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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 length of Ophiuchus huge

In th' arctic sky.

Milton's Paradise Lost.

Ophiuchus vel Serpentarius, the Serpent-holder,

not Ophiuchus Serpentarius, is Ofiuco with the Italians, Schlangenträger with the Germans, and Serpentaire with the French.

It stretches from just east of the head of Hercules to Scorpio; partly in the Milky Way, divided nearly equally by the celestial equator; but, although always shown with the Serpent, the catalogues have its stars entirely distinct from the latter. The classical Hyginus, however, united the two figures into a single constellation [Astron. II.14], and some early nations, especially the Sogdians and Khorasmians, did the same, the stars being intermingled in their nomenclature.

p298 The original title, Ὀφιοῦχος, appeared in the earliest Greek astronomy; μογερός, "toiling," being an adjectival appellation in the Phainomena.

Transliterated as in our title it was best known to the Latins, but also as Ophiulchus, Ophiulcus, Ophiultus, and, in the diminutive, Ophiuculus and Ophiulculus; while the classical word plainly shows itself in the Afeichus, Afeichius, and Alpheichius of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Serpentarius first appeared with the scholiast on Germanicus, while Serpentiger, Serpentis Lator, Serpentis Praeses, and Serpentinarius are seen for it; as also the Anguifer of Columella, which was Anguiger elsewhere. Cicero and Manilius had the peculiar Anguitenens. Golius insisted that this sky figure represents a Serpent-charmer, one of the Psylli of Libya, noted for their skill in curing the bites of poisonous serpents; and this would seem to be confirmed by the constellation's title le Psylle in Schjellerup's edition of Al Sufi's work.

But the Serpent-holder generally was identified with Ἀσκληπίος,1 Asclepios, or Aesculapius, whom King James I described as "a mediciner after made a god," with whose worship serpents were always associated as symbols of prudence, renovation, wisdom, and the power of discovering healing herbs. Educated by his father Apollo, or by the Centaur Chiron, Aesculapius was the earliest of his profession and the ship's surgeon of the Argo. When the famous voyage was over he became so skilled in practice that he even restored the dead to life, among these being Hippolytus, of whom King James wrote:

Hippolyte. After his members were drawin in sunder by foure horses, Esculapius at Neptun's request glewed them together and revived him.

But several such successful operations and numerous remarkable cures, and especially the attempt to revive the dead Orion, led Pluto, who feared for the continuance of his kingdom, to induce Jove to strike Aesculapius with a thunderbolt and put him among the constellations.

The figure also was associated with Caecius, the Blinding One, slain by Hercules and celebrated by Dante in the Inferno; indeed, it is said that the p299Hero himself was assigned to these stars by Hyginus, and gave them his name: a confusion that may have arisen because the boundaries between the two stellar groups were at first ill defined, or from the similarity of their original myths to that of Izhdubar and the dragon Tiāmat. It also represented Triopas, king of the Perrhaebians; Carnabon, Carnabas, and Carnabus, the slayer of Triopas; Phorbas, his Thessalian son, who freed Rhodes from snakes; Cadmus changed to a serpent; Jason pursuing the golden-fleeced Aries; Aesacus, from the story of Hesperia; Aristaeus, from the story of Eurydice; Laocoön struggling with the serpent; and Caesius, or Glaucus, the sea-god, although this latter title, identified by some with that of Androgĕus, may have come from that namesake who was restored to life by Aesculapius.

The Arabians translated the Greek name into Al Hawwāʽ, which Assemani repeated as Alhava, Collector serpentum; but it appeared on the globes as Al Haur, turned by the Moors into Al Hague, and by early astronomical writers into Alangue, Hasalangue, and Alange; the Turks having the similar Yilange. It has been suggested, however, that these may have come from the Latin Anguis, a word that the astronomical Arabians and Moors well knew.

Euphratean astronomers knew it, or a part of it with Serpens, as Nu‑tsir‑da; and Brown associates it with Sa‑gi‑mu, the God of Invocation.

Pliny said that these stars were dangerous to mankind, occasioning much mortality by poisoning; while Milton compared Satan to the burning comet that "fires" this constellation, — a comparison perhaps suggested by the fact that noticeable comets appeared here in the years 1495, 1523, 1537, and 1569, which might well have been known to Milton, for Lord Bacon wrote in his Astronomy:

Comets have more than once appeared in our time; first in Cassiopeia, and again in Ophiuchus.

Novidius changed the figure to that of Saint Paul with the Maltese Viper; Caesius gave it as Aaron, whose staff became a serpent, or as Moses, who lifted up the Brazen Serpent in the Wilderness; but Julius Schiller, far more appropriately, made of it Saint Benedict in the midst of the thorns, for it was this founder of the order of the Benedictine monks who, with his followers in the 6th century, inspired and carried on all the learning of the times, as Aesculapius-Ophiuchus had done in his day.

The constellation generally has been shown as an elderly man, probably copied from the celebrated statue at Epidaurus; but the Leyden Manuscript and the planisphere of the monk Geruvigus represent it as an unclad boy p300standing on the Scorpion and holding the Serpent in his hands; and the Hyginus of 1488 has a somewhat similar representation.

Bayer added to his titles for Ophiuchus Grus aut Ciconia Serpenti cum inscriptione, Elhague, insistens, which he said was from the Moors, but Ideler asserted was from a drawing of a Crane, or Stork, on a Turkish planisphere instead of the customary figure; and the Almagest of 1551 alludes to Ciconia as if it were a well-known title. All this, perhaps, may be traced to ancient India, whose mythology was largely astronomical, and the Adjutant-bird, Ciconia argala, prominent in worship as typifying the moon-god Soma, so that its devotees would only be following custom in locating it among the stars.

Although this is not one of the zodiac twelve, Mr. Royal Hill writes:

Out of the twenty-five days, from the 21st of November to the 16th of December, which the sun spends in passing from Libra to Sagittarius, only nine are spent in the Scorpion, the other sixteen being occupied in passing through Ophiuchus.

Thus, according to his idea of the boundaries, this actually is more of a zodiacal constellation than is the Scorpion. But the boundaries are very variously given by uranographers.

Argelander enumerates in it 73 naked-eye stars, and Heis 113.

It was in Ophiuchus that appeared, A.D. 123, the second nova of which we have reliable record, the first having been that of Hipparchos, 134 B.C., in Scorpio. At least three other such have appeared in Ophiuchus: one in 1230; another, the so‑called Kepler's Star, discovered by Kepler's pupil Brunowski, on the 10th of October, 1604, in the eastern foot near θ, which gave Galileo opportunity for his "onslaught upon the Aristotelian axiom of the incorruptibility of the heavens"; and a third, discovered on the 28th of April, 1848, by Hind as of the 4th magnitude, and still visible as of the 11th or 12th.

Citing Firmicus as authority [Mathesis, VIII.26.14], La Lande wrote:

Il met le Renard au nord du Scorpion avec Ophiuchus;

but I do not find this Fox elsewhere alluded to.

α, 2.2, sapphire.

Ras alhague, or Rasalgue, is from Rās al Ḥawwāʽ, the Head of the Serpent-charmer, the Moorish El Hauwe, the first being its only title with Bayer. The Alfonsine Tables of 1521 have Rasalauge, and the original has p301been variously altered into Ras Alhagas, Ras Alhagus, Rasalange, Ras al Hangue, Rasalangue, Ras Alaghue, Rasalhagh, Alhague, and Alangue. The occasional Azalange has been traced to the Turkish title for the constellation; but "a universal star-name for that nation does not seem probable," and it is more likely that the Turks adopted and altered the Arabic. Ras al Hayro also has been seen for the star; and the Century Cyclopedia mentions Hawwa as rarely used.

Kazwini cited Al Rāʽi, the Shepherd, from the early Arabs, which, although now a title for γ Cephei, may have come here from the adjacent Rauḍah, or Pasture; the near‑by α Herculis, 6° to the west, being Kalb al Rāʽi, the Shepherd's Dog; while neighboring stars, the present Club of Hercules, marked the Flock.

In China α was How, the Duke; and the small surrounding stars, Hwan Chay, a title duplicated at those in the hand.

Its spectrum is Sirian, and the star is receding from us about twelve miles a second. It culminates on the 28th of July.

β, 3.3, yellow.

Cebalrai, Celbalrai, and Cheleb are from Kalb al Rāʽi. "The Heart of the Shepherd," which Brown gives as the meaning of his Celabrai, is erroneous, doubtless from confusion of the Arabic Ḳalb and Kalb, Dog.

The star is 9° southeast of α, and 5° west of Taurus Poniatovii, the Polish Bull, now included in Ophiuchus.

γ, 4.3,

has been called Muliphen, but I cannot trace it here, although this title is famous in other parts of the sky.

β and γ were Tsung Ching in China.

70 Ophiuchi, east of β and γ in the stars of the Polish Bull, now discarded, is a most interesting binary system, with a period of about eighty-eight years. The component stars are of 4.1 and 6.1 magnitudes, yellow and purple in color, their distance varying from 1ʺ.7 to 6ʺ.7; in 1898 it was 2ʺ.05, and the position angle 280°. Its parallax, 0ʺ.16, indicates a distance of twenty light years, and certain irregularities in motion show that there may be an invisible companion.

p302 δ, 2.8, deep yellow,

is Yed Prior, the Former of the two stars in the Hand, — the Arabic Yad, — originating with Bayer, adopted by Flamsteed, and now common. It is sometimes written Jed.

It was Leang, a Mast, in China.

ε, 3.8, red.

Yed Posterior, the star Behind, or Following, δ, is found on our modern lists, but was not given by Bayer.

In China it was Tsoo, the name of one of the feudal states; and, with ι and some other stars, is said to have formed Hwan Chay.

The two stars Yed, with ζ and η Ophiuchi and αδ, and ε of Serpens, constituted the Nasaḳ al Yamaniyy, the Southern Boundary Line of the Rauḍah, or Pasture, which here occupied a large portion of the heavens; other stars in Ophiuchus and Hercules forming the Nasaḳ al Shāmiyyah, or Northern Boundary. The stars between these two Nasak marked the Rauḍah itself and Al Aghnām, the Sheep within it, now the Club of Hercules. These sheep were guarded by the Shepherd and his Dog, the two lucidae marking the heads of Ophiuchus and Hercules.

ε was the Euphratean Nitaχ‑bat, the Man of Death. Coincidently, "in modern astrology, which contains some singular survivals, the Hand of Ophiuchus is said to be a star 'of evil influence.' "

δ and ε point out the left hand grasping the body of the Serpent; τ and ν, the other hand, holding the tail.

ζ, 2.8, near the left knee, was the Chinese Han, an old feudal state.

It sometimes shared with η the title Sābiḳ, or Preceding One, attached to the latter star in Al Tizini's catalogue.

Brown thinks that, with ε, it marked the Akkadian lunar asterism Muluabat, the Man of Death; with ηθ, and ξ, the Persian Garafsa, or Serpent-tamer; with η, the Sogdian Bastham, Bound, "i.e. Ophiuchus enveloped in the coils of Ophis"; and the Khorasmian Sardhiwa, the Head of the Evil One.

η, 2.6, pale yellow,

is Sābiḳ with Al Tizini, ζ often being included; but Beigel thought that the name should be Sāīḳ, the Driver.

Brown combines ηθ, and ξ in the Akkadian Tsir, or Sir, the Snake.

In China it was Sung, another of the early feudal states.

p303 θ, 3.4,

lies on the right foot, only a little to the southwest of the place of the noted Kepler's Star, the nova of 1604.

Epping says that the 25th ecliptic constellation of Babylonia was marked by it as Kash-shud Sha‑ka-tar‑pa, of undetermined signification.

With ξ it was the Sogdian Wajrik, the Magician; the Khorasmian Markhashik, the Serpent-bitten; and the Coptic Tshiō, the Snake, and Aggia, the Magician; η being included in the last two.

With adjacent stars it was the Chinese Tien Kiang, the Heavenly River.

ι, a 4½‑magnitude, was Ho, one of the dry measures of China, but this title included κ and two other near‑by stars of Hercules.

Gould thinks that it may be variable.

λ, Binary, 4 and 6, yellowish white and smalt blue.

Marfic, or Marfik, is from the similar Arabic Al Marfiḳ, the Elbow, which it marks. Bayer, Burritt, and probably others have it Marsic, doubtless from confounding the antique forms of the letters f and s. This same title appears for κ Herculis.

With neighboring stars the Chinese knew it as Lee Sze, a Series of Shops.

The components are 1ʺ.6 apart, with a position angle of 53° in 1897, and an estimated period of revolution of 234 years.

υ, a 4½‑magnitude, was She Low, a Market Tower; and the 5th‑magnitudes φχψ, and ω were Tung Han, the name of a district in China.

The Author's Note:

1 According to Greek tradition, Asclepius was a lineal ancestor of the great physician Hippocrates; and Doctor Francis Adams, in his Genuine Works of Hippocrates, writes:

A genealogical table, professing to give a list of names of his forefathers, up to Aesculapius, has been transmitted to us from remote antiquity.

This list, from the Chiliads of Tzetzes of our 12th century, makes Hippocrates the 15th in descent from Aesculapius through his son Podalirius, who, with his brother Machaon, was an army surgeon, as well as a valiant fighter before the walls of Troy.

The name and the profession were continued in the Asclepiadae, an order of priest-physicians long noted in Greece.

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Page updated: 9 Apr 14