The constellation of the Whale (Cetus-Cet)

The name, the history, the myth


Mythologically, the Whale is not the peaceful and enormous animal we all know but the monster sent by Poseidon to punish the vanity of Queen Cassiopeia, who boasted of having a daughter, Andromeda, more beautiful than any nymph, including Nereids.

The whale was thus sent to devour Andromeda, bound on a rock, but Perseus managed to defeat this monster by showing him the Medusa's head and then petrifying him. Perseus eventually married Andromeda in one of the very few legends that ends in a happy ending.



Ceto has been depicted in many ways: as a fish dragon or as a sea snake, or simply as a great whale. But as in the case of other constellations, the classical interpretation of this one has archaic origins, widespread in the cultures of the ancient Middle and Near East. In the book of Isaiah (51:9) Jehovah tears raab apart, and we know from Job (26:12) that Rahab was the "sea", represented on several occasions as a long sea serpent.

The story returns to the myth of Babylonian creation, whose sky god Marduk flies on a white horse to kill the sea monster Tiamat, who represented primordial chaos.

The theme of Ceto as bearer of misfortune is also present among the indigenous peoples of northern Brazil, who saw in these stars a jaguar, personification of the god of thunder.

As we will discover together, the Whale is almost a constellation of record: it is first of all very large, but not the largest, it has about twenty stars baptized with a name mostly in Arabic, inside it houses several deep sky objects (and I stopped at 5!), it has 8 stars whose distance from the Sun is less than 30 light years and finally it has 7 other stars larger than 50 Suns and half of which is more than 100 Suns! So get ready for a sea of photos and details: you will agree with me that after reading these wonders you will immediately want to observe it in the sky ... But ... where is it? We'll learn that too!


And to think that the constellation of the Whale is famous not for the characteristics just cited, but for the star or Cet (omicron Ceti, called Mira, from the Latin "marvelous") a variable star discovered for a long time just before 1600: it is a red giant star (with a diameter of 3-400 times that of the Sun, think!) whose brightness varies, in about 333 days, from the second third magnitude (well visible therefore to the naked eye) to the tenth (therefore visible only to the telescope). Faced with such a variation in brightness, it immediately received the nickname Mira.

Of this star, which is also multiple, I will add diagrams and photos not very precise and the reason, or rather the fault, is really Celestia! Its very good creators and softwarists have not yet decided to manage the binary stars, neither the variable stars to be able to show them in their window on the cosmos and in fact preventing the undersigned to show you photos or better movies of fantastic celestial objects!

When and if they will decide to implement the management of this type of stars, then an appendix to this and other similar articles will be due: for the record, Celestia provides for Mira a diameter of 280 times that of the Sun and one equal to 6.47, both average values, which obviously do not correspond to reality, absolutely dynamic.

Representations of the Whale

I start from the representation of this animal, the Cetus, which is not really the whale we know, but a bizarre animal, a sea monster, which is represented almost in the same way by Hevelius


the Whale according to Hevelius

by Beyer in his Uranometry


the Whale according to the Uranometry

and modernly from Stellarium.

The Whale according to Stellarium

We will immediately see that the late H.A.Rey had given his personal interpretation of the dots that form the constellation in favour of the cetacean we know well: as we will see together shortly, I think it is the best representation of the constellations created by the narrator, which we have learned to know and appreciate.

Many stars nearby

Eight stars below 30 light years are a beautiful little family and to not occupy so much space, I gathered them in this table where I indicated the distance, the name of the star, the spectral class: the name of the star is also the link to click to open the image showing the Sun seen from the vicinity of the star.

From the first three stars of the list, the Sun can be seen in practically the same position in the sky, near Arthur, while from GJ 1002 and 1005 the Sun is near three stars of our Virgo. Finally, from the last two on the list, the Sun is in an area of the sky where stars from our Libra appear.



Audio Video The constellation of the Whale (Cetus-Cet)
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