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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 this you note but little time aloft;

For opposite Bear-watcher doth it rise.

And whilst his course is high in air,

It quickly speeds beneath the western sea.

Robert Brown, Junior's, translation of the Phainomena of Aratos.

Ara, the Altar

is Altar in Germany, Altare in Italy, Autel and Encensoir in France.

It is located as Aratos described it [Phaen. 402] —

'neath the glowing sting of that huge sign

The Scorpion, near the south, the Altar hangs;

 p62  and in classical times was intimately associated with Centaurus and Lupus, which it joined on the west before Norma was formed.

The Latins knew it under our title, often designated as Ara Centauri, Ara Thymiamatis, and as Thymele, the altar of Dionysus; and occasionally in the diminutive Arula. It also was Altare, Apta Altaria, Altarium; Sacrarium and Sacris; Acerra, the small altar on which perfumes were burned before the dead; Batillus, an Incense Pan; Prunarum Conceptaculum, a Brazier; Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, all meaning a Hearth; and Ἑστία, or Vesta, the goddess of the hearth.​a

Thuribulum and Turribulum, a Censer, more correctly Turibulum, were customary titles down to the 18th century.

Pharus also appears, altars often being placed upon the summits of temple towers and thus serving the ancients as lighthouses, of which the Alexandrian Pharos was the great example.​b

The Alfonsine Tables added to some of these titles Puteus, a Pit; Sacrarius, and Templum, a Sacred Place; but represented it as a typical altar. The Leyden Manuscript made it a tripod censer with incense burning; the illustrated editions of Hyginus of 1488 and 1535, an altar from which flames ascend, with demons on either side; and an illustrated German manuscript of the 15th century showed the Pit with big demons thrusting little ones into the abyss. This recalls the story of Jove's punishment of the defeated giants after he had, as Manilius wrote,

Rais'd this Altar, and the Form appears

With Incense loaded, and adorn'd with Stars;

the occasion being the war with the Titans, when the gods needed an altar in heaven for their mutual vows. That poet also described it as

ara ferens turris, stellis imitantibus ignem,

which would show that the flame was conceived of as rising northwards through the Milky Way, or that the latter itself was the smoke and flame; and it was so thought of and represented by the ancients, and down to the times of Arabic globes and Middle Age manuscripts. But from Bayer's day to ours it has been shown in an inverted position, which for a southern constellation is appropriate.

Aratos called it Θυτήριον;º others, Θυσιαστήριον, both signifying an Altar; Proclus and Ptolemy, Θυμιατήριον, a Censer; and Bayer cited Έχάρα that should be Έσχάρα, a Brazier; Πυράμνη, not a lexicon word; and Λιβανωτίς, by which he doubtless intended the Λιβανωτρίς, or Censer, where the votive  p63 plant was burned. Eratosthenes had Νέκταρ ἡ Θυτήριον, which Ideler and Schaubach, however, did not understand, and thought a corrupted reading.

Its varied classical names show disagreement as to its form, yet great familiarity with its stars, on the part of early observers, with whom it was of importance as portending changes in the winds and weather; Aratos devoting twenty-eight lines — a large proportionate space — of the Phainomena to this character of Ara [Phaen. 402].

In Arabia it was Al Mijmarah, a Censer, which, being its only title in that country, implies that it was unformed there before the introduction of Greek astronomy. Derivations from this word are found in the Almegramith of Riccioli and the Almugamra of Caesius.

This last author said that Ara represented one of the altars raised by Moses, or the permanent golden one in the Temple at Jerusalem; but others of the biblical school considered it the Altar of Noah erected after the Deluge. Euphratean research seems to show a stellar Altar differently located, which Brown says probably was the lost zodiacal sign subsequently represented by the Claws and afterwards by the Balance (Libra); and identifies it with the 7th Akkadian month and sign Tul‑Ku, the Holy Altar, or the Illustrious Mound, perhaps a reference to the mound-altar of the Tower of Babel. When these changes were accomplished this early zodiacal Altar was removed to its present position, and its diversified altar-censer form retained from the Euphratean figuring. This recollection of the first Altar will perhaps account for the otherwise strange prominence given in classical times to our visually unimportant Ara, when Manilius called it Mundi Templum; this last word also having another stellar signification, for Varro used it to indicate a division of the sky.​c

Other details of this early Euphratean Altar are noted under Libra.

Ara is not wholly visible now north of the 23d degree of latitude; and its brief period above the horizon — only about four hours — explains Aratos' allusion in our motto; his horizon being about the same as that of the city of New York.

Gould catalogues in it eighty-five stars, from 2.8 to the 7th magnitude; but none seem to be named except in China. There α, 2.9 magnitude, was Choo, a Club or Staff; and with β, γ, and ι, Low, Trailing.

With θ it marks the top of the Altar's frame, culminating, on the 24th of July, just above the horizon in the latitude of New York, — 40°42′43″ at the City Hall.

Bayer's map carries the latter star several degrees too far to the south-west; similar errors being found in others of his constellation figures of the southern heavens.

 p64  β, a 2.8‑magnitude, γδε, and ζ mark the flame rising toward the south.

In China δ, 3.7, with ζ, was Tseen Yin, the Dark Sky; ε, a 4th‑magnitude, was Tso Kang, the Left Watch; and e 602 of Reeves was Tseen O, Heaven's Ridge.

La Lande stated that a constellation was supposed to exist here, containing Ara's stars, that was represented on the Egyptian sphere of Petosiris as a Cynocephalus.

Thayer's Notes:

a Several of these terms are usefully explained and often illustrated in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, sometimes not quite as Allen would have them. See the articles Acerra, Ara, Focus, Sacrarium, and Turibulum: this last article best explains the relation­ship among all these terms.

b See the article Pharos in Smith's Dictionary.

c It is in fact this meaning of templum — an area of land, and by extension a section of the sky, delimited by the augurs — from which the word came later to mean a "temple". For full details, including the citation in Varro, see the article Templum in Smith's Dictionary.

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Page updated: 15 Jul 08