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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 Delphienus heit

Up in the aire.

King James I, in Ane schort Poeme of Tyme.

Delphinus, the Dolphin,

is Dauphin in France, Delfino in Italy, and Delphin in Germany: all from the Greek Δελφίς and Δελφίν, transcribed by the Latins as Delphis and Delphin. This last continued current through the 17th century, and in our day was resumed by Proctor for his reformed list. Chaucer, in the Hous of Fame, had Delphyn, and later than he it was Dolphyne.

It now is one of the smallest constellations, but originally may have included the stars that Hipparchos set off to form the new Equuleus; and in all astronomical literature has borne its present title and shape, with many and varied stories attached, for its namesake was always regarded the most remarkable of marine creatures.

 p199  In Greece it also was Ἵερος Ἰχθύς, the Sacred Fish, the creature being of as much religious significance there as a fish afterwards became among the early Christians; and it was the sky emblem of philanthropy, not only from the classical stories connected with its proto­type, but also from the latter's devotion to its young. It should be remembered that our stellar Dolphin is figured as the Common cetacean, Delphinus delphis, of Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, not the tropical Coryphaena that Dorado represents.

Ovid,​a designating it as clarum sidus, personified it as Amphitrite, the goddess of the sea, because the dolphin induced her to become the wife of Neptune, and for this service, Manilius said, was "rais'd from Seas" to be

The Glory of the Flood and of the Stars.

From this story the constellation was known as Persuasor Amphitrites, as well as Neptunus and Triton.

With Cicero it appeared as Curvus, an adjective that appropriately has been applied to the creature's apparent form in all ages​1 down to the "bended dolphins" in Milton's picture of the Creation. Bayer's Currus merely is Cicero's word with a typographical error, for he explained it, Ciceroni ob gibbum in dorso; but he also had Smon nautis, and Riccioli Smon barbaris, which seems to be the Simon, Flat-nosed, of old-time mariners, quoted by Pliny for the animal [H. N. IX.23].

Another favorite title was Vector Arionis, from the Greek fable that attributed to the dolphin the rescue of Arion on his voyage from Tarentum to Corinth — a variation of the very much earlier myth of the sun-god Baal Hamon. Hence comes Henry Kirke White's

lock'd in silence o'er Arion's star,

The slumbering night rolls on her velvet car.

In continuation of the Greek story of Arion and his Lyre appears Μουσικόν ζώδιον, the Musicum signum of the Latins; or this may come from the fact mentioned in Ovid's Fasti [II.118] that the constellation was supposed to contain nine stars, the number of the Muses, although Ptolemy prosaically catalogued 10; Argelander, 20; and Heis, 31.

Riccioli and La Lande cited Hermippus for Delphinus, and Acetes after the pirate-pilot who protected Bacchus on his voyage to Naxos and Ariadne; while to others it represented Apollo returning to Crissa or piloting Castalius from Crete.

 p200  The Hindus, from whom the Greeks are said to have borrowed it, although the reverse of this may have been the case, knew it as Shī-shu-māra, or Sim-shu-māra, changed in later days to Zizumara, a Porpoise, also ascribed to Draco. And they located here the 22d nakshatra, Çravishthā, Most Favorable, also called Dhanishthā, Richest; the Vasus, Bright or Good Ones, being the regents of this asterism, which was figured as a Drum or Tabor; β marking the junction with Catabishaj.

Brown thinks that it may have been the Euphratean Makhar, although Capricorn also claimed this.

Al Bīrūnī, giving the Arabic title AI Ḳaʽūd, the Riding Camel, said that the early Christians — the Melkite​2 and Nestorian sects — considered it the Cross of Jesus transferred to the skies after his crucifixion; but in Kazwini's day the learned of Arabia called αβγ and δ Al ʽUḳūd, the Pearls or Precious Stones adorning Al Ṣalīb, by which title the common people knew this Cross; the star ε, towards the tail, being Al ʽAmūd al Ṣalīb, the Pillar of the Cross. But the Arabian astronomers adopted the Greek figure as their Dulfīm, which one of their chroniclers described as "a marine animal friendly to man, attendant upon ships to save the drowning sailors."

The Alfonsine Tables of 1545 said of Delphinus, Quae habet stellas quae sapiunt naturam, a generally puzzling expression, but common in the 1551 translation of the Tetrabiblos, where it signifies stars supposed to be cognizant of human births and influential over human character, — naturam. Ptolemy, as is shown in these Four Books, was a believer in the genethliacal influence of certain stars and constellations, of which this seems to have been one specially noted in that respect.​b

Delphinus lies east of Aquila, on the edge of the Milky Way, occupying, with the adjoining aqueous figures, the portion of the sky that Aratos called the Water. It culminates about the 15th of September.

Caesius placed here the Leviathan of the 104th Psalm; Novidius, the Great Fish that swallowed Jonah; but Julius Schiller knew some of its stars as the Water-pots of Cana. Popularly it now is Job's Coffin, although the date and name of the inventor of this title I have not been able to learn.

The Chinese called the four chief stars and ζ Kwa Chaou, a Gourd.

α, 4, pale yellow; β, Binary, 4 and 6, greenish and dusky.

The strange names Sualocin and Rotanev first appeared for these stars in the Palermo Catalogue of 1814, and long were a mystery to all, and  p201 seemingly a great puzzle to Smyth, which he perhaps never solved, although he was very intimate with the staff of the Palermo Observatory. Webb, however, discovered their origin by reversing the component letters, and so reading Nicolaus Venator, the Latinized form of Niccolo Cacciatore, the name of the assistant and successor of Piazzi. But Miss Rolleston, in her singular book Mazzaroth, considered in some quarters as of authority, wrote [2d Part, Scorpio] that they are derived, α from the

Arabic Scalooin, swift (as the flow of water);

and β from the

Syriac and Chaldee Rotaneb, or Rotaneu, swiftly running (as water in the trough).

For no part of this scholar­ly (!) statement does there seem to be the least foundation. Burritt gave these titles as Scalovin and Rotanen.​c

α may be variable to the extent of half a magnitude in fourteen days.

β is a very close pair, 0″.68 apart in 1897, at a position angle of 357°, with the rapid orbital period of about twenty-six years. Another companion, purple in color and of the 11th magnitude, 6″ away, has lately been discovered by See, and so β may be ternary; while two other stars of the 10th and 13th magnitudes are about 30″ away.

γ is a beauti­ful double of 4th and 5th magnitudes, 11″ apart, with a position angle of 270°; but, if binary, their motion is extremely slow. The components are golden and bluish green, and a fine object for small glasses.

ε, a 4th‑magnitude, although lying near the dorsal fin of our present figure, bears the very common name Deneb, from Al Dhanab al Dulfīm, the Dolphin's Tail. But in Arabia it also was Al ʽAmūd al Ṣalīb, as marking the Pillar of the Cross. In China it was Pae Chaou, the Rotten Melon.

The comparative brilliancy of βγδ, and ε has been variously estimated — a fact which the observations of Gould at Albany in 1858, and at Cordoba in 1871‑74, prove to be occasioned by variability, within moderate limits, of all four.

The Author's Notes:

1 Huet, in his notes on Manilius, quoted many examples of the use of this term by the Latins, and said Perpetuam hoc Delphinum Epitheton.

2 These Melkites, or Royalists as the name indicates, were of the Greek Church, whose spiritual head now is the Czar, the Royal head of Russia and successor of the Byzantine Church.

Thayer's Note: The Melkites did originally take their name from the Syriac word for "king" because they were of the party of the Byzantine emperor after Chalcedon; but the rest of the note is irrelevant, misleading, highly debatable, and downright wrong — in about equal parts — and best ignored.

Thayer's Notes:

a Not Ovid's invention: the story is much older than Ovid or Manilius. The sources are cited in Mair's note to Oppian, Halieutica, I.386.

b Ptolemy mentions the Dolphin only once in the Tetrabiblos, somewhat incidentally with Cancer and Capricorn as influencing "the creatures of the sea and the sailing of fleets" (II.7, Cam.2 p80: καὶ τούτων ἐν μὲν τοῖς θαλαττίοις, οἷον Καρκίνῳ, Αἰγόκερῳ, Δελφῖνι, περὶ τὰ θαλάττια, καὶ ἔτι τὰς τῶν στολῶν ἀναγωγάς.).

c This offers us a nice pair of cautionary morals:

1. Before inventing something and passing it off as truth, make sure it's completely unverifiable. Mind you, there is almost nothing that cannot be checked: like Frances Rolleston, you will eventually be caught out, and from there on for the rest of time be branded as a fool or a liar, or both. (If on the other hand you are a presumably well-intentioned scholar like the hapless Burritt or Johann Bayer of the Uranometria so often pilloried by Allen, rely as little as you can on secondary sources, and check your facts and your spelling, then your galleys: don't let your printer establish your reputation.)

2. Conversely, readers beware, there's a lot of falsehood and downright lies out there, not magically transmuted into truth by being committed to print or slithering onto a widely known website.

But there's also a sort of a sequel in Navi, Dnoces and Regor, three star names that memorialize the astronauts who died in the 1967 Apollo fire; see the interesting article at; a previous version of the page was rescued by WayBack when for a time had pulled it off the Web: it is here. The asteroids in their multitudes have proven an even more fertile field for fancies of this order; but even the rather more tightly controlled nomenclature of planetary features has not been immune.

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Page updated: 2 Apr 20