Fomalhaut: the Fish’s Mouth

Fomalhaut was one of the four year-stars. Since the other three belong to the “fixed” astrological signs Taurus, Leo and Scorpio, Fomalhaut is assumed to be associated with Aquarius, the fourth fixed sign. It can be seen low in the southern sky in the fall, and can be seen due south around 11:00 p.m. in early October.

However, this star actually belongs to Piscis Austrinis, the Southern Fish. Not be confused with the nearby constellation of Pisces, this fish rests below the water-bearer’s foot.

Its name comes from the Arabic for Fish’s Mouth, from its position in the constellation. The water Aquarius pours out seems to fall directly into this area, which led to astronomers incorporating the Fish into Aquarius. This area of the sky is called the Sea, since it contains Cetus, the Sea-Monster, Aquarius, Piscis Austrinis and Pisces.

Not so lonely star

Although you might imagine from the image above that Fomalhaut’s section of the night sky is pretty crowded, most of the stars in that region are pretty faint. This has led to Fomalhaut, the 18th brightest star, being called the Lonely Star.

That is, until now. Fomalhaut, it turns out, has companions. Following an image from the Hubble Telescope, scientists began to think that it might have an exoplanet. It had a large dust disc around it, leading to the nickname Sauron’s Eye, and images of an object moving through the disc over several years led astronomers to believe that Fomalhaut had a planet orbiting it.

No sooner was its existence announced than other observations seemed to suggest that it was a dust cloud. Finally, a new analysis of the data concluded, in 2012, that it was indeed a planet. There have not been any other planets spotted so far, but it can hope for siblings. There is still enough matter in the dust cloud surrounding the star to make 110 Earths, and possibly trillions of comets whizzing around and colliding with each other.

Fomalhaut is the brightest star, after Pollux and our own Sun, to have planets. (That we know of…)

Not only does it have a planet and comets to keep it company, but it is the largest part of a triple star system, three stars all moving together. Fomalhaut C, the third star, also has a dust disc of its own. (And much larger – see this image for a comparison.)

Mythology

I usually like to relate whatever star or constellation I’m writing about to Norse and Celtic mythology. However, since Fomalhaut can be seen only as far north as 53°, this makes the cutoff somewhere in England.

The Celts do not have any known myths about Fomalhaut or its constellation, although Bayley (204) suggests that the many salmon in Celtic myth must have had a constellation of their own. It seems pretty obvious that there would be no Norse myth about Fomalhaut, although the image of its dust cloud has led to an ingenious bit of modern mythology, calling it the Eye of Odin.

I should also mention a rather odd entry in Olcott’s Star Lore, which states that Aquarius is the Norse god Vali’s palace, which is covered in silver and called Valaskialf. (The name comes from another older book, by W. Wagner, on Norse myth.) It is true that there is a god named Vali, whose function in Norse myth is to avenge Baldr’s death. Apart from that there is very little known about him, and certainly no reference to a named residence. (For more on Vali, and Valaskialf, see here.)

The Babylonians can take the credit for the water-bearer pouring out water to a giant fish. The water-bearer represented their god Ea, and he ruled the period either side of the winter solstice, when Babylon was subject to flooding. The Great Fish was supposed to be the parent of the Pisces fishes, in both Babylonian and Greek myth.

Another, rather more elaborate myth had it that the eastern goddess Atargatis fell into water and was saved by a giant fish, which she made a constellaton. (There is a similar tale about Isis.)

The Arabs sometimes called it the First Frog (perhaps a weather reference?).

In astrology, Fomalhaut’s influence varies with the planets aspected to it. The Sun, Venus and Jupiter bring out its beneficial side.

(The image at the top is from Wikimedia.)

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5 thoughts on “Fomalhaut: the Fish’s Mouth

  1. Peter

    Nice article! For Northern myths I would like to add for Piscis Austrinus the dwarf Andvari hiding under the waterfall Andvarafors pouring out of the urn of Aquarius. The word element ‘vari’ means guardian, fitting to Fomalhaut being one of the four guardian stars. Also Loki himself in another myth is hiding as fish under the waterfall Franangerfors.

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  2. Faye

    This is an informative article. I also appreciate comment above. Southern Hemisphere (where I live) Do you have any info or legends etc relating to the Southern Cross which is such a prominent star cluster over our lands here?. Of course Aboriginal stories have such mythological overtones.. anything you ever find or know would be appreciated.

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  3. Pingback: Aldebaran: the Bull’s Eye – WE ARE STAR STUFF

  4. Pingback: Antares: the scorpion’s heart – WE ARE STAR STUFF

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