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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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. . . and there a crab

Puts coldly out its gradual shadow-claws,

Like a slow blot that spreads, — till all the ground,

Crawled over by it, seems to crawl itself.

Mrs. Browning's Drama of Exile.

Cancer, the Crab,

der Krebs of the Germans, — die Krippe of Bayer; le Cancre, or l'Écrevisse, of the French; and il Cancro or Granchio of the Italians, lies next to Gemini on the east, and is popularly recognized by its distinguishing feature, the beehive, ancient Praesepe.º Aratos called it Καρκίνος, which Hipparchos and Ptolemy followed; the Carcinus of the Alfonsine Tables being the Latinized form of the Greek word. Eratosthenes extended this as Καρκίνος, Ὄνοι, καί Φάτνη, the Crab, Asses, and Crib; and other Greeks have said Ὀπισθοβάμων and Ὀκτάπους, the Octipes of Ovid and Propertius. Litoreus, Shore-inhabiting, is from Manilius and Ovid; Astacus and Cammarus appear with various classic writers; and Nepa is from Cicero's De Finibus and the works of Columella, Manilius, Plautus, and Varro, all signifying Crab, or Lobster, although more usual, and perhaps more correct, for Scorpio. Festus, the grammarian of the 3d century, said that this was an African word equivalent to Sidus, a Constellation or Star.

It is the most inconspicuous figure in the zodiac, and mythology apologizes for its being there by the story that when the Crab was crushed by Hercules, for pinching his toes during his contest with the Hydra in the marsh of Lerna, Juno exalted it to the sky; whence Columella called it Lernaeus. Yet few heavenly signs have been subjects of more attention in early days, and few better determined; for, according to Chaldaean and Platonist philosophy, it was the supposed Gate of Men through which souls descended from heaven into human bodies.

In astrology, with Scorpio and Pisces, it was the Watery Trigon; and has  p108 been the House of the Moon, from the early belief that this luminary was located here at the creation; and the Horoscope of the World, as being, of all the signs, nearest to the zenith. It was one of the unfortunate signs, governing the human breast and stomach; and reigned over Scotland, Holland, Zealand, Burgundy, Africa (especially over Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis), and the cities of Constantinople and New York. In the times of Manilius it ruled India and Aethiopia, but he termed it a fruitful sign. Its colors were green and russet; and early fable attributed its guardianship to the god Mercury, whence its title Mercurii Sidus. When the sun was within its boundaries every thunder-storm would cause commotions, famine, and locusts; and Berōsōs asserted that the earth was to be submerged when all the planets met in Cancer, and consumed by fire when they met in Capricorn. But this was a reversal of the astrologers' rule; for, as Pascal wrote:

They only assign good fortune with rare conjunctions of the stars, and this is how their predictions rarely fail.a

It is said to have been the Akkadian Sun of the South, perhaps from its position at the winter solstice in very remote antiquity; but afterwards it was associated with the fourth month Duzu, our June-July, and was known as the Northern Gate of the Sun, whence that luminary commences its retrograde movement. Nan-garu is Strassmaier's transliteration of the cuneiform title; others being Puluk‑ku and χas, Division, possibly referring to the solstitial colure as a dividing line. Brown has recently claimed for it the title Nagar-asagga, the Workman of the Waterway.

The early Sanskrit name was Karka and Karkata, the Tamil Karkatan, and the Cingalese Kathaca; but the later Hindus knew it as Kulira, from Κόλουρος, the term originated by Proclus for our colure.

The Persians had it Cherjengh and Kalakang; the Turks, Lenkutch; the Syrians, and perhaps the later Chaldaeans, Sartono; the Hebrews, Sarṭān; and the Arabians, Al Saraṭān, all words equivalent to Cancer. Al Bīrūni added Al Lihāʽ, the Soft Palate, but this was an early title of the Arabs in connection with their manzil Al Nathrah.

Kircher said that in Coptic Egypt it was Κλαρία, the Bestia seu Statio Typhonis, the Power of Darkness; La Lande identifying this with Anubis, one of the divinities of the Nile country commonly associated with Sirius. But the Jews assigned it to the tribe of Issachar, whom Jacob likened to the "strong ass" that each of the Aselli represents; Dupuis asserting that these last titles were derived from this Jewish association.

A Saxon chronicle of about the year 1000 had "Cancer that is Crabba";  p109 Chaucer had Cancre, probably a relic of Anglo-Norman days, for in his time it generally was Canser; and Milton called it the Tropic Crab from its having marked one of these great circles.

Showing but few stars, and its lucida being less than a 4th‑magnitude, it was the Dark Sign, quaintly described as black and without eyes. Dante, alluding to this faintness and high position in the heavens, wrote in the Paradiso:

Thereafterward a light among them brightened,

So that, if Cancer one such crystal had,

Winter would have a month of one sole day.

Jensen makes it the Tortoise of Babylonia, and it was so figured there and in Egypt 4000 B.C.; although in the Egyptian records of about 2000 B.C., it was described as a Scarabaeus, sacred, as its specific name sacer signifies, and an emblem of immortality. This was the Greek κάραβος, with its nest-ball of earth in its claws, an idea which occurs again even as late as the 12th century, when an illustrated astronomical manuscript shows a Water-beetle. In the Albumasar of 1489 it is a large Crayfish; Bartschius and Lubienitzki, in the 17th century, made it into a Lobster, and the latter added toward Gemini a small shrimp-like object which he called Cancer minor.

Caesius likened it to the Breastplate of Righteousness in Ephesians vi.14; while Praesepe and the Aselli were the Manger of the infant Jesus, with the Ass and Ox presumed to be standing by. Julius Schiller said that the whole represented Saint John the Evangelist.

Our figure appears on the round zodiac of Denderah, but in the location of Leo Minor.

This planisphere1 is a comparatively late sculpturing, supposed to be about 34 B.C., in the time of Tiberius and Cleopatra,º possibly later; but it shows, at least in part, the heavens of many centuries previous, the exact date fixed by Biot being 700 B.C., although some scholars, notably Brugsch, carry it back a thousand years earlier and assert that it was largely copied from similar works of Sargon's time. It was discovered by the French general Desaix de Voygoux in 1799, and removed in 1820 to the Bibliothèque Impérialeº in Paris, where it has since remained. Its appearance is that of a very large antique sandstone medallion, 4 feet 9 inches in diameter, contained in a square of 7 feet 9 inches. With some manifest errors, it is, nevertheless, a most interesting and much-quoted object, although not of the importance once attributed to it. Of the many engravings  p110 of this, the best is found in Flammarion's journal L'Astronomie for September, 1888.b

Cancer appears on the Farnese globe underneath a quadrangular figure, in the location of our Lynx, of which I can find no explanation.

In this constellation, with some slight variations as to boundaries at different times in Hindu astronomy, — γ and δ always being included and occasionally η, θ, and Praesepe, — was located the 6th nakshatra Pushya, Flower, or Tishiya, Auspicious, with Brihaspati, the priest and teacher of the gods, as presiding divinity. It was sometimes figured as a Crescent, and again at the head of an Arrow; but Amara Sinha, the Sanskrit author of about 56 B.C., called it Sidhaya, Prosperous.

The manzil Al Nathrah, the Gap in the hair under the muzzle of the supposed immense ancient Lion, was chiefly formed by Praesepe; but later on γ and δ were sometimes included, when it was Al Ḥimārain, the Two Asses, a title adopted from the Greeks. The Arabs also knew it as Al Fum al Asad and as Al Anf al Asad, the Mouth, and the Muzzle, of the Lion, both referring to the early figure.

The sieu Kwei, Spectre, anciently Kut, the Cloud-like, was made up from Praesepe with η and θ, the latter most strangely selected, as it is now hardly distinguishable by the naked eye, and yet was the determining star, — perhaps a case of variation in brightness. This asterism, the Tsing in our Gemini, formed Shun Show, one of the twelve zodiacal Kung, which Williams translates as the Quail's Head, giving the modern title as Keu Hea, the Crab; this Quail being otherwise known as the Phoenix, Pheasant, or the Red Bird that, with the stars of Leo and Virgo, marked the residence of the Red, or Southern, Emperor.

Like Gemini and Taurus, it was shown rising backward, to which some of the ancients fancifully ascribed the slower motion of the sun in passing through these constellations, as well as its influence in producing the summer's heat; even Doctor Johnson, in Rasselas, alluded to "the fervours of the crab." Very differently, however, Ampelius [Lib. Mem. 4] associated it with the cold Septentrio, or North Wind.

Coins of Cos in the Aegean Sea bore the figure of a Crab that may have been for this constellation.

The symbol of the sign, , probably is "the remains of the representation of some such creature"; but it is also referred to the two Asses that took part in the conflict of the gods with the giants on the peninsula of the Macedonian Pallene, the early Phlegra, afterwards rewarded by a resting-place in the sky on either side of the Manger.

The sun is in Cancer from the 18th of July to the 7th of August; but the  p111 solstice, which was formerly here and gave name to the tropic, is now about 33° to the westward, near η Geminorum.

The celebrated Halley comet first appeared here in 1531; and in June, 1895, all the planets, except Neptune, were in this quarter of the heavens, an unusual and most interesting occurrence. Argelander catalogues 47 stars in the constellation in addition to Praesepe; and Heis, 91.

α, Double, 4.4 and 11, white and red.

Acubens, from the Chelae quas Acubenae Chaldai vocant of the Alfonsine Tables, is not Chaldaean, but from the Arabic Al Zubanāh, the Claws, on the southern one of which this star lies, near the head of Hydra. Bayer repeated this in his Acubene and Azubene, adding Pliny's names for it — Acetabula, the Arm Sockets of a crab, and Cirros, — properly Cirrus, — the Arms themselves, equivalent to Ovid's Flagella, which Bayer wrongly translated Scourge; others similarly saying Branchiae and Ungulae. Bayer also cited the "Barbarians' " Grivenescos, unintelligible unless it be their form of Γραψαῖος, a Crab. Sartan and Sertain are from the Arabic word for the whole figure. The star ι, marking the other claw, shares in many of these titles.

Some assign Al Hamarein to α, — an undoubted error, as Al Ḥimārain was the common Arabian term for the Aselli, γ and δ, that the Arabic signifies.

Acubens culminates on the 18th of March. The companion is 11ʺ.4 distant, at a position angle of 325°.5.

β, a 4th‑magnitude, is Al Tarf, the end, i.e. of the southern foot on which it lies.

Sunt in signo Cancri duae stellae parvae, aselli appellati.

Pliny's Historia Naturalis [XVIII.353].

γ, 4.6, and δ, 4.3, straw color.

Asellus borealis and Asellus australis, the Northern and the Southern Ass Colt, were the Ὄνοι, or Asses, of Ptolemy and the Greeks; the Aselli, or Asini, of the Latins, distinguished by their position as here given, even to the present day, and now popularly known as the Donkeys. The Basil Latin Almagest of 1551 says Asinus for γ only, but the Alfonsine Tables and the Almagest of 1515 have Duo Asini; and the Arabians similarly knew them as Al Ḥimārain, the Two Asses. Bailey, in his Mystic of 1858, calls them the Aselline Starlets.

Manilius is supposed to allude to these outstretched stars as the Jugulae, taken indirectly from Jugum, a Yoke, which became Jugulum, the Collar-bone, —  p112 in the plural Jugula and Jugulae; but Ideler asserted that this originated from an erroneous statement of Firmicus [Mathesis, VIII.9.1], and that reference was really made by the poet to the well-known Belt of Orion.

Riccioli's strange title, Elnatret, doubtless was from that of the lunar mansion Al Nathrah, which the Aselli and Praesepe constituted.

In astrology they were portents of violent death to such as came under their influence; while to the weather-wise their dimness was an infallible precursor of rain, on which Pliny thus enlarges:

If fog conceals the Asellus to the northeast high winds from the south may be expected, but if the southern star is concealed the wind will be from the northeast.

Our modern Weather Bureau would probably tell us that if one of these stars were thus concealed, the other also would be. Pliny mentioned them with Praesepe as forming a constellation by themselves; but he was given to multiplying the stellar groups.

Inconspicuous though it be, the Babylonians used δ to mark their 13th ecliptic constellation Arkū-sha-nangaru-sha-shūtu, the Southeast Star in the Crab; and Brown says that Aselli, with η, θ, and Praesepe, were the Akkadian Gu-shir-kes-da, the Yoke of the Enclosure. They also marked the junction of the nakshatras Pushya and Āçleshā.

The following passage from Hind's Solar System in regard to δ will be found interesting:

The most ancient observation of Jupiter2 which we are acquainted with is that reported by Ptolemy in Book X, chap. iii, of the Almagest, and considered by him free from all doubt. It is dated in the 83d year after the death of Alexander the Great, on the 18th of the Egyptian month Epiphi, in morning, when the planet eclipsed the star now known as δ Cancri. This observation was made on September 3, B.C. 240, about 18h on the meridian of Alexandria.


was applied by Bayer to the coarse extended cluster, NGC 2632, 44 M., on the head of the Crab, composed of about 150 stars of magnitudes from 6½ to 10, with two noticeable triangles among them.

With us it is the well-known Beehive, but its history as such I have not been able to learn, although it undoubtedly is a recent designation, for nowhere is it Apiarium.

Scientifically it was the Νεφέλιον, or Little Cloud, of Hipparchos; the Ἀχλύς, or Little Mist, of Aratos; the Νεφελοειδής, Cloudy One, Συστροφή, Whirling Cloud, and Nubilum, literally a Cloudy Sky, of Bayer;  p113 but the Almagests and astronomers generally of the 16th and 17th centuries referred to it as the Nebula, and Nebulosa, in pectore Cancri, for before the invention of the telescope this was the only universally recognized nebula, its components not being separately distinguishable by ordinary vision. But it seems to have been strangely regarded as three nebulous objects. Galileo, of course, was the first to resolve it, and wrote in the Nuncius Sidereus:3

The nebula called Praesepe, which is not one star, only, but a mass of more than forty small stars. I have noticed thirty stars, besides the Aselli.

Popularly it also is the Manger, or Crib, the Φάτνη of Aratos and Eratosthenes; the Φάτνης of Ptolemy; and with the Latins, Praesaepe,º Praesaepes, Praesaepis, Praesaepia, Praesaepium, the Alfonsine Presepe and Bayer's Pesebre, — also the modern Spanish, — flanked by the Aselli, for whose accommodation it perhaps was invented. Bayer cited for it Melleff, which Chilmead followed with Mellef, and Riccioli with Meeleph; these from the Arabians' Al Ma᾽laf, the Stall; and this, in turn, derived from the Greek astronomy, for their indigenous Ma᾽laf was in Crater. Schickard had this as Mallephon.

Brown includes ε with γ, δ, η, and θ in the Persian lunar station Avra‑k, the Cloud, and the Coptic Ermelia, Nurturing.

Tyrtaeus Theophrastus, the first botanist-author, about 300 B.C., and Aratos, described its dimness and disappearance in the progressive condensation of the atmosphere as a sure token of approaching rain; Pliny said,

if Praesepe is not visible in a clear sky it is a presage of a violent storm;

and Aratos in the Διοσημεῖα (the Prognostica):

A murky Manger with both stars

Shining unaltered is a sign of rain.

If while the northern Ass is dimmed

By vaporous shroud, he of the south gleam radiant,

Expect a south wind: the vaporous shroud and radiance

Exchanging stars harbinger Boreas.

Weigel used it in the 17th century, in his set of heraldic signs, as the Manger, a fancied coat of arms for the farmers.

In astrology, like all clusters, it threatened mischief and blindness.

In China it was known by the unsavory title Tseihº She Ke, Exhalation of Piled‑up Corpses; and within 1° of it Mercury was observed from that  p114 country, on the 9th of June, A.D. 118, one of the early records of that planet.

ζ, Ternary, 5.6, 6.3, and 6, yellow, orange, yellowish, — changing.

This lies on the rear edge of the Crab's shell, and is known as Tegmine, In the Covering; but, if the word be allowable at all, it should be Tegmen, as Avienus is supposed to have had it. Ideler, however, said that Avienus was referring to the covering shell of the marine object, and not to the stellar.

This is a system of great interest to astronomers from the singular changes in color, the probable existence of a fourth and invisible component, and for the short period of orbital revolution — sixty years — of the two closer stars. The maximum of interval between these is but 1ʺ, the minimum 0ʺ.2; yet they never close up as one star. The third member is 5ʺ away, and its orbital period must be at least 500 years.

ζ and θ, according to Peters' investigations, probably are the objects announced by Watson as two intra-Mercurial planets, discovered (?) during the total eclipse of the sun on the 29th of July, 1878.

λ, of the 6th magnitude, with adjacent stars, was in China Kwan Wei, the Bright Fire.

μ, a 5½‑magnitude, with χ Geminorum, was Tsih Tsin, a Heap of Fuel.

ξ, another 5½‑magnitude, with λ Leonis, formed the seventh manzil Al Tarf, the End, or, as some translate it, the Glance, i.e. of the Lion's Eye, the ancient Asad, which occupied so large a portion of the sky in this neighborhood. They also were the Persian Nahn, the Nose, and the Coptic Piautos, the Eye, both lunar asterisms.

ξ, with κ and stars in Leo, was the Chinese Tsu Ke, one of the flags of that country.

The Author's Notes:

1 The temple which contained this was dedicated to Isis, and is the smaller one of the two most celebrated at Denderah, the Tentyris of the Greeks and Tentore of the Copts, names derived from the Tan-ta-rer of ancient Egypt, signifying the Land of the Hippopotamus. It is on a site sacred long before the sacred edifice, of which we now have the ruins, was erected.

2 This planet was known to the Greeks as Ζεύς, and as Φαέθων, the Shining One.

3 This Nuncius Sidereus, published at Venice by Galileo in 1610, first gave to the world the results of his telescopic observations.

Thayer's Notes:

a Blaise Pascal, the 17c Christian mystic, philosopher, mathematician and physicist; but if he did indeed say this, he would have done better not to, and to stick to his usual haunts, in which his genius is indisputable: the tag demonstrates a thoroughgoing ignorance of astrology.

While it is true that astrologers use a number of devices to make it possible to claim that their predictions rarely fail, this is not one of them. "Good fortune", whether specific to some area of life or even generalized, is commonly attributed in both the ancient authors and all the modern handbooks to a very wide range of factors and circumstances, some of them of frequent occurrence; the hedging is usually achieved by superadded complications and exceptions.

As to the actual rule at hand, a "stellium" or multiple conjunction in a given sign merely stresses the characteristics and qualities of that sign; whether for good or evil is determined by the aspects to the stellium from elsewhere, the relationship of the chart with any more fundamental chart, and the precise degrees (or fixed stars, within a very tight orb) where the planets involved are found. Thus, a stellium in Cancer says nothing about destruction by water or great good fortune thru water; just that water will be important. Amusingly, Pascal's own natal chart shows just such a stellium in Cancer: though he was singularly unnautical, astrologers will point to his work on hydraulics, that kicked off his career as an experimental scientist, and his involvement in the drainage and reclamation of the swamps of Poitou.

b A fairly good photo of the Dendera Zodiac, accompanied by a brief text, is given on the Louvre's site; notice that the small thumbnail can be clicked open to enlarge it.

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Page updated: 1 Jun 17