Canopus: the brightest star you’ve never heard of

Ever since I wrote a post on Polaris, I have been wondering, is there a south pole? Sadly, there isn’t, not really.

There are two candidates for a south pole star. By 14 000 CE Canopus will, because of the wobble in the earth’s axis, be as close as it will ever get to being the South Pole, about 10° from magnetic south. The other, Sigma Octanis in the Octant, is the closest star at present. The Southern Cross points to where a south pole would be, and like Ursa Minor is a circumpolar constellation, so it’s always above the horizon.

Canopus is more useful, however, because while Sigma Octanis is a very dim star, barely visible at night, Canopus is the second brightest star in the sky. (Sirius is first.) European mythology and star lore tend to ignore it however, perhaps because it is invisible to most of Europe (anyone above 37° N latitude).

For those far enough south, however, it served as the southern pole star in ancient times. Magnetic compasses put an end to this, but the dawn of space travel made it useful. Spaceships use it to help them orient themselves in space. (It’s far enough from the ecliptic or zodiac belt to make it stand out, and of course it’s very bright.)

Menelaus and his Pilot

The Egyptian town of Peguat became known to the Greeks as Canopus, and they invented the myth of Canopus and Menelaus to “explain” the name. The Greek name comes from the Egyptian for Golden Floor or Earth, and Canopus was a major trade centre, as it lay at the mouth of the Nile. (Just outside modern Alexandria, in fact.)

According to the Greeks, it was named after the pilot of Menelaus’ fleet. They were sailing home from the Trojan War, after Helen and Menelaus were reunited, and made land in Egypt. Canopus was bitten by a poisonous snake, and died, so Menelaus named the port after him, as well as the star that rose while he was dedicating it.

The star was the rudder in the ancient constellation Argo Navis, the ship that carried the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. When later astronomers broke up the rather large constellation, Canopus formed part of the keel, Carina.

Khonsu, Osiris and the Ptolemies

The Egyptians had another explanation for the name Canopus. They derived it from the Coptic Kahi Nub, Golden Earth, in this case because the star lay near the horizon, which would make it look reddish.

Early Egyptian temples at Edfu, Philae, Amada, and Semneh, dating from about 64oo BCE, were oriented towards Canopus, which then rose with the autumn equinox.

While the star became identified with Osiris as god of the Nile, the moon-god Khonsu had it as his symbol, and his temple at Thebes pointed to its setting position. But it seems the rising star was the more important. A priestly poem called it Karbana, “the star which pours his light in a glance of fire, When he disperses the morning dew.”

Later, during the time of the Ptolemies it was known as Ptolemaion, and they timed the Ptolemaia festival by its heliacal rising. (This is when the star appears above the horizon just before sunrise.)

To the Sumerians the star represented the city of Eridu, and they called it NUN-ki. Eridu was the earliest Mesopotamian city, meriting a bright star. The Akkadians had a more obscure name for it: BIR, the kidney.

Astrology

According to Ptolemy it is of the nature of Saturn and Jupiter; and, to Alvidas, of the Moon and Mars. It gives piety, conservatism, a wide and comprehensive knowledge, voyages and educational work, and changes evil to good. (from Star Names by Richard Hinkley Allen)

Canopus culminates (reaches its highest point in the sky) on Dec. 27th.

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5 thoughts on “Canopus: the brightest star you’ve never heard of

  1. Faye

    Interesting. Always heard that the Southern Cross was a pointer to the south pole. From our perspective here in OZ……The position of the Sothern cross has always been a comfort as we often appear to have been flung to the very extremities of the planet yet overhead in a sky in the outback there is nothing more wonderful than the view of those stars. Thank you for your blog. There is a lot of scholarship indeed trying to identify the exact whereabouts of the South Pole. Thanks for your contribution ..

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. solsdottir Post author

      Yes, it must have felt strange for the first settlers to look up at the sky and see nothing familiar, not even the North Star.

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      Reply
  2. Pingback: Astraios: Father of the Stars – We Are Star Stuff

  3. Pingback: Polaris: location, location, location – We Are Star Stuff

  4. Prof Suresh Batni

    The time of rising of Agastya-Canopus for
    each country should be determined by calculation
    and announced by an astronomer. Now, for
    Ujjayini, it takes place when the Sun’s true
    position is 7° short of Sign Virgo (Kayā)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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