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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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. . . amnis, quod de coelo exoritur sub solio Jovis

Plautus' Trinummus [Act IV, Scene II, v. 940].

. . . the starry Stream.

For this a remnant of Eridanos,

That stream of tears, 'neath the gods' feet is borne.

Brown's Aratos.

The River Eridanus,

the French Eridan, the Italian Eridano, and the German Fluss Eridanus, is divided into the Northern and the Southern Stream; the former winding from the star Rigel of Orion to the paws of Cetus; the latter extending thence southwards, southeast, and finally southwest below the horizon of New York City, 2° beyond the lucida Achernar, near the junction of Phoenix, Tucana, Hydrus, and Horologium. Excepting Achernar, however, it has no star larger than a 3d‑magnitude, although it is the longest constellation in the sky, and Gould catalogues in it 293 naked-eye components.

Although the ancients popularly regarded it as of indefinite extent, in classical astronomy the further termination was at the star θ in 40°47′ of south declination; but modern astronomers have carried it to about 60°.

With the Greeks it usually was ὁ Ποταμός, the River, adopted by the Latins as Amnis, Flumen, Fluvius, and specially as Padus and Eridanus; this last, as Ἐριδανός, having appeared for it with Aratos and Eratosthenes. Geographically the word is first found in Hesiod's Θεογονία for the Phasis​1 in Asia, celebrated in classic history and mythology,

That rises deep and stately rowls along

into the Euxine Sea near the spot where the Argonauts secured the golden fleece.

Other authors identified our Eridanus with the fabled stream flowing into the ocean from northwestern Europe, — a stream that always has been a matter of discussion and speculation (indeed, Strabo [V.1.9] called it "the nowhere existing"), — or with Homer's Ocean Stream flowing around the earth, whence the early titles for these stars, Oceanus and the River of Ocean. They also have been associated with the famous little brook under the Acropolis; with the Ligurian Bodencus — the Padus of ancient, and the Po  p216 of modern, Italy [Diodorus V.23.3, ps.‑Arist. Mirab. 81, Polyb. II.16.6 and 12, Ampel. 6.10, Procop. B. G. I.1.18 and III.13.9, Isid. Etym. XIII.21.26], — famous in all classical times as the largest of that country's rivers, Vergil's Rex fluviorum [Georg. I.482]; with the Ebro of Spain [Pliny, N. H. XXXVII.31‑32]; with the Granicus of Alexander the Great; with the Rhenus and the Rhodanus, — our Rhine and Rhone; and with the modern Radaune, flowing into the Vistula at Danzig.​a

Some of these originals of our River, especially the Padus, were seats of the early amber trade, thus recalling the story of the Heliades, whose tears, shed at the death of their brother Phaëthon, turned into amber as they fell into "that stream of tears" on which that unfortunate was hurled by Jove after his disastrous attempt to drive the chariot of the sun. This was a favorite theme with poets, from Ovid, in the Metamorphoses [II.319 ff.], to Dean Milman, in Samor, and the foundation of the story that the river was transferred to the sky to console Apollo for the loss of his son.

But none of these comparatively northern streams suit the stellar position of our Eridanus, for it is a southern constellation, and it would seem that its earthly counterpart ought to be found in a corresponding quarter. In harmony with this, we know that Eratosthenes and the scholiasts on Germanicus and Hyginus said that it represented the Nile, the only noteworthy river that flows from the south to the north, as this is said to do when rising above the horizon. Thus it is Nilus in the Alfonsine Tables, the edition of 1521 saying, Stellatio fluvii id est Eridanus sive Gyon sive Nilus; Gyon2 coming from the statement in Genesis ii.13:

the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Cush;

this latter being misunderstood for the Nile country instead of the Asiatic Kush that was unquestionably intended by the sacred writer. La Lande cited Mulda, equivalent to another title for the stellar Eridanus, — Μέλας, Black, — and so again connected with Egypt, whose native name, Khem, has this same meaning, well describing the color of the fertile deposit that the Nile waters leave on the land. This became the Latin Melo, an early name for the Nile [Serv. ad Georg. IV.291, Paul. ap. Fest.], as it also was for the constellation.

This allusion to the Nile recalls the ancient wide-spread brief that it and the Euphrates were but different portions of the same stream; and Brown, in his monograph The Eridanus, argues that we should identify the Euphrates with the sky figure. He finds his reasons in the fact that both are frequently alluded to, from very early days to the classical age, as The River,  p217 the Euphrates originally being Pura or Purat, the Water, as the Nile was, and even now is, Ioma or Iauma, the Sea; that they resemble each other as long and winding streams with two great branches; that each is connected with a Paradise — Eden and Heaven; that the adjoining constellations seems to be Euphratean in origin; and that each is in some way associated with the Nile, and each with the overthrow of the sun-god.

There is much in the Euphratean records alluding to a stellar stream that may be our Eridanus, — possibly the Milky Way, another sky river; yet it is to the former that the passage translated by Fox Talbot possibly refers:

Like the stars of heaven he shall shine; like the River of Night he shall flow;

and its title has been derived from the Akkadian Aria-dan, the Strong River. George Smith thinks that the heavenly Eridanus may have been the Euphratean Erib-me‑gali.

Its hither termination at the star Rigel gave it the title River of Orion, used by Hipparchos, Proclus, and others; and Landseer wrote:

the stars now constellated as Erydanus were originally known in different countries by the names of Nile, Nereus, and Ocean, or Neptune.

Riccioli cited for it Vardi, and a Moorish title, according to Bayer, was Guad, — the 1720 edition of the Uranometria has Guagi, — all these from the Arabic wādī, and reminding us of the Wādī al Kabīr, the Great River, the Spaniards' Guadalquivir; but the common designation among the Arabians was Al Nahr, the River, transcribed Nar and Nahar, — Chilmead's Alvahar; this Semitic word, occasionally written Nahal, also having been adduced as a derivation of the word Nile.

Assemani quoted Al Kaff Algeria from the Borgian globe for stars in the bend of the stream; but Ideler claimed these for Al Kaff al Jidhmah of Cetus.

Caesius thought our Eridanus the sky representative of the Jordan, or of the Red Sea, which the Israelites passed over as on dry land.

Old illuminated manuscripts added a venerable river-god lying on the surface of the stream, with urn, aquatic plants, and rows of stars; for all of which the Hyginus of 1488 substitutes the figure of a nude woman, with stars lining the lower bank. Bayer's illustration is quite artistic, with reeds and sedge on the margins. The monster Cetus often is depicted with his fore paws, or flippers, in the River.

α, 0.4, white.

Achernar is from Al Āḣir al Nahr, the End of the River, nearly its present position in the constellation, about 32° from the south pole; but the  p218 title was first given to the star now lettered θ, the farthest in the Stream known by Arabian astronomers. For α Bayer had Acharnar pro Acharnahar vel Acharnarim, and Enar; Caesius, Acarnar; Riccioli, Acarnaharim and Acharnaar; Scaliger, Acharnarin; Schickard, Achironnahri; while Achenar and Archarnar are still occasionally used.

This star is supposed to be one of Dante's Tre Fascelle, notwithstanding its invisibility from Italy.​b

Chinese astronomers knew it as Shwuy Wei.

Ptolemy did not mention it, although he could have seen it from the latitude of Alexandria, 31°11′, — a fact, among others, which argues that his catalogue was not based upon original observations, but drawn from the now lost catalogue of Hipparchos, compiled at Rhodes, more than 5° further north, from which place Achernar was not visible.

It culminates on the 4th of December, due south of Baten Kaitos.

β, 2.9, topaz yellow.

Cursa, 3° to the northwest of Rigel in Orion, is the principal star in this constellation, seen from the latitude of New York City.

The word is from Al Kursiyy al Jauzah, the Chair, or Footstool, of the Central One, i.e. Orion, formed by βλ, and ψ Eridani with τº Orionis, and regarded as the support of his left foot; but in the earlier astronomy of the nomads it was one of Al Udḥā al Naʽām, the Ostrich's Nest, that some extended to ο1 and ο2.

The Century Cyclopedia gives Dhalim as an alternative title, undoubtedly from Al Ṭhalīm, the Ostrich; but, although used for β by several writers, this better belongs to θ.

The Chinese called β Yuh Tsing, the Golden Well.

γ1, 3, yellow.

Zaurac and Zaurak are from the Arabic Al Nā᾽ir al Zauraḳ, the Bright Star of the Boat; but Ideler applied this early designation to the star that now is α of our Phoenix.

With δεη, and others near, it made up the Chinese Tien Yuen, the Heavenly Park.

η, 3.7, pale yellow.

Azha is supposed to have been the Azḥā of Al Sufi, and the equivalent Ashiyane of the Persians, and was known by Kazwini as Al Udḥiyy, being  p219 chief among the stars of the Ostrich's Nest, which the word signifies. The other components were ζρ, and σ; but this last, the 17th of Ptolemy, is not now to be identified in the sky, although it may be one of the three stars ρ displaced by proper motion since Ptolemy's time.

Near η, towards τ, are some other stars — ε and π Ceti among them — which in early days were included in the Nest, but later were set apart by Al Sufi as Al Sadr al Ḳetus, the Breast of the Whale.

θ, Double, 3 and 5.25.

Achernar was the early name for this at the then recognized end of the stream, Halley saying of it, ultima fluminis in veteri catalogo, referring to Tycho's work, of which his own was a supplement. Various forms of its title are given under α, but Acamar, from the Alfonsine Tables, is peculiar to θ.

Ulug Beg called it Al Ṭhalīm, the Ostrich, but Hyde rendered this the Dam, as if blocking the flow of the stream to the south.

Bullialdus, in his edition of Chrysococca's work, had it Αὖλαξ,º the Furrow, equivalent to the sulcus used by Vergil to denote the track of a vessel, appropriate enough to a star situated in the Stream of Ocean; and Riccioli distinctly gave Sulcus for it in his Astronomia Reformata.

It is the solitary star visible from the latitude of New York City in early winter evenings, low down in the south, on the meridian with Menkar of the Whale; but Baily said that its brilliancy has probably lessened since Ptolemy's time, for the latter designated it by αi.e. of the 1st magnitude.

Between it and Fomalhaut lie many small stars, not mentioned by Ptolemy, that Hyde said were Al Zibāl; but Al Sufi had already called them Al Ri᾽āl, the Little Ostriches.

ικφ, and χ, of about the 4th magnitude, were another Tien Yuen of the Chinese, different from that marked by γ; ι and κ are the lowest in the constellation visible from the latitude of New York.

μ and ω, 4th‑magnitude stars lying westward of β, were Kew Yew in China; Reeves including under this title b and the stars of the Sceptre.

ο1, 4.1, clear white.

In early Arabia this was Al Baīḍ, the Egg, from its peculiar white color, as well as from its position near the Ostrich's Nest. Modern lists generally write it Beid.

Situla, the Urn, also has been used for it, although there is no apparent applicability here, and the title is universally recognized for κ Aquarii.

 p220  ο2, Triple, 4, 9.1, and 10.8, orange and sky blue,

is the Keid of modern lists, Burritt's Kied, from Al Ḳaid, the Egg-shells, thrown out from the nest close by.

The Abbé Hell used it in the construction of his constellation Psalterium.

Its duplicity was discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1783, and in 1851 Otto Struve found the smaller star itself double and a binary of short period. The system is remarkable from its great proper motion of 4″.1 annually. The two larger stars are 83″ apart, at a position angle of 108°, and the smaller 4″ apart, at an angle of 111°. The parallax by Elkin indicates a distance of twenty light years.

τ2, 4, yellow.

Angetenar of the Alfonsine Tables, now the common title, the Argentenar of Riccioli and Anchenetenar of Scaliger, is from Al Ḥināyat al Nahr, the Bend in the River, near which it lies; Ideler transcribing this as Al Anchat al Nahar. This is one of Bayer's nine stars of the same letter lying just above Fornax; he said of them, sibi mutuo succedentes novem.

See found, in 1897, a 14.9‑magnitude bluish star, about 52″ away, at a position angle of 128°.3.


mark another series of seven stars called in Bayer's text Beemim and Theemim. This last, used by Bode and now in current use, is perhaps the Arabic Al Tau᾽amān and the Jews' Tĕōmīm, the Twins, from the pairs υ1υ2, and υ3υ4. Grotius thought it derived either from the foregoing or from an Arabic term for two medicinal roots; but Ideler's suggestion that it is from the Hebrew Bamma᾽yim, In the Water, would seem more reasonable, although we have but few star-names from Judaea, and he intimated that it might be a distorted form of Al Ṭhalīm, the Ostrich. The Almagest of 1515 has Beemun; and the Standard Dictionary, The.eʽ.nim.

The Author's Notes:

1 This is the modern Rion, or Rioni, the Fasch of the Turks; this last title being a general appellation in early Oriental geography for all rivers, perhaps from the Sanskrit Phas, Water, or Was, still seen in the German Wasser.

2 The word Sihor for the Nile, in our Authorized Version of Jeremiah ii.18, is Γηων in the Septuagint, Josephus also using it in his Ἰουδαϊκή Ἀρχαιολογία, or Jewish Antiquities, in referring to the Nile as one of the four great branches of the River of Paradise.

Thayer's Note: The passage in Josephus: Ant. Jud. I.3.

Thayer's Notes:

a Herodotus too mentions the Eridanus as flowing into a northern sea, although he gets no more specific — and says he doesn't believe it exists (III.115).

We might possibly add to this catalogue the Ronco, the river that flows thru Ravenna: see Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, VII.373 n.

b Nowhere in Dante, neither in the Commedia nor in the minor works, does the word fascelle appear, at least according to the search engines at the Princeton Dante Project based on the respective editions reproduced there.

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