The Southern Cross (Crux Australis) is the most familiar constellation in the southern hemisphere. There are an unknown number of stars in the constellation but the four brightest form the tips of a cross.
The bottom star Alpha Crucis (Acrux α) is a binary star, with both considerably larger than the sun. To the left is the blue-white star Mimosa or Beta Crucis (Becrux β), the brightest of the group and almost five times the size of our sun. At the top is Gamma Crucis (Gacrux γ) and to the right is Delta Crucis (Decrux δ). Somewhere between Alpha Crucis and Delta Crucis is a smaller star, known as Epsilon Crucis (Ecrux ε)
Top, bottom, left, right, relative size and brightness are only, of course, as we see them from earth. Get a bit closer and you'll see a world of difference. The constellation is a long way away; Acrux, for example, is 1.8 billion billion miles from earth (320 light years). Becrux is even further, at 580 light years. The fact that they are visible to the naked eye shows just how bright these stars are. (Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak. Read what Sherlock Holmes had to say about stars!)
They are visible these days (nights) only in the southern hemisphere at latitudes north of 25 degrees. But 7,000 years ago, they would have been visible in Britain. The Greeks revered them and 2,000 years ago the constellation was just visible at the horizon. In the 17th century, the stars were useful night-time navigation points for mariners and explorers. Following an imaginary line defined by the top and bottom two stars for approximately 4.5 times the distance between them, leads to the South Pole.
Unless it's cloudy.
National and regional flags that incorporate the Southern Cross
The Southern Cross appears on several national and regional flags and church emblems including:
plus Goiás, Paraná, and the logo of the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church (BCAC)
- Magallanes Region (Chile)
- Tierra del Fuego (Antarctica)
plus Australian Capital Territory, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Eureka, Greater Melbourne, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Victoria, and the logo of the Anglican Church of Australia (ACA). Australia has made extensive use of it as a national symbol, from cricket to race horses
. They even have a railway station
with the same name.
- New Zealand:
plus Niue and Tokelau
- Papua New Guinea:
plus East New Britain, New Ireland Province, Simbu Province, Western Province, and West New Britain
As mentioned at the top of this page, the actual number of stars in the constellation is unknown. If a nation, such as Australia, wishes to show it with five stars in its flag, and New Zealand four stars, neither can said to be in error. Similarly, only three stars may be used, as adopted by the Church of the Province of Melanesia.
Church of Melanesia
The significance of three is, of course, a reference to the Holy Trinity.
Just as there are an unknown number of stars in the constellation, there are an unknown number of islands in Melanesia. Therefore it's not surprising that a seagoing vessel has been an essential part of this Anglican mission since its founding in 1849. The first, a 70-ton schooner, was named 'Southern Cross', as have all eight replacement ships since that time.
Most people reading this page will be living in a society where Christians have in the past (and perhaps the present), been marginalised, threatened, and even persecuted. Very few, however, have been subject to the treatment suffered by early missionaries to this remote part of Oceania. Martyrs include Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, killed in 1871, and Charles Godden, killed in 1906.
Where the threat to Christianity today in most parts of the world may be simple indifference, Melanesia is not 'most parts of the world'. Even though 25% of the population are members and the church has been established for several generations, many perceive Christianity as foreign. Seven members of the Anglican Melanesian Anglican brothers were killed as recently as 2003. Let nobody doubt the depth of faith enjoyed by Melanesians.
As the church website says of their sacrifice: "...it was also the seed of a strong and vigorous Church in Melanesia today." Challenged with such a diverse culture, the church recognises that communication and building relationships are the keys to peace. See http://melanesia.anglican.org/ for more about this church.
It would be interesting to see if there was an upside-down version of these stars in the northern hemisphere. And sure enough, there is. The logo of the Carmelite order has three stars, where the central star is lower than the other two. The Carmelites have a different but interesting interpretation of these three stars. See Carmelite Cross
In addition to the national flags mentioned above, one particular old flag carries the name: Southern Cross:
About 150 years ago, the southern states of America attempted to secede from the Union. (The ensuing war was no doubt seen as a good idea by some people, but not by the families and friends of the half a million soldiers who died in battle.) The Confederate's rebel flag had several names, including Rebel Cross, Confederate Cross and Southern Cross.
The design is based on the St. Andrew's Cross, since many residents of the south originated from Scotland where St. Andrew is the Patron Saint. The colours of the red, white and blue were retained from the Stars and Stripes. The stars represented the eleven states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Missouri.
These days the Confederate battle flag is considered a symbol of rebellion. Also, because of the south's history of black slavery, the flag is taken up by white supremacists, even outside the US. The cross on this flag is also called the Starry Cross or Starred Cross. This should not be confused with the Star Cross, which is a cross combined with the Star of David.