Look up in the sky at night, and you may just see a raven. Not a real raven, mind you, but the constellation Corvus, a mythic raven immortalized in the heavens. Corvus is one of the original 48 constellations cataloged by the Second Century Greek astronomer Ptolemy, as well as one of 88 officially recognized modern constellations.
Corvus sits in the southern sky, surrounded by Virgo, Crater, and Hydra. There are only 11 visible stars in Corvus, four of which form its diamond shape, said to represent a raven in flight. Its name is Latin for raven or crow. Corvus is also popularly known as “the Sail,” because it resembles a sail from a ship.
Its four principal stars are Delta Corvi, or Algorab, Gamma Corvi, or Gienah Ghurab, Epsilon Corvi, or Minkar, and Beta Corvi, or Kraz. Delta and Gamma Corvi have long been used as pointers to find Spica.
Another noteworthy star in Corvus is 31 Crateris, so named because was originally considered part of neighboring Crater. This dim star was once mistaken for a moon of Mercury.
Corvus contains no Messier objects, but is home to three objects from the New General Catalogue: the galaxies NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 and the planetary nebula NGC 4361. The two galaxies are actually colliding, which gives them a unique heart shape, as viewed from Earth.
The raven has long been an animal steeped in myth. To the ancient Greeks, the bird was a sacred emblem of the god Apollo. According to legend, the raven was once a radiant white and could speak. That all changed when the god tasked the bird with fetching him some water. When the bird got distracted from his task and offered up a lame excuse for his failure, Apollo scorching his feathers black and reduced his once beautiful voice to a raspy croak.
Northwestern Native American tribes have a similar myth about the raven, who is a trickster hero. They say the bird, who once had bright feathers of many colors, stole the sun from the sky god to share with all of the Earth. In the process, they say, the sun charred the raven’s feathers and ruined its voice.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.