Libra, A Zodiacal Constellation Like No Other
by Duane Dunkerson
Libra, a zodiacal constellation, may be hard to find in a dark
sky or a not-so-dark sky. In the dark sky you may be hindered
in your effort to pick out the identifying stars of the constellation.
These defining stars may not stand out from the stellar forest.
In a not-so-dark sky the faint demarcation stars of Libra are
notably faint and the forest of stars is thin in ranks thereabouts.
Once found, between Virgo and Scorpio, Libra, like Virgo and
Scorpio, lies in the zodiac. The zodiac is a band in the sky which
contains the travels of the Sun, most planets, and twelve constellations.
The constellations of the zodiac number twelve to provide one
for each of our twelve calendar months.
Of these twelve zodiacal constellations, Libra is not one of
the animals or persons up there. Libra is an object. It is now
a Balance or Scales. From exposure to basic lab physics or chemistry
of some years ago, one encountered a balance beam. Such a device
"weighed out" whatever quantity of a substance was needed.
A known quantity was in one "pan" and across the beam
in another pan was the unknown amount of X. The beam rested on
a point so that the known equaled X if the beam was level and
Lab coursework was not being depicted in the sky by ancient Greek,
Romans, and others. Some were depicting justice. Matching the
worth of deed, intent, character, and other rather non-scientific
concerns was in the outcome of this balance or scale.
The Greeks, for a time, had Libra as the claws of Scorpio. Later
the Romans made that stellar area into the Balance. Justice was
not always a representation for the Balance. Libra was once the
area of the autumnal equinox when night and day were of equal,
Be it justice or claws, Libra is like other constellations in
having an ancient heritage based on finding patterns of stars
in the night sky. Names for individual stars were made. These
individual stayed put in relation to other stars. In reality,
they only appear together from our vantage point. Ursa Major (the
Big Dipper, the Big Bear) is an exception in that its major stars
do travel as a unit. The stars close by to one another moved as
a whole nightly and seasonally. They stayed grouped from year
to year for lifetime after lifetime. You could group the stars
and name the group. We have always had a propensity for naming
whatever we find about us.
The groupings of these stars, the constellations, are imaginary.
Nothing scientific about the naming of constellations took place.
Down on earth the structure of people and animals lent itself
to structure for star groups, the constellations. Plant life was
not, apparently, rigid enough in structure or far enough up the
Great Chain of Being. Also, apparently, cities and states did
not have a structure that could be foisted on the stars. No Athens,
Perisopolis, Rome, or Syracuse of the sky.
Perhaps a traditional sense of scale and importance prevented
ancient man from getting Tom, Dick, and Harry in the sky. Later,
a lesser more modern age had constellations proposed that had
a rampant egotistical bias. Certain animals and people were of
importance to those who first named the constellations. Others
said okay so a star is a star and if we name a constellations
after our favorite pie or whatever then what is to stop an over
the hill, down in the valley guy placing what he might find amusing
as a template in the sky? Notions of propriety, authority, point
of order, precedence, aptness, and indifference may have also
played roles in naming and maintaining the constellations.
More modern times saw differing names for established constellations
and the boundaries of these constellations ebbed and flowed decade
by decade. For example, The Celestial Atlas of Julius Schiller
in 1627 at Augsburg had pagan constellations replaced with Christian
ones. The zodiac was apostolic. The first star atlas could be
that of Piccolomiu's of 1540 in Venice. It was called De le stelle
fisse (the fixed stars). In 1930 definite name and demarcation
for the constellations was announced by the International Astronomical
Association. A star atlas, Atlas Celeste, was then published in
Cambridge. They were, in part, following Bayer's designations
of 1603. He and Heveleius, followed by Lalande and La Caille,
had gotten the ball rolling for naming the scientific constellations
of the southern hemisphere.
Some maintain that the earlier constellation-naming for the northern
hemisphere was done by Aratos of the court of the Macedonian ruler
Antigonos Gonatas of the third century BC. Most of the northern
hemisphere has constellations from Ptolemy's Algamest of the second
century AD. Stars were then thought to be equidistant from earth
so patterns could be accepted easily enough.
In any event, the Greeks found twelve zodiacal constellations
that we now maintain, except for one, Libra. For their constellations,
they borrowed from the Babylonians and the Egyptians. The term,
"zodiac" is from the Greek "zodiakos kyrklos"
meaning "circle of little animals". If the zodiacal
constellations were all animals, where did the Balance come from?
It came from the Romans. Libra is Latin for balance or scale.
Libra showed up in the Julian calender fo 46 BC.
The Greeks and others had Libra as the claws of Scorpio. The
Romans and others had a Balance, for measuring justice. It is
fitting that a hard to find constellation has as its precept (inspiration?)
what is often hard to find on earth.