The Firebird

In 1603 the German astronomer, Johann Bayer of Augsburg, developed twelve new constellations in the southern celestial hemisphere, delineating them from observations and sketches made by the Dutch navigator Petrus Theodori. These twelve were added to the 48 ancient classical constellations and published in Uranometria, which in all listed 1709 stars. This landmark book also was the origin for the star-naming system we use today, using Greek letters together with the Latin genitive-case constellation name, e.g., Alpha Aquilae (Altair).

Among the twelve Bayer constellations is Phoenix, which he named for the mythical Firebird. The others were Apus, the bird of paradise; Grus, the crane; Pavo, the peacock; Tucana, the toucan; Columba, the dove; Dorado, the swordfish; Volans, the flying fish; Chameleon, the chameleon; Hydrus, the water snake; Indus, the Indian; and Triangulum Australe, the southern triangle. The most prominent southern constellation, Crux, although known to Bayer, was not recognized until the year 1679.

The mythical phoenix lives on aromatic herbs such as cinnamon, frankincense and myrrh. When it has lived for 500 years, it builds a nest of these materials on top of a palm tree. The bird then sets his own nest afire and dies among the vapors, but from its ashes a young Phoenix comes forth to live another 500 years. The Greek historian Herodotus, in the fifth century bc, described the bird: “I have not seen it myself, except in a picture. Part of his plumage is gold-colored, and part crimson; and he is for the most part very much like an eagle in outline and bulk.” In Egyptian myth, the phoenix is revered as an embodiment of Ra, the Sun god. The phoenix is often a symbol of resurrection.

From the latitude of Oakland (38°) only a few of the stars of Phoenix will rise above the southern horizon during November and December evenings. The brightest star, Ankaa or Na’ir al Zaurak, is at declination –42°. It is a spectroscopic binary star with an 11-year period. West of this star by 6½ degrees is an unusual star SX Phoenicis. This is a pulsating subdwarf with just a quarter of the mass of the Sun, although it is two or three times as luminous. The star also has a large proper motion of 0.9 second per year, while it is at least 140 light years distant.

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