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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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A place where Cassiopea sits within

Inferior light, for all her daughter's sake.

Mrs. Browning's Paraphrases on Nonnus.

Cassiopeia, or Cassiope,

more correctly Cassiepeia, although variously written, is one of the oldest and popularly best known of our constellations, and her throne, "the shinie Casseiopeia's chair" of Spenser's Faerie Queen, is a familiar object to the most youthful observer. It also is known as the Celestial W when below the pole, and the Celestial M when above it.

Hyginus, writing the word Cassiepia [Astron. II.10], described the figure as bound to her seat, and thus secured from falling out of it in going around the pole head downward, — this particular spot in the sky having been selected by the p143queen's enemies, the sea-nymphs, to give her an effectual lesson in humility, for a location nearer the equator would have kept her nearly upright. Aratos said of this:

She head foremost like a tumbler sits.

Her outstretched legs also, for a woman accustomed to the fashions of the East, must have added to her discomfort.

Euripides and Sophocles, of the fifth century before our era, wrote of her, while all the Greeks made much of the constellation, knowing it as Κασσιέπεια and Ἡ τοῦ θρόνου, She of the Throne. But at one time in Greece it was the Laconian Key, from its resemblance to that instrument, the invention of which was attributed in classical times to that people;1 although Pliny claimed this for Theodorus of Samos in Caria, 730 B.C., whence came another title for our stars, Carion. The learned Huetius (Huet, bishop of Avranches and tutor of the dauphin Louis XV) more definitely said that this stellar key represented that described by Homer as sickle-shaped in the wardrobe door of Penelope:

A brazen key she held, the handle turn'd,

With steel and polish'd elephant adorned;

and Aratos wrote of the constellation:

E'en as a folding door, fitted within

With key, is thrown back when the bolts are drawn.

But even Ideler did not understand this simile, although the outline of the chief stars well shows the form of this early key.

The Romans transliterated the Greek proper name as we still have it, but also knew Cassiopeia as Mulier Sedis, the Woman of the Chair; or simply as Sedes, qualified by regalis or regia; and as Sella and Solium. Bayer's statement that Juvenal called it Cathedra mollis was an error from a misreading of the original text. Hyde's title Inthronata has been repeated by subsequent authors; and Cassiopeia's Chair is the children's name for it now.

The Arabians called it Al Dhāt al Kursiyy, the Lady in the Chair, — Chilmead's Dhath Alcursi, — the Greek proper name having no signification to them; but the early Arabs had a very different figure here, in no way connected with the Lady as generally is supposed, — their Kaff al Ḣadib, p144the large Hand Stained with Henna, the bright stars marking the fingertips; although in this they included the nebulous group in the left hand of Perseus. Chrysococca gave it thus in the Low Greek Χείρ βεβαμένη; and it sometimes was the Hand of, i.e. next to, the Pleiades, while Smyth said that in Arabia it even bore the title of that group, Al Thurayya, from its comparatively condensed figure.

The early Arabs additionally made Two Dogs out of Cassiopeia and Cepheus, from which may have come Bayer's Canis; but his Cerva, a Roe, is not explained, although La Lande asserted that the Egyptian sphere of Petosiris had shown a Deer to the north of the Fishes. Al Tizini imagined a Kneeling Camel from some of its larger stars, whence the constellation's name Shuter found with Al Naṣr al Din, and common for that animal in Persia.

The Alfonsine Tables and Arabo-Latin Almagest described the figure as habens palmam delibutam, Holding the Consecrated Palm, from some early drawing that is still continued; but how the palm, the classic symbol of victory and Christian sign of martyrdom, became associated with this heathen queen does not appear.a Similarly La Lande cited Siliquastrum, the name for a tree of Judaea, referring to the branch in the queen's hand.

Bayer's Hebrew title for it, Aben Ezra, was by a misreading of Scaliger's notes.

La Lande quoted Harnacaff from the Metamorphoses of Vishnu, but the later Hindus said Casyapi, evidently from the classical word.

Grimm gives the Lithuanian Jostandis, from Josta, a Girdle, although without explanation.

As the figure almost wholly lies in the Milky Way, the Celts fixed upon it as their Llys Don, the Home of Don, their king of the fairies and father of the mythical character Gwydyon,2 who gave name to that great circle. Schiller's Wallenstein, as versified by Coleridge, has

That one

White stain of light, that single glimmering yonder,

Is from Cassiopeia, and therein

Is Jupiter —

a blunder on the part of the translator that has puzzled many, as "therein" should be "beyond" or "in that direction," but even then what did the poet have in mind?

In early Chinese astronomy our constellation was Ko Taou according to Williams, although Reeves limited that title to the smaller ν, ξ, ο, and π, with p145the definition of a Porch-way; but later on its prominent stars were Wang Liang, a celebrated charioteer of the Tsin Kingdom about 470 B.C.

As a stellar figure in Egypt Renouf identified it with the Leg, thus mentioned in the Book of the Dead, the Bible of Egypt, that most ancient ritual, 4000 years old or more:

Hail, leg of the northern sky in the large visible basin.

And in some constellated form its stars unquestionably were well known on the Euphrates with the rest of the Royal Family, and shown there on seals.

The earthly Cassiopeia ought to have been black, and is so described by Milton in his verses of Il Penseroso on

That starr'd Ethiop Queen that strove

To set her beauty's praise above

The Sea-nymphs;

while Landseer with the same idea called her Cushiopeia, the Queen of Cush, or Kush, but the Leyden Manuscript makes her of fair complexion, lightly clad, upright and unbound in a very uncomfortable chair; and such is the general representation. But in the 17th-century reconstruction of sky figures in the interests of religion, our Cassiopeia became Mary Magdalene; or Deborah sitting in judgment under her palm tree in Mount Ephraim; or Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, worthy to sit on the royal throne.

The astrologers [e.g., Ptolemy in Tetrabiblos I.9] said that it partook of the nature of Saturn and Venus.

Professor Young gives the word Bagdei as a help to memorizing the order of the chief components from their letters βαγδει; the last being the uppermost when the figure is on the horizon, hanging head downwards.

Cassiopeia lies between Cepheus, Andromeda, and Perseus, Argelander cataloguing 68 stars here, but Heis, 126; and the constellation is rich in clusters.

α, Multiple and slightly variable, 2.2 to 2.8, pale rose.

Schedar is first found in the Alfonsine Tables, and was Schedir with Hevelius; Shadar, Schedar, Shedar, Sheder, Seder, Shedis, Zedaron, etc., elsewhere; and all supposed to be from Al Sadr, the Breast, which the star marks in the figure. Some, however, have asserted that they are from the Persian Shuter for the constellation.

Ulug Beg called it Al Dhāt al Kursiyy from the whole, which Riccioli changed to Dath Elkarti.

p146 Smyth said that it was known as Lucida Cassiopea, — a matter-of‑fact statement, as the brightest star in any sky figure is the lucida.

Birt noticed its variability in 1831, which is now determined as in a period of about 79 days, although irregular.

It culminates on the 18th of November.

Burnham has discovered two additional faint companions, the nearest 17ʺ.5 away; the companion first known, a smalt blue star, having been found by Sir William Herschel, in 1781, 63ʺ away.

α, β, η, and κ were the Chinese Yūh Lang, or Wang Leang.

β, 2.4, white.

Caph, Chaph, or Kaff, on the upper right-hand corner of the chair, are from the Arabic title of the constellation; but Al Tizini designated the star as Al Sanām al Nākah, the Camel's Hump, referring to the contemporaneous Persian figure.

With α Andromedae and γ Pegasi, as the Three Guides, it marks the equinoctial colure, itself exceedingly close to that great circle; and, being located on the same side of the pole as is Polaris, it always affords an approximate indication of the latter's position with respect to that point. This same location, 32° from the pole, and very near to the prime meridian, has rendered it useful for marking sidereal time. When above Polaris and nearest the zenith the astronomical day begins at 0 hours, 0 minutes, and 0 seconds; when due west the sidereal time is 6 hours; when south and nearest the horizon, 12 hours, and when east, 18 hours; this celestial clock-hand thus moving on the heavenly dial contrary to the motion of the hands of our terrestrial clocks, and at but one half the speed.

Beta's parallax, 0ʺ.16, indicates a distance of 20 light years.

Just north of it is an especially bright patch in the Milky Way.

When first Al Aaraf knew her course to be

Headlong thitherward o'er the starry sea.

Edgar Allan Poe's Al Aaraf.

About 5° to the west-northwest of Caph, 1½° distant from κ, and forming a parallelogram with Caph, γ and α, appeared, in 1572, a famous nova visible in full daylight and brighter than Venus at perigee.

Poe's name for it is from the Arabians' Al Orf, — in the plural Al Arāf, — their temporary abode of spirits midway between Heaven and Hell, and so applicable to this temporary star. This object was known for two centuries p147after its appearance as the Stranger, or the Pilgrim, Star, and the Star in the Chayre, but by us as Tycho's Star, although it was first noticed by Schuler at Wittenberg in Prussia, on the 6th of August; again at Augsburg by Hainzel, and at Winterthür, Switzerland, by Lindauer, on the 7th of November; and on the 9th by Cornelius Gemma, who called it the New Venus. Maurolycus began its systematic study at Messina on the 8th, but his published account of it in 1602, in his Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata,º has caused his name to be identified with it. Its lustre began to wane in the following December, and it was inserted in the Rudolphine Tables as "Nova anni 1572" of the 6th magnitude, to which it had at that time decreased. It disappeared entirely in March, 1574, so far as could then be known.b1

This nova is said to have incited Tycho to the compilation of his star-catalogue, as that of seventeen centuries earlier may have been the occasion of the catalogue of Hipparchos. At all events, it created a great commotion in its time, and induced Beza's celebrated prediction of the second coming of Christ,3 as it was considered a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem. The statement that this star appeared in 945 and 1264 rests upon the very doubtful authority of the Bohemian astrologer Cyprian Leowitz, and is not credited by our modern astronomers; although Williams asserts that a large comet was seen in the latter year near Cassiopeia.c The reddish 10½‑magnitude, known as B Cassiopeiae, singularly variable in its light, is now to be seen 0′.8 from the spot assigned by Argelander to the star of 1572, and is thought possibly to be identical with it.b2

The Chinese recorded Tycho's nova as Ko Sing, the Guest tar.

γ, Binary, 2 and 11, brilliant white,

in Cassiopeia's girdle, was the Chinese Tsih, a Whip.

This was the first star discovered to contain bright lines in its spectrum, — by Secchi in 1886 — and so is of much interest to astronomers. The spectrum is peculiarly variable, as also is its light.

The components are 2ʺ.1 apart, at a position angle of 255°.2 and there has been no change in angle or distance since measured by Burnham in 1888. A telescope of high power shows several minute companions.

p148 δ, 3,

is Ruchbah, sometimes Rucba and Rucbar, from Al Rukbah, the Knee.

It was utilized by Picard in France, in 1669, in determining latitudes during his measure of an arc of the meridian, — the first use of the telescope for geodetic purposes.

ε, of 3.6 magnitude, nearer the foot, also has borne the title Ruchbah.

ζ, of the 4th, and η, of the 5th magnitude, marking the face, were the Chinese Foo Loo, a By-path.

η, Binary, 4 and 7.5, orange and violet,

very near α, is one of the finest objects in the sky for a moderate-sized telescope; and, although unnamed, it is worth noting that the components were 5ʺ apart in 1892, at a position angle of 193°, their period being about 200 years. The parallax is 0ʺ.15 according to Struve; or 0ʺ.45 according to Davis' measures of Rutherfurd's photographs. It is certainly a neighbor, and probably the nearest to us of all the stars in this constellation.

θ, 4.4, and μ, Triple, 5.1, 10.5, and 11, deep yellow, blue, and ruddy.

The Arabians knew these as Al Marfiḳ, the Elbow, where they lie; and the Century Cyclopedia gives Marfak as a present title for either star.

μ has the great proper motion of 3ʺ.8 annually, a rate that will carry it around the heavens in 300,000 years.

The Author's Notes:

1 Locks and keys, however, were used at the siege of Troy; have been found in Egyptian catacombs and sculptured on the walls of the Great Temple of Karnak; disinterred from the palaces of Khorsabad near Nineveh; and twice mentioned in our Old Testament, as early as Ehud's time in the Book of Judges, iii.24 and 25.

2 Gwydyon has been identified with the classical Hermes-Mercury, the reputed inventor of writing, a practitioner in magic and builder of the rainbow.

3 In the same way the comet of 1843 confirmed the Millerites in their belief in the immediate destruction of the world.

Thayer's Notes:

a Cassiopeia was queen of "Philistia", which, though sometimes said to be Ethiopia, should almost certainly be identified with the Biblical land of the Philistines, or roughly that part of Palestine now called the Gaza Strip. Her name is said to be of Phoenician origin. Either of these circumstances would associate her with a "palm" — at least in English: phoenix in Latin and Greek; for the Gaza connection, see for example the iconography of the Holy Family's Return from Egypt in the Basilica of S. Nicola in Tolentino (14c). Though this is the wrong palm (the tree rather than a generic branch of foliage), I still suspect this is where the connection ultimately lies.

b1 b2 Catalogued as SN 1572 (the SuperNova of 1572): modern telescopy finally caught up with it again, or at least with the gas it left behind, since no star seems to have survived. For full historical and technical details, see Hartmut Frommert's page and his further links there.

c According to Humboldt — a source often used by Allen — Leovitius claimed (probably in De coniunctionibus magnis, published in 1564, a few years before Tycho's supernova) to have read in a "manuscript chronicle" that a new star had appeared in those years between Cassiopeia and Cepheus, very near the Milky Way. Leovitius explicitly states that the star was not the same object as the comet.

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Page updated: 15 Jul 08