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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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Close by the Serpent spreads; whose winding Spires

With ordered stars resemble scaly Fires.

Creech's Manilius.

Hydra, the Water-snake,

is the French Hydre, the German Grosse Wasserschlange, and the Italian Idra, and may be classed among the Argonautic constellations, as it was said to represent the Dragon of Aetes.

p247 Its stars are now well defined under this single title, but anciently were described, with their riders Corvus and Crater, as Ovid [Fasti, II.266] wrote:

Anguis, Avis, Crater, sidera juncta micant.

This continued to the 18th century, Flamsteed and other early astronomers making of them even four divisions, Hydra, Hydra et Crater, Hydra et Corvus, and Continuatio Hydrae. Nepa and Nepas, originally African words for the terrestrial crab and scorpion, seem also to have been used for this constellation in classic times.

Aratos called it Ὕδρη; Eratosthenes, Hipparchos, and Geminos, ῾Ύδρος, the Hydros of Germanicus, while others wrote it Ὕδρα; but Eratosthenes again had it all under Κόραξ, and Hipparchos also used Δράκων.

In Low Latin it has been Hidra, Idra, and Ydra; and, in the Almagest of 1551, Hydrus in the masculine, which, correct enough before Bayer's day, would now confound it with the new southern figure. Riccioli, and Hyde in his translation of Ulug Beg's catalogue, had it thus, showing its continuance till then as a common title, although often written Idrus and Idrus aquaticus, as well as changed to Serpens aquaticus.

Other names, also used for the northern Dragon, have been Draco, Asiua, and Asuia, or Asvia, which Bayer referred to as ἀσούγια non ἀσβία; but these are not Greek words, and doubtless are from Al Shujāʽ, the Snake, transformed, as only the late mediaeval astronomical writers and their immediate successors could transform classical and Arabic terms into their Low Latin and Greek; Chilmead wrote it Alsugahh. Still another conception and title may be seen in the Arabo-Latin Almagest's Stellatio Ydre: et est species serpentium; et jam nominatur Asiua. secur᾽; where the last word, if an abbreviation for securis, "ax," seems not inappropriate when taking the western half of Hydra for a somewhat crooked handle, and Corvus for the ax-head. The Asina, or She Ass, which La Lande mentioned, is probably a continuation of some early type error in the barbarous Asiua.

Coluber, the Snake, and Echidna, the Viper, also obtain for Hydra, with the adjectives Furiosus, Magnanimus, and Sublimatus, here used as proper nouns, as they were for Orion. The Arabians similarly called it Al Ḥayyah, another of their words for a snake, — El Havic in Riccioli's New Almagest.

Its representation has generally been as we have it, but the Hyginus of 1488 added a tree in whose branches the Hydra's head is resting; probably a recollection of the dragon that guarded the apple-trees of the Hesperides, although this duty really belonged to our Draco; and at times it has been shown as three-headed. Map-makers have always figured it in its present form, the Cup resting midway on its back, with the Raven pecking p248at one of its folds; Hydra preventing the latter's access to the Cup in punishment for its tattling about Coronis; or for its delay in Apollo's service. The minor constellation Turdus, or Noctua, only recently has been added to it.

Those who saw biblical symbols among the stars called Hydra the Flood; Corvus, Noah's Raven; and Crater, the Cup "out of which the patriarch sinned"; but Julius Schiller said that the whole represented the River Jordan.

The 7th sieu, Lieu, a Willow Branch, or Liu, a Circular Garland, — was the creature's head, 15° south of Praesaepe, δ being the determinant, and formed the beak of the Red Bird; it governed the planets and was worshiped at festivals of the summer solstice as an emblem of immortality.

Here, too, was the 7th nakshatra, Āçleshā, or Āçreshā, the Embracer, figured as a Wheel, with Sarpas, the Serpents, as presiding divinities; ε marking the junction with the nakshatra Maghā.

The 8th sieu, Sing, a Star, anciently Tah, was formed by ασ, and τ, with others smaller lying near them, α being the determinant. This asterism constituted the neck of the Red Bird, and, Edkins asserts, was also known as the Seven Stars.

The 9th sieu consisted of κυ1υ2λμφ, and another unascertained, and was called Chang or Tchang, a Drawn Bow, — Brown says "anciently Tjung, the Archer," — υ1 being the determinant; the god Chang using this bow to slay the Sky Dog, our Crater. The stars between Corvus and Crater were Kien Mun, and those between γ Hydrae and Spica of the Virgin were Tien Mun, Heaven's Gate. These lie beyond the outlines of the Virgin's robe on the Heis map, but on Burritt's are included in the tip of her left wing.

Hydra is supposed to be the snake shown on a uranographic stone from the Euphrates, of 1200 B.C., "identified with the source of the fountains of the great deep," and one of the several sky symbols of the great dragon Tiāmat. Certain stars near, or perhaps in the tip of Hydra's tail and in Libra, seem to have been the Akkadian En‑te-na-mas‑luv, or En‑te-na-mas‑mur, the Assyrian Etsen-tsiri, the Tail-tip.

Theon said that the Egyptians considered it the sky representative of the Nile, and gave it their name for that river.

After Al Sufi's day, in our 10th century, the figure was much lengthened, and now stretches for nearly 95° in a winding course from Cancer to Scorpio; this well agreeing with the fable of its immense marine prototype, the Scandinavian Kraken. Conrad Gesner, the 16th‑century naturalist, gave an illustration of this in its apparently successful attack upon the ship Argo. p249The constellation cannot be seen in its entirety till Crater is on the meridian. Argelander enumerates in it 75 stars; Heis, 153.

For an unknown period its winding course symbolized that of the moon; hence the latter's nodes are called the Dragon's Head and Tail. When a comet was in them poison was thought to be scattered by it over the world; but these fanciful ideas are now associated with Draco.

Al Sufi mentioned an early Arab figure, Al Ḣail, the Horse, formed from stars some of which now belong to our Hydra, but more to Leo and Sextans.

The Water-serpent's gleaming bend.

Brown's Aratos.

α, 2, orange.

Alphard, Alfard, and Alpherd, — Alphart in the Alfonsine Tables and Pherd with Hyde, — are from Al Fard al Shujāʽ, the Solitary One in the Serpent, well describing its position in the sky. Caesius gave Alpharad, which on the Reuter wall-map was Alphrad; and a still more changed title is Alphora. The Arabs also knew α as Al Faḳār al Shujāʽ, the Backbone of the Serpent; but Ulug Beg changed this to Al ʽUnk al Shujāʽ, the Serpent's Neck; and its shared the Suhel of other bright stars as Suhel al Fard, and Suhel al Shām, the Solitary, and the Northern, Suhail.

Tycho first called it Cor Hydrae, the Hydra's Heart, — Riccioli's Kalb Elhavich and Kalbelaphard, — which, with the alternative Collum Hydrae, the Hydra's Neck, is current even now.

In China it determined the 8th sieu, and was the prominent star of the Red Bird that combined the seven lunar divisions of the southern quarter of the heavens. Its longitude is said to have been ascertained there in the 19th century before our era, but the statement may be questionable; as also it was observed passing the meridian at sunset on the day of the vernal equinox during the time of the emperor Yao, about 2350 B.C. It culminates on the 26th of March.

β and ξ were the Chinese Tsing Kew, the Green Hill.

δεζηρ, and σ, 3d to 5th magnitudes, on the head, were Ulug Beg's Min al Azʽal, Belonging to the Uninhabited Spot.

ε is a remarkable triple, — an 8th‑magnitude 3½ʺ from a 3.8‑magnitude, the latter divided by Schiaparelli, in 1892, into two of nearly equal brightness 0ʺ.2 apart, — which probably form a rapid ternary system.

ι, a 4th‑magnitude, was the Chinese Ping Sing, a Tranquil Star.

κ, a 5th‑magnitude, and the stars of about the same brilliancy extending from it to β, with β Crateris, were Al Sufi's Al Sharāsīf, the Ribs.

p250 σ, 4.6, was Ulug Beg's Al Minḣar al Shujāʽ, the Snake's Nose.

τ1, 4.9, flushed white, and τ2, lilac, with ι and the 5th‑magnitude A, form the curve in the neck, Ptolemy's Καμπή; but Kazwini knew them as ʽUḳdah, the Knot.

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Page updated: 27 Sep 07