The heavenly dolphin

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending June 8, 2013

Dolphins have been long thought of as seafaring friends of human beings. There’s a dolphin in our sky to honor them.

One story says the dolphin is there because it helped Poseidon marry a mermaid. Poseidon had been courting

Relief sculpture of the marriage of Poseidon and Amphitrite. They are in the chariot.

one such creature named Amphitrite. One day he proposed to marry her and she accepted. If not for the dolphin who’d been giving Poseidon rides out to see her, the romance wouldn’t have happened. To show his gratitude, Poseidon gave the dolphin a place among the stars.

A different version of the same story says Poseidon had been courting Amphitrite without the dolphin’s help. When he asked her to marry him, she fled, preferring to remain unmarried and virginal. Poseidon sent several creatures out to look for Amphritite. The dolphin was the one who found her. He persuaded the mermaid to return with him and marry Poseidon. And Poseidon thanked the dolphin by putting an image of him among the stars.

Another story, told by Herodotus, is one of a poet who could play a harp-like instrument called the kithara. Periander, the king of Corinth, sent Arion to play the instrument in a contest in Italy. Arion won a handsome prize for his performance. He chartered a ship to return home and had a lot of money left over.

The crew plotted to throw Arion overboard and take his new fortune. Showing some mercy, these evildoers granted him a final wish to play a final tune. This would-be last performance enchanted several dolphins. When Arion saw them, he jumped overboard and landed on one’s back. That dolphin took him home where he reported the crime.

The ship’s crew, thinking Arion dead, proceeded to Corinth. They quickly met Periander’s police. The king had them executed and returned the fortune to Arion. And the gods honored the dolphin who aided him by placing a figure of a dolphin in the sky.

It’s not hard to imagine a dolphin drawn out by the stars of Delphinus. It’s also fairly easy to see a kite. In some stories, the four stars making the diamond are called Job’s Coffin.

Delphinus’s two brightest stars are named Sualocin and Rotanev. There are no such words in ancient Greek, Latin, or Arabic as you might expect for star names. But write the names backward and you’ll see Nicolaus Venator. He was the assistant to the director of the Palermo Observatory which named the stars in 1814.

Venator is the last person to be honored by having stars named after him. I’m talking about having the star names accepted by astronomers and diligent astronomy organizations all over the world. There are businesses that claim to name stars after people in exchange for money, but astronomers disregard such names.

If you have a telescope, point it at Sualocin and Rotanev. They are both multiple stars. You’ll find the constellation Delphinus up all night in June. It will rise in the east after the sun sets, be on the meridian around midnight, and set as dawn breaks.

You can read more about Delphinus, including more legends about the dolphin, at the links below.