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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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The south wind brings her foe

The Ocean beast.

Brown's Aratos.

Cetus, the Whale or Sea Monster,

is the French Baleine, the Italian Balena,º and the German Wallfisch.

This constellation has been identified, at least since Aratos' day, with the fabled creature sent to devour Andromeda, but turned to stone at the sight of the Medusa's head in the hand of Perseus. Equally veracious additions to the story, from Pliny [H. N. IX.11] and Solinus, are that the monster's bones were brought to Rome by Scaurus, the skeleton measuring forty feet in length and the vertebrae six feet in circumference; from Saint Jerome, who wrote that he had seen them at Tyre;a and from Pausanias, who described a nearby spring that was red with the monster's blood. But the legend in which Cetus figured seems to have been current on the Euphrates long before our era; and, descending to Euripides and Sophocles, appeared in their dramas, as also in much subsequent literature.

For its stellar title the Greeks usually followed Aratos and Eratosthenes in Κῆτος, but they also had Ὀρφίς, Όρφός, and Όρφώς, some species of p161cetacean; and the equivalent Πρῆστις and Πρίστις,1 from πρῆθειν, to blow or spout, the common habit of the animal. The last word, variously transliterated, was common for the constellation with Roman authors, appearing as Pristis, Pristix, and Pistrix, qualified by the adjectives auster, Nereia, fera, Neptunia, aequorea, and squammigera.º Cetus, however, has been the usual title from the days of Vitruvius [IX.5], varied by Cete with the 17th‑century astronomical writers, although the stellar figure is unlike any whale known to zoölogy.

The Harleian2 and Leyden Manuscripts show it with greyhound head, ears, and fore legs, but with a long, trident tail; the whole, perhaps, modeled after the ancient bas-relief of Perseus and Andromeda in the Naples Museum. It is found thus on the Farnese globe, and this figuring may have given rise to, or originated from, the early title that La Lande cited, Canis Tritonis, his own Chien de Mer. But the Hyginus of 1488 has a dolphin-like creature with proboscis and tusks, all imitated in the edition of 1535 by Micyllus; and Dürer still further varied the shape of the head and front parts.

Thus in these, as, in fact, in all delineations, it has been a strange and ferocious marine creature, in later times associated with the story of Andromeda, and at first, perhaps, was the Euphratean Tiāmat, of which other forms were Draco, Hydra, and Serpens; indeed, some have thought that our Draco was Andromeda's foe because of its proximity to the other characters of the legend. But as an alternative signification of the word Κῆτος is Tunny,3 also a signification of Χελιδόνιας, to the Northern Fish of the zodiac, it is not unlikely that the latter figure should be substituted in the story for the time-honored Whale.

Cetus is sometimes represented swimming in the River Eridanus, although usually as resting on the bank with fore paws in the water; its head, directly under Aries, marked by an irregular pentagon of stars, and its body stretching from the bend in Eridanus to that in the Stream from the Urn. It occupies a space of 50° in length by 20° in breadth, and so is one of the most extended of the sky figures; yet it shows no star larger than of the 2nd magnitude, and only one of that lustre.

p162 Argelander enumerates 98 stars in the constellation, and Heis 162.

The 1515 Almagest and the Alfonsine Tables called it Balaena, but Firmicus [Mathesis, VIII.17.5] said Belua, the Beast or Monster, a more appropriate name than ours. Bayer mentioned it as Draco, and drew it so, but without wings; he also cited for it Leo, Monstrum marinum, Ursus marinus, Orphas, and Orphus; and Grotius quoted Gibbus, Humped, from anonymous writers.

The Arabian astronomers of course knew the Greek constellation and called it Al Ḳeṭus, from which have come Elketos, Elkaitos, and Elkaitus; but their predecessors, who had not heard of the Royal Family and its foe, separated these stars into three very different asterisms. Those in the head, α, γ, δ, λ, μ, ξ1and ξ2, were Al Kaff al Jidhmah, the Part of a Hand, from a fancied resemblance to their Stained Hand, our Cassiopeia; η, θ, τζ, and υ, in the body of our Cetus, were Al Naʽāmāt, the Hen Ostriches; and the four in a straight line of 3° length across the tail, all lettered ϕ, were Al Niṭhām, the Necklace.

The biblical school of the 17th century of course saw here the Whale that swallowed Jonah; and commentators on that great astronomical poem, the Book of Job, have said that it typified the Leviathan of which the Lord spoke to the patriarch. Julius Schiller thought it "SS. Joachim and Anna."

The Easy Chair has popularly been applied to it from the arrangement of its chief stars, the back of the chair leaning towards Orion.

Although an old constellation, Cetus is by no means of special interest, except as possessing the south pole of the Milky Way and the Wonderful Star, the variable Mira; and from the fact that it is a condensation point of nebulae directly across the sphere from Virgo, also noted in this respect.

α, 2.9, bright orange.

Menkar of the Alfonsine Tables of 1521, Scaliger's Monkar, and now sometimes Menkab, from Al Minḣar, the Nose, still is the popular, but inappropriate name, for it marks Monster's open jaws. It is the prominent star in the northeastern part of the constellation, and culminates on the 21st of December.

Al Kaff al Jidhmah, found on the Borgian globe, is Ulug Beg's and Al Tizini's designation for it, taken from that for all the stars in the head; but modern lists apply this solely to γ.

In astrological days it portended danger from great beasts, disgrace, ill fortune, and illness to those born under its influence.

In China α, γ, δ, λ, μ, ν, ο, ξ1, and ξ2 were Tseen Kwan, Heaven's Round Granary.


The other 'neath the dusky Monster's tail.

Brown's Aratos.

β, 2.4, yellow.

Deneb Kaitos is from the Arabian Al Dhanab al Ḳaiṭos al Janūbīyy, the Tail of the Whale towards the South, i.e. the Southern Branch of the Tail. Chrysococca synonymously had Οὖρα τοῦ Καίτου,º arbitrarily formed from the Arabic; and the Alfonsine Tables of 1521 called it Denebcaiton.

Very differently it was the Arabs' Al Ḍifdiʽ al Thānī, the Second Frog, that we see in the present Difda, Latinized as Rana Secunda; the star Fomalhaut being Al Ḍifdiʽ al Awwal, the First Frog.

In China it was Too Sze Kung, Superintendent of Earthworks.

Although below it in lettering, this star is now brighter than α, yet both were registered γi.e. of the 3d magnitude — by Ptolemy; and Miss Clerke asserts that this inversion of brilliancy took place during the last century. It is nearly 40° southwest from α, culminating on the 21st of November.

One third of the way towards β Andromedae is a group of unnamed stars from which Smyth said that a new asterism, Testudo, was proposed.

γ, Double, 3.5 and 7, pale yellow and blue.

Al Kaff al Jidhmah is the Arabs' name for the whole group marking the Whale's head, but in modern lists is exclusively applied to this star.

The components are 2ʺ.5 apart, at a position angle of 290°.

ε, of the 5th magnitude, with π, was a part of the Ostrich's Nest that mainly lay in Eridanus; and, with πρ, and σ, also was Al Sufi's Al Sadr al Ḳaiṭos, the Whale's Breast.

Notwithstanding its lettering, it is the faintest of these four stars.

ερ, and σ were the Chinese Tsow Kaou, Hay n Straw.

ζ, 3.9, topaz yellow,

is Baten Kaitos, the Arabian Al Baṭn al Ḳaiṭos, the Whale's Belly, although the star is higher up the body. The Alfonsine Tables had Batenkaiton and Batenel Kaitos; and Chilmead, Boten.

In astrology it portended falls and blows.

It forms, with the 5th‑magnitude χ, a very coarse naked-eye double; and itself has a 7½‑magnitude companion 3′6ʺ distant.

η, 3.6, yellow.

Deneb and Dheneb are names for this star, especially in English lists, maps, and globes; but incorrectly, as η, on the Heis Atlas, lies at the base p164of the tail, and in Bayer's and Argelander's on the Monster's flank, while there are two others, β and ι, so named in the proper location. Still, although a misnomer, the title seems to be generally recognized. The Century Cyclopedia extends it as Deneb Algenubi. This error in name has led to another, for the star has been mistaken for the Rana Secunda of the Arabs, the Second Frog, the Arabs' Al Ḍifdiʽ al Thānī, — β Ceti.

ι, 3.6, bright yellow,

is another Deneb Kaitos to which the Arabians added Al Shamāliyy as being in the Northern branch of the tail, although Heis places it in the Southern. From this Arabic adjective the Standard Dictionary very unsatisfactorily gives Schemali simply as the star's title. With ηθντ, and stars in the modern Fornax, it made up the Chinese asterism Tien Yuen, Heaven's Temporary Granary.

λ, of about 4½ magnitude, is occasionally called Menkar, and, as it exactly marks the Nose of Cetus, the title would seem to be more appropriate than it is to α; but it was applied by the Arabs to both.

ο, Variable, 1.7 to 9.5, flushed yellow.

Mira, Stella Mira, and Collum Ceti are all titles for this Wonderful Star in the Whale's neck, the show object in the heavens as a variable of long period and typical of its class.

It was first noticed as a 3d‑magnitude on the 13th of August, 1596, and again on the 15th of February, 1609, by David Fabricius, an amateur astronomer and disciple of Tycho Brahē; but its true character was not ascertained till 1638 by Phocylides Holwarda of Holland, — the first established record of a variable star.

Bayer lettered it in 1603 as of the 4th magnitude, evidently at a time of its diminished brilliancy and without knowledge of its variability; Hevelius, having observed it from 1659 to 1682, inserted it in his Prodromus as the Nova in Collo Ceti; and Flamsteed, numbering it 68, described it as in pectore nova and of the 6th magnitude on the 18th of October, 1691, and again on the 28th of September, 1692.

"This was singular in its kind till that in Collo Cygni was discovered; and the attention it excited among astronomers is detailed in the Historiola Mirae Stellae" of Hevelius in 1662; thus virtually naming it and "commemorating the amazement excited by the detection of stellar periodicity."

Its period, fixed by Bouillaud in 1667 as 333 days, is now given as 331, p165but this is subject to extreme irregularities, — at various times it has not been seen at all with the naked eye for several years consecutively, — and its maxima and minima are even more irregular. While it has been known almost to equal Aldebaran in its light, as it did under Herschel's observations on the 6th of November, 1779, Chandler gives its maximum as from 1.7 to 5, and its minimum from 8 to 9.5. It thus sometimes sends out at its maximum fifteen hundredfold moderate light than at its minimum, and "after three centuries of notified activity gives no sign of relaxation." It is generally at its brightest for about a fortnight; the increase occupying about seven weeks and the decrease about three months. The maximum of 1897 occurred about the 1st of December, when it was a little below the 3d magnitude.

Sir William Herschel wrote of it in 1783 as being of a deep garnet color like μ Cephei.

The spectrum is of Secchi's 3d type, with extremely brilliant hydrogen lines at the time of maximum.

Mira lies almost exactly on the line joining γ and ζ, a little nearer the former star.

ϕ1, ϕ2, ϕ3, and ϕ4, 5th- to 6th‑magnitude stars, were the Arabs' Al Nithām. In China they were Tien Hwan, Heaven's Sewer. It was near these that Harding of Lilienthal discovered the minor planet Juno, on the 2d of November, 1804, the 3d of these objects found.

c and y, small stars near τ, were the Chinese Foo Chih, the Ax and Skewer.

The Author's Notes:

1 This word is seen in more modern days in the Physetere that Rabelais used.

2 This is the famous No. 647 of the Harleian Collection of manuscripts in the British Museum, from Robert Harley, the first earl of Oxford. It is an illuminated copy of Cicero's translation of the Phainomena, and has been reproduced and annotated by Ottley in the 26th volume of Archaeologia for 1834, its editor supposing it to be from the 2d or 3d century. Verses from Manilius are inscribed within the figure outlines.

3 This tunny, the horse-mackerel of the American coast and the Albacora thynnus of ichthyology, is found in the Mediterranean up to 1000 pounds' weight.

Thayer's Note:

a Once again, it's dangerous to sniff too loud at the absurd tales of eyewitnesses: the work of Adrienne Mayor has made it amply clear that quite a few ancient Romans, not only Pliny and Jerome, but the emperor Augustus and many others, had seen or even collected fossils of gigantic prehistoric animals. OK, so their reconstructions were not ours, and someone thought it was the heavenly Cetus — and then ours are not always so good either: the Stegosaurus that we all loved as children never existed, or at least not looking anything like that.

The more general moral to extract from this, as from so many other places, is that when someone tells you they've seen something with their own eyes, you'd better have awfully good grounds for dismissing it as nonsense. The interpretation of course is another matter.

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Page updated: 9 Apr 14