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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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Till, rising on my wings, I was preferr'd

To be the chaste Minerva's virgin bird.

— Joseph Addison's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses.


was the Raven in Chaucer's time, and the Germans still have Rabe; but the French follow the Latins in Corbeau, as the Italians do in Corvo, and we in the Crow.   Although now traversed by the 20th degree of south declination, 2000 years ago it lay equally on each side of the celestial equator. It contains only 15 naked-eye stars according to Argelander, — 26 according to Heis, — yet was a noted constellation with the Greeks and Romans, and always more or less associated with the Cup and with the Hydra, on whose body it rests. Ovid said of this combination in his Fasti:

Continuata loco tria sidera, Corvus et Anguis,

Et medius Crater inter utrumque jacet;

but while always so drawn, the three constellations for a long time have been catalogued separately.

The Greeks called it Κόραξ, Raven; and the Romans, Corvus. Manilius designating it as Phoebo Sacer Ales, and Ovid as Phoebeīus Ales, mythology having made the bird sacred to Phoebus Apollo in connection with his prophetic functions, and because he assumed its shape during the conflict of the gods with the giants.

 p180  Ovid, narrating in the Metamorphoses the story of Coronis, and of her unfaithfulness to Apollo,​1 said that when the bird reported to his master this unwelcome news he was changed from his former silver hue to the present black, as Saxe concludes the story:

Then he turned upon the Raven,

"Wanton babbler! see thy fate!

Messenger of mine no longer,

Go to Hades with thy prate!

"Weary Pluto with thy tattle!

Hither, monster, come not back;

And — to match thy disposition — 

Henceforth be thy plumage black!"

This story gave rise to the stellar title Garrulus Proditor.

Another version of the legend appears in the Fastiviz., that the bird, being sent with a cup for water, loitered at a fig-tree till the fruit became ripe, and then returned to the god with a water-snake (adjacent Hydra) in his claws and a lie in his mouth, alleging the snake to have been the cause of his delay. In punishment he was forever fixed in the sky with the Cup and the Snake; and, we may infer, doomed to everlasting thirst by the guardian­ship of the Hydra over the Cup and its contents. From all this came other poetical names for our Corvus — Avis Ficarius, the Fig Bird; and Emansor, one who stays beyond his time; and a belief, in early folklore, that this alone among birds did not carry water to its young.

Florus​a called it Avis Satyra, the Bird of the Satyrs, and Pomptina, from the victory of Valerius when aided by a raven on the Pontine Marsh.

This bird and an ass appear together on a coin of Mindaon, which is interpreted as a reference to the almost simultaneous setting of the constellations Corvus and Cancer, for the ass always has been associated with the latter in the Ὄνοι, or Asini, of its stars.

The Raven of Rome and Greece became Al Ghurāb in Arabia; but in earlier days four of its stars were Al ‘Arsh al Simāk al ‘Azal, the Throne of the Unarmed One, referring to the star Spica. These naturally have been considered β, γ, δ, and η; but Firuzabadi, as interpreted by Lach, said that they were θ, κ, ψ, and g; and the same stars were Al ‘Ajz al Asad, the Rump of the ancient Lion. Other early titles for the whole were Al Ajmāl,  p181 the Camel, and Al Ḣibā‘, the Tent; this last generally qualified by Yamaniyyah, the Southern, to distinguish it from that in Auriga. Instead of Ajmāl, Hyde quoted, from the Mudjizat, Ahmal, or Ḥamal, the Ram, but this does not seem probable here.

As these stars were utilized by the Arabs in forming their exaggerated Asad, so also were they by the Hindus in the immense Praja-pāti, of which they marked the hand, — this title being duplicated for Orion, and much better known for that constellation. The head of the figure was marked by Citrā, our Spica, and the thighs by the two Viçākhas, α and β Librae; while the Anuradhas, β, δ, and π Scorpii, formed Praja-pāti's standing-place. Incongruously enough, they considered Nishtya, or Svati, — our star Arcturus, — as the heart; but as this was far out of the proper place for that organ, Professor Whitney substituted ι, κ, and λ Virginis of the manzil and sieu.

The Avesta mentions a stellar Raven, Eorosch; but how, if at all, this coincided with ours is unknown; although Hewitt thinks that our Corvus, under the title Vanant, marked the western quarter of the earliest Persian heavens.

Nor is the reason for the association of Corvus with Hydra evident, although there is a Euphratean myth, from far back of classical days, making it one of the monster ravens of the brood of Tiāmat that Hydra represented; and upon a tablet appears a title that may be for Corvus as the Great Storm Bird, or Bird of the Desert, to which Tiāmat gave sustenance, just as Aratos described Κόραξ pecking the folds of the Hydra. The prominent stars of Corvus have otherwise been identified with the Akkadian Kurra, the Horse.

The Hebrews knew it as ‘Ōrebh, or Ōrev, the Raven; and the Chinese, as a portion of their great stellar division the Red Bird, while its individual stars were an Imperial Chariot ruling, or riding upon, the wind.

In later days it has been likened to Noah's Raven flying over the Deluge, or alighting on Hydra, as there was no dry land for a resting-place; or one of those that fed the prophet Elijah; but Julius Schiller combined its stars with those of Crater in his Ark of the Covenant.

α, 4.3, orange.

Al Chiba is from the Desert title for the whole Arabic figure; but Ulug Beg and the Arabian astronomers designated it as Al Minḣar al Ghurāb, the Raven's Beak.

Reeves said that it was the Chinese Yew Hea, the Right-hand Linch-pin.

Although lettered first, it now is so much less brilliant than the four following  p182 stars that some consider it as having decreased since Bayer's day, and perhaps changed in color, for Al Sufi called it red.

β, a ruddy yellow 3d‑magnitude star, seems unnamed except in China, where it is Tso Hea, the Left-hand Linch-pin; but under this title were included γδ, and η.

γ, 2.3.

Gienah is from Ulug Beg's Al Janāḥ al Ghurāb al Aiman, the Right Wing of the Raven, although on modern charts it marks the left. Algorab, given in the Alfonsine Tables to this star, is now usually applied to δ.

γ is the brightest member of the constellation, and some Chinese authorities said that it alone marked their 11th sieu. It culminates on the 10th of May.

δ, Double 3.1 and 8.5, pale yellow and purple.

Algorab, the generally received modern title, is from the Palermo Catalogue; Proctor has Algores. It is on the right wing, and at the upper left corner of the square. The components are 24″ apart; but, owing to its color, the smaller is not readily distinguishable. The position angle is 210°.

All the foregoing stars, ε being added, constituted the 11th nakshatra, Hasta, the Hand, with Savitar, the Sun, as its presiding divinity; δ marking the junction with Citrā, the next lunar station.

The 11th sieu, Tchin, the Cross-piece of a chariot, anciently Kusam, contained βγδ, and ε; but, according to some authorities, only γ. This, however, always was the determining star.

ζ, a 6th‑magnitude double, almost on the limit of invisibility, strangely seems to have borne a name in China, — Chang Sha, a Long Sand-bank.

Al Bīrūnī said that with βγ, and δ it marked the hind quarters of the monstrous early Lion.

The Author's Note:

1 It may be noted here that Apollo and Coronis were even still more closely connected with astronomy in being the parents of Aesculapius, who afterwards became the Serpent-holder Ophiuchus.

Thayer's Note:

a Who this Florus is, I've been unable to ascertain. It is not the Roman historian, writer of the Epitome, in which no such reference appears; nor is it the poet — possibly the same man — in whose few surviving verses no avis Satyra either. (Unchecked, because not online nor in my library, the brief dialogue Vergilius orator an poeta? which may be by one of them, or yet again by a third writer.) Nor is he Florus Lugdunensis, the Christian writer, or at least the phrase doesn't appear in any of his works collected by Migne online at Documenta Catholica.

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Page updated: 31 Oct 08