale.

What this means is that Earth comes around to the part of its orbit where, as we look toward the Sun, the stars behind it – if we could see them – would be the stars of Capricornus. Conversely the Sun sees Earth shining dimly in the opposite constellation, Cancer.

Astrology sticks to the older system by which the Sun moves through twelve “signs” fixed to the way things were about two thousand years ago, and so has the Sun off now by about one constellation. We tabulate these differences on page 39 of Astronomical Calendar 2015. The differences are irregular because the astronomical constellations have different widths whereas the astrological signs are all 30 degrees wide. But, as it happens, the difference in this case is now almost exactly a month: the real Sun moves from Sagittarius into Capricornus at Jan. 20 2h Universal Time; the astrological Sun moves from the sign  Capricornus into Aquarius at Jan. 20 10h UT. Each year, precession will continue to make the real event later by a few hours, so that for a while the coincidence will become even closer.

Capricornus and Cancer were, in classical times, the constellations the Sun entered at the December and June solstices – the moments when it is was farthest south and farthest north. Hence the names of the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer: the lines of latitude around the Earth where the Sun is overhead when it’s farthest south and farthest north.

Yet these two so-honored constellations, the only ones with Tropics named for them, are the two most inconspicuous in the zodiac. The naked-eye stars by which we can make out some sort of a shape for Cancer are of about magnitude 4 or below. Those of Capricornus are in about the same modest range, except that Beta Cap (called Dabih) is about magnitude 3. Capricornus is also, as the constellation boundaries are now defined, the smallest in area of the twelve zodiacal ones (Cancer is slightly larger than Aries and Scorpius).

Yet “Capricornus” is the longest name (well, equal with “Sagittarius”), so I often have trouble fitting the name onto charts that I make, especially when, as so often, several planets or comets happen to be passing through Capricornus. I resort to breaking it into two lines with a hyphen, and am tempted to shorten it to the form more familiar in astrology: “Capricorn.”

Caper is Latin for “goat.” A nanny-goat was capra, and the name of our great star Capella is a diminutive or pet form of this. Capriola is Italian for a kid, and it gave us the word caper, to “frisk around like a kid.” (The word kid itself, “young goat,” is in process of replacing child.) The isle of Capri was Roman Capreae, the island of goats. But caper, the shrub and its flower buds that make pickles, is unconnected, being from Latin and Greek capparis.

So Capricornus means “horned goat,” though the word looks more like “goat-horn.” Why this area of the sky was taken for a goat remains mysterious; as does the idea that it is a goat-fish, a compound creature, with the front half of a goat and the tail of a fish (so that its name ought to be Capropiscis or Aegichthys).

CapricornusFrTK
From an illustration in To Know the Stars.

Its shape is a large vague triangle with slightly concave top and slightly convex sides; somewhat like a boat, or the simple kind of boat called coracle. Or like a pelvis.

H.A. Rey, in his The Stars: A New Way to See Them, strove to connect the dots of constellations in non-traditional ways that would better resemble what they are supposed to look like, and his version of Capricornus is a good example of his ingenuity and, I think, of the impracticality of his method. You can see this shape on paper (with the goat facing left instead of, traditionally, right); but, in the real sky, you can’t see these connections between non-adjacent stars, especially at times when you can’t see the fainter stars at all.

CapricornusRey

The kid is the acme of playfulness, and the goat was the embodiment of healthy libido; the satyrs, who amorously ambushed nymphs, had shaggy goat legs (a kind of reverse of Capricornus). As winter moves to its later phase, the Sun, as John Donne said, “to the Goat is run / To fetch new lust” and give it to “you lovers.” And William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.”

Satyr and Nymph, by Clodion

Satyr and nymph, two-foot-high terracotta sculpture by Clodion (real name Claude Michel), circa 1780.

14 thoughts on “Horny Goat”

  1. Guy, Was my comment in this section rejected? It was a rather lengthy one and full of neat stuff. Or did I just not post it properly?

    1. Of course I “approve” your comments, and did so with the one beginning “Hah!” If there’s a delay, it will only mean that I haven’t gotten back to looking here yet. If it’s another you’re talking about and I for some reason haven’t seen, better get back to me (perhaps better off-blog, by emailing to me).

  2. I agree with Guy’s comments about H. A. Rey’s reinterpretation of constellation patterns. Most of them seem rather impractical, but I’ve often wondered if that isn’t due largely to the fact that we’ve been conditioned from early on to see the patterns the way the lines are drawn on atlases. I started out looking at the monthly maps in Sky & Telescope magazine in the early 1970’s and tracing out the patterns they indicated, so every alternative pattern seems strange. Has anyone ever conducted a test of people who don’t know what the traditional constellation patterns look like by having them draw their own patterns among stars that aren’t pre-arranged into our 88 constellation boundaries? A few patterns are natural groups, e.g. Big Dipper and Orion, also perhaps Leo, Cassiopeia, Lyra, Corvus, but most are not. I wouldn’t know what to make of the Centaurus / Lupus region, for example. Another possibility to arrive at an alternative set of star-groups would be to develop a program to analyze the position and brightness of the stars and group them by proximity into 88 new regions that have greater geospatial coherence and perhaps even out the tremendous brightness differences among the current groups (Orion versus Monceros, for example). I wonder what would come out of an experiment like this.

    1. Yes, there’s great potential for research projects here, that a teacher could hand out to high school students or beginning-astronomy students. It would be interesting to see what alternative patterns would be created by people unfamiliar with the old ones; what patterns a machine program might create; and what patterns other cultures have created. I wouldn’t be in favor of actually trying to replace Orion and Monoceros with evened-out constellations: the purpose of the constellations we have is to give us landmarks that we can memorize, and their very inequality is actually helpful. It’s depressing to think that in some future the whole system may be replaced by simple geometrical boxes of sky!

  3. I’m a little puzzled: the blue line in the diagram doesn’t seem to come from 20 January but from the end of January.

    1. I was a bit puzzled by that myself and stared at my diagram, wondering whether the blue “sightline” really pointed across the bubble of space to the constellation-boundary-point I was talking about. Only belatedly did I realize that I had made the sightline for the end of January instead of for Jan. 20. So it’s now been replaced by a better version.
      No excuse, but it takes about thirty trials-and-errors to make a clean simple diagram, eliminating clutter, refining the point of view… So I can become sort of blind to one of the numbers.

  4. I find much value in the old tropical zodiac. It feels much more fitting to start the year at the Winter solstice, when the Sun moves from tropical Sagittarius into tropical Capricorn(us), or the Spring equinox, when the Sun moves from tropical Pisces into tropical Aries, than on January 1, a date whose connection to the physical year is entirely random and haphazard. And the twelve evenly divided tropical signs will always hold their same relationship to the seasons of the year, unaffected by the precession of the equinoxes through the sidereal constellations. So long as we are careful to be clear whether we’re talking about tropical signs or astronomical constellations, I hope the old system will always have a place in our vocabulary. (All of this is entirely separate from any argument about the predictive, descriptive, and/or mythopoetic value of astrology.)

    1. You’re careful to call the sign-based dates “tropical” rather than “astrological”; yes, “astrological” can seem contemptuous, though “tropical” can possibly be confusing.
      A thing I need to research sometime is how the beginnings of the months came to be offset about ten days from the solstices and equinoxes, so that these fall around days 20-23 of their months. I have an American bank account whose statements run to the last day of the month, and a British one whose statement run to the 21st of each month; I don’t know whether that was arbitrary or was possibly an old calendar-based tradition of some banks.

      1. I don’t see how calling the signs tropical could be confusing, once it’s explained that they’re marked by the dates when the Sun touches the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. And I’m always very careful to avoid using the word “astrology” in astronomical circles. I don’t care to provoke yet another fulminating hateful diatribe.

        I would be pleased to get a bank statement for Capricorn 2015. Even happier to get one for Lunation 1138!

        1. “Tropical” applies to the two points where the Sun “turns” (Greek trop-) and the constellations and latitudes associated with those; also the “tropical” year and month are the periods of the Sun’s and Moon’s revolution from an equinox or solstice point back to the same one. I think you were applying the word also to the other points (30-degree apart signs) based on though not at the solstices, as a suggested replacement for “astrological”. It’s still quite difficult to find a readily understood term for this system.

          1. Astrology distinguishes between the tropical zodiac, which we have been discussing, and the sidereal zodiac. The sidereal zodiac has 12 signs of 30 degrees ecliptic longitude each (just like the tropical zodiac), but 0 degrees Aries is continually adjusted for precession. East Indian Vedic astrology uses the sidereal zodiac. So if an astrologer refers to yesterday’s new Moon at 0 degrees Aquarius (tropical zodiac) other astrologers know what they’re talking about. Yesterday’s new Moon took place at about 7 degrees Capricorn in the sidereal zodiac (I’m sorry I can’t find the exact degree), whereas astronomically it took place at the border between Capricornus and Aquarius. (Ophiuchus is ignored in both sidereal and tropical astrology.)

          2. Anthony, it would be good if you could give us a reference to a source which explains where the origin (zero-point) of the sidereal zodiac is – somewhere about the western end of the actual (sideral) Aries? Presumably its 12 30-degree signs approximate to the astronomical constellations, being wider than some and narrower than others.

  5. I enjoyed this post very much. Refreshing reminder that the ancients had a stronger sense not only of the influence of the stars upon our character, but also of the lowly goat in the overall scheme of things. I have always been intrigued by the possibilities posed by astrology–implausible though it seems that the play of cosmic forces from such vast depths should actually contribute to the shaping of human behavior. This post by Ottewell explodes this romance, but does replace it with an equally bright fascination with the motions of the stars. It doesn’t mean that the snows of January will ever throb like the sunny days of spring. But some of us old goats can still kick back and enjoy the nighttime sky. (Just don’t forget the blanket…)

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