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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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. . . glorious in his Cretian Bow,

Centaur follows with an aiming Eye,

His Bow full drawn and ready to let fly.

Creech's Manilius.

Sagittarius, the Archer,

the French Sagittaire, the Italian Sagittario, and the German Schütze, — Bayer's Schütz, — next to the eastward from Scorpio, was Τοξευτής, the Archer, and Ῥύτωρ τόξου, the Bow-stretcher, with Aratos; Τοξευτήρ with other Greeks; and Τοχοτής with Eratosthenes, Hipparchos, Plutarch, and Ptolemy. The Βελοκράτωρ cited by Hyde, though not a lexicon word, probably signifies the Drawer of the Arrow.

These were translated by Lucian and the Romans into our title, although Manilius had Sagittifer; Avienus, Sagittiger; and Cicero, Sagittipotens, a term peculiar to him. His equivalent Arquitenens, the ancient form of Arcitenens, — reappearing with Ausonius [Ecl. 16] and with Al Bīrūnī in Sachau's  p352 translation, — was also used by early classic writers for this constellation; although where the word is seen with Vergil it is for the god Apollo.

Flamsteed's Atlas has Sagittary, common for centuries before him; Shakespeare calling Othello's house — probably the Arsenal in Venice — the Sagittary,​1 i.e. bearing the zodiac sign. The word was early written Sagitary; and Sagittarie and Saagittare in Chaucer's Astrolabe, from his Anglo-Norman predecessor, De Thaun. The Anglo-Saxons had Scytta.

Columella called it Crotos, and Hyginus [Fab. 224], Croton, the Herdsman; but how these names are applicable does not appear.

Others have been Ἱππότης, On Horseback; Semivir, the Half Man; Taurus and Minotauros, from his fabled early shape, although now figured in equine form; while Cicero's Antepes and Antepedes may be for this, or for our Centaur. Cornipedes, Horn-Footed, also has been applied to it.

Sometimes the whole was personified by its parts, as with Aratos, where we see Τόξον, the Bow, the Arcus of Cicero and Germanicus; and the Haemonios Arcus of Ovid; in Egypt, where it is said to have been known as an Arrow held in a human hand; and with Ovid again in Thessalicaº Sagitta, Thessaly being the birthplace of the Centaurs. This induced Longfellow's lines in his Poets' Calendar for November:

With sounding hoofs across the earth I fly,

A steed Thessalian with a human face.

And it has been Sagitta arcui applicata; or plain Telum with Capella of Carthage. Bayer cited Pharetra, the Quiver, and, recurring to the Bow, Elkausu or Elkusu, Schickard's Alkauuso, from the Arabic Al Ḳaus. The translator of Ulug Beg added to its modern name quem etiam Arcum vocant, which the Almagest of 1515 confirmed in its et est Arcus. It was the Persian Kamān and Nimasp; the Turkish Yai; the Syriac Ḳeshta and the Hebrew Ḳesheth; Riccioli's Kertko, "from the Chaldaeans"; all signifying a Bow, whence some early maps illustrated Sagittarius simply as a Bow and Arrow. This was an idea especially prevalent in Asiatic astronomy.

Among the Jews it was the tribal symbol of Ephraim and Manasseh, from Jacob's last words to their father Joseph, "his bow abode in strength."

Novidius claimed it as Joash, the King of Israel, shooting arrows out of "the window eastward," at the command of the dying Elisha; but the  p353 biblical set generally identified it with Saint Matthew the Apostle, although Caesius claimed that Sagittarius was Ishmael.

The formation of this constellation on the Euphrates undoubtedly preceded that of the larger figure, the Centaur Chiron; but the first recorded classic figuring was in Eratosthenes' description of it as a Satyr, probably derived from the characteristics of the original Centaur, Hea-bani, and it so appeared on the more recent Farnese globe. But Manilius mentioned it, as in our modern style, mixtus equo, and with threatening look, very different from the mild aspect of the educated Chiron, the Centaur of the South; while it sometimes is given in later manuscripts and maps with flowing robes; but his crown always appears near his fore feet, and his arrow is always aimed at the Scorpion's heart.

Dupuis said that it was shown in Egypt as an Ibis or Swan; but the Denderah zodiac has the customary Archer with the face of a lion added, so making it bifaced. Kircher gave its title from the Copts as Πιμάηρε, Statio amoenitatis.

The illustrated manuscript partly reproduced in the 47th volume of Archaeologia has a centaur-like figure, Astronochus, which, perhaps, is our Archer; but the title is of unexplained derivation, unless it be the Star-holder, as Ophiuchus is the Serpent-holder, and Heniochus, the Rein-holder.

It is in this same manuscript that is illustrated a sky group, Joculator,​2 usually rendered the "Jester," and representing the Court Fool of mediaeval days; but I find no trace of this elsewhere.

We have already noticed the confusion in the myths and titles of this zodiacal Centaur with those of the southern Centaur, some thinking Sagittarius the Χείρων of the Greeks, — Chiron with Hyginus and the Romans; although Eratosthenes and others, as did the modern Ideler, understood this name to refer to the Centaur proper. Ovid's Centaurus, however, and Milton's Centaur are the zodiac figure, as has been the case with some later poets; James Thomson writing in the Winter of his Seasons:

Now when the chearless empire of the sky

To Capricorn the Centaur Archer yields.

Early tradition made the earthly Chiron the inventor of the Archer constellation to guide the Argonauts in their expedition to Colchis; although, and about as reasonably, Pliny said that Cleostratos originated it, with Aries, during the 6th or 5th century B.C. As to this we may consider  p354 that, while Cleostratos, possibly, was the first to write on it, certainly none of the Greeks gave it form or title, for we see abundant evidence of its much greater antiquity on the Euphrates.

Cuneiform inscriptions designate Sagittarius as the Strong One, the Giant King of War, and as the Illuminator of the Great City, personifying the archer god of war, Nērgal or Nērigal, or under his guardian­ship, as the Great Lord.​3 This divinity is mentioned in the Second Book of Kings, xvii.30. An inscription, on a fragment of a planisphere, transcribed by Sayce as Utucagaba, the Light of the White Face, and by Pinches as Udgudua, the Flowing (?) Day, or the Smiting Sun Face, is supposed to be an allusion to this constellation; while on this fragment also appear the words Nibat Anu, which accord with an astrolabe of Sennacherib, and were considered by George Smith as the name of its chief star. Another inscribed tablet, although somewhat imperfect, is thought to read Kakkab Kastu, the Constellation, or Star, of the Bow, — in Akkadian Ban, — indicating one or more of the bow stars of the Archer. This will account for the Τόξον of Aratos and the Arcus of the Latins, Sayce agreeing with this in his rendering Mulban, the Star of the Bow. Pa and χut, Dayspring, also seem to have been titles, the latter because our Archer was a type of the rising sun. Upon some of the boundary stones of Sippara (Sepharvaim of the Old Testament), a solar city, Sagittarius "appears sculptured in full glory." In Assyria it always was associated with the ninth month, Kislivu, corresponding to our November-December, with which we have already seen Orion associated. From all the foregoing it would seem safe to assume the Archer to be of Euphratean origin.

India also claimed Sagittarius for its zodiac of 3000 years ago, figured as a Horse, Horse's head, or Horseman, — Açvini, — a word that appeared in Hindu stellar nomenclature in different parts of the sky. Al Bīrūnī said that the constellation was the Sanskrit Dhanu, or Dhanasu, the Tamil Dhamsu, given by Professor Whitney as Dhanus; while we have a very early statement that the stars of the bow and human part of the Archer represented the fan of lions' tails twirled by Mula, the wife of Chandra Gupta, the Sandrokottos of 300 B.C., ruler over the Indian kingdom Maurya and the Gangaridae and Prasii along the Ganges. But in later Indian astronomy it became Taukshika, derived from the Greek Τοξότης.

The Hindus located here another of their double nakshatras, the 18th and 19th, the Former and the Latter Ashadha, Unconquered, which, in the main, were coincident with the manzilº and sieu of the same numbering. These were under the protection of the divinities Āpas, Waters, and Viçve  p355 Devās, the Combined Gods; each being figured as an Elephant's Tusk, and both together as a Bed.

In ancient Arabia the two small groups of stars now marking the head and the vane of the Archer's arrow were of much note as relics of still earlier asterisms, as well as a lunar station. The westernmost of these, — γ, δ, ε, and η — were Al Naʽām al Wārid, the Going Ostriches; and the easternmost, — σ, ζ, φ, χ, and τ, — Al Naʽām al Ṣādirah, the Returning Ostriches, passing to and from the celestial river, the Milky Way, with the star λ for their Keeper. Ideler thought it inexplicable that these non-drinking creatures should be found here in connection with water, and Al Jauhari compared the figures to an Overturned Chair, which these stars may represent. But Al Bīrūnī said that Al Zajjāj had a word that signifies the Beam over the mouth of a well to which the pulleys are attached; while another authority said that pasturing Camels, or Cattle, were intended. There evidently is much uncertainty as to the true reading and signification of this title. All of the foregoing stars, with μ1 and μ2, were included in the 18th manzil, Al Naʽām.

The 19th manzil lay in the vacant space from the upper part of the figure toward the horns of the Sea-Goat, and was known as Al Baldah, the City, or District, for this region is comparatively untenanted. It was marked by one scarcely distinguishable star, probably π, and was bounded by six others in the form of a Bow, the Arabs' Ḳaus, which, however, was not our Bow of Sagittarius. It also was Al Kilādah, the Necklace; and Al Udḥiyy, the Ostrich's Nest, marked by our τ, ν, ψ, ω, A, and ζ; while the space between this and the preceding mansions was designated by Al Bīrūnī as "the head of Sagittarius and his two locks." In his discussion of this subject, quoting, as he often did, from Arab poets, he compared this 19th manzil to "the interstice between the two eyebrows which are not connected with each other," — a condition described by the word ᾽Ablad, somewhat similar to the Baldah generally applied to it.

The 18th sieu, Ki, a Sieve, anciently Kit, was the first of these groups; and the 19th, Tew, Tow, or Nan Tow, a Ladle or Measure, anciently Dew, was the second; both being alluded to in the She King:

In the south is the Sieve

Idly showing its mouth

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But it is of no use to sift;

the commentator explaining that the two stars widest apart were the Mouth, and the two closer together the Heels; but he does not give the connection of these with the Sieve. And of the second group:

 p356  In the north is the Ladle

Raising its handle to the west

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But it lades out no liquor;

so that our Milk Dipper, ζ, τ, σ, φ, and λ, in the same spot, is not a modern conceit after all. The stars of this Ladle were objects of special worship in China for at least a thousand years before our era; indeed, also were known as a Temple.

The whole constellation was the Chinese Tiger, Williams giving, as another early name, Seih Muh, the Cleft Tree, or Branches cut for fire-wood, and the later name, from the Jesuits, Jin Ma, the Man-Horse. A part of it was included with Scorpio, Libra, and some of Virgo's stars in the large zodiacal division the Azure Dragon. The astrologers incorporated it with Capricornus in their Sing Ki.

Astrologically the constellation was the House of Jupiter, that planet having appeared here at the Creation, a manuscript of 1386 calling it the Schoter "ye principal howce of Jupit"; although this honor was shared by Aquarius and Leo. Nor did Jupiter monopolize its possession, for it also was the domicile of Diana, one of whose temples was at Stymphalus, the home of the Stymphalian birds. These last, when slain by Hercules, were transferred to the sky as Aquila, Cygnus, and Vultur Cadens, and are all paranatellons of Sagittarius, as has been explained under Aquila. Thus the constellation was known as Dianae Sidus. It inclined to fruitfulness, a character assigned to it as far back as the Babylonian inscriptions; and was a fortunate sign, reigning over Arabia Felix, Hungary, Liguria, Moravia, and Spain, and the cities of Avignon, Cologne, and Narbonne; while Manilius said that it ruled Crete, Latium, and Trinacria. Ampelius [Lib. Mem. 4] associated it with the south wind, Auster, and the southwest wind, Africus; Aries and Scorpio being also associated with the latter. Yellow was the color attributed to it, or the peculiar green sanguine; and Arcandum in 1542 wrote that a man born under this sign would be thrice wedded, very fond of vegetables, would become a matchless tailor, and have three special illnesses, the last at eighty years of age. Such was much of the science of his day!

Sagittarius is shown on a coin of Gallienus of about A.D. 260, with the legend Apollini Conservatori; and on those of King Stephen emblematic of his having landed in England in 1135 when the sun was here.

La Caille took the star η out of this constellation for the β of his new Telescopium. This was the 25th of Ptolemy's list in the σφύρον, or pastern, which would indicate that with him the feet had a very different situation from that on the present maps.

 p357  The symbol of the sign, , shows the arrow with part of the bow.

Sagittarius contains 54 naked-eye stars according to Argelander, and 90 according to Heis, although none is above the 2d magnitude.

The sun passes through the constellation from the 16th of December to the 18th of January, reaching the winter solstice​4 near the stars μ on the 21st of December, but then of course in the sign Capricorn.

A noticeable feature in the heavens lies within the boundaries of Sagittarius, an almost circular black void near the stars γ and δ, showing but one faint telescopic star; and to the east of this empty spot is another of narrow crescent form.

An extraordinarily brilliant nova is said to have appeared low down in the constellation in 1011 or 1012, visible for three months. This was recorded in the Chinese annals of Ma Touan Lin.

α, 4.

This is Rukbat, but variously written Rucba, Rucbah, Rukbah, and Rucbar, from Ulug Beg's Rukbat al Rāmī, the Archer's Knee; in some early books it is Al Rāmī, the Archer himself. The Standard Dictionary has Ruchbar ur Ranich.

The Euphratean Nibat Anu, already alluded to, may be for this, or for some other of the chief components of the constellation; perhaps for ε if, in early days, that star was comparatively as bright as now.

β1, Double, 3.8 and 8, and β2, 4.4.

Arkab and Urkab are from Al ᾽Urḳūb, translated by Ideler as the Tendon uniting the calf of the leg to the heel, and this coincides with their location in the figure on modern maps, as well as with their Euphratean title Ur-ner‑gub, the Sole of the Left Foot; but Al Sufi and the engraver of the Borgian globe assigned these stars to the rear of the horse's body.

Kazwini knew α and the two betas as Al Ṣuradain, the two Surad, desert birds differently described, — by some as "larger than sparrows" and variegated black and white (magpies?); by others as yellow and larger than doves.

γ, 3,1, yellow.

Al Naṣl, the Point, is Al Tizini's word designating this as marking the head of the Arrow; but Hyde cited Zujj al Nushshābah of similar meaning.  p358 The Borgian globe termed it Al Wazl, the Junction, indicating the spot where the arrow, bow, and hand of the Archer meet.

This star, with δ and ε and with β of the Telescope, was the sieu Ki, but in the worship of China the three were Feng Shï, the General of Wind.

δ, Double, 3 and 14.5, orange yellow and bluish.

Kaus Meridionalis, or Media, is Arabic and Latin for the Middle (of the Bow). It marked the junction of the two Ashādhā; and, with γ and ε, was the Akkadian Sin-nun‑tu, or Si-nu-nu‑tum, the Swallow.

The companion was 26″ away in 1896, at a position angle of 276°.4.

ε, Double, 2 and 14.3, orange and bluish,

is Kaus Australis, the Southern (part of the) Bow.

In Euphratean days it may have been Nibat Anu.

ε comes to the meridian on the 8th of August.

The companion is 32″.5 away, at a position angle, in 1896, of 295°.

The comparison of the magnitudes of αβγδ, and ε in Sagittarius, each one being brighter than the preceding, goes far to show that Bayer was not guided in his star-lettering by any such rule of alphabetical arrangement in order of brilliancy as has been attributed to him.

ζ, Binary, 3.9 and 4.4.

The Latin Almagest of 1515 gives this as Ascella, i.e. Axilla, the Armpit of the figure, still its location on the maps.

The two components have the rapid orbital revolution of 18½ years.

With στ, and φ it formed a portion of the 18th manzil, Al Naʽām, or Al Naʽāïm al Ṣādirah, and the whole of that nakshatra; but the corresponding sieu included λ and μ, with φ as the determinant.

λ, 3.1, yellow.

Kaus Borealis, the Northern (part of the) Bow, was Al Tizini's Rāʽi al Naʽāïm, the Keeper of the Naʽams, the uncertainty as to the meaning of which has already been noticed; but Kazwini evidently understood by it Ostriches, for in his list it is, with the stars μ, Al Ṭhalimain, plainly meaning these desert birds.

 p359  With the same stars it may have been the Akkadian Anu-ni‑tum, said to have been associated with the great goddess Istar.

Near λ appeared in A.D. 386 a bright nova, the fourth on record; and 7° northeasterly the cluster 25 M. is visible to the naked eye.

μ1, Triple, 3.5, 9.5, and 1, and μ2, 5.8,

form a wide naked-eye double on the upper part of the bow, and are named in Akkadia and Arabia with the preceding star.

They mark the point of the winter solstice two thirds of the way southward towards, and in line with, the cluster NGC 6523, 8 M., visible to the naked eye, and with other noticeable clusters and nebulae close by. One of these, NGC 6603, 24 M. towards the northeast, is Secchi's Delle Caustiche, from its peculiar arrangement of curves, while the celebrated Trifid Nebula, NGC 6514, 20 M. lies not far off to the southwest. This was discovered in 1764, and so named from its three dark rifts; it is now specially noted from a suspected recent change in its position with regard to a star in one of these rifts. Spectroscopic observations of this object show considerable discordance in their results.

Brown says that the stars in the bow were the Persian Gau and the Sogdian and Khorasmian Yaugh, but by these nations were imagined as a Bull; the Copts knew them as Polis, a Foal.

ν1 and ν2, red stars of the 5th magnitude, 12′ apart, and both double, were ʽAin al Rāmī, the Archer's Eye. Ptolemy catalogued them as a nebulous double star, — νεφελοειδής καί διπλοῦς, — among the first to be so designated.

With ξ and ο they were the Chinese Kien Sing, a Flag-staff.

π, a 3d‑magnitude on the back of the head, was Al Tizini's Al Baldah, from the 19th manzil, which it marked; Al Achsasi considering it as Al Nā᾽ir, the Bright One, of that lunar station.

σ, 2.3.

This has been identified with Nunki of the Euphratean Tablet of the Thirty Stars, the Star of the Proclamation of the Sea, this Sea being the quarter occupied by Aquarius, Capricornus, Delphinus, Pisces, and Piscis Australis. It is the same space in the sky that Aratos designated as the Water; perhaps another proof of the Euphratean origin of much of Greek astronomy.

In India it marked the junction of the nakshatra Ashādhā with Abhijit.

It lies on the vane of the arrow at the Archer's hand.

 p360  σ, with ζ and π, may have been the Akkadian Gu-shi-rab‑ba, the Yoke of the Sea.

The 5th‑magnitude stars ψ1, χ1, and χ2 were the Chinese asterism Kow, the Dog.

ω, 4.8; A, 5; b, 4.7; and c, 4,

forming a small quadrangle on the hind quarter of the horse, were the τετράπλευρον of Ptolemy, which Bayer repeated in the Low Latin Terebellum, still often seen for these stars. The Standard Dictionary gives it thus, but mentions the components as ω, or a1, b and e.

The Chinese knew this little figure as Kow Kwo, the Dog's Country.

The Author's Notes:

1 In Troilus and Cressida, where Agamemnon says

The dreadful Sagittary appals our numbers,

the reference is not a stellar one, but to the famous imaginary monster introduced into the armies of the Trojans by the fabling writer Guido delle Colonne, whose work was translated and versified in the Troye Book by Lydgate, the great poet of the 15th century.

2 The Latin word, the equivalent of the early French Jongleur, is seen with old Bishop Thomas Percy for a Minstrel, applied to King Alfred.

3 This may be seen in the Mandaeans' name to‑day — Nerig — for the planet Mars.

4 The solstices are first mentioned by Hesiod in three different passages of his Works and Days.

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Page updated: 4 Mar 14