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Bill Thayer

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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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And all the stars that shine in southern skies

Had been admired by none but savage eyes.

John Dryden's Ode to Doctor Charleton.

Apus, the Bird of Paradise,

or Apous, as Caesius wrote it from the Greek, lies immediately below the Southern Triangle, about 13° from the South pole. It is the French Oiseau de Paradis; the German Paradies Vogel; and the Italian Uccello Paradiso.

Its avian original is found only in the Papuan Islands, and the title is from Ἄπους, Without Feet, for the ancient Greek swallow, but well applied to this bird that has been thus fabled, as witness Keats' "legless birds of paradise," in his Eve of Saint Mark.

Bayer strangely had it Apis Indica on his planisphere of the new southern figures, where the typical bird is shown, as also in the corresponding page of text; but the universal consent as to the name Apus, or Avis, and its appearance as Apus Indica and Indianischer Vogel in the abridged German edition of Bayer's work issued in 1720, with the fact that he had another, and correct, Apis, would indicate a typographical and engraver's error in the original; but I have not seen this alluded to till now. The drawing always has been of the typical bird of our title, which Caesius adopted in his Paradisaeus Ales; but it sometimes is Avis Indica, the Indian Bird.

 p44  The planisphere in Gore's English edition of Flammarion's Astronomie Populaire has the constellation as the House Swallow, probably taken from early ornithological lists or the lexicons; for our Andrews-Freund translates Apus as the Black Martin, the English synonym of the Hirundo apus of Linnaeus, — the Cypselus apus of William Yarrell, — not a swallow, however, but a well-known swift of the Old World, with perfectly formed, although small, legs and feet, yet appropriate enough to its mode of life; and the stellar bird appears in Willis' Scholar of Thebet Ben Khorat as

Hirundo with its little company;

And white-brow'd Vesta lamping on her path

Lonely and planet-calm;

with this explanatory note:

An Arabic constellation placed instead of the Piscis Australis, because the swallow arrives in Arabia about the time of the heliacal rising of the Fishes.

I have not met with these hirundine star-titles except in these two instances, and think them both incorrect. Mr. Willis' idea may have come from the Χελιδόνιας of the zodiacal pair, but he errs in ascribing the figure to Arabia and in considering it a substitute for the Southern Fish, as well as in confusing it with the older Pisces.

But all this poem is beauti­ful in stellar allusions. Here is another bit:

Where has the Pleiad gone?

Where have all missing stars found light and home?

Who bids the Stella Mira go and come?

Why sits the Pole-star lone?

And why, like banded sisters, through the air

Go in bright troops the constellations fair?

Apus similarly appears in China as E Cho, the Curious Sparrow; and as the Little Wonder Bird. Schiller included it with the Chamaeleon and the Southern Fly in his biblical Eve. Gould details sixty-seven naked-eye stars in Apus, its lucidaγ, being 3.9. It culminates about the middle of July, but of course is invisible from northern latitudes.

This is one of the twelve new southern constellations with which Bayer's name generally is associated, although he only adopted them and, Gould says, took them from one of the globes of Jacob, or Arnold, Florent van Langren; but Bayer distinctly attributed their formation to "Americus Vesputius, Andreas Corsalius, Petrus Medinensis and Petrus Theodorus," navigators of the early part of the 16th century, giving to the last most of the credit of their publication; and Smyth ascribed their invention to "Peter Theodore,"  p45 and their publication to another sailor, Andrea Corsali, in 1516. In Chilmead's Treatise they are indefinitely ascribed to "the Portugals, Hollanders, and English sea-faring men."​a

Willem Jansson Blaeu, the celebrated globe-maker of Amsterdam, Chilmead's contemporary, credited their introduction to Friedrich Houtmann, who observed from the island of Sumatra; while the latter, Semler asserted, took his ideas from the Chinese. Although Ideler denied this, yet he acknowledged that the latter nation knew Phoenix, Indus, and Apus as the Fire Bird, the Persian and the Little Wonder Bird, almost exact translations of the Western titles; and summed up his account of them with the opinion that their origin "is involved in an obscurity that it is scarcely possible to penetrate."

Thayer's Note:

a According to Ian Ridpath, Chapter 1 of his book Star Tales the twelve new southern constellations were introduced later than that, and by different people altogether: Blaeu's Uranometria (1603) correctly credits them to Frederick de Houtman, who owed them in turn, however, to Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser, † 1596. (And thanks to Diana K. Rosenberg of Fixed Stars and Constellations for the heads-up.)

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Page updated: 8 Dec 07