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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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The ramping Centaur!

. . . .

The Centaur's arrow ready seems to pierce

Some enemy; far forth his bow is bent

Into the blue of heaven.

John Keats' Endymion.

Centaurus, the Centaur,

is from the Κένταυρος that Aratos used, probably from earlier times, for it was a universal title with the Greeks; but he also called it Ἱππότα Φήρ, the Horseman Beast, the customary term for a centaur in the Epic and Aeolic dialects. This, too, was the special designation of the classical Pholos, son of Silenus and Melia, and the hospitable one of the family, who died in  p149 consequence of exercising this virtue toward Hercules. Apollodorus tells us that the latter's gratitude caused this centaur's transformation to the sky as our constellation, with the fitting designation Εὐμενής, Well-disposed.

Eratosthenes asserted that the stellar figure represented Χείρων, a title that, in its transcribed forms Chiron and Chyron, was in frequent poetical use in classical times, and is seen in astronomical works even to Ideler's day. This has appropriately been translated the Handy One, a rendering that well agrees with this Centaur's reputation. He was the son of Chronos and the ocean nymph Philyra, who was changed after his birth into a Linden tree, whence Philyrides occasionally was applied to the constellation; although a variant story made him Phililyrides, the son of Phililyra, the Lyre-loving, from whom he inherited his skill in music. He was imagined as of mild and noble look, very different from the threatening aspect of the centaur Sagittarius; and Saint Clement of Alexandria wrote of him that he first led mortals to righteousness.​a His story has been thought in some degree historic, even by Sir Isaac Newton. As the wisest and most just of his generally lawless race he was beloved by Apollo and Diana, and from their teaching became proficient in botany and music, astronomy, divination, and medicine, and instructor of the most noted heroes in Grecian legend. Matthew Arnold wrote of him in Empedocles on Etna:

On Pelion, on the grassy ground,

Chiron, the aged Centaur lay,

The young Achilles standing by.

The Centaur taught him to explore

The mountains where the glens are dry

And the tired Centaurs come to rest,

And where the soaking springs abound.

. . . .

He told him of the Gods, the stars,

The tides.

Indeed, he was the legendary inventor of the constellations, as we see in Dyer's poem The Fleece:

Led by the golden stars as Chiron's art

Had marked the sphere celestial;

and the father of Hippo, mentioned by Euripides as foretelling events from the stars.

The story of Pholos is repeated for Chiron: that, being accidentally wounded by one of the poisoned arrows of his pupil Hercules, the Centaur renounced his immortality on earth in favor of the Titan Prometheus, and was raised to the sky by Jove. His name and profession are yet seen in  p150 the mediaeval medicinal plants Centaurea, the Centaury, and the still earlier Chironeion.

Prometheus evidently inherited Chiron's astronomical attainments, as well as his immortality, for Aeschylus, who thought him the founder of civilization and "full of the most devoted love for the human race," made him say in Prometheus Bound:

I instructed them to mark the stars,

Their rising, and, a harder science yet,

Their setting.

The conception of a centaur's figure with Homer, Hesiod, and even with Berōssōs, probably was of a perfect human form, Pindar being the first to describe it as semi-ferine, and since his day the human portion of the Centaur has been terminated at the waist and the hind quarters of a horse added. William Morris thus pictured him in his Life and Death of Jason:

at last in sight the Centaur drew,

A mighty grey horse trotting down the glade,

Over whose back the long grey locks were laid,

That from his reverend head abroad did flow;

For to the waist was man, but all below

A mighty horse, once roan, but now well-nigh white

With lapse of years; with oak-wreaths was he dight

Where man joined unto horse, and on his head

He wore a gold crown, set with rubies red,

And in his hand he bare a mighty bow,

No man could bend of those that battle now.

Some ancient artists and mythologists changed these hind quarters to those of a bull, thus showing the Minotaur, and on the Euphrates it was considered a complete Bull. The Arabians drew the stellar figure with the hind parts of a Bear, but adopted the Greek title in their Al Kentaurus, that has been considered as the original of the otherwise inexplicable Taraapoz, used in Reduan's Commentary for our constellation.

Some of the Centaur's stars, with those of Lupus, were known to the early Arabs as Al Ḳaḍb al Karm, the Vine Branch; and again as Al Shamārīḣ, the broken-off Palm Branches loaded with dates which Kazwini described as held out in the Centaur's hands. This degenerated into Asemarik, and perhaps was the origin of Bayer's word Asmeat. He also had Albeze; and Riccioli, Albezze and Albizze, — unintelligible unless from the Arabic Al Wazn, Weight, that was sometimes applied to α and β.

Hyde is our authority for another title (from Albumasar), Birdun, the Pack-horse.

 p151  Ptolemy described the figure with Lupus in one hand, and the Thyrsus in the other, marked by four 4th-magnitude stars, of which only two can now be found; this Thyrsus being formed, Geminos said, into a separate constellation by Hipparchos as θυρσόλογκος, — in the Manitius text as θύρσος, — and Pliny wrote of it in the same way, but their selection of such small stars seems remarkable.

The Centaur faces the east, and the Farnese globe shows him pointing with left hand to the Beast and the adjacent circular Altar; but in the Hyginus of 1488 the Beast is in his outstretched hands, the Hare on the spear, and a canteen at his waist; the Alfonsine Tables have the Thyrsus in his right hand and Lupus held by the fore foot in his left, which was the Arabian idea. The Leyden Manuscript gives a striking delineation of him with shaven face, but with heavy mustache (!), bearing the spear with the Hare dangling from the head, and a Kid, instead of the Beast, held out in his hands towards the Altar, the usual libation carried in the canteen. Bayer shows the Centaur with Lupus; Burritt has him in a position of attack, with the spear in his right hand and the shield on his left arm, the Thyrsus and vase of libation depicted on it; Grotius calling this portion of the constellation Arma. The Century Dictionary illustrates a Bacchic wand with the spear.

In Rome the constellation was Centaurus, the duplici Centaurus imagine of Manilius, and the Geminus biformis of Germanicus; Minotaurus; Semi Vir, the Half Man, and Semi Fer, the Half Beast; Pelenor and Pelethronius from the mountain home of the centaurs in Thessaly; Acerº Venator, the Fierce Hunter; and Vergil had Sonipes, the Noisy-footed. The Alfonsine Tables designated it as Sagittarius tenens pateram seu crateram to distinguish it from the other Sagittarius with the more appropriate bow.

Robert Recorde, in 1551, had the Centaure Chiron, but Milton, in 1667, wrote Centaur for the zodiac figure, as so many others have done before and since his day; in fact, Sagittarius undoubtedly was the original Centaur and from the Euphrates, the Centaur of the South probably being of Greek conception. But in the classical age confusion had arisen among the unscientific in the nomenclature of the two figures, this continuing till now; much that we find said by one author for the one appearing with another author for the other. During the 17th century, however, distinction was made by English authors in calling this the Great Centaure.

In some mediaeval Christian astronomy it typified Noah, but Julius Schiller changed the figure to Abraham with Isaac; and Caesius likened it to Nebuchadrezzar when "he did eat grass as oxen."

This is one of the largest constellations, more than 60° in length, its  p152 centre about 50° south of the star Spica below Hydra's tail; but Aratos located it entirely under the Scorpion and the Claws, an error that Hipparchos criticized. It shows in the latitude of New York City only a few of its components in the bust, of which θ, a variable 2nd-magnitude on the right shoulder, is visible in June about 12° above the horizon when on the meridian, and 27° southeast from Spica, with no other star of similar brightness in its vicinity. It was this that Professor Klinkerfues of Göttingen mentioned in his telegram to the Madras Observatory, on the 30th of November, 1872, in reference to the lost Biela comet which he thought had touched the earth three days previously and might be found in the direction of this star.

ι on the left shoulder, a 2½‑magnitude, is about 11° west of θ.

Gould's list contains 389 naked-eye stars in this constellation.

One of the remarkable nebulae of the heavens, NGC 3918, was discovered here by Sir John Herschel, who called it the Blue Planetary, "very like Uranus, only half as large again."

A 7th‑magnitude nova that appeared in Centaurus between the 14th of June and the 8th of July, 1895, had changed since its discovery to a gaseous nebula, as has been the case with recent novae in Auriga, Cygnus, and Norma.

α, Binary, 0.2 and 1.5, white and yellowish.

Baily's edition of Ulug Beg's catalogue gives this as Rigil Kentaurus, from Al Rijl al Kentaurus, the Centaur's Foot; describing it as on the toe of the right front hoof, and Bayer so illustrated it. Chrysococca had the synonymous ποῦς κοντούρος;º and our Century Dictionary retains Rigel, although this is better known for the bright star in Orion. Burritt located on the left fore hoof a 4th‑magnitude star that he wrongly lettered α; and above the pastern our 1st‑magnitude, also lettered α, with the title Bungula, which I find only with him and the Standard Dictionary. He gives no explanation of this, nor can I trace it further; it may be a word specially coined by Burritt from β and ungula, the hoof, although even in this the letter is wrong.

Ideler said that α and β also have been the Arabic Ḥaḍar, Ground, and Wazn, Weight, as is explained at the star β; but he seemed at a loss as to the proper assignment of these words, although inclining to Ḥaḍar for β.

These two stars were among the much discussed Al Muhlifaïn described at γ Argūs and δ Canis Majoris.

Alpha's splendor naturally made it an object of worship on the Nile, and  p153 its first visible emergence from the sun's rays, in the morning at the autumnal equinox, has been connected by Lockyer with the orientation of at least nine temples in northern Egypt dating from 3800 to 2575 B.C., and of several in southern Egypt from 3700 B.C. onward. As such object of worship it seems to have been known as Serk‑t.

It bore an important part, too, in southern China as the determinant of the stellar division Nan Mun, the South Gate.

α lies in the Milky Way, 60° south of the celestial equator, culminating with Arcturus, but is invisible from north of the 29th parallel. It is of the greatest interest to astronomers, being, so far as is now known, the nearest to our system of all the stars, although more than 275,000 times the distance of the earth from the sun, — 92,892,000 miles, — and 100 millions of times the distance from the earth to the moon, — 238,840 miles. Its parallax, first taken at the Cape of Good Hope by Henderson in 1839, and later by Gill and Elkin, and now fixed at 0″.75, shows a distance equal to that traveled by light in 4⅓ years.

We can better realize the immensity of this distance from Professor Young's statement that if the line from the earth to the sun's centre be represented as 215 feet long, one to this star would be 8000 miles; and from Sir John Herschel's illustration:

to drop a pea at the end of every mile of a voyage on a limitless ocean to the nearest fixed star, would require a fleet of 10,000 ships of 600 tons burthen, each starting with a full cargo of peas.

The nicety of parallactic observation, too, is shown by the fact that "an angle of 2″ is that in which a circle of 610 of an inch in diameter would be seen at the distance of a mile."

Were our sun removed to the distance of α Centauri, its diameter of 866,400 miles would subtend an angle of only 1143 of a second of arc, of course utterly inappreciable with the largest telescope; and if seen from that star, would appear as a 2d‑magnitude near the chair of Cassiopeia.

α was first discovered to be double by Richaud at Pondicherry, India, in 1689; but there seems discrepancy in the magnitudes respectively attributed to the components. Early astronomers thought the lesser star, α1, a 4th‑magnitude; even recently Gould has estimated it as 3½; yet Miss Clerke writes, "the lesser, though emitting only ⅓ as much light as its neighbour, is still fully entitled to rank as of the 1st magnitude"; all of which may indicate an increase of brilliancy since its observation began. Together they give nearly four times as much light as the sun, while their mass is double that of the latter.

 p154  The period of orbital revolution is about eighty-one years; the position angle in 1897, 208°; and they now are 21″.5 apart, — about 2700 millions of miles, — and yet connected! This distance is increasing.

Their proper motion, 3″.7 annually, or about 446 millions of miles across the line of vision, will carry them to the Southern Cross in 12,000 years.

The spectrum of α2, the larger star, is midway between the Sirian and Solar.

β, 1.2.

Burritt located this near the right fore leg, calling it Agena but gave no meaning or derivation of the word, and I have not found it elsewhere; Bayer placed it on the left hind quarter.1

Ḥaḍar and Wazn, Ground and Weight, seem to have been applied without much definiteness to α and β of this constellation, and to stars in Cargo, Columba, and Canis Major, probably on account of their proximity to the horizon; the meridian altitude of β, 1000 years at Cairo, in 30° of north latitude, being only 4°. Hyde, however, said that α and γ were the stars referred to by these Arabic titles.

The Chinese call β Mah Fuh, the Horse's Belly.

This and α are the Southern Pointers, i.e. towards the Southern Cross, often regarded as the Cynosure of the southern hemisphere.

The Bushmen of South Africa knew them as Two Men that once were Lions; and the Australian natives as Two Brothers who speared Tchingal to death, the eastern stars of the Cross being the spear points that pierced his body.

γ, 2.4, that Bayer placed on the right fore foot, with τ, 4.4, were the early Chinese Koo Low, an Arsenal Tower; and δ, 2.8, was the later Ma Wei, the Horse's Tail.

The early εζν, and ξ2, the four Dictis a nautis Croziers of Halley's catalogue, are the Southern Cross; ζ probably being Al Tizini's Al Nā᾽ir al Baṭn al Kentaurus, the Bright One in the Centaur's Belly.

θ, Double and variable, 2.2. to 2.7 and 14.3, red and bluish,

appears in the Century Cyclopedia as Chort, an error from the editor's writing Centauri for Leonis, this letter and title really belonging to θ Leonis, on the hind quarter of the Lion near the Ribs, that the Arabic Ḣārātan signifies. θ in this constellation marks the left shoulder of the figure.

Harvard observers at Arequipa have reported an 8th‑magnitude companion  p155 3″ away, at a position angle of 180°. See does not find this at the Lowell observatories; but in 1897 discovered the companion noted in the heading, about 70″ away, at a position angle of 128°.6.

In China κ was Ke Kwan, a Cavalry Officer; μν, and φ were Wei, the Balance; igkψ, and A, with another adjacent, were Choo, a Pillar; and some small stars near the foot of the Cross were Hae Shan, the Sea and the Mountain.

The letter ω was applied by Bayer to a hazy 4th‑magnitude star in imo dorsob of the human part of the figure, which Halley, in 1677, inserted in his catalogue as a nebula; but at Feldhausen, on the Cape of Good Hope, the better telescope of Sir John Herschel showed it as "a noble globular cluster, beyond all comparison the richest and largest in the heavens." This appears absolutely round, 20′ in diameter, and contains many thousands of 13th- to 15th‑magnitude stars; while its uniform structure indicates that it may be among the youngest of its class. It is the NGC 5139, and has been splendidly photographed by Bailey at Arequipa, showing 6336 stars, among which he finds 122 variables.

It comes to the meridian on the 1st of June, about 36° south of Spica, but is invisible from north of the 34th parallel.

The Editor's Note:

1 Allen, who correctly deciphered the meaning of Bungula (p152), failed to recognize Agena as a similar compound, α and gena, the knee. — Donald H. Menzel, 1963.

Thayer's Note: The above brief note is copyright 1963; it is so brief that I reproduce it here by way of "fair use", all the more so that I'm going to critique it.

Gena is a Latin word, alright: it means "cheek"; the knee is genu, with no inflected form yielding *gena. Neither is Menzel's gena Greek, where the knee is γόνυ. That Allen may have surmised the coinage by Burritt as from β (which should have been α) and ungula is clever; that he should have assumed Burritt to have derived Agena from α (which should have been β) and *gena, a mistake of some kind, is very doubtful.

Thayer's Notes:

a No. Clement merely quotes "the author of The Battle of the Titans" as saying that.

b A bit of Victorian prudery here; the only reason for the Latin (imo dorso = "lowest back") is to camouflage that the part of the human body being referred to is the seat.

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Page updated: 29 Apr 20