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Aratus applied the mythical name Eridanus to this constellation although many other authorities, including Ptolemy in the Almagest, simply called it Potamos, meaning river. Eratosthenes said that the constellation represented the Nile, ‘the only river which runs from south to north’. Hyginus agreed with this identification, pointing out that the star Canopus (which marks a steering oar of the ship Argo) lay at the end of the celestial river, in the same way that the island Canopus lies at the mouth of the Nile. However, these identifications overlooked the fact that the celestial river is visualized as flowing from north to south, opposite to the direction of the real Nile. Adding to the confusion, later Greek and Latin writers identified the Eridanus with the river Po which flows from west to east across northern Italy.

In mythology, the Eridanus features in the story of Phaethon, son of the Sun-god Helios, who begged to be allowed to drive his father’s chariot across the sky. Reluctantly Helios agreed to the request, but warned Phaethon of the dangers he was facing. ‘Follow the track across the heavens where you will see my wheel marks’, Helios advised.

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Eridanus meanders across this chart from Johann Bode’s Uranographia (1801). At upper right are the flippers of Cetus, and below them lies Apparatus Chemicus, the name given by Bode to the constellation we now know as Fornax.


As Dawn threw open her doors in the east, Phaethon enthusiastically mounted the Sun-god’s golden chariot studded with glittering jewels, little knowing what he was letting himself in for. The four horses immediately sensed the lightness of the chariot with its different driver and they bolted upwards into the sky, off the beaten track, with the chariot bobbing around like a poorly ballasted ship behind them. Even had Phaethon known where the true path lay, he lacked the skill and the strength to control the reins.

The team galloped northwards, so that for the first time the stars of the Plough grew hot and Draco, the dragon, which until then had been sluggish with the cold, sweltered in the heat and snarled furiously. Looking down on Earth from the dizzying heights, the panic-stricken Phaethon grew pale and his knees trembled in fear. Finally, he saw the constellation of the Scorpion with its huge claws outstretched and its poisonous tail raised to strike. Young Phaethon let the reins slip from his grasp and the horses galloped out of control.

Ovid graphically describes Phaethon’s crazy ride in Book II of his Metamorphoses. The chariot plunged so low that the Earth caught fire. Enveloped in hot smoke, Phaethon was swept along by the horses, not knowing where he was. It was then, the mythologists say, that Libya became a desert, the Ethiopians acquired their dark skins and the seas dried up. To bring the catastrophic events to an end, Zeus struck Phaethon down with a thunderbolt. With his hair streaming fire, the youth plunged like a shooting star into the Eridanus. Some time later, when the Argonauts sailed up the river, they found his body still smouldering, sending up clouds of foul-smelling steam in which birds choked and died. Aratus referred to the ‘poor remains’ of Eridanus, implying that much of the river’s flow was evaporated by the heat of Phaethon’s fall.

Eridanus in the sky
Eridanus is a long constellation, the sixth-largest in the sky, meandering from the foot of Orion far into the southern hemisphere, ending near Tucana, the Toucan. Its brightest star, first-magnitude Alpha Eridani, is called Achernar, from the Arabic akhir al-nahr meaning ‘the river’s end’; at declination –57.2 degrees, it does indeed mark the southern end of Eridanus.

In Ptolemy’s day, though, the river dried up 17 degrees farther north, at the star now assigned the Greek letter Theta. The name Achernar was transferred from this star to its present position when Eridanus was extended south in the late 16th century. We now know Theta Eridani as Acamar, a name that comes from the same Arabic original as Achernar.

Eridanus was first shown flowing onwards to the present-day Alpha Eridani on a globe of 1598 compiled by Petrus Plancius. Plancius got his information on the southern stars from observations made by the navigator Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser during the first Dutch voyage to the East Indies (the ‘Eerste Schipvaart’) in 1595–97. However, it is not clear whether the idea of extending Eridanus was due to Plancius, Keyser, or even some earlier navigators who had previously seen this star. The southern extension to Achernar is clearly seen on the chart of Eridanus in Johann Bayer’s Uranometria published in 1603.

According to the Arab star name expert Paul Kunitzsch, Bedouin Arabs visualized present-day Achernar and Fomalhaut (in Piscis Austrinus) as a pair of ostriches.
Chinese associations
In the Chinese sky, much of modern Eridanus was taken up by two constellations whose names both transliterate as Tianyuan. The more northerly of the two  consisted of a large arc of 16 stars from Gamma Eridani via Delta and Eta to Tau-9, the same as the large meander in northern Eridanus that we visualize today; in China, this group was the celestial fields where animals were sacrificed to the gods, or alternatively where animals were reared for hunting. The second Tianyuan consisted of a chain of 13 stars starting at Upsilon-1 Eridani and heading south via Theta towards Kappa and possibly beyond, much as southern Eridanus is visualized today; this stretch represented the celestial orchard full of fruit trees, possibly the orchard of Xi Wang Mu, the Chinese goddess of immortality (although the Dunhuang manuscript described it as Tianpu, a vegetable garden).

Running from north to south along the present-day borders with Orion and Lepus was a chain of nine stars called Jiuliu or Jiuyou, nine flags or banners of the Emperor that formed part of the hunting scene visualized in this area (for more, see under Orion). Next to Jiuliu in northern Eridanus was a loop of nine stars forming Jiuzhou shukou, representing interpreters for visitors to the hunt from far-off regions.

Beta, Psi and Lambda Eridani were joined with Tau Orionis to make a square next to Rigel called Yujing, the jade well for exclusive use by the nobility; the well for ordinary soldiers, Junjing, was to the south in Lepus.


© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved


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