Nasty Constellations

Slug, Toad, Leech, Spider, Earthworm – these were some of the thirteen constellations invented in 1754 by John Hall.  He was an English naturalist, but also a writer of satire, and he was poking fun at constellations such as the Giraffe, Unicorn, Lizard, Fly (Camelopardalis, Monoceros, Lacerta, Musca) inserted into the sky in his times (see the new-constellations list in The Astronomical Companion).

The shunned number thirteen was presumably part of his joke, and I wish I knew whether he had Latin names for them and what his other eight nasties were – rat, pig, skunk, cockroach, louse, bedbug?  But I have only a secondary source: an old Astronomical Society of the Pacific newsletter, among the mass of paper I was uneasily consigning to the recycle bin this afternoon.  And then this evening I found myself reading “Ugly Critters Get No Love,” by John Platt, in the June issue of Scientific American.

Scientists do overwhelmingly more studying of the relatively few animals that humans find appealing, such as koalas and lions.  There is little funding for studies of the teeming others, many of which may be more ecologically and even economically important.  And, as pointed out by the Ugly Animals Preservation Society, studies of the “mascot” species go into their habitat and behavior and food sources, vital for conservation, but for the “plain” or “ugly” ones little more is reported than their classification and measurements.

Why the human animal finds some of its cousin animals unbeautiful, to the point of repulsiveness, could be a whole other study.  I as a child had spider-horror, which must have been seeded by a word here and there from adults.  I’ve yet to understand why bats inspire dislike.  I wonder whether other planets boast anything as improbably, ornamentally flexible as snakes – yet the fear of touching them suppurates in some people into the delusion that they are slimy.  These phobias are not just European: Navajos have a horror of ch’osh, creeping things, as religious as their horror of ch’indi, the presence of dead bodies.

There are few things in nature as wonderful as the little jumping-spider that bravely faces up to you with his broad eyes; the spiderling that floats miles on the breeze from a long parachute of silk; the orb web in its steel-like strength, graph-like programming, and snowflake-like variety, especially when starred with dew.  I’ll draw you a picture of Arachne, the Spider constellation, when I’ve found a place in the heaven to insert it.


11 thoughts on “Nasty Constellations”

  1. The answer to my quiz question (see below) about the 7 constellations (Aries, Taurus, Orion, Scorpius, Phoenix, Lynx, and Carina) is that they were all named after car models. Dodge Aries, Ford Taurus, Mercury Lynx and Pontiac Phoenix in the United States, Toyota Carina globally, and Ford Orion and Scorpio in Europe. Other well-known astronomical entities named after cars are/were Mercury, Saturn, Subaru, Vega, and (generically) the Comet and Galaxy (or Galaxie). I only did this from memory, so there certainly could be others. I could probably really accomplish something if I didn’t sit around and dream up questions such as “how many of such and such can I think of that are named after such and such?”

    1. The only car I could ever recognize was a Volkswagen van, because it was the only kind I ever drove. Put it in the sky when you draw your map of constellations as cars.

      1. I love Volkswagens, and currently drive a 1993 Eurovan with the poptop for camping. I drove it from my home in Virginia this past weekend to Florida and back to buy an 18″ dobsonian telescope, and as usually happens to me on a long trip, I got multiple favorable comments from people, at rest stops or gas stations, along the lines of, “Oh, I love your VW, what year is it?” or “I used to have a bus back in the 1970’s and loved it!” I doubt very many Toyota or Honda owners get that LOL. When I draw my constellation, I will have to consult my “Stripe Latin” game to make sure I get the right genitive ending for David to indicate whose VW it is!

  2. Very interesting post and discussions! On the subject of constellations, can anyone guess what connects the 7 constellations Aries, Taurus, Orion, Scorpius (or Scorpio), Phoenix, Lynx, and Carina? The topic is decidedly non-controversial and totally trivial …

  3. You were I think correct to recycle-bin this particular ASP item Guy, as it seems simply to have repeated mistakes from elsewhere.

    Ian Ridpath, in Chapter 4 of his “Star Tales” (1988 – it’s available online at: )

    commented on the numerous new introductions to the lists of constellations, especially during the period of intense mapping of the heavens in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the items there, singled out for especial attention, was this list. However, the constellations were created by John Hill, not Hall, and were 15 in number, not 13!

    Ridpath very helpfully provides a link to the Google Books scanned online version of Hill’s work, available to view or download as a PDF freely, and even provides links to seven of the specific pages involved to find some of Hill’s new constellations. Given that the scanned book (including covers) runs to 681 pages, I was relieved to discover the Wikipedia “Former constellations” webpage includes all 15 of Hill’s inventions, so I only had to check that each did indeed exist as described in the PDF to confirm them.

    The full set then is: Anguilla (the Common Eel), Aranea (the Long-Legged Spider), Bufo (the Toad), Dentallium (the Tooth Shell), Gryphites (the Gryphaea Shellfish), Hippocampus (the Sea Horse), Hirudo (the Leech), Limax (the Naked Snail, or Slug), Lumbricus (the Earthworm, or Dew-worm), Manis (the Scaly Lizard, or Pangolin), Pinna Marina (the Mussel Shellfish), Scarabaeus (the Rhinoceros Beetle), Testudo (the Tortoise), and Uranoscopus (the Star-Gazer Fish).

    Curiously, Hill himself (page 179 of the PDF version; there are no page numbers printed in the scanned book) provides a list and brief description of the sky locations for only 14 of these, omitting Hirudo, although much fuller descriptions are provided for each in their individual entries, which are also shown on the star maps he provided (Aranea lies between Virgo, Hydra and Corvus from Hill’s comments, for example).

    Ridpath also noted Hill as having been a satirist, so it is conceivable he was indeed poking fun in some particularly obscure way, given how deeply-buried these entries are within his whole work, and that his own comments on p.179 seemed to indicate these were a genuine attempt to provide new constellations for consideration. The rest of the book (title: “Urania: or, A Compleat VIEW of the HEAVENS; CONTAINING THE ANTIENT and MODERN ASTRONOMY, In Form of a Dictionary: Illustrated with a great Number of Figures, COMPRISING All the CONSTELLATIONS, with the STARS laid down according to their exact Situations and Magnitudes, from repeated and accurate OBSERVATIONS.”) seems detailed and reasonable enough for the period in which it was published, certainly, for all it really just repeats much information available already at the time elsewhere.

    However, it turns out Hill was a rather more interesting character than this simple label of “satirist” might suggest. His “Dictionary of National Biography” entry (available via Wikisource online; search for “Hill, John (1716?-1775)”) is definitely worth reading. From that, we find Johnson’s opinion of him, as recorded by Boswell, was that “he was an ingenious man, but had no veracity”. The DNB entry also notes that: “Recklessly extravagant in his style of living, Hill was ‘in a chariot one month, in jail the next for debt’ (Whiston MS. quoted in Nichol’s Lit. Anecdotes, ii. 724). The greater number of his books, many of which were published anonymously or under a pseudonym, are mere trashy compilations. Some of his botanical works, however, did good service in their day, and the first Linnæan flora of Britain was due to Hill”.

    1. Doubtless the more perceptive readers here, or indeed those, apparently unlike myself, still able to count up to fifteen, will have realised by now that, like the list of the originator John Hill, M. D., on page 179 of the PDF version of his book, I managed to accidentally omit one of his selection of new constellations. The one that remained stuck outside, appropriately enough, was Patella, the Limpet Shellfish. Having been sufficiently intrigued by the list, and the claims made about its supposedly mere comical intent, to investigate further, it was an obvious, if belated, discovery.

      Hill’s new groups are all designated as somewhat unusual small animals, relatively slow-moving ones at that, which seems appropriate to their minor status as constellations, constructed from fainter stars “left over” from the leading star patterns. Several were formed into different minor constellations by others too.

      Hill’s Aranea and Bufo were made from parts of what some preferred to see as a bird right on Hydra’s tail-tip, east of Corvus. Choices included Turdus solitarius, the Solitaire (two versions, either a dodo-like flightless creature, or a rock thrush), the Mocking Bird, or Noctua, the Night Owl. Gryphites was among some of the stars that were once seen as the branch from the golden apple tree grasped by Hercules, which later (17th century) became a three-headed snake called Cerberus, after the Greek mythological dog that guarded the way to Hades, or sometimes Cerberus and a tree branch. That forms a reasonably distinctive loose grouping of fainter stars, certainly.

      The “V”-shaped group that Hill most likely made into Patella was also the face of Poniatowski’s Bull, Taurus poniatovii, now part of eastern Ophiuchus by the Serpent-Holder’s right shoulder (as Hill also described it). Our Scutum, the Shield, was probably Hill’s Pinna Marina, while his Uranoscopus was also Telescopium herschelii, Herschel’s Telescope, between Lynx and Auriga. Unfortunately, the star charts in Hill’s text do not show Gryphites, Patella, Pinna Marina, or Anguilla, so a degree of guesswork, based only on the text, is needed for these. Ian Ridpath’s “Star Tales” has details for the non-Hill groups mentioned above.

      Of the remainder, Dentalium was a roughly horn-shaped asterism now on the Aquarius-Aquila border. Manis had an oddly straggling tail that seemed to extend some way into northern Cygnus, as judged by Hill’s map on p. 124 of the PDF version, albeit this is unclear as to which stars were meant, as no brighter stars from Cygnus were shown on it. Manis’ body and limbs though consisted of a fairly noticeable star grouping in northern Andromeda, curling from 26 And, through iota, kappa, lambda, psi, 11, 8, 7, 5 and 3 And, into northern Lacerta (including 9 Lac).

      The imprecisely-located Anguilla might have used stars from Dentalium or other nearby constellations in its form, given Hill said only that it lay “over” the heads of Capricornus and Sagittarius, unhelpfully later adding its stars also extended into Aquarius. Scarabaeus, while made from the fairly inconspicuous xi, chi, psi, 11, 16 and 18 Sco, plus upsilon Oph at its antennae-tip, did at least form a reasonably close, small, grouping south of Ophiuchus’ “left hand” (delta and epsilon Oph).

      However, the final five were mostly inconspicuous efforts. Hippocampus was made from various faint stars around the Cet-Eri-Tau-Ori borders (brightest star, 10 Tau). Hirudo was composed of a couple of straggling lines of pale stars on the Tau-Ori border, arcing from 134 Tau to 110, 111 and 115 Tau. Limax, in eastern Eridanus, was another straggle of faint stars from 54 to 58-59-60 and 53 Eri, then north to 56 and 47 Eri. Lumbricus, from the chart on PDF page 234, seemed to have barely any stars in it at all, while modern sky-maps suggested only that a near-random selection of 5th and 6th magnitude stars might be appropriated from northern CMi, western Cnc and southeastern Gem, to form a similarly vague and unconvincing pattern. Testudo, on the borders of Pisces and Cetus nowadays, fared little better, with only a selection of stars between and including 20, 24, 27, 29 and 30 Psc to 34, 38, 42 and 43 Cet from which to pick out a potential pattern.

      Not quite seeing how this might fit with being a satirical comment on astronomy of the period, given Hill’s new star patterns overall seem no more implausible than many others added to the sky around the time he wrote, only to be subsequently lost or ignored. The chief difference seems to be these weren’t taken up by later star-chart constructors. Maybe like my earlier omission of Patella though, I’m just missing something here?

      1. I know I “approved” and appreciated Alastair’s previous scholarly comment some days ago, though I don’t see that here – I was having to do it from my iPad since my internet connection was cut off from June 1 till today June 7.

        Alastair’s reseach has grown to such an extent that I’m going to suggest to him that he put together a monograph on the subject of disused constellations, which we could make into a web page. That way, it would be more readily accessible than when buried in these comments. I visualize illustrations in the form of an outline of each disused constellation superimposed on a selected part out of a background map (by me) of the present official constellation boundaries, with stars to magnitude of about 5 or whatever is the dimmest used by these old constellation-inventors.

  4. Those cool early mornings with the dew on the spider webs–the first sign of fall around here. My husband once described me as an arachnophiliac. And when I was 8, I had the good fortune, during my one miserable experience at summer camp, to have a nature counselor who had a large snake sunning in a tank and picked it up and let us “help” him hold it, so I discovered that snakes are all muscle, and not only are their scales unbelievably beautiful close up, but they are warm and dry to the touch. Surely there is already a long, sinuous constellation called Serpens? As a friend of mine remarked when I tried to show her the Summer Triangle, “You know, any three stars make a triangle…”

    1. No. Can you explain to us why there should be? Because it represemts a naked Indian, or because of its silly long devious shape?
      It isn’t named for the river that the Greeks called Indus and the Indians Sindhu. As I was walking through the tunnel under the Thames yesterday, I fell in with a couple from Amritsar in the Punjab – husband Hindu and wife Sikh – and they were gratified that I knew that Panj-ab is “five waters” and that the five joining rivers are the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej, though I’ve forgotten what the order of them is from the Indus eastward.

Write a comment