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This webpage reproduces a section of
Star Names
Their Lore and Meaning

Richard Hinckley Allen

as reprinted
in the Dover edition, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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So when the first bold vessel dar'd the seas,

High on the stern the Thracian rais'd his strain

While Argo saw her kindred trees

Descend from Pelion to the main.

Transported demi-gods stood round.

Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day.

Argo Navis, the Ship Argo,

generally plain Argo, — erroneously Argus, from confusion with its genitive case, — and Navis, is the German Schiff, the French Navire Argo, and the Italian Nave Argo.

It lies entirely in the southern hemisphere, east of Canis Major, south of Monoceros and Hydra, largely in the Milky Way, showing above the horizon of New York city only a few of its unimportant stars; but it covers a great extent of sky, nearly seventy-five degrees in length, — Manilius calling it nobilis Argo, — and contains 829 naked-eye components. The centre culminates on the 1st of March.

La Caille used for it nearly 180 letters, many of them of course duplicated, so that although this notation was adopted in the British Association Catalogue, recent astronomers have subdivided the figure for convenience in reference, and now know its three divisions as Carina, the Keel, with 268 stars, Puppis, the Stern, with 313, and Vela, the Sail, with 248. This last is the German Segel.

La Caille, moreover, 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.

 p65  From other stars Bode formed Lochium Funis, his Logleine, our Log and Line, now entirely fallen into disuse.

The Ship appears to have no bow, thus presenting the same sectional character noticeable in Equuleus, Pegasus, and Taurus, and generally is so shown on the maps. It was in reference to this that Aratos wrote:

"Sternforward Argō by the Great Dog's tail

Is drawn; for hers is not a usual course,

But backward turned she comes, as vessels do

When sailors have transposed the crooked stern

On entering harbour; all the ship reverse,

And gliding backward on the beach it grounds.

Sternforward thus is Jason's Argō drawn.

This loss of its bow is said to have occurred

when Argo pass'd

Through Bosporus betwixt the justling rocks —

the Symplegades, the Cyanean (azure), or the Planctae Rocks at the mouth of the Euxine Sea. Yet Aratos may have thought it complete, for he wrote:

All Argo stands aloft in sky,


Part moves dim and starless from the prow

Up to the mast, but all the rest is bright;

and it has often been so illustrated and described by artists and authors. The Alfonsine Tables show it as a complete double-masted vessel with oars, and Lubienitzki, in the Theatrum Cometicum of 1667, as a three-masted argosy with a tier of ports and all sails set full to the wind.

Mythology insisted that it was built by Glaucus, or by Argos, for Jason, leader of the fifty Argonauts, whose number equaled that of the oars of the ship, aided by Pallas Athene, who herself set in the prow a piece from the speaking oak of Dodona; the Argo being "thus endowed with the power of warning and guiding the chieftains who form its crew." She carried the famous expedition from Iolchis in Thessaly to Aea in Colchis,1 in search of the golden fleece, and when the voyage was over Athene placed the boat in the sky.

Another Greek tradition, according to Eratosthenes, asserted that our constellation represented the first ship to sail the ocean, which long before  p66 Jason's time carried Danaos with his fifty daughters from Egypt to Rhodes and Argos, and, as Dante wrote [Paradiso, XXXIII.96],

Startled Neptune with the aid of Argo.

Egyptian story said that it was the ark that bore Isis and Osiris over the Deluge; while the Hindus thought that it performed the same office for their equivalent Isi and Iswara. And their prehistoric tradition made it the ship Argha for their wandering sun, steered by Agastya, the star Canopus. In this Sanskrit argha we perhaps may see our title; but Lindsay derives Argo from arek, a Semitic word, used by the Phoenicians, signifying "long," this vessel having been the first large one launched.

Sir Isaac Newton devoted much attention to the famous craft, fixing the date of its building about 936 B.C., forty-two years after King Solomon.

With the Romans it always was Argo and Navis, Vitruvius [IX.5.2] writing Navis quae nominatur Argo: but Cicero called it Argolica Navis and Argolica Puppis; Germanicus, Argoa Puppis; Propertius, the elegiac poet of the 1st century before our era, Iasonia Carina [II.24b]; Ovid, Pagasaea Carina [Met. XIII.24] and Pagasaea Puppis [Met. VII.1], from the Thessalian seaport where it was built; Manilius, Ratis Heroum, the Heroes' Raft, Pagasaea

which now midst Stars doth sail;

and others, Navis Jasonis, or Osiridis, Celox Jasonis, Carina Argoa, Argo Ratis, and Navigium Praedatorium, the Pirate Ship. While somewhat similar are Currus Maris, the Sea Chariot, the Currus Volitans of Catullus, who said that in Egypt it had been the Vehiculum Lunae.

It also was Equus Neptunius; indeed Ptolemy asserted that it was known as a Horse by the inhabitants of Azania, the modern Ajan, on the northeastern coast of Africa, south of Cape Gardafui.

The Arabians called it Al Safīnah, a Ship, and Markab, something to ride upon, that two or three centuries ago in Europe were transcribed Alsephina and Merkeb.

Grotius mentioned Cautel as a title for Puppis, "from the Tables," but he added Hoc quid sit nescio.

The biblical school of course called it Noah's Ark, the Arca Noachi, or Archa Noae as Bayer wrote it; Jacob Bryant, the English mythologist of the last century, making its story another form of that of Noah. Indeed in the 17th century the Ark seems to have been its popular title.

In Hewitt's Essays we find a reference to "the four stars which marked the four quarters of the heavens in the Zendavesta, the four Loka-pālas, or "nourishers of the world," of the Hindus; and that author claims these for  p67 Sirius in the east, the seven stars of the Greater Bear in the north, Corvus in the west, and Argo in the south. He gives the latter's title as Sata Vaēsa, the One Hundred Creators; all these imagined as forming a great cross in the sky. The differing Persian conception of this appears in the remarks on Regulus, — α Leonis.

The Chinese asterism Tien Meaou probably was formed from some components of Argo.

The constellation is noticeable in lower latitudes not only from its great extent and the splendor of Canopus, but also from possessing the remarkable variable η and its inclosing nebula.

Near the star z′ Carinae appeared, between March 5 and April 8, 1895, a nova with a spectrum similar to those of the recent novae in Auriga and Norma.

. . . like a meadow which no scythe has shaven,

Which rain could never bend or whirl-blast shake,

With the Antarctic constellations paven,

Canopus and his crew, lay the Austral lake.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Witch of Atlas.

α Carinae, ‑0.4, white.

Κάνωβος in the early orthography of the Greeks, apparently was first given to this star by Eratosthenes, but Κάνωπος later on by Hipparchos. Ptolemy used the former word, among his few star-names, which Halley and Flamsteed transcribed into Canobus; but it now universally is Canopus, Al Sufi's translator having Kanupus as an Arabian adaptation of the Greek.

Aratos, Eudoxos, and Hipparchos also, designated it as Πηδάλιον, the Rudder, Cicero's Gubernaculum, Aratos writing:

The slackened rudder has been placed beneath

The hind-feet of the Dog.

Ancient ships had a rudder on each side of the stern, in one of which our star generally was figured, thus differing from the modern maps that locate it in the bank of oars.

Strabo, the geographer of the century preceding our era, said [I.1.6] that its title was "but of yesterday," which may have been true of the word that we now know it by; but an Egyptian priestly poet of the time of Thothmes III — 1500 years before Strabo — wrote of it as Karbana,

the star

Which pours his light in a glance of fire,

When he disperses the morning dew;

 p68  and this still was seen a millennium later in the Kabarnit of As‑sur-ba-ni‑pal's time.

Our name for it is that of the chief pilot of the fleet of Menelaos, who, on his return from the destruction of Troy, 1183 B.C., touched at Egypt, where, twelve miles to the northeastward from Alexandria, Canopus died and was honored, according to Scylax, by a monument raised by his grateful master, giving his name to the city2 and to this splendid star, which at that time rose about 7½° above that horizon.

The foregoing derivation of the word Canopus is an early and popular one; but another, perhaps as old, and more probable, being on the authority of Aristides, is from the Coptic, or Egyptian, Kahi Nub, Golden Earth. Ideler, coinciding in this, claimed these words as also the source of other titles for Canopus, the Arabic Wazn, Weight, and Ḥaḍar, Ground; and of the occasional later Ponderosus and Terrestris. Although I find no reason assigned for the appropriateness of these names, it is easy to infer that they may come from the magnitude of the star and its nearness to the horizon; this last certainly made it the περίγειος of Eratosthenes.

Similarly the universal Arabic title was Suhail, written by Western nations Suhel, Suhil, Suhilon, Sohayl, Shoel, Sohil, and Soheil, Sahil, Sihel, and Sihil; all taken, according to Buttmann, from Al Sahl, the Plain.

This word also was a personal title in Arabia, and, Delitzsch says, the symbol of what is brilliant, glorious, and beautiful, and even now among the nomads is thus applied to a handsome person. Our word Canopus itself apparently had a somewhat similar use among early writers; for Eden translated from Vespucci's account of his third voyage and Of the Pole Antartike the Starres abowt the Same:

Amonge other, I sawe three starres cauled Canopi, wherof two were exceadynge cleare, and the thyrde sumwhat darke;

and again, after describing the "foure starres abowte the pole":

When these are hydden, there is scene on the lefte syde a bryght Canopus of three starres of notable greatnesse, which beinge in the myddest of heaven representeth this figure 
[image ALT: three stars placed as in the Braille letter H.]

with more to the same effect in connection with the Nubeculae; for it is to  p69 these Clouds that the Canopus of Vespucci would seem to refer in much of his description. But I have never seen any explanation of this title as used by him, and Vespucci's fame certainly does not rest upon his knowledge of the skies. The great New English Dictionary erroneously quotes some of the foregoing as being references to our α Carinae, strangely ignoring this different use of the star's title.

Among the Persians Suhail is a synonym of wisdom, seen in the well-known Al Anwār i Suhaili, the Lights of Canopus.

A note to Humboldt's Cosmos tells us that this name was given to other stars in Argo, and Hyde asserted the same as to its use for stars in neighboring constellations. Thus he found Suhel Alfard, Suhel Aldebaran, and Suhel Sirius; in fact this last star, Karsten Niebuhr3 said, was commonly known thus in Arabia a century and more ago.

The Alfonsine Tables had Suhel ponderosus, that appeared in a contemporary chronicle as Sihil ponderosa, a translation of Al Suhail al Wazn. In the 1515 Almagest it was Subhel; and in the Graeco-Persian Tables of Chrysococca (the 14th-century Greek astronomer, author, and physician resident in Persia), edited by Bullialdus in his Astronomia Philolaica, it was Σοαὶλ Ιαμανῆ. This was from the Arabs' Al Suhail al Yamaniyyah, the Suhail of the South, or perhaps an allusion to the old story, told in connection with our Procyon, that Suhail, formerly located near Orion's stars, the feminine Al Jauzah, had to flee to the south after his marriage to her, where he still remains. Others said that Suhail only went a‑wooing of Al Jauzah, who not only refused him, but very unceremoniously kicked him into the southern heavens.

Another occasional early title was Al Faḥl, the Camel Stallion. Allusions to it in every age indicate that everywhere it was an important star, especially on the Desert. There it was a great favorite, giving rise to many of the proverbs of the Arabs, their stories and superstitions, and supposed to impart the much prized color to their precious stones, and immunity from disease. Its heliacal rising, even now used in computing their year, ripened their fruits, ended the hot term of the summer, and set the time for the weaning of their young camels, thus alluded to by Thomas Moore in his Evenings in Greece:

A camel slept — young as if wean'd

When last the star Canopus rose.

And in a general way it served them as a southern pole-star.

 p70  It was worshiped by the tribe of Tai, as it probably still is by the wilder of the Badāwiyy; and in this connection Carlyle wrote of it in his Heroes and Hero Worship:

Canopus shining-down over the desert, with its blue diamond brightness (that wild, blue, spirit-like brightness far brighter than we ever witness here), would pierce into the heart of the wild Ismaelitish man, whom it was guiding through the solitary waste there. To his wild heart, with all feelings in it, with no speech for any feeling, it might seem a little eye, that Canopus, glancing-out on him from the great, deep Eternity; revealing the inner splendour to him.

Cannot we understand how these men worshipped Canopus; became what we call Sabeans, worshipping the stars? . . .

To us also, through every star, through every blade of grass, is not a God made visible, if we will open our minds and eyes?

We do not worship in that way now: but is it not reckoned still a merit, proof of what we call a "poetic nature," that we recognize how every object has a divine beauty in it; how every object still verily is "a window through which we may look into Infinitude itself"?

Moore wrote of it in Lalla Rookh:

The Star of Egypt, whose proud light,

Never hath beam'd on those who rest

In the White Islands of the West;

again alluding to it, in the same poem, as the cause of the unfailing cheerfulness of the Zingians.4 And, as the constellation was associated on the Nile with the great god Osiris, so its great star became the Star of Osiris; but, later on, Capella and the scholiast on Germanicus called it Ptolemaeon and Ptolemaeus, in honor of Egypt's great king Ptolemy Lagos; and at times it has been Subilon, but the appropriateness of this I have been unable to verify. The Σάμπιλος, cited by Hyde as from Kircher, and so presumably Coptic, is equally unintelligible.

While all this knowledge of Canopus is ancient, it seems "but of yesterday" when we consider the star's history in worship on the Nile. Lockyer tells us of a series of temples at Edfū, Philae, Amada, and Semneh, so oriented at their erection, 6400 B.C., as to show Canopus heralding the sunrise at the autumnal equinox, when it was known as the symbol of Khons, or Khonsu, the first southern star-god; and of other similar temples later. At least two of the great structures at Karnak, of 2100 and 1700 B.C., respectively, pointed to its setting; as did another at Naga, and the temple of Khons at Thebes, built by Rameses III about 1300 B.C., afterwards restored and enlarged  p71 under the Ptolemies. It thus probably was the prominent object in the religion of Southern Egypt, where it represented the god of the waters.

Some of the Rabbis have asserted — and Delitzsch in modern times — that this star, and not Orion, was the Ḣasīl of the Bible, arguing from the similarity in sound of that word to the Suhail of Arabia, and from other reasons fully explained, although not accepted, by Ideler; while, coincidently, there are able commentators who have thought that the Kesīlīm of Isaiah xiii.10, now translated "Constellations," means the brightest stars, which often are those now referred to in the use of the word Suhail. Delitzsch, in his commentary on the Book of Job, quotes much, from Wetstein and others, of this identity of Canopus with Ḣasīl, illustrating it with stellar stories and proverbs of the present-day Arabs of the Haurān, the patriarch's traditional home.

The Hindus called it Agastya, one of their Rishis, or inspired sages, — and helmsman of their Argha, — a son of Varuna, the goddess of the waters; and Sanskrit literature has many allusions to its heliacal rising in connection with certain religious ceremonies. In the Avesta it is mentioned as "pushing the waters forward" — governing the tides (?).

The late George Bertin identified it with Sugi, the Euphratean Chariot Yoke; but others claim that title for some stars in the zodiac as yet perhaps unascertained, but probably the lucidae of Libra.

In China it was Laou Jin, the Old Man, and an object of worship down to at least 100 B.C.

Since the 6th century it has been the Star of Saint Catherine, appearing to the Greek and Russian pilgrim devotees as they approached her convent and shrine at Sinai, on their way from Gaza, their landing-place.

In early German astronomical books it was the Schif-stern, or Ship-star.

With Achernar and Fomalhaut, corresponding stars in Eridanus and Piscis Australis, it made up the Tre Facelle of Dante's Purgatorio, symbolizing Faith, Hope, and Charity, —

those three torches,

With which this hither pole is all on fire.

Hipparchos was wont to observe it from Rhodes in latitude 36°30′; and, even before him, Posidonius5 of Alexandria, about the middle of the 3d century before Christ, utilized it in his attempt to measure a degree on the earth's surface on the line between that city and Rhodes, making his observations  p72 from the old watch-tower of Eudoxos at Cnidos in the Asian Caria, — possibly the earliest attempt at geodetic measurement, as this observatory was the first one mentioned in classical days. Manilius poetically followed in his path by using it, with the Bear, to prove the sphericity of the earth.

The confusion in the titles of Canopus and Coma Berenices is noted under that constellation.

Lying 52°38′ south of the celestial equator, about 35° below Sirius, this star is invisible to observers north of the 37th parallel; but there it is just above the horizon at nine o'clock in the evening of the 6th of February, and conspicuous from Georgia, Florida, and our Gulf States. Sirius follows it in culmination by about twenty minutes.

Canopus is so brilliant that observers in Chile, in 1861, considered it brighter than Sirius;º and Tennyson, in his Dream of Fair Women, made it a simile of intensest light, — in Cleopatra's words, —

lamps which outburn'd Canopus.

Yet Elkin obtained a parallax of only 0ʺ.03, — practically nil, — indicating a distance from our system at least twelve times that of its apparently greater neighbor. Its spectrum is similar to that of the latter.

See discovered, in 1897, a 15th‑magnitude bluish companion 30ʺ away, at a position angle of 160°.

β, 2.

Miaplacidus is thus written in Burritt's Geography of 1856, but is Maiaplacidus in his Atlas of 1835, the meaning and derivation of which I cannot learn, unless it be in part, as Higgins asserts in his brief work on star-names, from Miyah, the plural of the Arabic , Water. The original, however, is better transcribed Mi᾽ah.

β lies in the Carina subdivision and is the α of Halley's Robur Carolinum, 25° east of Canopus, and 61° south of Alphard of the Hydra; but Baily said that he could find no star corresponding to this as Bayer laid it down on his map of Argo.

γ, Triple, 2, 6, and 8, white, greenish white, and purple,

was the Arabs' Al Suhail al Muḥlīf, the Suhail of the Oath, as with ζ and λ it formed one of the several groups Al Muḥlīfaïn, Muḥtalīfaïn, or Muḥnithaïn, by which reference was made to the statement that at their rising some  p73 mistook them for Suhail, and the consequent arguments were the occasion of much profanity among the disputatious Arabs. As, however, it would seem impossible that Canopus could be mistaken for any neighboring star, this derivation is as absurd as the proper location of the Muḥlīfaïn was doubtful, for they have been assigned not only to the foregoing, but also to stars in Canis Major, Centaurus, and Columba.

γ lies in the Vela subdivision, and is visible from all points south of 42° of north latitude. Like β, it seems to have been incorrectly laid down on the Uranometria, for Baily wrote that he could not find Bayer's γ in the sky.

This is the only conspicuous star that shows the Wolf-Rayet type of a continuous spectrum crossed with bright lines; and its superb beauty is the admiration of the spectroscopic observer. Eddie calls it the Spectral Gem of the southern skies.

δ, 2.2, and ω, with stars in Canis Major, were the Chinese Koo She, the Bow and Arrow.

ζ, 2.5, at the southeastern extremity of the Egyptian X, is the Suhail Ḥaḍar of Al Sufi, and the Naos, or Ship, of Burritt's Atlas; while, with γ and λ, it was one of the Muḥlīfaïn.

Its south declination in 1880 was 39°40′, and so it is plainly visible from the latitude of the State of Maine, coming to the meridian on the 3d of March.

η, Irregularly variable, >1 to 7.4, reddish,

lies in the Carina subdivision, but is invisible from north of the 30th parallel.

This is one of the most noted objects in the heavens, perhaps even so in almost prehistoric times, for Babylonian inscriptions seem to refer to a star, noticeable from occasional faintness in its light, that Jensen thinks was η. And he claims it as one of the temple stars associated with Ea, or Ia, of Eridhu,6 the Lord of the waves, otherwise known as Oannes,7 the mysterious human fish and greatest god of the kingdom.

In China η was Tseen She, Heaven's Altars.

 p74  The variations in its light are as remarkable in their irregularity as in their degree. The first recorded observation, said to have been by Halley in 1677, although it is not in his Southern Catalogue, made η a 4th‑magnitude, but since that it has often varied either way, at longer or shorter intervals, from absolute invisibility by the naked eye to a brilliancy almost the equal of Sirius. Sir John Herschel saw it thus in December, 1837, as others did in 1843; but, gradually declining since then, it touched its lowest recorded magnitude of 7.6 in March, 1886. It is now, however, on the increase; for on the 13th of May, 1896, it was 5.1, or about a half‑magnitude higher than its maximum of the preceding year.

The nebula, NGC 3372, surrounding this star has been called the Keyhole from its characteristic features; but the most brilliant portion, as drawn by Sir John Herschel, seems to have disappeared at some time between 1837 and 1871. That great observer saw 1203 stars scattered over its surface.

Near η is a vacant space of irregular shape that Abbott has called the Crooked Billet; and there are two remarkable coarse clusters in its immediate vicinity.

ι, 2.9, pale yellow.

This was the Latins' Scutulum, or Little Shield, the Arabians' Turais, probably referring to the ornamental Aplustre at the stern of the Ship in the subdivision Carina; but Hyde, quoting it as Turyeish from Tizini, said that the original was verbum ignotum, and suggested that some one else should make a guess at it and its meaning. Smyth wrote of it as "corresponding to the Ἀσπιδίσκε of Ptolemy"; but the latter described it as being in the Ἀκροστόλιον, Gunwale, and located κ, ξ, ο, π, ρ, σ, and τ in the Ἀσπιδίσκε, or Aplustre, where they are shown to‑day. The Century Atlas follows Smyth in calling ι Aspidiske. It is visible from the latitude of New York City.

κ, 3.9, is Markab and Markeb, probably from the Alfonsine Tables of 1521, where this last word is found plainly applied to it as a proper name. This also is visible from the latitude of New York, culminating on the 25th of March.

λ, 2.5, in Vela is Al Sufi's Al Suhail al Wazn, Suhail of the Weight; and, with γ and ζ, one of the Muḥlīfaïn.

ξ, 3.4, has been called Asmidiske by an incorrect transliteration of the Ἀσπιδίσκε where it is located with the star ι.

ψ, 3.7, in Vela is given by Reeves as Tseen Ke, Heaven's Record; a star  p75 that he letters A, as Hae Shih, the Sea Stone; and one numbered 1971, as Tseen Kow, the Heavenly Dog.

Grotius mentioned Alphart as the title of some star in Navis, although without locating it, and very correctly added sed hoc ad lucidam Hydrae pertinet; but as the top of the Mast is in some maps very close to this lucida, Alphard, the explanation would seem obvious.

Baily said that Flamsteed's star 13 Argūs, strangely placed 20° from Argo across Monoceros, should be Fl. 15 Canis Minoris.

From stars in Argo, behind the back of the Greater Dog, was formed by Bartsch the small asterism Gallus, the Cock, but it has long since been forgotten.

The Author's Notes:

1 Colchis was the district along the eastern shore of the Euxine Sea, now Mingrelia.

2 Ancient Canopus is now in ruins, but its site is occupied by the village of Al Bekūr, or Aboukir, famous from Lord Nelson's Battle of the Nile, August 1, 1798, and from Napoleon's victory over the Turks a year afterwards; and it is interesting to remember that it was here, from the terraced walls of the Serapeum, the temple of Serapis, that Ptolemy made his observations.

Serapis was the title of the great Osiris of Egypt as god of the lower world; his incarnation as god of the upper world being in the bull Apis.

3 This Niebuhr was the noted Danish traveler in the East between 1761 and 1767, and subsequently the father of the great historian. His discoveries at Persepolis gave the clue to the decipherment of cuneiform inscriptions.

4 The inhabitants of Zinge, a large village forty miles northeast of Mosul, in Kurdistan, and not far from Kazwin.

5 This Posidonius should not be confounded with the Stoic philosopher contemporary with Cicero, although the Stoic himself was somewhat of an astronomer, and, it has been said, the inventor of the planetarium.

6 Eridhu, or Eri-duga, the Holy City, Nunki, or Nunpe, one of the oldest cities in the world, even in ancient Babylonia, was that kingdom's flourishing port on the Persian Gulf, but, by the encroachments of the delta, its site is now one hundred miles inland. In its vicinity the Babylonians located their sacred Tree of Life.

7 Berōssōs described Oannes as the teacher of early man in all knowledge; and in mythology he was even the creator of man and the father of Tammuz and Ishtar, themselves associated with other stars and sky figures. Jensen thinks Oannes connected with the stars of Capricorn; Lockyer finds his counterpart in the god Chnemu of Southern Egypt; and some have regarded him as the prototype of Noah.

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