The Southern Cross is intrinsic to the Pacific identity, blazoned on the flags of both New Zealand and Australia. The Australians put all the stars in; the New Zealanders the four cardinal stars only: Acrux, Becrux, Gacrux and Decrux. It is small, but easily identifiable as it consists of bright first and second magnitude stars. Early sailors looked on it as a good omen.
The ancient Greeks could not see the whole constellation; Ptolemaeus considered them part of the Centaurâ€™s hind legs. The Cross was not recognised as a distinct constellation until 1592 when English globe-maker Emerie Mollineux drew it. Then Jakob Bartsch drew it separately in 1624. The French astronomer Augustin Royer formally recognised Crux Australis in 1679.
Many cultures have visualised the constellation as different things. Amerigo Vespucci (the map-making monk after whom America is named) called it Mandorla the Almond. In the Solomon Islands it is a knee cap or a net for catching Palolo worms. It is a stingray in the East Indies and Brazil. In Samoa and the Marshall Islands it is a fish. In Torres Strait it is Tagaiâ€™s Fishing Spear, and to the Aranda and Loritja of central Australia it is The Eagleâ€™s Foot.
The Southern Cross was popularised in the Northern Hemisphere through the song Under the Southern Cross (â€œNo other love have Iâ€), but even earlier we find this strange premonition in Danteâ€™s Purgatorio, part of the Divine Comedy, Canto I, ll 22-27 (excuse my translation):
To the right hand I turned, and fixed my mind
Upon the other pole, and saw four stars
Ne’er ken before save by first humankind.
Rejoicing in their flamelets seemed the skies.
Septentrional, widowed hemisphere,
O thou bereft, deprived of seeing these!
Septentrional means â€˜of the Northern Hemisphereâ€™ refers to the Septentrion; the seven stars of the Great Bear Ursa Major. Really, you need to hear it in Danteâ€™s Tuscan as read in the impeccable Siennese accent. But of course, Dante could never have known of the Southern Cross, unless he had access to some now lost report by an Arab navigator exploring southern Africa. Most probably Danteâ€™s stars are an allegory for the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance â€“ which is why I think the constellation is a very sensible thing to have on a national flag.
This brings us to the mystery of why Thomas Bracken wrote â€œtriple starâ€ in â€œGod Defend New Zealand. The old argument that â€œquadruple starâ€ doesnâ€™t scan is a weak one. â€œfour-part starâ€ would work just as well. My Theory is that Bracken was thinking of Dante, but somewhere along the way got confused with a later passage in the Purgatorio, Canto VIII, ll 88-93 (again, my translation).
â€œMy son, what is it you are staring at?â€
Said I: â€œAt those three stars that so suffuse
The southern polar region with their light.â€
Said he to me: â€œBelow the worldâ€™s horizon
Ride now the four stars which you saw this morning
And these three stars, replacing them, have risen.â€
While there is a constellation, Triangulum Australe â€“ the Southern Triangle, between -60 and -70 degrees from the South Celestial Pole, it isnâ€™t that bright and wasnâ€™t recorded until Johann Bauer described it in his Uranometria in 1603. Triangulum Australe was named for the tool used by carpenters and navigators, in acknowledgment of the Northern Hemisphere constellation Triangulum. Most probably the three stars represent the three Theological Virtues: Faith Hope and Charity â€“ though in recent years the happy clappy brigade have, in a fit of political correctness, replaced â€˜Charityâ€™ with â€˜Loveâ€™.