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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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With vast convolutions Draco holds

Th' ecliptic axis in his scaly folds.

O'er half the skies his neck enormous rears,

And with immense meanders parts the Bears.

Erasmus Darwin's Economy of Vegetation.

Draco, the Dragon,

The German Drache, the Italian Dragone, and the French Dragon, was Δράκων with the Greeks — indeed this has been the universal title in the transcribed forms of the word. Classic writers, astronomers, and the people have known it thus, although Eratosthenes and Hipparchos called it Ὄφις,  p203 and in the Latin Tables, as with some of the poets, it occasionally appeared, with the other starry snakes, as Anguis, Coluber, Python, and Serpens. From the latter came Aesculapius, and perhaps Audax.

It was described in the Shield of Hercules, with the two Dogs, the Hare, Orion, and Perseus, as

The scaly horror of a dragon, coiled

Full in the central field;

and mythologists said that it was the Snake snatched by Minerva from the giants and whirled to the sky, where it became Sidus Minervae et Bacchi or the monster killed by Cadmus at the fount of Mars, whose teeth he sowed for a crop of armed men.

Julius Schiller, without thought of its previous character, said that its stars represented the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem; others, more consistently, that it was the Old Serpent, the tempter of Eve in the Garden; Caesius likened it to the Great Dragon that the Babylonians worshiped with Bel; and Olaus Rudbeck,​1 the Swedish naturalist of about 1700, said that his countrymen considered it the ancient symbol of the Baltic Sea; but he also sought to show that Paradise was located in Sweden!

Delitzsch asserted that a Hebrew conception for its stars was a Quiver; but this must have been exceptional, for the normal figure with that people was the familiar Dragon, or a sea monster of some kind. Renan thought that the allusion of Job to "the crooked serpent" in our Authorized Version is to this, or possibly to that of Ophiuchus; but the Dragon would seem to be the most probable as the ancient possessor of the pole-star, then, as ours now is, the most important in the heavens; while this translation of the original is specially appropriate for such a winding figure. The Reverend Doctor Albert Barnes renders it "fleeing," and Delitzsch, "fugitive"; but the Revised Version has "swift," a very unsuitable epithet for Draco's slow motion, yet applicable enough to the more southern Hydra.

Referring to Draco's change of position in respect to the pole from the effect of precession, Proctor wrote in his Myths and Marvels of Astronomy:

One might almost, if fancifully disposed, recognize the gradual displacement of the Dragon from his old place of honour, in certain traditions of the downfall of the great Dragon whose "tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven," alluded to in The Revelation xii.4;

and the conclusion of that verse, "did cast them to the earth," would show a possible reference to meteors.

 p204  In Persia Draco was Azhdehā, the Man-eating Serpent, occasionally transcribed Hashteher; and, in very early Hindu worship, Shi-shu‑mara, the Alligator, or Porpoise, which also has been identified with our Delphinus.

Babylonian records allude to some constellation near the pole as a Snail drawn along on the tail of a Dragon that may have been our constellation; while among the inscriptions we find Sīr, a Snake, but to which of the sky serpents this applied is uncertain. And some see here the dragon Tiāmat,​2 overcome by the kneeling sun-god Izhdubar or Gizdhubar, our Hercules, whose foot is upon it. Rawlinson, however, said that Draco represented Hea or Hoa, the third god in the Assyrian triad, also known as Kim‑mut.

As a Chaldaean figure it probably bore the horns and claws of the early typical dragon, and the wings that Thales utilized to form the Lesser Bear; hence these are never shown on our maps. But with that people it was a much longer constellation than with us, winding downwards and in front of Ursa Major, and, even into later times, clasped both of the Bears in its folds; this is shown in manuscripts and books as late as the 17th century, with the combined title Arctoe et Draco. It still almost incloses Ursa Minor. The usual figuring is a combination of bird and reptile, magnus et tortus, a Monstrum mirabile and Monstrum audax, or plain Monstrum with Germanicus. Vergil had Maximus Anguis, which [Georg. I.244 ff.],

after the manner of a river, glides away with tortuous windings, around and through between the Bears; —

a simile that may have given rise to another figure and title, found in the Argonauticae, — Ladon, from the prominent river of Arcadia, or, more probably, the estuary bounding the Garden of the Hesperides, which, in the ordinary version of the story, Draco guarded, "the emblem of eternal vigilance in that it never set." Here he was Coluber arborem conscendens, and Custos Hesperidum, the Watcher over the golden fruit; this fruit and the tree bearing it being themselves stellar emblems, for Sir William Drummond wrote:

a fruit tree was certainly a symbol of the starry heavens, and the fruit typified the constellations;

and George Eliot, in her Spanish Gypsy:

 p205  The stars are golden fruit upon a tree

All out of reach.

Draco's stars were circumpolar about 5000 B.C., and, like all those similarly situated, — of course few in number owing to the low latitude of the Nile country, — were much observed in early Egypt, although differently figured than as with us. Some of them were a part of the Hippopotamus, or of its variant the Crocodile, and thus shown on the planisphere of Denderah and the walls of the Ramesseum at Thebes. As such Delitzsch says that it was Hes‑mut, perhaps meaning the Raging Mother. An object resembling a ploughshare held in the creature's paws has fancifully been said to have given name to the adjacent Plough.

The hieroglyph for this Hippopotamus was used for the heavens in general; while the constellation is supposed to have been a symbol of Isis Hathor, Athor, or Athyr, the Egyptian Venus; and Lockyer asserts that the myth of Horus which deals with the Hor-she‑shu, an almost prehistoric people even in Egyptian records, makes undoubted reference to stars here; although subsequently this myth was transferred to the Thigh, our Ursa Major. It is said that at one time the Egyptians called Draco Tanem, not unlike the Hebrew Tannīm, or Aramaic Tannīn, and perhaps of the same signification and derived from them.

The Egyptian Necht was close to, or among, the stars of Draco; but its exact location and boundaries, how it was figured, and what it represented, are not known.

Among Arabian astronomers Al Tinnīn and Al Thuʽbān were translations of Ptolemy's Δράκων; and on the Borgian globe, inscribed over β and γ, are the words Alghavil Altannin in Assemani's transcription, the Poisonous Dragon in his translation, assumed by him as referring to the whole constellation. That there was some foundation for this may be inferred from the traditionary belief of early astrologers that when a comet was here poison was scattered over the world. Bayer cited from Turkish maps Etanin, and from others Aben, Taben, and Etabin; Riccioli, Abeen vel Taeben; Postellus, Daban; Chilmead, Alanin; and Schickard, Attanino. Al Shujāʽ, the Snake, also was applied to Draco by the Arabians, as it was to Hydra; and Al Ḥayyah, the Snake, appeared for it, though more common for our Serpens, with which word it was synonymous.

Bayer had Palmes emeritus, the Exhausted Vine Branch, that I do not find elsewhere; but the original is probably from the Arabs for some minor group of the constellation.

Williams mentions a great comet, seen from China in 1337, which passed through Yuen Wei, apparently some unidentified stars in Draco. The  p206 creature itself was the national emblem of that country, but the Dragon of the Chinese zodiac was among the stars now our Libra: Edkins writes that Draco was Tsï Kung, the Palace of the Heavenly Emperor, adding, although not very clearly, that this palace

is bounded by the stars of Draco, fifteen in number, which stretch themselves in an oval shape round the pole-star. They include the star Tai yi, ξοσs, of Draco, which is distant about ten degrees from the tail of the Bear and twenty-two from the present pole. It was itself the pole in the Epoch of the commencement of Chinese astronomy.

Draco extends over twelve hours of right ascension, and contains 130 naked-eye components according to Argelander; 220, according to Heis: but both of these authorities extend the tail of the figure, far beyond its star λ, to a 4th‑magnitude under the jaws of Camelopardalis, — much farther than is frequently seen on the maps.

α, 3.6, pale yellow.

Thuban and Al Tinnin are from the Arabic title for the whole of Draco, and Azhdeha from the Persian.

It is also Adib, Addib, Eddib, Adid, Adive, and El Dsib, all from Al Dhiʽbah, the Hyaenas, that also appears for the stars ζη, and ι, as well as for others in Boötes and Ursa Major. Al Tizini called it Al Dhīḣ, the Male Hyaena.

Among seamen it has been the Dragon's Tail, a title explained under γ.

In China it was Yu Choo, the Right-hand Pivot; the space towards ι being Chung Ho Mun.

Sayce says that the great astrological and astronomical work compiled for the first Sargon, king of Agade, or Akkad, devoted much attention to this star, then marking the pole, as Tir-An‑na, the Life of Heaven; Dayan Same, the Judge of Heaven; and Dayan Sidi, the Favorable Judge, — all representing the god Caga Gilgati, whose name it also bore. Brown applies these titles to Wega of the Lyre, the far more ancient pole-star, — but this was 14,000 years ago! — and cited for α Draconis Dayan Esiru, the Prospering Judge, or the Crown of Heaven, and Dayan Shisha, the Judge Directing, as having the highest seat amongst the heavenly host. About 2750 B.C., it was less than 10′ from the exact pole, although now more than 26°; and as it lies nearly at the centre of the figure, the whole constellation then visibly swung around it, as on a pivot, like the hands of a clock, but in the reverse direction.

The star could be seen, both by day and night, from the bottom of the  p207 central passage​3 of the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Knum Khufu) at Ghizeh, in 30° of north latitude, as also from the similar points in five other like structures; and the same fact is asserted by Sir John Herschel as to the two pyramids at Abousseir.

Herschel considered that there is distinct evidence of Thuban formerly being brighter than now, as its title from its constellation, and its lettering, would indicate; for with Bayer it was a 2d‑magnitude, — in fact only one of that brilliancy in his list of Draco, — and generally so in star-catalogues previous to two centuries ago. It culminates on the 7th of June.

β, probably Binary, 3 and 14, yellow.

Rastaban and Rastaben are from Al Rās al Thuʽbān, the Dragon's Head, — Schickard's Raso tabbani.

In early Arab astronomy it was one of Al ʽAwāïd, the Mother Camels, γμν, and ξ completing the figure, which was later known as the Quinque Dromedarii. From the Arabic word comes another modern name, Alwaid, unless it may be from a different conception of the group as Al ʽAwwād, the Lute-player. Still other Desert titles were Al Rāḳis, the Dancer, or Trotting Camel, now given to μ; and it formed part of Al Ṣalīb al Wākiʽ, the Falling Cross, β and ξ forming the perpendicular, γμ, and ν the traverse; and thus designated as if slanting away from the observer to account for the paucity of stars in the upright.

Asuia, current in the Middle Ages and since, was from Al Shujāʽ, and often has been written Asvia, the letter u being incorrectly considered the early v. The companion, 4″ away, at a position angle of 13°.4, was discovered by Burnham.

β and γ, 4° apart, near the solstitial colure, have been known as the Dragon's Eyes, incorrect now, although Proctor thought them so located in the original figuring of a front view of Draco. Modern drawings place them on the top of the head.

In the China they were Tien Kae.

γ, Double, 2.4 and 13.2, orange.

Eltanin, also written Ettanin, Etannin, Etanim, Etamin, etc., is from Ulug Beg's Al Rās al Tinnīn, the Dragon's Head, applied to this, as it also  p208 is to α; Riccioli wrote it Ras Eltanim. The word Tinnīn is nearly synonymous with Thuʽbān, and Bayer mentioned Rastaben as one of its titles, the Alfonsine Rasaben, and now Rastaban in the Century Cyclopedia; but in early Arabic astronomy it was one of the Herd of Camels alluded to at β.

Firuzabadi referred to a Rās al Tinnīn and Dhanab al Tinnīn in the heavens, the Dragon's Head, and Tail; but these have no connection with our Draco, reference being there made solely to the ascending and descending nodes in the orbits of the moon and planets known to Arabian astronomers under these titles. Primarily, however, these were from India, and known as Rahu and Kitu. This idea seem to have originated from the fact that the moon's undulating course was symbolized by that of the stellar Hydra; and had the latter word been used instead of "Dragon," the expression would now be better understood. But it was familiar to seamen as late as the 16th century, for "the head and tayle of the Dragon"​4 appears in Eden's Dedication, of 1574, to Sir Wyllyam Wynter; and even now with the symbols, for the ascending node and for the descending, are used in text-books and almanacs.

γ has been a notable object in all ages. It was observed with the telescope by Doctor Robert Hooke in the daytime in 1669 while endeavoring to determine its parallax, but his result afterwards was found to be due to the effect of aberration. Subsequently this star was used by Bradley for the same purpose, although unsuccessfully; but, on the other hand, it gave him his great discovery of the aberration of light​5 of which Hooke of course was ignorant.

Millenniums before this, however, it was of importance on the Nile, as it ceased to be circumpolar about 5000 B.C., and a few centuries thereafter became the natural successor of Dubhe (α Ursae Majoris), which up to that date had been the prominent object of Egyptian temple worship in the north. γ was known there as Isis, or Taurt Isis, — the former name applied at one time to Sirius, — and it marked the head of the Hippopotamus that was part of our Draco. Its rising was visible about 3500 B.C. through the central passages of the temples of Hathor at Denderah and of Mut at Thebes; Canopus being seen through other openings toward the south at the same date. And Lockyer says that thirteen centuries later it became the orientation point of the great Karnak temples of Rameses and Khons at Thebes, the passage in the former, through which the star was  p209 observed, being 1500 feet in length; and that at least seven different temples were oriented toward it. When precession had put an end to this use of these temples, others are thought to have been built with the same purpose in view; so that there are now found three different sets of structures close together, and so oriented that the dates of all, hitherto not certainly known, may be determinable by this knowledge of the purpose for which they were designed. Such being the case, Lockyer concludes that Hipparchos was not the discoverer of the precession of the equinoxes, as is generally supposed, but merely the publisher of that discovery made by the Egyptians, or perhaps adopted by them from Chaldaea.

He also states that Apet, Bast, Mut, Sekhet, and Taurt were all titles of one god in the Nile worship, symbolized by γ Draconis.

It is interesting to know that the Boeotian Thebes, the City of the Dragon, from the story of its founder, Cadmus, shared with its Egyptian namesake the worship of this star in a temple dedicated, so far as its orientation shows, about 1130 B.C.: a cult doubtless drawn from the parent city in Egypt, and adopted elsewhere in Greece, as also in Italy in the little temple to Isis in Pompeii. Here, however, the city authorities interfered with this star-worship in one of their numerous raids on the astrologers, and bricked up the opening whence the star was observed.

γ lies almost exactly in the zenith of Greenwich, in fact, has there been called the Zenith-star; and, being circumpolar, descends toward the horizon, but, without disappearing, rises easterly, and thus explains the poet's line:

the East and the West meet together.

It was nearer the pole than any other bright star about 4000 years ago.

Its minute companion, 21″ distant, at a position angle of 152°, was discovered by Burnham.

δ, 3.1, deep yellow,

is the Nodus secundus of several catalogues, as marking the 2d of the four Knots, or convolutions, in the figure of the Dragon.

Al Tizini called it Al Tāis, the Goat, as the prominent one of the quadrangle, δπρ, and ε, which bore this title at a late period in Arabic indigenous astronomy; although that people generally gave animal names only to single stars. The Jais, which is found in various lists, maps, and globes, would seem to be a typographical error, or an erroneous transliteration of the original Arabic. δ also may have been one of Firuzabadi's two undetermined stars Al Tayyasān, the Two Goatherds.

 p210  δεπρ, and σ were the Chinese Tien Choo, Heaven's Kitchen.

ζ, a 3d‑magnitude, was Al Dhiʽbah, that we have also seen for α.

The Chinese knew it as Shang Pih, the Higher Minister.

Half-way between it and δ, within 7′ of the planetary nebula NGC 6543, is the north pole of the ecliptic; the south pole being in the head of Dorado. Denning considers ζ the radiant point of the meteor streams of the 19th of January and of the 28th of March.

η, a double 2d- and 8th‑magnitude, deep yellow and bluish star, was known in China as Shang Tsae, the Minor Steward.

The components are about 5″ apart, and the position angle is 143°.1.

ζ and η together were Al Dhī᾽bain, the Duo Lupi of early works, the Two Hyaenas or Wolves, lying in wait for the Camel's Foal, the little star Al Rubaʽ, protected by the Mother Camels, the larger stars in our Draco's Head. They also were Al ʽAuhaḳān, the Two Black Bulls, or Ravens, the Arabic signifying either of these creatures; but this last word likewise appears for ω and f, and for χ and ψ; all of these titles being from Arabia's earliest days.

θ, a 4.3‑magnitude, is Hea Tsae, the Lowest Steward; while the smaller stars near it were Tien Chwang.

ι, 3.6, orange.

Smyth mentioned this as Al Ḍhiba᾽ of the Dresden globe and of Ulug Beg, but Kazwini had called it Al Dhīḣ, the Male Hyaena, from which comes Ed Asich, its usual title and, the Eldsich of the Century Cyclopedia.

In China it was Tsao Choo, the Left Pivot.

It marks the radiant point of the Quadrantid meteors of the 2d and 3d of January, so called from the adjacent Mural Quadrant.

A 9th‑magnitude pale yellow companion is 2′ distant.

λ, 4.1, orange.

Giansar and Giauzar are variously derived: either from Al Jauzā᾽, — a little star is in close proximity, — or from Al Jauzah, the Central One, as it is nearly midway between the Pointers and Polaris; or, and still better, from the Persian Ghāuzar, — Al Bīrūnī's Jauzahar of Sāsānian origin, — the Poison Place, referring to the notion that the nodes, or points where the moon crosses the ecliptic, were poisonous because they "happened to be called the Head and Tail of the Dragon." This singular idea descended into comparatively modern times, and, although these points are far removed  p211 from Draco, still obtains in the name for λ. Juza is another popular title.

It also has been known as Nodus secundus, the Second Knot, possibly because thus located on some drawings; yet it is far removed from δ, which usually bears that name.

In China it was Sang Poo, or Shaou Poo.

Although the last lettered star in the figure, it lies at a considerable distance from the end, as figured on the atlases of Heis and Argelander.

μ, Binary, 5 and 5.1, brilliant white and pale white.

Al Rāḳis, from Ulug Beg's catalogue, turned into Arrakis and Errakis, generally has been thought to signify the Dancer, perhaps to the neighboring Lute-player, the star β; but here probably the Trotting Camel, one of the group of those animals located in this spot. Ideler added for it Al Rāfad, the Camel Pasturing Freely, that the original, differently pointed, may mean. The little star in the centre of the group of Camels, βγμν, and ξ, is named Al Rubaʽ on the Borgian globe, although almost invisible; but did not appear in the catalogues till Piazzi's time, except with Julius Schiller in his Coelum Stellatum Christianum of 1627, where it is the 37th star in his constellation of the Holy Innocents.

Assemani mentioned μ as Al Caʽab, the Little Shield or Salver, but gave no reason for this, and its inappropriateness renders the claim very doubtful.

In modern drawings it marks the nose or tongue of Draco.

The components are 2″.5 apart, with a position angle of 165°; and their period is long, although not yet accurately determined.

ν, on the Dragon's head, already mentioned in connection with βγμ, and ξ, is an interesting double for a small telescope. The components are each of 4.6 magnitude, about 62″ apart, with a position angle of 313°.

According to Wagner's determination of the parallax, — not yet, however, confirmed, — they are near neighbors to us, at a distance of about eleven light years.

ξ, 3.8, yellow,

was one of the Herd of Camels; but its modern individual name, Grumium, is the barbarism found for it in the Almagest of 1515, an equivalent of γένυς used by Ptolemy for the Dragon's under jaw. The word is now seen in the Italian grugno and the French groin.

Bayer followed Ptolemy in calling the star Genam.

 p212  Proctor thought that it marked Draco's darted tongue in the earliest representations of the figure, — unless ι Herculis were such star; while Denning considers it the radiant point of the meteor stream seen about the 29th of May, — the Draconids.

σ, 6.5, in the second coil northeast from δ, is Alsafi, corrupted from Athāfi, erroneously transcribed from the Arabic plurarl Athāfiyy, by which the nomads designated the tripods of their open-air kitchens; one of these being imagined in στ, and υ. Uthfiyyah is the singular form. It probably is one of the nearest stars to our system, — about thirteen light years away according to Brunowski's unconfirmed determination.

φ, a 4th‑magnitude double, was the Chinese Shaou Pih, the Minor Minister; and χ, of slightly greater brilliancy, was Kwei She.

ψ1 and ψ2, 4.3 and 5.2, pearly white and yellow.

Dsiban, from Al Dhībain (the Arabs' title for ζ and η), has been given by some to this pair, and Lach thought that with χ it also was Al ʽAuhaḳān, which we similarly find for ζ and η.

In China it was Niu She, the Palace Governess, or a Literary Woman.

The components of ψ1 are about 30″ apart, with a position angle of 15°.

ω, 4.9, and f, 5.1.

These dim stars, between ζ and the group φχ, and ψ, were Al Aṭhfār al Dhīb, the Hyaena's claws, stretched out to clutch the Camel's Foal. They thus appear with Ulug Beg and on the Dresden globe; but elsewhere occasionally were known as Al ʽAuhaḳān, a designation shared with ζ and η, and with φ and χ. They also sometimes were Al Dhīḣ, the Wolf.

There seems to be confusion, and some duplication, in the nomenclature of Draco's stars, but their many titles show the great attention paid to the constellation in early days.

The Author's Notes:

1 Rudbeck perhaps was "the sagacious Swede" of whom the Pope speaks in Browning's The Ring and the Book.

2 This notable creation of Euphratean mythology was the personification of primeval chaos, hostile to the gods and opposed to law and order; but Izhdubar conquered the monster in a struggle by driving a wind into its opened jaws and so splitting it in twain. Cetus, Hydra, and the Serpent of Ophiuchus also have been thought its symbols. Its representation is found on cylinder seals recently unearthed.

3 This passage, 4 feet by 3½ feet in diameter and 380 feet long, was directed northward to this star, doubtless by design of the builder, from a point deep below the present base, at an inclination of 26°17′ to the horizon. At the time of its building, perhaps four millenniums before our era, the Southern Cross was entirely visible to the savage Britons.

4 The nodical month also is called the Dracontic, or Draconitic.

5 The date of this discovery has been variously given as from 1726 to 1729, although it was first called to Bradley's attention on the 21st of December, 1725, by an unexplained discordance in his observations; but it took some time for him to complete this explanation.

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