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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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si quaeritis astra

Tune oritur magni praepes adunca Jovis.

Ovid's Fasti.

Jove for the prince of birds decreed,

And carrier of his thunder, too,

The bird whom golden Ganymede

Too well for trusty agent knew.

Gladstone's translation of Horace's Odes.

Aquila, the Eagle

the French Aigle, the German Adler, and the Italian Aquila, next to and westward from the Dolphin, is shown flying toward the east and across  p56 the Milky Way; its southern stars constituting the now discarded Antinoüs. Early representations added an arrow held in the Eagle's talons; and Hevelius included a bow and arrow in his description; but on the Heis map the Youth is held by Aquila, for the Germans still continue this association in their combined title der Adler mit dem Antinoüs.

Our constellation is supposed to be represented by the bird figured on a Euphratean uranographic stone of about 1200 B.C., and known on the tablets as Idχu Zamama, the Eagle, the Living Eye.

It always was known as Aquila by the Latins, and by their poets as Jovis Ales and Jovis Nutrix, the Bird, and the Nurse, of Jove; Jovis Armiger and Armiger Ales, the Armor-bearing Bird of Jove in this god's conflict with the giants; while Ganymedes Raptrix and Servans Antinoüm are from the old stories that the Eagle carried Ganymede to the heavens and stood in attendance on Jove. Ovid made it Merops, King of Cos, turned into the Eagle of the sky; but others thought it some Aethiopian king like Cepheus, and with the same heavenly reward.

As the eagles often were confounded with the vultures in Greek and Roman ornithology, at least in nomenclature, Aquila also was Vultur volans, the stars β and γ, on either side of α, marking the outstretched wings; this title appearing even as late as Flamsteed's day, and its translation, the Flying Grype, becoming the Old English name, especially with the astrologers, who ascribed to it mighty virtue.

Ἀετός, the Eagle, in a much varied orthography, was used for our constellation by all the Greeks; while poetically it was Διός Ὄρνις, the Bird of Zeus; and Pindar had Ὀινῶν Βασιλεῦς, the King of Birds, which, ornithologically, has come to our day. Later on it was Βάσανος, Βασανισμός and Βασανιστήριον, all kindred titles signifying Torture, referred by Hyde to the story of the eagle which preyed on the liver of Prometheus. Similarly we find Aquila Promethei and Tortor Promethei; but Ideler said that this idea came from a confounding by Scaliger of the Arabic ʽIkāb, Torture, and ʽOḳāb, Eagle.

Dupuis fancifully thought that its name was given when it was near the summer solstice, and that the bird of highest flight was chosen to express the greatest elevation of the sun; and he asserted that the famous three Stymphalian Birds of mythology were represented by Aquila, Cygnus, and Vultur cadens, our Lyra, still located together in the sky; the argument being that these are all paranatellons of Sagittarius, which is the fifth in the line of zodiacal constellations beginning with Leo, the Nemean lion, the object of Hercules' first labor, while the slaying of the birds was the fifth. Appropriately enough, like so much other stellar material, these creatures  p57 came from Arabia, migrating thence either to the Insula Martis, or to Lake Stymphalis, where Hercules encountered them.

Thompson thinks that the fable, in Greek ornithology, of the eagle attacking the swan, but defeated by it, is symbolical of "Aquila, which rises in the East, immediately after Cygnus, but, setting in the West, goes down a little while before that more northern constellation."

A similar thought was in the ancient mind as to the eagle in opposition to the dolphin and the serpent; their stellar counterparts, Aquila, Delphinus, and Serpens, also being thus relatively situated.

In connection with the story of Ganymede, the eagle appeared on coins of Chalcis, Dardanos, and Ilia; and generally on those of Mallos in Cilicia and of Camarina; while it is shown perched on the Dolphin on coins of Sinope and other towns, chiefly along the Black Sea and Hellespont. One, bearing the prominent stars, was struck in Rome, 94 B.C., by Manius Aquilius Nepos,​1 the design being evidently inspired by his name; and a coin of Agrigentum bears Aquila, with Cancer on the reverse, — the one setting as the other rises.

To the Arabians the classical figure became Al ʽOḳāb, probably their Black Eagle, Chilmead citing this as Alhhakhab; while their Al Naṣr al Ṭāïr, the Flying Eagle, was confined to α, β, and γ; although this was contrary to their custom of using only one star for a sky figure. Grotius called the whole Altair and Alcair; Bayer said Alcar and Atair. Al Achsasi, however, mentioned it as Al Ghurāb, the Crow, or Raven, probably a late Arabian name, and the only instance that I have seen of its application to the stars of our Aquila.

Persian titles were Alub, Gherges, and Shahin tara zed, the Star-striking Falcon of Al Naṣr al Dīn, but now divided for β and γ. In the Ilkhanian Tables, as perhaps elsewhere, it was Γύψ πετόμενος, the Flying Vulture; the Turks call it Taushaugjil, their Hunting Eagle; — all these for the three bright stars.

The Hebrews knew it as Neshr, an Eagle, Falcon, or Vulture; and the Chaldee Paraphrase asserted that it was figured on the banners of Dan; but as these tribal symbols properly were for the zodiac, Scorpio usually was ascribed to Dan. This confusion may have originated from the fact, asserted by Sir William Drummond, that in Abraham's day Scorpio was figured as an Eagle. Caesius said that Aquila represented the Eagle of military Rome, or the Eagle of Saint John; but Julius Schiller had already made it Saint Catherine the Martyr; and Erhard Weigel, a  p58 professor at Jena in the 17th century, started a new set of constellations, based on the heraldry then so much in vogue, among which was the Brandenburg Eagle, made up from Aquila, Antinoüs, and the Dolphin. Hevelius said that the stellar Eagle was a fitting representation of that bird on the Polish and Teutonic coats of arms.

The Chinese have here the Draught Oxen, mentioned in the book of odes entitled She King, compiled 500 years before Christ by K'ung fu tsu, Kung the Philosopher (Confucius), — the passage being rendered by the Reverend Doctor James Legge:

Brilliant show the Draught Oxen,

But they do not serve to draw our carts;

and the three bright stars are their Cowherd, for whom the Magpies' Bridge gives access to the Spinning Damsel, our Lyra, across the River of the Sky, the Milky Way. This story appears in various forms; stars in the Swan sometimes being substituted for those in the Eagle, Lyra becoming the Weaving Sisters.

The Korean version, with more detail, turns the Cowherd into a Prince, and the Spinster into his Bride, both banished to different parts of the sky by the irate father-in‑law, but with the privilege of an annual meeting if they can cross the River. This they accomplish through the friendly aid of the good-natured magpies, who congregate from all parts of the kingdom during the 7th moon, and on its 7th night form the fluttering bridge across which the couple meet, lovers still, although married. When the day is over they return for another year to their respective places of exile, and the bridge breaks up; the birds scattering to their various homes with bare heads, the feathers having been worn off by the trampling feet of the Prince and his retinue. But as all this happens during the birds' molting-time, the bare heads are not to be wondered at; nor, as it is the rainy season, the attendant showers which, if occurring in the morning, the story-tellers attribute to the tears of the couple in the joy of meeting; or if in the evening, to those of sorrow at parting. Should a magpie anywhere be found loitering around home at this time, it is pursued by the children with well-merited ill-treatment for its selfish indifference to its duty. Nor must I forget to mention that the trouble in the royal household originated from the Prince's unfortunate investment of the paternal sapekes in a very promising scheme to tap the Milky Way and divert the fluid to nourish distant stars.

Another version is given by the Reverend Doctor William Elliot Griffis in his Japanese Fairy World, where the Spinning Damsel is the industrious princess Shokujo, separated by the Heavenly River from her herd-boy lover,  p59 Kinjin. But here the narrator makes Capricorn and the star Wega represent the lovers.

The native Australians knew the whole of Aquila as Totyarguil, one of their mythical personages, who, while bathing, was killed by a kelpie; their stellar Eagle being Sirius.

It was in the stars of our constellation, to the northwest of Altair, that Professor Edward E. Barnard discovered a comet from its trail on a photograph taken at the Lick Observatory on the 12th of October, 1892 — the first ever found by the camera.

Argelander catalogued 82 naked-eye stars in Aquila, including those of Antinoüs; Heis gives 123.

α, 1.3, pale yellow.

Altair is from a part of the Arabic name for the constellation; but occasionally is written Althair, Athair, Attair, and Atair; this last readers of Ben Hur will remember as the name of one of the shaykh Ilderim's horses in the chariot race at Antioch. And the word has been altered to Alcair, Alchayr, and Alcar.

In the Syntaxis it was Ἀετός, one of Ptolemy's few stellar titles, probably first applied to α, and after the formation of the figure transferred to the latter, as in other instances in the early days of astronomy. Even six or seven centuries before Ptolemy it was referred to as Αἰετόςº where the chorus in the Ῥῆσος, until recently attributed to Euphrates, says:

What is the star now passing?

the answer being:

The Pleiades show themselves in the east,

The Eagle soars in the summit of heaven.

It is supposed that long antecedent to this it was the Euphratean Idχu, the Eagle, or Erigu, the Power­ful Bird, inscriptions to this effect being quoted by Brown, who thinks that it also was the Persian Muru, the Bird; the Sogdian Shad Mashir, and the Khorasmian Sadmasjij, the Noble Falcon.

In Mr. J. F. Hewitt's Essays on the Ruling Races of Prehistoric Times it is asserted that later Zend mythology knew Altair as Vanant, the Western Quarter of the heavens, which earlier had been marked by our Corvus.

With β and γ it constituted the twenty-first nakshatra Çravana, the Ear, and probably was at first so drawn, although also known as Çrona, Lame, or as Açvattha, the Sacred Fig Tree, Vishnu being regent of the asterism; these stars representing the Three Footsteps with which that god strode through the heavens, a Trident being the symbol.

 p60  In China αβ, and γ were Ho Koo, a River Drum.

In astrology Altair was a mischief-maker, and portended danger from reptiles.

Ptolemy, who designated the degrees of star brilliancy by Greek letters, applied β to this as being of the 2d magnitude, whence some think that it has increased in light since his day. It is now the standard 1st magnitude according to the Pogson, or "absolute," photometric scale generally adopted by workers in stellar photometry, and is largely used in determining lunar distances at sea; while Flamsteed made it the fundamental reference star in his observations on the sun and in the construction of his catalogue.

Its parallax,​2 0″.214, considered by Elkin as nearly or quite exact, indicates a distance of about 15⅕ light years.

Its spectrum is of Pickering's class Xb of Secchi's first type, but peculiar, with very hazy solar lines between the broad hydrogen lines.

Altair has the large proper motion of 0″.65 annually; and Gould thought it slightly variable.

It marks the junction of the right wing with the body, and rises at sunset about the 15th of June, culminating on the 1st of September.

Near it appeared, in A.D. 389, an object, whether a temporary star or a comet is not now known, said by Cuspinianus to have equaled Venus in brilliancy, which vanished after three weeks' visibility; and there is record of another, of sixty years previous, in the constellation.

5° to the eastward of Altair, according to Denning, lies the radiant point of the Aquilids, the meteor stream visible from the 7th of June to the 12th of August.

β, 3.9, pale orange.

Alshain is from Shahin, a portion of the Persian name for the constellation; but Al Achsasi termed it Al Unuḳ al Ghurāb, the Raven's Neck.

It is the southern of the two stars flanking Altair; yet, although it bears the second letter, is not as bright as γ or δ.

γ, 3, pale orange.

Tarazed, or Tarazad, from the same Persian title, lies north of Altair.

These three stars constitute the Family of Aquila, the line joining them being 5° in length.

 p61  Just north of γ is π, the only pretty and fairly easy double in the constellation. The components, of 6 and 6.8 magnitudes, 1″.5 apart, are at a position angle of 120°.7.

δη, and θ, of 3d to 4th magnitudes, in Antinoüs, were Al Mizān, the Scale-beam, of early Arabia, from their similar direction and nearly equal distances apart.

ε, 4.3, and ζ, 3.3, green.

each of these is known as Deneb, from Al Dhanab al ʽOḳāb, the eagle's Tail, which they mark.

In China they were Woo and Yuë, names of old feudal states.

η, in Antinoüs, is a noteworthy short-period variable of the 2d type, discovered by Pigott in 1784, yellow in tint, and fluctuating in brilliancy from 3.5 to 4.7 in a period of about seven days and four hours, and thus a convenient and interesting object of observation for midsummer evenings.

Its spectrum is similar to that of our sun, and Lockyer and Belopolsky think it a spectroscopic binary.

θ was the Chinese Tseen Foo, Heavenly Raft.

ι, 4.3, and λ, 3.6,

were Al Thalīmain, the Two Ostriches, by some confusion with the not far distant stars of like designation in Sagittarius; but the Grynaeus Syntaxis of 1538 gave λ, with some others unlettered, as belonging to the Dolphin.

ι, with δη, and κ, was Yew Ke in China, the Right Flag; ρ being Tso Ke, the Left Flag.

λ, with hg, and some stars in Scutum, was Tseen Peen, the Heavenly Casque.

The Author's Notes:

1 This was the consul defeated and captured by Mithridates, who put him to death by pouring molten gold down his throat in punishment for his rapacity.

2 A parallax of 1″ represents a distance from the earth of 3.26 light years; a light year, the astronomers' unit in measuring stellar distances, — light traveling 186,327 miles in a second of time, — being about 63,000 times the distance of the earth from the sun. But no star thus far investigated has so large a parallax; that of the nearest, α Centauri, being only 0″.75.

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Page updated: 17 Aug 07