Sirius

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Sirius was personified as the goddess Sopdet by the ancient Egyptians

Sirius (/ˈsɪriəs/) is the brightest star in the night sky. Its name is derived from the Greek word Σείριος (Seirios, lit. 'glowing' or 'scorching'). The star is designated α Canis Majoris, Latinized to Alpha Canis Majoris, and abbreviated Alpha CMa or α CMa. With a visual apparent magnitude of −1.46, Sirius is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star. Sirius is a binary star consisting of a main-sequence star of spectral type A0 or A1, termed Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of spectral type DA2, termed Sirius B. The distance between the two varies between 8.2 and 31.5 astronomical units as they orbit every 50 years.

Sirius appears bright because of its intrinsic luminosity and its proximity to the Solar System. At a distance of 2.64 parsecs (8.6 ly), the Sirius system is one of Earth's nearest neighbours. Sirius is gradually moving closer to the Solar System, so it is expected to increase in brightness slightly over the next 60,000 years. After that time, its distance will begin to increase, and it will become fainter, but it will continue to be the brightest star in the Earth's night sky for approximately the next 210,000 years.

Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun (M☉) and has an absolute visual magnitude of +1.42. It is 25 times as luminous as the Sun, but has a significantly lower luminosity than other bright stars such as Canopus or Rigel. The system is between 200 and 300 million years old. It was originally composed of two bright bluish stars. The more massive of these, Sirius B, consumed its resources and became a red giant before shedding its outer layers and collapsing into its current state as a white dwarf around 120 million years ago.

Ancient Egyptians

The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius is recorded in some of the earliest astronomical records. Its displacement from the ecliptic causes its heliacal rising to be remarkably regular compared to other stars, with a period of almost exactly 365.25 days holding it constant relative to the solar year.

This rising occured at Cairo on 19 July (Julian), placing it just before the onset of the annual flooding of the Nile during antiquity. Owing to the flood's own irregularity, the extreme precision of the star's return made it important to the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped it as the goddess Sopdet (Ancient Egyptian: Spdt, "Triangle"; Greek: Σῶθις, Sō̂this), guarantor of the fertility of their land, and leader of the Egyptian decans.

The Egyptian calendar was based around the rising of Sirius, making its movements important to both Egyptian religion and the administration of the Egyptian government.

Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks observed that the appearance of Sirius as the morning star heralded the hot and dry summer and feared that the star caused plants to wilt, men to weaken, and women to become aroused. Owing to its brightness, Sirius would have been seen to twinkle more in the unsettled weather conditions of early summer. To Greek observers, this signified emanations that caused its malignant influence. Anyone suffering its effects was said to be "star-struck" (ἀστροβόλητος, astrobólētos). It was described as "burning" or "flaming" in literature. The season following the star's reappearance came to be known as the "dog days." The inhabitants of the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea would offer sacrifices to Sirius and Zeus to bring cooling breezes and would await the reappearance of the star in summer. If it rose clear, it would portend good fortune; if it was misty or faint then it foretold (or emanated) pestilence. Coins retrieved from the island from the 3rd century BC feature dogs or stars with emanating rays, highlighting Sirius's importance. The Romans celebrated the heliacal setting of Sirius around 25 April, sacrificing a dog, along with incense, wine, and a sheep, to the goddess Robigo so that the star's emanations would not cause wheat rust on wheat crops that year.

Polynesian cultures

Bright stars were important to the ancient Polynesians for navigation of the Pacific Ocean. They also served as latitude markers; the declination of Sirius matches the latitude of the archipelago of Fiji at 17°S and thus passes directly over the islands each sidereal day. Sirius served as the body of a "Great Bird" constellation called Manu, with Canopus as the southern wingtip and Procyon the northern wingtip, which divided the Polynesian night sky into two hemispheres. Just as the appearance of Sirius in the morning sky marked summer in Greece, it marked the onset of winter for the Māori, whose name Takurua described both the star and the season. Its culmination at the winter solstice was marked by celebration in Hawaii, where it was known as Ka'ulua, "Queen of Heaven". Many other Polynesian names have been recorded, including Tau-ua in the Marquesas Islands, Rehua in New Zealand, and Ta'urua-fau-papa "Festivity of original high chiefs" and Ta'urua-e-hiti-i-te-tara-te-feiai "Festivity who rises with prayers and religious ceremonies" in Tahiti.

Modern observation

With an apparent magnitude of −1.46, Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, almost twice as bright as the second-brightest star, Canopus. From Earth, Sirius always appears dimmer than Jupiter and Venus, as well as Mercury and Mars at certain times.

Sirius is visible from almost everywhere on Earth, except latitudes north of 73° N, and it does not rise very high when viewed from some northern cities (reaching only 13° above the horizon from Saint Petersburg). Because of its declination of roughly −17°, Sirius is a circumpolar star from latitudes south of 73° S. From the Southern Hemisphere in early July, Sirius can be seen in both the evening where it sets after the Sun and in the morning where it rises before the Sun. Along with Procyon and Betelgeuse, Sirius forms one of the three vertices of the Winter Triangle to observers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sirius can be observed in daylight with the naked eye under the right conditions. Ideally, the sky should be very clear, with the observer at a high altitude, the star passing overhead, and the Sun low on the horizon. These observing conditions are more easily met in the Southern Hemisphere, owing to the southerly declination of Sirius.