The snake’s two parts

Here is the evening sky scene for Thursday evening, October 19.

My previous post was bungled – blame it on the frustrations of typing with a bandaged right hand.  I said what I wanted to say about the wild pet trade, but something caused the opening sky scene to drop out.  I corrected this later (, but later is too late.

But we could look again at Serpens, the snake constellation that now wriggles above the western horizon, and that is divided into two non-contiguous parts.  The only geographical analogy I can think of is the county of Flint, at the northeast corner of Wales.  It has a larger piece and a smaller piece, separated by the county of Denbigh.  At least this was so until the boundary “reforms” of the 1970s and onward, which thoroughly messed up the traditional counties of Britain.  I think there was also an outlying bit of Warwickshire enclosed in Worcestershire, and, at some earlier time, a droplet of Dorset isolated in Devon.  Probably there were other such instances in the incredibly complex map of the Holy Roman Empire.  Elsewhere in the world, there is the African country of Equatorial Guinea, divided into a mainland part and two islands, which are themselves separated by another country of two islands (Sao Tome and Principe); and Malaysia, also separated into pieces by water; but that isn’t really the same as being separated only by land.  A land situation that didn’t persist in reality was the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, in which the three areas left to the Palestinians, Galilee, the West Bank, and Gaza, touched at two points, like squares on a checkerboard.

Serpens in sky pictures is a snake reaching across the middle of Ophiuchus, who holds him; but in a map with boundaries, the stars had to be assigned to either the man or the snake, and they were assigned to the man.  Otherwise, we might have had a three-way divided constellation: Ophiuchus’s torso, his right leg, and his left.

The two parts of Serpens are commonly called Serpens Cauda and Serpens Caput.  I – pedantically, if you like – balk at this because you can’t slap nominative nouns together like that in Latin; grammatical would be Serpentis Cauda and Serpentis Caput, “tail of the serpent” and “head of the serpent.”  My compromise is Serpens (Cauda) and Serpens (Caput).

The two parts are treated as one constellation in that there is only one sequence of Greek letters for the main stars in them.  The stars are called Alpha Serpentis (not Alpha Capitis, or Alpha Serpentis Capitis), etc.

Another, much larger constellation, Argo, was divided into parts, though the parts touch: Carina, Puppis, and Vela, the keel, poop, and sails of the ship.  As with Serpens, they have only one sequence of Greek letters; yet, unlike Serpens, the three parts are treated as separate constellations, in that the stars are called Alpha Carinae, Gamma Velorum, etc. – not Alpha Argous etc.

(I see that that’s a whole lot of puzzlingly different kinds of genitive endings: -is, -ae, -orum, -ous.  You won’t believe me, but Greek and Latin grammar are fun!)

You probably know that herpetology is the study of reptiles, from the Greek herpein, “to creep,” cognate with Latin serpere – an instance of a frequent correspondence between the cousin languages, as in their words for “six” and “seven”: sex, septem; hex, hepta.


9 thoughts on “The snake’s two parts”

  1. Although I don’t know its history, nor am I familiar with any of the potentially controversial politics associated with it, current maps of Azerbaijan show that it comprises two separate regions divided by Armenia. Another more famous division of one country was Germany during the interwar years, with East Prussia separated from the rest of Germany by the Polish corridor.

  2. How about the thumb-and-mitten of Michigan?

    I’ve found it amusing that the constellation with the largest segment of the ecliptic running through it – is NOT numbered among the “zodiacal” set. – I don’t fret about this though – as all has been arranged into coordinational, territorial, boundary-oriented regions in modern times – long after the blurrier times when the zodiacal properties were imaginationally conceived.

    I am sorry to hear of your bicycle accident.
    If you want to feel lucky, I have a friend from New Zealand that does not remember his cycling accident in Switzerland that resulted in his losing his face. It was very strange meeting him later and recognizing his familiar voice coming from an unfamiliar, reconstructed face! I think his tyre dropped into a drain grating running parallel to his path – front end dropped and sudden halt ensued (my postulation).

  3. Another geographical analogy was the original Pakistan, which included West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh). Bangladesh declared independence in 1971, resulting in widespread massacres by Pakistani authorities. Later the same year India, faced with a lot of refugees crossing the border, invaded Bangladesh and established its independence from Pakistan.

  4. I don’t like the IAU constellations, with their rigidly rectilinear boundaries and inane southern constellations dreamed up by colonial Europeans who either didn’t know how the native peoples of the southern hemisphere mapped the sky, or didn’t care. When the IAU boundaries were established they were justified as providing an unambiguous way of locating any astronomical phenomenon. But professional astronomers nowadays simply use right ascension and declination. A general interest news story may mention the constellation in which an object appears, but that’s only an afterthought, a sop to traditionalists like me. Let’s go back to the old ways, when Alpha Andromedae could also be Delta Pegasi, and El Nath was both Beta Tauri and Gamma Aurigae.

  5. Guy,

    I took Latin, in 1957 to 1959 during my 7th through 9th grades. It was not “fun”. The instructor was energetic, enthusiastic, and tireless. She was in her 60’s. The white ASP’s in the class all received C’s, no matter what their test scores were. The one genius in the class, received an A-, and received a beating when he got home because it wasn’t an A or A+. The 4 blacks in the class flunked, but stayed on the basketball team because they were given extra credit assignments. It was not fun for anyone in the class, and I’m glad for the students, after our generation, who weren’t subjected to it.
    So, what does this have to do with astronomy? Well, after my last Latin class, my parents bought me a 4.25′ DynaScope from Edmund Scientific as a reward for not flunking Latin. To this day, it is the best telescope I have ever owned. (I use a 12″ Meade reflector now). Of course, back then, you could see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot without really trying.


  6. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and don’t forget the amphibians. I admit to having a Boa constictor, the last of the third generation born in captivity. I suppose I don’t feel so bad about it; after all, aren’t we all sort of in captivity in the lives we lead? My dog Eddie doesn’t think so, but what does he know?

    1. Hey Jack:

      One definition of life is adaptation. You stay alive as long as you continue to adapt to ever changing conditions. When in captivity, one adapts to loss of freedom. For prisoners, it is called becoming institutionalized; they actually learn to want to be in prison where all their needs are met and their life has structure. Same thing for pets.

      Better to live in captivity than not to live at all, I suppose. It’s true that we are all captive but at least those who are free get to choose their style of captivity (they can choose their job, spouse and friends).

      Hope Eddie doesn’t become captivated by Bo (or whatever you named your snake.)

      1. Funny you would think Bo as her name. I had a dog named Bo. I don’t name my snakes since they don’t have ears to hear’ won’t come when I call her, lol. She responds more to smells and movement. Warning: Keep hands clear during feeding time.

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