Sagittarius in the Night Sky
Under a dark moonless sky the region of Sagittarius offers the richest assortment of milky star clouds of all the zodiac constellations. There is a wealth of nebulae and star clusters. In fact the center of our galaxy is located in this direction, hidden by all of these riches. Sagittarius the archer points his bow and arrow at the heart of the scorpion low in the south during late summer nights.
Sagittarius from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Greeks
Over the millennia, Sagittarius has been transformed. In ancient Mesopotamia he was first a satyr, half-man, half-goat named Enkidu. Later, he acquired a bow and arrow and became Nergal, the archer god of war. At the dawn of Greek civilization, he was still a satyr, but with the arrival of the horse from Asia later Greeks saw him as a centaur, half-man, half-horse. The wisest and most peaceful of the centaurs was Chiron, who taught horsemanship to the Greeks. He was also a fine archer, physician, teacher, and composer. He mapped out the stars, setting aside the stars of Sagittarius for his own figure. However, these were usurped by another centaur, Crotus. Crotus was a hunter, but also versatile in all the arts, and invented applause for his friends, the Muses. When Crotus died, the Muses interceded with their father Zeus on his behalf and Zeus granted the stars of Sagittarius to Crotus. Later, when Chiron died, he was given Centaurus, a much more southerly constellation. The word centaur means “bull killer”, and as Sagittarius rises in the east, Taurus sets in the west.
Sagittarius Around the World
Other cultures had their own interpretations of this star group. In India it was only a bow and arrow. The Chinese saw it as a tiger or a temple in the path of the sun, but in their lunar zodiac they saw Sagittarius as a ladle. Interestingly, in the west in the 19 century it was called the milk dipper, ladling out the milky way perhaps inspired by the Chinese. To Christian scholars this was Joash, King of Israel, a great archer and commander. The Jews associated Sagittarius with the tribe of Benjamin. The Zuni of New Mexico called it the “8 ones” that make up the Chief’s hand. Its most common modern nickname is the teapot. The brightest stars form a convincing connect the dots picture of a teapot, with the milky way forming steam. Nearby some dimmer stars can be seen as a spoon of sugar and a wedge of lemon.
Sagittarius is best seen from July to September, highest in mid August, in the south at 10 pm. Its Astrological dates are November 22 to December 21. Astronomically, the sun appears in this constellation for 33 days from December 18 to January 19. Sagittarius is the 15th largest constellation, covering 867 square degrees in the sky. It can be found using Deneb and Altair, 2 bright stars of the Summer triangle. Trace a line from Deneb in the north southward to Altair, and then continue about the same distance to the teapot. This path essentially follows the Milky Way.
Star Names in Sagittarius
Sagittarius is a constellation where Bayer deviated from the convention of naming the brightest star alpha. Alpha and beta are dim stars well to the south, and the brightest stars are epsilon and sigma. There is no apparent explanation for this.