Short URL for this page:
The sky domed above us with its heavenly frescoes painted by the thought of the Great Artist.
Allen Throckmorton's Sketches.
now designated by arbitrary lines outside and entirely independent of the figures, in ancient times were confined within the outlines of the forms that they were supposed to represent, although any resemblance was only occasionally noticeable. All stars adjacent to but beyond these were called by the Greeks ἀμόρφωτοι,º unformed, and σποράδες, scattered, which Latin authors followed in their extra, informes, dispersae, disseminatae, and sparsiles; and the Arabians in their Al Ḣārij min Al Ṣūrah, Outside of the Image.
In our day, however, every star is within the limits of some one of the constellations, although the boundaries of these are not in all cases agreed upon by astronomers. Still those adopted by Argelander are generally accepted for the northern figures, as those of Gould are for the southern; Gould's boundaries largely agreeing with the suggestions of Sir John Herschel, i.e., formed by arcs of meridians and parallels of declination for a given epoch.
The figures were variously known by the Greeks as Σήματα and Τείρεα, Signs; Σώματα, Bodies; Ζώδια, Animals; and as Μετέορα, Things in Heaven, our word Meteors. Hipparchos said Ἀστερισμοί, as did Ptolemy, but also alluded to them as Μορφώσεις, Semblances, and Σχήματα, Figures.
Pliny and other Latins called them Astra, Sidera, and Signa, while later on Constellatio appeared, that in the 1515 Almagest is Stellatio; and the Arabians knew them as Al Ṣuwar, Figures.
p11 Aratos, in the Φαινόμενα of 270 B.C., mentioned forty-five, but many of these probably had been formed millenniums previously by the Chaldaeans, or even by their predecessors; in fact, he is not supposed to have invented any that he described. Eratosthenes, nearly a century after Aratos, reduced the number to forty-two in the Καταστερισμοί that were attributed to his authorship until Bernhardy's time; as did Gaius Julius Hyginus Historia,º about the beginning of our era, in his reputed work, the Poeticon Astronomicon, and Decimus Magnus Ausonius, the Christian poet of nearly four centuries later.
The Catalogue of Hipparchos, now lost except as preserved by Ptolemy, is said to have contained forty-nine constellations with 1080 stars; but his Commentary on Eudoxos and Aratos, that we still have, mentions only forty-six. It was of this great astronomer that Pliny wrote in the year 78, as translated by Philemon Holland, in 1634, in his Historie of the Worlde [II.26]:
The same man went so farre that he attempted (a thing even hard for God to perform) to deliver to posteritie the just number of starres;
and asserted that this was induced by the appearance, in 134 B.C., of the bright nova, or temporary star, in Scorpio. The observations of Hipparchos seem to have been made between 162 and 127 B.C.
Pliny, although but a poor cosmographer, devoted two chapters to astronomy in the Historia Naturalis, and, according to the usual rendering, mentioned seventy-two1 asterisms with 1600 stars; but this, if the original be correctly understood, could have been only by separately counting parts of the old figures, for nowhere does he allude to any that are new, unless it be his Thronos Caesaris, probably the Southern Cross.
Ptolemy scientifically followed with those now known as the ancient forty-eight, in the 7th and 8th books of the Syntaxis, twelve of the zodiac with twenty-one northern and fifteen southern, made up by 1028 stars, including 102 ἀμόρφωτοι, all probably from Hipparchos, although with some acknowledged alterations by himself; for in the 5th chapter of his 7th book he wrote:
we employ not the same Figures of the Constellations that those before us did, as neither did they of those before them, but frequently make Use of others that more truly represent the Forms for which they are drawn.
His catalogue was supposed to comprise all the stars about the 54th degree p12 of south declination, his earliest recorded observations being in A.D. 127 and the last in 151; and we find with him the first comparative list of star magnitudes.
In the year 1252 Europe resumed its old position in astronomical work by the compilation of Los Libros del Saber de Astronomia, the celebrated Alfonsine Tables, by Arabian or Moorish astronomers, at Toledo, under the patronage of the Infante, afterward King Alfonso X, El Sabio, the Wise, and the Astronomer, of Leon and Castile, who "abandoned the crown for the astrolabe and forgot the earth for the sky."
These Tables and their Latin translations are strongly Arabicized, as plainly appear in our modern star-titles drawn from them; while the whole work is in the main only copied from Ptolemy with some necessary corrections. But it probably fairly represents the science of the Middle Ages, and was in use until at least the 16th century; for Eden,2 in 1555, quoted from Gemma Phrysius On the Maner of Fyndynge the Longitude: "Then eyther by the Ephemerides or by the tables of Alphonsus . . ." Various editions have been printed: the first in 1483, two hundred years after Alfonso's death; again, in 1492 and 1521, all at Venice and in Latin; in 1545 at Paris; in 1641 at Madrid; and, lastly, splendidly reproduced there in 1863‑1867, in the earliest accessible Spanish text, with illustrations, supposed copies of the original.
It was this Alfonso who has so often been condemned for his remark:
Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for better ordering of the universe;
but as he was speaking of the absurd Ptolemaic system, it does not seem so irreverent now as it did before Copernicus' day. Carlyle quoted it in his History of Friedrich II of Prussia, —
that it seemed a crank machine; that it was pity the Creator had not taken advice!
and said that this, and this only, of his many wise sayings is still remembered by mankind.
From Ptolemy's time, with the exception of the Alfonsine Tables, no advance was made in astronomical science for 1300 years, and the Syntaxis continued to be the standard of the world's astronomy, "a sort of astronomical Bible, from which nothing was taken, and to which nothing material in principle was added."
p13 In the 15th century, however, it was corrected and copied under the auspices of the celebrated Ulug Beg, grandson of the great Tatar conqueror, Timur i Leng, Timur the Lame, our Tamerlane, and, as his Tables, was published at Samarkhand, with the date of the 5th of July, 1437. The constellation descriptions in these are from Al Sufi's translation of five centuries previously, the titles of a few groups being changed; and the intrinsic excellence of the work, as well as the deservedly great reputation of its author as an astronomer, supported by many able assistants, made it a standard authority for nearly two centuries. Following Ulug Beg, but from Europe, came in 1548‑51 the globes of Gerardus Mercator (Gerhard Kramer), on which were located fifty-one asterisms with 934 stars, besides numerous informes. About this time Copernicus' great work laid the foundations of modern astronomy, and was soon followed by Tycho Brahē's posthumous catalogue of 1602, with forty-six constellations, but only 777 stars, the mystic number, and so perhaps by design, for the author, although the first real observer of modern days, was still under the influence of astrology.
In the succeeding year appeared the Uranometria of Johann Bayer, the great Protestant lawyer of Augsburg, a work also much tinctured with the occult science, in which the author probably followed Tycho. This contained spirited drawings, after Dürer, of the ancient forty-eight figures, with a list of 1709 stars and twelve new southern asterisms. These last were its noticeable feature, with the fact that in the plates of the ancient constellations for the first time formally appeared Greek and Roman letters to indicate the individual stars, and so conveniently taking place of the cumbersome descriptions till then in vogue.3 Although the lettering did not come into general use until the succeeding century, Bayer had been anticipated in it fifty years before by Piccolomini of Siena, and even the Persians and Hebrews are said to have had something similar. Dr. Robert Wittie, of London, in his Οὐρανοσκοπία of 1681, wrote of this last people:
Aben Ezra tells that they first divided the Stars into Constellations, and expressed them all by the Hebrew Letters, which when they had gone through, they added a second Letter to express the shape, and oft-times a third to set forth the Nature of the Constellation.a
After Bayer new constellations were published in the Planisphaerium Stellatum of 1624 by Jakob Bartsch (Bartschius); in the Rudolphine Tables of 1627, Kepler's edition of Tycho's catalogue; in Augustin Royer's work of 1679; and in the Catalogue of Southern Stars of the same year, by Doctor Edmund Halley, from his observations at Saint Helena. The Prodromus Astronomiae of 1690, by Johann Hewel, or Hoevelke (Hevelius), and its p14 appendix with plates, the Firmamentum Sobiescianum, also gave new figures, as did the Historia Coelestis Britannica of the Reverend Doctor John Flamsteed, completed in 1729 by Crosthwait and Sharp after Flamsteed's death in 1719. This comprised fifty-four constellations, the stars being consecutively numbered in the order of their right ascension; the companion Atlas following in 1753, and again in 1781. The Abbé Nicolas Louis de La Caille, "the true Columbus of the southern sky,"4 in his Mémoires of 1752 and his Coelum Stelliferum of 1763, introduced fourteen new groups, "to which he assigned the names of the principal implements of the sciences and fine arts"; while a few others were formed by Pierre Charles Le Monnier from 1741 to 1755, and by Joseph Jerome Le Français (dit de La Lande) from 1776 to 1792, the 3d edition of La Lande's Astronomie containing a total of eighty-eight constellations. Lastly, in 1800, Johann Ellert Bode published nine new figures in his Uranographia, although some of these were by La Lande; a 2d edition, entitled Die Gestirne, being issued in 1805. But none of these inventories of the last three authors are now recognized.
The greater part of the new constellations were of course in the south, a quarter of the heavens which, although alluded to by a writer of the time of Pharaoh Neku, who sent a Phoenician fleet to circumnavigate Africa about 600 B.C., practically was unknown till the discovery of the New World stimulated the efforts of the early voyagers at the beginning of the 16th century. Some of these have left records of their stellar observations — among them the Italians Corsali, Pigafetta, and Vespucci, and the Dutch Pieter Theodor of Embden (Embanus), alias Pieter Dircksz Keyser, and Friedrich Houtmann. But the results did not formally appear till a century later in the works of Bayer and Kepler, although they were mentioned in the Decades of Peter Martyr5 and in Eden's translations of it and similar works; and some of the figures were inserted on the now almost unknown globes of Emeric Mollineux, Jodocus Hondius, and Jansenius Caesius (Willem Jansson Blaeu), of 1592 and the years following.
The hitherto unfigured space around the south pole, object of these observations, was an eccentric one as to the pole, although in itself circular, reaching from Argo, Ara, and Centaurus, now within 20° of that point on p15 one side, to Cetus and Piscis Australis, within 60° on the other; while its centre, near γ Hydri and the Nubecula Minor, was the pole of 2000 to 2400 B.C., when α Draconis corresponded to it on the north. From this fact came Proctor's ingenious argument that such was the date of formation of the latest of the ancient constellations.
It is perhaps worthy of notice that the Ductor in linguas, or Guide into Tongues, polyglot dictionary of 1617‑27, by John Minsheu (Minshaeus), at the word Asterisme in the later editions alluded to
eighty-four in all besides a few found out of late by the Discoverers of the South Pole;
but he gave no detailed list, and doubtless erred in his statement.
In our day there is discrepancy in the number of constellations accepted by astronomers, few of whom entirely agree in recognition of the modern formations. For, although Ideler described 106, with allusions to others entirely obsolete, or of which nearly all traces had been lost, Argelander catalogued only eighty-six, Vela, Puppis, and Carina being included under Argo; and the British Association Catalogue of 1845 only eighty-four. Professor Young recognizes sixty-seven as in ordinary use, although he catalogues eighty-four, Argo being divided into Carina, Puppis, and Vela; Upton's Star Atlas, of 1896, eighty-five; and the Standard Dictionary eighty-nine, but the latter's list of 188 star-names is disappointing. Nor should I forget to mention a very popular book in its day, the Geography of the Heavens, with its Atlas by Elijah H. Burritt, published in various editions from 1833 to 1856. This described fifty well-recognized constellations visible from the latitude of Hartford, Connecticut, 41°46′; although his table of those in the entire heavens included ninety-six, most of which appeared in the accompanying maps, the figures being taken from Wollaston's drawings. Although not an original work of great scientific value, and erroneous as well as deficient in its stellar nomenclature, it had a sale of over a quarter of a million copies, and much influence in the dissemination of astronomical knowledge in the generation now passing away. I am glad to pay here my own tribute to the memory of the author, in acknowledgment of the service rendered me in stimulating a boyhood interest in the skies.
From eighty to ninety constellations may be considered as now more or less acknowledged; while probably a million stars are laid down on the various modern maps, and this is soon to be increased perhaps to three millions upon the completion of the present photographic work for this object by the international association of eighteen observatories engaged upon it in different parts of the world. The first instalment in print of these observations p16 may be expected in a few years; the whole perhaps in twenty-five or thirty years.
It has been the fashion with astronomers to decry this multiplicity of sky figures, and with good reason; for, as Miss Clerke writes in her monograph on The Herschels and Modern Astronomy:
Celestial maps had become "a system of derangement and confusion," of confusion "worse confounded." New asterisms, carved out of old, existed precariously, recognized by some, ignored by others; waste places in the sky had been annexed by encroaching astronomers as standing-ground for their glorified telescopes, quadrants, sextants, clocks; a chemical apparatus had been set up by the shore of the river Eridanus, itself a meandering and uncomfortable figure; while serpents and dragons trailed their perplexing convolutions through hour after hour of right ascension;
with more to the same effect. This condition of things led the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1841, to depute to Sir John Herschel and Mr. Francis Baily the task of attempting a reform. But although improvement was made by the discarding of several figures and the subdivision of others, their changes were too sweeping and not successful, so that as the constellations stood then, in the main do they stand to‑day, and so will they probably remain, at least with the people.
The change from the old system of star-designations, however, has been much more thorough, and, except in the popular mind, has been practically accomplished; but now in turn is there confusion in their substitutes, the various catalogue numbers and letters, even among the astronomers, and certainly with us unscientific star-gazers. As to this Miss Clerke graphically continues:
palpable blunders, unsettled discrepancies, anomalies of all imaginable kinds, survive in an inextricable web of arbitrary appellations, until it has come to pass that a star has often as many alias as an accomplished swindler.
What were the dates of formation and places of origin of the earliest of the present sky figures are questions that have often been asked, but till recently impossible to be answered, and now only in part, and that tentatively. Greece and Rome, Egypt and Chaldaea, China, India, Aethiopia, and Phoenicia, and perhaps other countries, all lay claim to the honor, while history, theory, and tradition are all cited in proof; but we may safely agree with La Place that their forms and names have not been given them by chance.
p17 Aratos,6 the first Greek poetical writer on astronomy now extant, described them as from the most ancient times, and wrote in the Phainomena:
Some man of yore
A nomenclature thought of and devised,
And forms sufficient found.
. . . . . . .
So thought he good to make the stellar groups,
That each by other lying orderly,
They might display their forms. And thus the stars
At once took names and rise familiar now.
His sphere, probably identical with that of Eudoxos of a century previous, accurately represented the heavens of about 2000 to 2200 B.C., a fact which has induced many to think it a reproduction from Babylonia; and the disagreement in the poet's description with the sky of his day led Hipparchos, the first commentator on the Phainomena, to much needless although in some cases well-founded criticism; for Aratos was, as Cicero, hominem ignarum astronomiae. Still his poem is now apparently our sole source of knowledge as to the arrangement of the early constellations, and has been closely followed in all star-maps as an indispensable guide. It seems to have been a versification of its now lost prose namesake by Eudoxos, somewhat influenced by the writings of Theophrastus, and had a great run in its day. Landseer7 wrote in his Sabaean Researches of 1823:
When the poem entitled the Phenomena of Aratus was introduced at Rome by Cicero and other leading characters, we read that it became the polite amusement of the Roman ladies to work the celestial forms in gold and silver on the most costly hangings; and this had previously been done at Athens, where concave ceilings were also emblazoned with the heavenly figures, under the auspices of Antigonus Gonatas,
King of Macedonia and patron of Aratos. It has always been much translated, versified, commented upon, and quoted from; and we know of thirty-five Greek commentaries on this work. "It continued to be used as a practical manual of sidereal astronomy as late as the 6th century of our era." Cicero translated it in his youth, seventy years before the appearance of Vergil's Aeneid; Germanicus Caesar did the same about A.D. 15; and Rufus Festus Avienus versified it in our 4th century: all commented on by Hugo Grotius in his Syntagma Arateorum of 1600. Of several English p18 translations the most literal and useful is that of Mr. Robert Brown, Jr., in 1885.
Saint Paul's supposed quotation from it in The Acts of the Apostles, xvii.28, perhaps made it popular with the Christians of his and subsequent times, for apparent references to it occur in the writings of the early fathers.
It may be assumed that, with the exception of Ursa Minor, Equuleus, and Libra in its present shape, the sources of the old forty-eight have been lost in their great antiquity. Yet Pliny asserted [II.31] that Aries and Sagittarius were formed by Cleostratos at some time between 548 and 432 B.C.; and the rest, with equal improbability, have been ascribed by Aristotle's pupil Eudemos to the Pythagorean Oinopides of Chios as of about 500 B.C., but from Egyptian dictation.
Whatever may be the facts as to all this, we know that a long line of notable Greeks, from Homer and Hesiod to Ptolemy, were interested in, and have preserved to us, their constellated heavens. Of these the first astronomers were Thales, 640‑546 B.C., who gave us Ursa Minor; Eudoxos, who, according to common story, brought the constellations from Egypt, and about 366 B.C., was the first to publish them in the original prose Phainomena, Cicero calling him the greatest astronomer that ever lived; while Hipparchos,8 of whom Pliny said [II.95] nunquam satis laudatus, is the acknowledged founder of our modern science. His works, however, are now lost, except his Commentary and the star-catalogue reproduced by Ptolemy. All these are mentioned with respect even by the astronomers of to‑day; and it is certain that we find in their country the immediate source of most of the constellations as they now appear on our maps, and of the stories connected therewith. Yet these unquestionably are in many cases variations of long antecedent, perhaps prehistoric, legends and observations from the Euphrates, Ganges, and Nile; indeed the Greek astronomers always acknowledged their indebtedness to Chaldaea and Egypt, but gave most of the credit to the latter.
While we have few individual star-titles from Greece, the characters of the Argonautic Expedition are largely represented in the heavens; and Saint Clement, followed by many, — even by the great Sir Isaac Newton, — attributed the invention of the constellations to Chiron,b the reputed preceptor of Jason, for the latter's use on that celebrated voyage, fixing its date as about 1420 B.C. And, coincidently as to the time of their formation, that good authority Seneca said that they were from the Greeks of about 1500 B.C., p19 which may be true to the extent that they then adopted them from some earlier nation. But the mythologists ascribed them to Atlas, the Endurer, the father of the Hyades and Pleiades, so skilled in knowledge of the skies that he was shown as their supporter; and they had a story fitted to every heavenly figure.
But much of this is more than unreliable, even childish, and we are only sure that Greece originated our scientific astronomy and gave great attention to it from the times of Thales and Anaximander; this culminating in the work of the Alexandrian School,9 Egyptian in location, but entirely Greek in character.
To the Romans we owe but little in the way of astronomy, — indeed they were always ready to acknowledge the superiority of Greece in this respect, — although we find much of stellar mythology and meteorology in their poetry and prose. No real astronomer, however, appeared among them; and when Julius Caesar needed such for his reform of the calendar, albeit himself somewhat skilled in the science, as his De Astris shows,c he was compelled to call Sosigenes to his aid. The architect Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio), just before the beginning of our era, apparently was the most scientific among them, and in the 9th book of his De Architectura tells us much of their star-lore in connection with the proper location of sun-dials; while Columella, of our 1st century, in his De Re Rustica made many allusions to stars and constellations and their supposed connectiond with the weather and crops.
Many have maintained that Egypt was the first to give shapes and names of that star-groups; Dupuis, perhaps inspired by Macrobius of our 5th century, tracing the present solar zodiac to that country [Sat. I.21.16], and placing its date 13,000 years anterior to our era, when the flow of the Nile with its consequent harvests, and the seasons, coincided with the positions of the separate figures and the characters assigned to them. In this he has been followed by others even to our day.
The little that we know of Egypt's early constellations indicates that they apparently were of native origin, and in no respect like those of Greece, which, if adopted at all, were so at a very late time in that history, and from the influence of the dominant Greeks, perhaps aided by recollections p20 of Chaldaea. Diodorus the Sicilian, of the 1st century before Christ, and Lucian, of three centuries later, distinctly assert this.
The following are among the native stellar groups of Egypt so far as at present can be thought assured: Sahu, identified with Orion, although by some limited to the head of that figure; Sept, Set, Sothis, etc., with Sirius; the Hippopotamus, a part of our Draco; the Thigh, our Ursa Major; the Deer, our Cassiopeia, although some place the Leg here. The doubtful ones were Mena, or Menat, an immense figure if Renouf10 be correct in his statement that it included Antares and Arcturus; the Many Stars, our Coma Berenices; Arit, that Renouf thought may have been marked by β Andromedae; the Fleece, indicated by some stars of Aries; the Goose, by α Arietis; Chu, or Chow, the Pleiades; the Cynocephalus, claimed by La Lande for Ara's stars; the Servant, that Brugsch says was our Pegasus, although the Denderah planisphere shows a Jackal here; the Two Stars, that we may guess were Castor and Pollux; and the Lute-Bearer, or Repā, the Lord, perhaps our Spica.
Those so far unidentified were the Stars of the Water; Mena's Herald; Mena's Followers; Necht, in the vicinity of our Draco; the Lion, but not our Leo; and the Hare, with some others that La Lande indefinitely alluded to as lying on the borders of Ophiuchus and Scorpio and in Aquarius.
A reference is made in Egypt's veritable history to the vernal equinox, then in our Taurus, 3285 B.C.; yet the astronomy of that country was not scientific, and we know little of it except as connected with religion, the worship in the north, about 5200 B.C., of the northern stars being associated with the god An, Annu, Ant, or On, under the supposed government of Set, or Typhon, the god of darkness, recognized under many synonyms. That of the east and west stars was indicated by the Ghizeh temples and pyramids, about 4000 B.C.; while in southern Egypt the worship of the southern stars, as early as 6400 B.C., perhaps much earlier, was presided over by Horus, a southern sun-god, although later he occasionally appeared as a northern divinity. The rising stars represented the youthful goddesses; those setting, the dying gods; while a figure of three stars together symbolized divinity.
Assertions as to India being the first home of astronomy, and the birthplace of the constellation figures, have been made by many — notably, a century ago, by Sir William Jones and Messrs. Colebrooke, Davis, and Von Schlegel; but modern research finds little in Sanskrit literature to confirm this belief, while it seems to be generally acknowledged that the Hindus p21 borrowed much from Greece, perhaps beginning with Pythagoras, who is said to have traveled there and even listened to Zoroaster's teachings. Indeed, Aryabhata, of our 5th or 6th century, reckoned by the same signs as Hipparchos; and their most noted later astronomer, Varāha Mihira,11 of 504, in writing of the constellations, used the Grecian titles, changed, however, to suit his native tongue. But Arabia also probably exercised influence over them, as over the rest of Asia.
Professor Whitney's opinion as to this is summed up thus:
We regard the Hindu science as an offshoot from the Greek, planted not far from the commencement of the Christian era, and attaining its fully developed form in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries;
but unfavourably criticizes it, as did Al Bīrūnī. The annals of China, a country never backward in claiming the invention of almost everything, new or old, on earth or in the sky, ascribe the formation of constellations to Tajao, the prime minister of Hwang Ti, 2637 B.C., and make much of an observation of the Pleiades, 2537 B.C., from an observatory said to have been erected 2608 B.C. But real stellar work in that country seems to have been begun only about ten or twelve centuries before our era, and then almost solely in the interests of astrology.
The attainment of the Chinese in the science, probably very highly overrated, however, is thought to be largely due to Chaldaea, and later on the Arabians, in the times of the khalifs, apparently exercised influence over them; while all their recent advance is due to the Jesuit missionaries who settled among them in the 16th century, during the early years of the present Tsing dynasty, and introduced the knowledge of our Western figures. These were thenceforward to a great extent adopted, and our own star-titles in the translations which the Chinese called Sze Kwo Ming, the Western Nation Names, became common, especially in the case of the constellations visible only from south of the parallel of Peking, 40°. The indigenous titles were Chung Kwo Ming, the Middle Nation Names, Edkins saying as to these that there were two great periods of star-naming: the first about 2300 B.C. by the people, and the second from 1120 to 220 B.C., during the Chow dynasty, that plainly shows an imperial origin. And it was during this period, about 600 B.C., that a chart was drawn with 1460 stars correctly laid down. This is now in the Royal Library of Paris.e
In all its history in China astronomy has been under the special care of the state, and the regulator of all affairs of life, public and private.
p22 The early Chinese included the twenty-eight sieu and the twelve kung, or zodiac figures, in four larger equal spaces, — Tsing Lung, the Azure Dragon; Heung Woo, the Dark Warrior; Choo Neaou, the Red Bird, Phoenix, Pheasant, or Quail; and Pih Hoo, the White Tiger. And they marked off, in the general constellations, three large yuen, or inclosures, — Tsze Wei, the circumpolar stars; Tien She and Tai Wei, containing the rest that were visible to them.
Williams' Observations of Comets is accompanied by a full set of map so 351 early asterisms traced over Flamsteed's figures; but, large as is this number, M. Gustave Schlegel, in his Uranographie Chinoise of 1875, cited 670 that he asserted could be traced back to 17,000 B.C.!
In the neighboring Japan some, even of its wise men, thought that the stars were made to guide navigators of foreign peoples, with their tribute, to the land of the Mikados.
Aethiopia's claim to the invention of the constellations probably can be entertained only by considering that country as the Kush of southwestern Asia, — Homer's eastern Aethiopia, — stretching along the Arabian and Persian gulfs, whence early migrations across the Red Sea at the Strait of Babd al Mandab may have carried astronomical knowledge directly to the Nile, or, by a roundabout way, to Meroë in western Aethiopia, the modern Nubia, and thence northward into Egypt.
Of Phoenician stellar science little is known, and assertions as to its antiquity rest largely upon the fact that this people was the great maritime nation of ancient times, and hence some knowledge of the heavenly bodies was a necessity with them. Yet Thales, the father of astronomy and a teacher of the Greeks in the science, — indeed one of their Seven Sages, — probably was Phoenician by birth; and Samuel Bochart, the Oriental scholar of the 17th century, as well as other authorities, thought that many of our older groups in the sky are merely reproductions of the figureheads on the Carthaginian, Sidonian, and Tyrian ships. This, if correct, might account for the incompleteness of such as Argo, Pegasus, and Taurus, as well as for the marine character of many of them. But the general opinion is that the Phoenicians drew from Chaldaea such astronomy as they may have had.
Ideler, in his Sternkunde der Chaldaer of 1815, asserted that the constellations originated on the Euphrates, — "reduplications of simpler ideas connected with natural phenomena," — and conviction as to the truth of this seems to be growing with students of stellar archaeology. Indeed recent discoveries make it apparently safe to say that those of the zodiac at least were first formed in the Akkad country, probably in almost prehistoric p23 times, and that there, as among all the earliest nations, "their order and harmony is contrasted with and opposed to the supposed disorderly motion of the planets." It is also probable that many of the extra-zodiacal groups, in somewhat the same form and location as we have them now, came from the Valley of the Great River, as well as the myths associated with them, originally introduced by Northern invaders; for Bailly said that the science current in Chaldaea, as well as in India and Persia, belonged to a latitude higher than that of Babylon, Benares, and Persepolis.
With the Babylonians the chief stars represented their chief gods, and they connected the several constellations with particular nations over whose destiny they were thought to dominate. Cuneiform characters arranged in stellar form were the ideograph of Ilu, Divinity; while, combining business and religion, their Ku-dur‑ru, or Division Stones, recently unearthed, that marked the metes and bounds of city lots and farm lands, are often inscribed with some constellation figure, probably the one representing the tutelar god of the owner. But whatever may be our conclusions as to the beginning of astronomy in the Euphrates valley, it can be considered settled that astrology in the present sense of the word had its origin there, and that the modern astrological characters of the sun, moon, and planets are those current on that river and in all ages since.
The prophet Isaiah, 700 B.C., in pronouncing the Almighty's judgement on Babylon, contemptuously referred to
the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators;
Daniel, a century later, knew his captors as accomplished in the art, although himself and his companions were "ten times better"; while the terms "Babylonians" and "Chaldaeans" have come down almost to our own time as synonymous with observers of, and diviners from, the stars, whatever their individual nationality.
But the art became widely spread elsewhere, and especially in vogue in Rome, where its devotees, known as Babylonii, Chaldaei, Astronomi, Astrologi, Genethliaci, Mathematici, and Planetarii, seem to have flourished notwithstanding the efforts made to suppress them and the ridicule cast on them by Cicero, Juvenal, and others of the time. Indeed they were driven out of the city by law in 139 B.C., and frequently afterward, but as often returned. In Greece, Eudoxos and Aristarchus of Samos felt it needful to urge their countrymen against it, although Berōssōs taught it there soon after them; and its influence everywhere up to two hundred years ago is well known.f Dante's belief in it is frequently shown throughout the Divina Commedia, while in Shakespeare's day — indeed for a century after him — p24 reliance upon it was well-nigh universal, and much was made of it in all drama and poetry, Kent, in King Lear, only expressing prevalent opinion when he said:
It is the stars,
The stars above us that govern our conditions.
Cecil, Baron of Burghley, calculated the nativity of Queen Elizabeth; Lilly was consulted by King Charles I, in 1647, as to his escape from Carisbrooke Castle; Flamsteed drew a horoscope of the heavens at the moment of laying the foundation of the Royal Observatory, on the 10th of August, 1675, although he added to it Risum teneatis amici; and about the same time astrologers were called into the councils of Parliament. The art still obtained even among the educated classes of the succeeding century; for astrological evidence was received in a court of justice as late as 1758, and Sir Walter Scott made Guy Mannering cast a horoscope for the young laird of Ellangowan that the latter preserved till of mature age.
It is not unlikely that the decadence of astrology in England was hastened by the publication of Boteler's Hudibras, in which the practice and its great exponent William Lilly, under the title Sidrophel, were so successfully and popularly satirized. Among its passages we read of its devotees:
In one case they tell more lies,
In figures and nativities,
Than th' old Chaldean conjurors
In so many hundred thousand years.
Dean Swift followed in the same vein in his Predictions for the year 1708 by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.
On the Continent astrology had been still more prevalent, and even men of science were seriously interested in it. Gassendi began his distinguished career in its practice; Tycho predicted from the comet of 1577, and, as it happened, successfully, the achievements and time of death of Gustavus Adolphus; the still greater Kepler prophesied from the stars a coming hard winter, and so it proved. Miss Maria Mitchell wrote of these two astronomers:
Both of these philosophers leaned to the astrological opinions of their times; and Kepler was certainly a believer in them. He calculated nativities when pressed for money, and published astrological almanacs, though he admitted that such procedures were little better than begging, and his work but "worthless conjectures";
and he plaintively said:
The scanty rewards of an astronomer would not provide me with bread, if men did not entertain hopes of reading the future in the heavens.
p25 The horoscope of Wallenstein by one or the other of these great men is still preserved in the library of the Poulkowa Observatory. Napoleon's belief in his guiding star is well known. But as an occult science astrology practically died out in England with the astronomers of the 17th century. It still flourishes, however, in the East, especially among the Chinese and Parsis. The recent advent of a little son to the Chinese consul-general in New York was the occasion of much telegraphing to the chief astrologers of the Celestial Kingdom who were to predict his future; and the horoscope of the Parsi even now is carefully preserved during life, burned at his death, and its ashes scattered over the Sacred River. In a measure it lingers among the people everywhere, for its almanacs and periodicals are still published; its advertisements and signs are daily to be seen in our large cities; a society for its study, called the Zodiac, was established in New York City in 1897; and even now there are many districts in Germany were the child's horoscope is regularly kept with the baptismal certificate in the family chest.
It should not be forgotten that astrology, Kepler's "foolish daughter of a wise mother," originally included astronomy, Seneca being the first in classical times to make distinction between the meanings of the two words; and he was followed in this [Etym. III.27] by Saint Isidore of Seville (Isidorus Hispalensis), the Egregius Doctor of the 7th century, and author of the Origines et Etymologiae; although even as late as the 17th century we see confusion in their use, for Minsheu mentioned the "astrologers" as having formed the "asterismes," and the diarist John Evelyn wrote of "Mr. Flamsteed the learned astrologer."
Contrariwise, and not long previously, the word "astronomer" was applied to those whom we would now call astrologers. Shakespeare devoted his 14th Sonnet to the subject, beginning thus:
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy;
and in Troilus and Cressida we read
When he performs astronomers foretell it.
But this is a long digression from my subject.
Arabia's part in early astronomy was slight, for although the tribes before Muḥammād's day doubtless paid much attention to the heavenly bodies, this was entirely unscientific, merely observational and superstitious; and only in their subsequent days of peace and power, after the Prophet had p26 solidified them into an active nation, did their more cultured class seriously take up the study of the sky. Even this was solely along the lines laid down by Ptolemy, and they originated little. Still we owe them and their Jewish assistants much of gratitude for their preservation of the beginnings of modern astronomy during the thousand years of the Dark and Mediaeval Ages; while, as we have seen, our star-names are largely due to them.
The heathen Arabs were star-worshipers, — Sabaeans, — as still are the Parsis of our own special star, the sun; indeed this worship was very general in antiquity. It was universal in earliest India, and constantly alluded to in their sacred books; Egyptian priests showed to Plutarch stars that had been Isis and Osiris;g in Greece Aristophanes made special mention of it in his Pax, 419 B.C., and Aristotle wrote to Alexander:
Heaven is full of the gods to whom we give the name of stars.
In Plato's Timaeus we read of his supreme divinity:
And after having thus framed the universe, he allotted to it souls equal in number to the stars, inserting each in each. . . . And he declared also, that after living well for the time appointed to him, each one should once more return to the habitation of his associate star, and spend a blessed and suitable existence;
Dante adopting this in the Paradiso [IV.22‑24]:
Parer tornarsi l' anime alle stelle,
Secondo la sentenza di Platone;
while Vergil wrote in the Georgics [IV.227]:
Sideris in numerum, atque alto succedere coelo;
Milton, in Paradise Lost:
Those argent fields most likely habitants,
Translated saints, or middle spirits hold,
Betwixt the angelical and human kind;
and Wordsworth, almost of our own day, in his Poems of the Imagination:
The stars are mansions built by nature's hand,
And, haply, there the spirits of the blest
Dwell clothed in radiance, their immortal vest.
Indeed this thought has been current in all history and tradition, in civilized as in savage life, on every continent, and in the isles of the sea.
p27 The Christian father Origen, following the supposed authority of the Book of Job, xxv.5, and perhaps influenced by the 43d verse of chapter xiii of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, said that the stars themselves were living beings; and Dionysius Exiguus, the chronologist of our 6th century, established in the constellations the hierarchies of the genii, assigning to the cherubim the domain of the fixed stars. Shakespeare has many allusions to this stellar attribute. In King Henry VI, Bedford, invoking the ghost of Henry V, said:
a far more glorious star thy soul make
Than Julius Caesar;
and in Pericles we see
Heavens make a star of him.
Even now, according to Mr. Andrew Lang, German folk-lore asserts that when a child dies God makes a new star — a superstition also found in New England fifty years or more ago. The German peasant tells his children that the stars are angels' eyes; and the English cottager impresses it on the youthful mind that it is wicked to point at the stars, though why he cannot tell.
In much the same way Al Bīrūnī cited from Varāha Mihira:
Comets are such beings as have been on account of their merits raised to heaven, whose period of dwelling in heaven has elapsed and who are then redescending to the earth.
Cicero, in De Natura Deorum, asserted that the constellations were looked upon as divine; and Statius, that the sea nymphs were the constellations of the sea, the divine inhabitants of the waters, as the others were of the heavens. Yet this same author elsewhere represented Aurora as driving the stars out of heaven with a scourge like so many beasts; and Manilius called them a flock going on like sheep; while Shelley, in his Prometheus Unbound, writing of the astronomer's work, said:
Heaven's utmost deep
Gives up her stars, and like a flock of sheep
They pass before his eye, are number'd, and roll on.
In Upper India even now women teach their children that the stars are kine, and the moon their keeper.
Following the opinion of Josephus, Origen said that the constellations were known long before the days of the patriarchs by Noah, Enoch, Seth, and Adam — indeed were mentioned in the Book of Enoch as "already named p28 and divided"; and he claimed that ancient longevity was a blessing specially bestowed to give opportunity for a long-continued period of observation and comparison of the heavenly bodies.
In early Christian art a star became the peculiar emblem of sanctity, and often appeared over the heads or on the breasts of representations of the saints.
Some allusion should be made to what Smyth called the Biblical School and the Mosaicists, who at various times have sought to alter the sky figures to others drawn from sacred history and its interpretation. Beginning with the Venerable Bede, this school has come to our time, but their efforts, fortunately, have been in vain; for, although their motives may have been praiseworthy, our scheme of the heavenly groups is of too much historical value and too useful and interesting a source of popular instruction for us to wish it discarded.
Among the number of these stellar iconoclasts was the unfortunate Giordano Bruno of the 16th century, who, in his Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante, sought to substitute for the ancient figures the moral virtues, Law, Mercy, Prudence, Truth, Universal Judgment, Wisdom, etc.; and others, most numerous in the 17th century, were Caesius, Jeremias Drexelius, Novidius, Postellus, Bartsch, Schickard, Harsdörffer, and Julius Schiller of Augsburg; while in our day the Reverend Doctor John Lamb, the versifier of Aratos, and Proctor wrote somewhat in the same vein. The recent efforts of Miss Frances Rolleston and the Reverend Doctor Joseph A. Seiss are especially remarkable. Proctor made other changes in constellation titles, although he followed the old lines; but his changes have not been adopted, and, Chambers says, "were far more barbarous than the originals which he condemned"; indeed in his later works he abandoned the effort as impracticable.
The following remarks by Professor Holden on the history of the delineation of our stellar figures are interesting:
The contribution of Albrecht Dürer to astronomy is . . . unknown, I believe, to all his biographers.
But this statement he subsequent modified by a reference to Thausing's Life of Dürer, in which this artist's map-work is mentioned:
Hippocrates (B.C. 127) and Ptolemy (A.D. 136) fixed the positions of stars by celestial latitudes and longitudes, and named the stars so fixed by describing their situation in some constellation figure. The celestial globes of that day have all disappeared, and we have only a few Arabian copies of them, not more ancient than the XIIIth century, so that we p29 may say that the original constellation figures are entirely lost. The situations of the principal stars in each one of the forty-eight classic constellations are verbally described by Ptolemy. In La Lande's Bibliographie Astronomique we find that in A.D. 1515 Albrecht Dürer published two star-maps, one of each hemisphere, engraved on wood, in which the stars of Ptolemy were laid down by Heinfogel, a mathematician of Nuremberg. The stars themselves were connected by constellation figures drawn by Dürer. These constellation figures of Dürer, with but few changes, have been copied by Bayer in his Uranometria (A.D. 1603); by Flamsteed in the Atlas Coelestis (1729); by Argelander in the Uranometria Nova (1843); and by Heis in the Atlas Coelestis Novus (1872), and have thus become classic.
It is a matter of congratulation that designs which are destined to be so permanent should have come down to us from the hands of so consummate a master.
I would add to this that Ptolemy's catalogue of stars was published at Cologne in 1537, in folio, with the forty-eight drawings by Dürer.
It seems singular that of the world's artists few, save heº and Raphael, have done anything for this most ancient, exalted, and interesting of the sciences; others, famous or forgotten, introduce the subject into their compositions with generally sad result.12 One instance especially absurd, although not strictly astronomical, is worthy ofº repetition. Mrs. Jameson, in her Sacred and Legendary Art, describes, from an old French print,
St. Denis at Heliopolis, seated on the summit of a tower or observatory, contemplating, through a telescope, the crucifixion of our Saviour seen in the far distance.
And much the same may be said of most of our authors. Pope thus mistranslated Homer's allusion to Sirius:
rises to the sight
Through the thick gloom of some tempestuous night;
Henry Kirk White, in Time, had
Orion in his Arctic tower;
Shelley, in the Witch of Atlas, wrote of the minor planets as
those mysterious stars
Which hide themselves between the earth and Mars;
and in Prince Athanase thus ignored the apparent motion of the stars:
far o'er southern waves immovably
Belted Orion hangs;
Dickens, in Hard Times, doing the same in his description of Stephen Blackpool's death, comforted the sufferer by a star shining brightly for p30 hours down to the bottom of the Old Hell Shaft. In the poor man's own words:
Often as I coom to myseln, and found it shinin' on me down there in my trouble, I thowt it were the star as guided to Our Saviour's home.
Carlyle, who at one time aspired to the position of astronomer at the Edinburgh University, thus alluded, in his French Revolution, to the scenes in Paris on the night of the 9th of August, 1792:
the night . . . "is beautiful and calm"; Orion and the Pleiades glitter down quite serene,
although the former did not rise till daybreak; and again, still more blunderingly:
Overhead, as always, the Great Bear is turning so quiet round Boötes;
while Dickens, in Our Mutual Friend, made perhaps the worst mistake of all when, in describing the voyage that "brought a baby Bella home," a revolution of the earth around the sun marks a month instead of a year. Wallace, in Ben Hur, makes the shaykh Ilderim give impossible star-names to the parents of his great team — Sirius, from the hated Roman tongue instead of the beautiful Al Shirā of the Desert; and Mira, unknown to him, or indeed to any one, till nearly sixteen centuries thereafter; while the unlikely Greek Antares was given to one of the victorious four.
Errors as to the moon and planets are notoriously frequent, Venus and new moon often being made to rise at sunset. Shakespeare, although contemporary with Galileo and Kepler, has many such; yet he seems to have known the action of the moon, his "governess of the floods," on the tides,13 for we find in Hamlet
the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands;
and in King Henry IV,
being governed as the sea is by the moon.
Marryat, sea-captain though he was, wrote of a waning crescent moon seen in the early evening; and H. Rider Haggard has something similar in King Solomon's Mines — a book, by the way, that was once ordered for the library of a school of mineralogy! Charles Wolfe, in his Burial of Sir John Moore after the battle of Corunna, January 16, 1809, said that it was
By the struggling moonbeams' misty light,
p31 whereas the moon did not shine that night, whether misty or clear; and Coleridge, in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, had
The horned moon with one bright star
Within the nether tip.
The astronomy of the modern newspaper is notorious — ridiculous were not the fact of such prevalent ignorance lamentable.
Classical writers abounded in stellar allusions far more than do authors of our day; in fact, Quintilian, of our 1st century, in his Institutio Oratoria [I.4.4], insisted that a knowledge of astronomy was absolutely necessary to a proper understanding of the poets. And these allusions generally were correct, at least for their day.
The same may be said of Dante, whose thorough acquaintance with the stellar science of the 14th century appears everywhere in his works — in fact, the Paradiso may be called a poetical frame for the Ptolemaic system; and it has been well written of Milton, "the poetical historian of the astronomy of his day," that in astronomy the accuracy of his facts fairly divides the honors with the beauty of his language; but he slipped when he located Ophiuchus "in th' Arctic sky," and it is not till late in his works that we see the abandonment of Ptolemy's theories.
Tennyson makes many beautiful allusions of the stars and planets, and is always accurate, unless we except his "moonless Mars," which, however, was before Asaph Hall's discovery; while our Longfellow and Lowell knew the stars well, and well showed this in their works.
1 In Chilmead's Treatise is an attempted explanation of this, from Scaliger's Commentaries on Manilius: "that he might untie this knot, reads those words of Pliny thus . . . discreta in duo de L. signa, &c., where for seventy two, hee would have it to be wanting two: which is 58, the just number reckoned by Ptolemy."
2 Rycharde Eden was one of the principal authors of the reign of Mary Tudor, and the translator of the writings of Peter Martyr on the early navigators Vespucci, Corsali, Pigafetta, and others. His Decades of the newe worlde or west India was the third English book on America, or Armenica as he called it, published in London in 1555.
3 No lettering, however, was applied by Bayer to stars of the twelve new southern figures.
For exhaustive details, see Andrew James: Greek Letter Designations of Southern Stars.
4 It is interesting to know that La Caille's observations were made with a half-inch glass.
5 Peter Martyr — not the great reformer Vermigli — was Pietro Martire d' Anghiera, Angleria, or Angliera, from his supposed birthplace near Milan. His work De rebus Oceanicis et Orbe Novo, issued from 1511 to 1521, is a most interesting source of information on the early voyages to our country, largely derived from Columbus.
6 Aratos is supposed to have been the quis alter who, with Conon, was shown on the "beechen bowls, the carved work of the divine Alcimedon," that Menalcas wagers with Damoetas in the 3d Eclogue of the Bucolica.
7 John Landseer, engraver and writer on art, was the father of Thomas and Sir Edwin Landseer.
8 The Abarchis and Abrachys of the Arabians.
9 This great school was begun by such men as the two Arystilli and Timochares, under Ptolemy Soter, 300 B.C., the first really scientific astronomers who initiated the observations that are generally supposed to have led Hipparchos to his discovery of the phenomenon of precession; and it was carried on by Aristarchos, Eratosthenes (the inventor of the armillary sphere), Euclid (the geometrician), Conon, Sosigenes, and lastly Ptolemy, who ended the famous list in A.D. 151, although the school was nominally maintained till the final destruction of the great Alexandrian Library in the 7th century.
10 The eminent Egyptologist Sir Peter Le Page Renouf, who died in 1897.
11 Al Bīrūnī mentioned this author as an excellent astronomer, and quoted much from his work the Brihatsaṁhitā, or Collection.
12 This is especially the case with the moon, which is rarely correctly located or drawn.
a Such a nomenclatural system, if it was actually ever in use, would be the germ of a constructed logical language: not surprising that Abenezra's cabalistic approach should attract the interest of the 17c, much addicted to engineered and philosophical languages — see for example Urquhart's Logopandecteision, "an introduction to the universal language". The best example of such a language in our own time is probably the Universal Decimal Classification.
b Allen is conflating several sources here. Clement of Alexandria seems not to have written anything of the sort; rather, that he implied it appears to have been a conclusion of Newton's, based on reading several ancient authors (I. Bernard Cohen, Newton in the Light of Recent Scholarship, in Isis 51:501); Newton dates Chiron's sphere, involved in the voyage of the Argonauts, not to 1420 but to 956 B.C.
d A misleading phrase: Columella uses the rising and setting of various stars merely as calendrical devices, without attributing causal or other connections between them and crops or weather.
e Allen seems to be showing that he got this information from a rather old secondary source. When he wrote, for several decades already, that library was known by its present name, the Bibliothèque Nationale.
f Amusingly, Allen, who will demonstrate in various places his distaste for astrology, wrote at the exact time of a great renascence of the discipline: most of modern astrology dates back, in fact, neither to the Middle Ages nor to classical antiquity (let alone to ancient Babylonia and the like!), but to a few people who rebuilt it in the last decades of the 19c: such practitioners as Richard James Morrison (Zadkiel), Robert Cross Smith (Raphael), Alan Leo, Evangeline Adams, synthesized a new astrology on the basis of the old, making it simple enough to crown their popularization with success. Since then, as we know, astrology has taken off big-time: the hint of "at least that nonsense is done with" that we read here and thruout what follows was misplaced.
g Very possibly; but nowhere, neither in the Isis and Osiris nor elsewhere, does Plutarch actually say he talked to an Egyptian priest, about stars or anything else. He does, however, report that Egyptian priests said — whether to him or just generally — that the souls of the two gods shone in the form of stars in the sky (Isis and Osiris, 359C‑D).
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 25 Mar 20