Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Pyxis Nautica

the Mariner's Compass


Johann Bode's Uranographia, 1801

Pyxis was originally Pyxis Nautica, the Nautical Box, or Mariner's Compass, called la Boussole by the French, Kompass by the Germans. (Not to be confused with the Pair of Compasses of the constellation Circinus).

The ultimate origin is Greek puxos, the box-tree, whence also the word pyx. French boite, box, cognate, and French boussole, mariners' compass, is from the Italian diminutive bossola, "a boxe that mariners keepe their compasse in. Also taken for the compasse". [The romance of words, Ernest Weekley, 1917, p.127]

"It is perhaps supposed to represent the compass of the Ship Argo Navis, though the Argo would not have had a compass, as the ancient Greeks did not use compasses for navigation. Note that Pyxis was not formally a part of Argo Navis; that is, the stars in it have their own independent Bayer designations (unlike Carina, Puppis and Vela which retained and split among themselves the Bayer designations from Argo)." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyxis

Pyxis, a small box, from Latin pyxis, Greek puxis, Vulgar Latin buxem, a pyx was receptacle for coins, and pyxidium is a capsule; these words are related to the English word box, and box tree. The word boisterous comes via Old French boistos ‘clumsy, rough’ from Latin buxus ‘made from box-tree wood’. Latin buxeus, a pale yellow color like that of the buxus.

According to Ovid the place, Cytorus, was famous in mythology as a source of boxwood [1]. Buxine is a steroid alkaloid obtained from the Buxus sempervirens, or common box tree. Buxine is identical to the much more well known 'berberine', present in Berberis vulgaris (common Barberry), also identical with bebeerine. Buxine is renown for its efficiency in easing illnesses with prominent fevers, and recommended as a substitute for quinine for treating malaria. [2]

The word pyx also pix is used to denote the box in which the Sacred Host, the consecrated bread or wafer of the Eucharist, is commonly kept in the Tabernacle [3]. A box office is a place where tickets are sold to the public for admission to a venue.

[4] Western Sailing ships started using the marine compass in the Mediterranean Sea around the thirteenth or fourteenth century. To box the compass was to be able to name all 32 points of the compass in clockwise order, a drill for apprentice seamen. The 32 points are simple bisections of the directions of the four winds. The 32 points rose come from the directions of the eight major winds, the eight half-winds and the sixteen quarter-winds [5].

Pyxis is composed of stars that formed the constellation of Malus, the ship's mast. The constellation, Pyxis, is in the position where the mast of the Ship, Argo Navis, should be. The mast of a sailing ship is a tall vertical pole which supports the sails (Vela).

It was thought that Malus, the mast of a ship, derived from Latin malus, apple or apple tree "This tree might have been sufficiently strong to answer the purpose of a mast in the ancient ships" [Valpy, p.247].

Isidore says “The mast is the pole on a ship that holds up the sail. It is called a mast (malus) because it has the shape of an apple (malum) at the top ...” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, 374.]

Note the similarity between the word 'able' and the Indo-European root *ab(e)l- Apple, Old Irish aball, 'apple', Danish aeble, Latin Abella (now Avella), is name of a town in Campania, literally 'Apple town'.

Latin malum, means apple. 'Adam's Apple' is the 'voice box' or larynx from Greek larunx, the box containing the vocal cords. The larnax (plural larnakes) may be a related word, it is a type of closed box or coffin often used as a container for human remains in ancient Greece, or ashes of the cremated [6]. Folklore has it that the 'forbidden fruit' offered by Eve got stuck in Adam's throat, hence the prominent voice box in men.

The forbidden fruit was of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Pyxis is a compass. The expression 'moral compass' is the notion that prompts people to choose and behave in certain ways. The mariner's compass consists of a magnetic needle freely suspended so that in the earth's magnetic field it turns until aligned with the magnetic north and south poles. The terms positive and negative are sometimes used for the poles of a magnet. The positive pole is that which seeks geographical north. The north had positive or good connotations, and the south had negative or bad connotations. Dhruva, in Hindu mythology, was the north Pole Star (in Ursa Minor), his name is related to the words 'true' and 'truth' (from I.E. deru-). The south pole is in the constellation Octans.

St. Elmo is the patron saint of sailors. The meteorological phenomena, St. Elmo's fire, occurs during thunderstorms at sea. It is actually the brush-discharge of electricity seen mostly around mastheads and described as ghostly blue flames that light up the masts like candles [6]. In ancient Greece, the appearance of a single ball of fire was called Helena and two were called Castor and Pollux (the Twins, Gemini). It was a good omen because it was a sign that the storm was starting to abate. There is speculation on the net that what Moses observed in the burning bush on Mount Sinai was actually St Elmo's fire [7]. [The word box is related to bush2, 'to furnish or line with a bushing' (see above); bush1, 'a shrub' is not a recognized cognate of bush2.] As masts on ships are not consumed by St Elmo's fire; the biblical burning bush was not consumed by the 'fire'. The voice from the burning bush said "I am the Elohim". To me the word Elohim resembles Elmo...

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Pyxis
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
gamma 24LEO06 25LEO29 132 06 09 -27 31 25 -43 17 42 4.19 K4
alpha 25LEO08 26LEO31 130 23 44 -33 00 19 -48 55 34 3.70 B1
beta 25LEO26 26LEO49 129 32 11 -35 07 47 -51 09 30 4.04 G5

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Pyxis used to be called Malus, the Mast. Allen in Star Names says:

"La Caille formed from stars in the early subordinate division Malus, the Mast, Pyxis Nautica, the Nautical Box or Mariner's Compass, the German See Compass, the French Boussole or Compas de Mer, and the Italian Bussola; and this is still recognized by some good astronomers as Pyxis".

Pyxis (Latin for box) is a minor southern constellation, located partly in the Milky Way, and formed by La caille under the name Pyxis Nautica in 1752 from stars in the mast of Argo Navis, the Ship, to honor the invention of the magnetic compass used on ships.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]