[/caption]For the lucky residents of the Southern Hemisphere, or those fortunate enough to enjoy a vacation in Hawaii or Cancun, there’s a stellar delight that few Northerners know about. It’s called the Southern Cross, a small but beautiful constellation located in the southern sky, very close to the neighboring constellation of Centaurus. Originally known by the Latin name Crux, which is due to its cross shape, this constellation is one of the easiest to identify in the night sky. For centuries, it has served as a navigational beacon for sailors, an important symbol to the Egyptians, and played an important role in the spiritual beliefs of the Aborigines and many other cultures in the Southern Hemisphere.
The first recorded example of Crux’s discovery was around 1000 BC during the time of the Ancient Greeks. At the latitude of Athens, Crux was clearly visible, though low in the night sky. At the time, the Greeks identified it as being part of the constellation Centaurus. However, the precession of the equinoxes gradually lowered its stars below the European horizon, and they were eventually forgotten by the inhabitants of northern latitudes. Crux fell into anonymity for northerners until the Age of Discovery (from the early 15th to early 17th centuries) when it was rediscovered by Europeans. The first to do so were the Portuguese, who mapped it for navigation uses while rounding the southern tip of Africa. During this time, Crux was also separated from Centaurus, though it is not altogether clear who was responsible. Some attribute it to the French astronomer Augustin Royer who did it in 1679 while others believe it was Dutch astronomer PetrusPlancius who did the deed in 1613. Regardless, it is believed to have taken place in the 17th century, placing it within the context of European expansion and the revolution that was taking place in the sciences at the time.
In terms of cultural significance, the Crux, like all constellations, played an important role in the belief system of many cultures. In the ancient mountaintop village of Machu Picchu, a stone engraving exists which depicts the constellation. In addition, in Quechua (the language of the Incas) Crux is known as “Chakana”, which literally means “stair”, and holds deep symbolic value in Incan mysticism (the cross represented the three tiers of the world: the underworld, world of the living, and the heavens). To the Aborigines and the Maori, Crux is representative of animist spirits who play a central role in their ancestral beliefs. To the ancient Egyptians, Crux was the place where the Sun Goddess Horus was crucified, and marked the passage of the winter season. The Southern Cross is also featured prominently on the flags of several southern nations, including Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa.
We’ve done many episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Listen here, Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From?