A constellation formed in the late 16th century by the Dutch cartographer and astronomer Petrus Plancius, who took some stars that Ptolemy in his Almagest had catalogued as lying outside Canis Major. These unformed stars can be seen, for example, on the southern half of Albrecht Dürer’s star chart as two little groups, one to the south of Lepus and the other between the hind legs of Canis Major. Columba was first shown as a separate constellation in 1592 on a celestial hemisphere that Plancius tucked into the corner of his first great terrestrial map. It flies behind Argo Navis, the ship.
Columba is supposed to represent Noah’s dove, sent out from the Ark to find dry land, and which returned with an olive branch in its beak, a sign that the Flood was at last subsiding. To complete this Biblical tableau, Plancius even renamed Argo as Noah’s Ark on a globe of 1613. However, those familiar with the story of Argo might instead think of Columba as the dove sent by the Argonauts between the sliding doors of the Clashing Rocks to ensure their safe passage.
The constellation’s brightest star, third-magnitude Alpha Columbae, is called Phact, from an Arabic name meaning ‘ring dove’.
In Chinese astronomy, three pairs of stars in Columba depicted three generations of a family. Alpha and Epsilon Columbae were Zhangren, an old farmer; Beta and Lambda or Gamma were Zi, his son; while Kappa and Theta or Delta were Sun, his grandson. A star in the north of Columba, possibly Nu-2 or Mu, was Shi, droppings from the celestial toilet Ce in Lepus.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved