Centaurus the Centaur
Centaurus is constellation nearly everyone has heard of.  A large constellation, it contains many famous objects, the most famous being alpha Centauri, the closest star to our own sun.  There is also the largest globular cluster we can see in our galaxy, known as omega Centauri and the enigmatic galaxy designated as NGC 5128, also called Centaurus A as it is a strong emitter of radio energy - a black hole is now thought to reside within it.  The shape of the centaur, a creature half man and half horse, straddles the Southern Cross that hides underneath it.  Centaurus is also connected with several nearby constellations.  On the old pictorial star atlases he is always shown with a spear that he is stabbing into the heart of Lupus the Wolf, who is about to be sacrificed on Ara the Altar. 

The Greeks associated the celestial centaur with Chiron, the noblest of that hedonistic race.  He was the son of Chronos and the ocean nymph Philyrides.  Apollo and Diana taught him botany, music, astronomy, divination and medicine and he was the teacher of some of the more prominent heroes in Greek mythology, most notably Hercules, Jason and Achilles.  He was also thought  to be the inventor of the constellations.  His death was a tragic one, as centaurs were immortal creatures.  While caught in a rage, his pupil Hercules shot Chiron with one of the poisoned arrows that had been dipped in the blood of the Hydra after he had cut its heads off.  As this would have condemned Chiron to writhe in agony for ever as the poison flowed through his veins, he pleaded with Zeus to remove him from the earth.  Zeus took pity upon him and granted his plea, placing the centaur among the stars.

An excerpt from Johan van Keulen's Boeck zee-kaardt, 1709.
Centaurus is depicted as stabbing Lupus the Wolfwith a spear in preparation of sacrificing the beast
on Ara the Altar.  The picture is shown as if the observer was
looking down towards earth, rather than as we view looking up and outwards.

His forefeet, alpha (a) and beta (b)  Centauri are colloquially known as the "the pointers" to the Southern Cross.  Alpha has the proper name of Rigil Kentaurus, which means "the foot of the centaur". Beta Centauri, though not as bright nor as famous, has two names, Hadar and Agena.  Hadar means "ground" and it is thought it may have received this name as in ancient times these stars did not rise far above the southern horizon for observers in the Mediterranean.  Agena may have a connection with the knee.

This article is ©2001 Stargazers Astronomy Shop

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