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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 milky way i' the sky, —

A meeting of gentle lights without a name.

Sir John Suckling.

Torrent of light and river of the air,

Along whose bed the glimmering stars are seen

Like gold and silver sands in some ravine

Where mountain streams have left their channels bare!

Longfellow's The Galaxy.

The Galaxy, or Milky Way,

has borne arbitrary, descriptive, or fanci­ful titles in every age.

Anaxagoras, 550 B.C., and Aratos knew it as τὸº Γάλα,

that shining wheel, men call it Milk;

Eratosthenes, as Κύκλος Γαλαξίας, the Circle of the Galaxy; other Greek authors, as Κύκλος γαλακτικός, the Galactic Circle; and Hipparchos, as ὁ Γαλάξιος, the Galaxy. Galaxurē, the Lovely One, of the Homeric Hymns may have been the personification of this; and Galatēa, the Milk-white, of the Iliad, for this nymph was a daughter of Oceanus, and the Galaxy was long known as Eridanus, the Stream of Ocean. Indeed during all historic time it has been thought of as the River of Heaven.

Such, too, was the Akkadian idea of it in connection with that of a Great Serpent; Brown writing of this:

No doubt the Great Serpent, in one of its mystic phases, is connected with the Ocean-streame.g., the Norse Midhgardhsormr, the Weltum-spanner ("Stretcher-round-the-world"). But the Akkadian Snake-river, with whatever else it may be associated, certainly  p475 also in one phase, and on the three Boundary-stones referred to, represents the Circulus Lacteus. In W. A. I., 11, 51, we read:

45. Akkadian Hid tsirra, Assyrian Nahru tsiri, = "River-of-the-Snake." Thus Hiddagal, "River" + "great" = Hiddekel (Genesis ii.14).

46. Ak. Hid turra An gal, As. Nahru markasi Ili rabi, = "River-of-the-cord-of-the‑God great."

47. Ak. Hid zuab gal, As. Nahru Apshi rabi, = "River-of-the‑Abyss great."

It also was the River-of-the-Shepherd's-hut, dust-cloud high, and the Akkadian Hid In‑ni‑na, River-of-the-Divine-Lady; and, to quote again:

This Snake-River of sparkling dust, the stream of the abyss on high through which it runs, the golden cord of the heaven-god (Prof. Sayce aptly refers to Il. VIII.19), connected alike with the hill of the Sun-god and with the passage of ghosts, is the Milky Way; and it is the River of Nana, wife of the heaven-god, as, in Greek mythology, it is connected with Herē.

Among the Arabs it was Al Nahr, the River, a title that they afterwards transferred to the Greek constellation Eridanus; and those other Semites, the Hebrews, knew it as Nɛhar di Nur, the River of Light; but the Rabbi Levi recurred to the Akkadian simile in saying that it was the Crooked Serpent of the Book of Job, xxvi.13. Usually, however, in Judaea it was Aroch, — in Armenia and Syria, Arocea, — not a lexicon word, but evidently from Aruḥāh, a Long Bandage, and well applied to this long band of light.

In China, as in Japan, it was Tien Ho, the Celestial River, and the Silver River, whose fish were frightened by the new moon, which they imagined to be a hook; although those countries also may have named it as we do, for in the She King are the lines by the emperor-poet Seuen, of the 8th century before Christ, translated by Legge:

Brightly resplendent in the sky revolved

The Milky Way;

and again:

Vast is this Milky Way,

Making a brilliant figure in the sky.

Al Bīrūnī quoted from a Sanskrit tradition that it was Akāsh Gangā, the Bed of the Ganges; but his other Hindu title, Kshīra, is not explained. In North India it was Bhagwān ki Kachahri, the Court of God, and Swarga Duāri, the Dove of Paradise.

In Rome it was often thought of as the Heavenly Girdle, Coeli Cingulum, and as a Circle; Pliny [II.XXIII.91], calling it Circulus lacteus, followed Cicero, who also said Orbis lacteus, and made extended allusion to it in his Vision of Scipio as "a radiant circle of dazzling brightness amid the flaming bodies."

It is in this Vision that we find a graphic and beauti­ful description of the  p476 nine heavenly crystal circles, the foundation of the old system of astronomy, from which issued the Harmony of the Spheres universally believed in till the times of Copernicus; but Euripides already had written of it:

Thee I invoke, thou self-created Being, who gave birth to Nature, and whom light and darkness, and the whole train of globes, encircle with eternal music.

Towards our day Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice, said:

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st

But in his motion like an angel sings;

Milton, in Paradise Lost:

the fix'd stars, fix'd in their orb that flies,

And ye five other wand'ring fires that move

In mystic dance not without song;

Ben Jonson:

Spheres keep one musick, they one measure dance;

and Addison doubtless had it in mind in his beauti­ful astronomical hymn:

Forever singing as they shine.

Kepler assigned the various tones in music to the various planets, one issuing from each of the spheres: the bass from Saturn and Jupiter, the tenor from Mars, the contralto from Venus, and the soprano from Mercury.

The conception of the Milky Way as a pathway always and everywhere has been current. This is seen in the Romans' Via coeli regia; Via lactis and Via lactea, the Mylke way and Mylke whyte way in Eden's rendering; Semita lactea, the Milky Footpath; and Ovid's

High road paved with stars to the court of Jove;

imitated, in Paradise Lost, by Milton's

The Way to God's eternal house,

the much quoted

Broad and ample road whose dust is gold,

And pavement stars, as stars to thee appear

Seen in the galaxy, that milky way

Which nightly as a circling zone thou seest

Powder'd with stars.

The Norsemen knew it as the Path of the Ghosts going to Valhöll (Valhalla), in the region Gladhsheimr, — the palace of their heroes slain in battle;  p477 and our North American Indians had the same idea, as witness the "wrinkled old Nokomis," when, teaching the little Hiawatha, she

Showed the broad white road in heaven,

Pathway of the ghosts, the shadows,

Running straight across the heavens,

Crowded with the ghosts, the shadows,

To the Kingdom of Ponemah,

To the land of the hereafter;

The brighter stars along the Road marking their camp-fires. William Hamilton Hayne's Indian Fancy embodies it thus:

Pure leagues of stars from garish light withdrawn

Behind celestial lace-work pale as foam, —

I think between the midnight and the dawn

Souls pass through you to their mysterious home.

Our aborigines and the Eskimo also called it the Ashen Path, as did the Bushmen of Africa, — the ashes hot and glowing, instead of cold and dark, that benighted travelers might see their way home, — thus unwittingly following the classical Manilius:

this was once the Path

Where Phoebus drove; and in length of Years

The heated track took Fire and burnt the Stars.

The Colour changed, the Ashes strew'd the Way,

And still preserves the marks of the Decay;

although he also more scientifically wrote:

Anne magis densa stellarum turba corona.

Among the early Hindus it was the Path of Āryamān, leading to his throne in Elysium; in the Panjab it is Berā dā ghās, the Path of Noah's Ark; and in northern India, Nagavithi, the Path of the Snake.

The Patagonians think it the road on which their dead friends are hunting ostriches.​a

The Anglo-Saxons knew it as Wætlinga Stræt, — Hoveden's Watlinga-strete, — the path of the Wætlings, the giant sons of King Wætla, Vate, or Ivalde; Minsheu thus defining the word:

howsoever the Romans might make it . . . the names bee from the Saxons, and Roger Hoveden saith it is so called because the sonnes of Wethle made it leading from the East sea to the West;

and going into extended and very interesting details as to its course, and  p478 those of other Roman "waies" in early Britain.​b Old Thomas Hood similarly could see no derivation for this title,

except it be in regard of the narrowness it seemeth to have, or else in respect of that great highway that lieth between Dover and St. Albans.

This was variously known as Werlam Street, Wadlyng Street, Vatlant Street, and lastly Watling Street,​1 the ancient road still in use from Chester (the ancient Deva), through London (Londinium), to Dover (Dubris Portus); and its stellar connection appears in the Hous of Fame:

Lo, there, quod he, cast up thine eye.

Se yonder, lo, the Galaxyë,

Which men clepeth the Milky Wey,

For hitt is whytt, and some parfey,

Callen hit Watlinge Strete.

Another title, Walsyngham Way, first found in Langland's Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, made it the road to the Virgin Mary in heaven, as the earthly way was to her shrine in Norfolk, where she was known as our Lady of Walsyngham; this existing till 1538, when England abolished her monasteries. The idea of this, and of other similar path-titles, may have come from the fancy that this heavenly way crowded with stars resembled the earthly roads crowded with pilgrims. Anglo-Saxon glossaries have it as Iringes Uueg, Weg, or Wec, Iringe's Way; and as Bil-Idun's Way, these personages being descendants of Wætla, and both Ways leading to Asgard over the bridge at which Slavonic mythology terminated this celestial way, and thus joined earth to heaven, "where four monks guard the sacred road and cut to pieces all who attempt to traverse it." Later on this Asgard Bridge was the title indiscriminately applied to the Milky Way and Rainbow, varied, as to the latter, by Bifröst or Asbreu.

And here I may be pardoned for repeating a quaintly beauti­ful passage from Minsheu's definition of the Rainbow, although not connected with the Galaxy, nor strictly astronomical:

The Bow is the weapon of warre and therefore called the Bow of the battell, ¶ Zach. 9.10. (battle-bow) & 10.4 (id). The Bow that appeareth in the clouds hath no string, nor no deadly arrow prepared upon it, there is no wrath that appeareth in it; et dicitur Arcus clementiae & foederis, indicans mundum non secundo periturum aquis. And therefore we should love him that hath laid aside his wrath, and embraced us with mercie.

It will be remembered that Minsheu's was a polyglot dictionary! Vespucci,  p479 a century before, expressed much the same sentiment where — but connecting the Bible with Science — he wrote, in Eden's rendering:

It is a pledge of peace betweene god and men, and is ever directly over ageynst the soonne.

Grimm, in Teutonic Mythology, cites many titles for the Galaxy. Among the North men it was Wuotanes Weg, or Straza, Wuotan's, or Woden's Way, or Street; among the Midland Dutch, Vronelden Straet, the Women's Street, and Hilde, or Hulde, Strasse, Saint Hilda's, or Hulda's, Street; in Jutland, Veierveien, or Brunel, Straet; in Westphalia, Wiär Strate, the Weather Street, and Mülen Weg, the Milky Way; and in East Friesland, Harmswith and the Melkpath. In Hungary it was Hada Kuttya, the Via Belli, because in the journey of war and migration from Asia their ancestors followed this shining mark; and the Finns have the pretty Linnunrata, the Birds' Way, as the winged spirits flit thither to the free and happy land, or because the united birdsongs once were turned into a cloud of snow-white dovelets still seen overhead. This was the Lithuanian Paukszcziu Kielis.

In Germany the modern Milch Strasse is the translation of our best-known title; while it has long been, and popularly is even now, Jakobs Strasse and Jakobs Weg, Jacob's Road; as the Belt of Orion is his Staff lying alongside the road. And it has been still further associated with that patriarch as his Ladder.

In Sweden the Milky Way is the Winter Street, — so, at all events, with the peasantry, — their Winter Gatan; and that country's idea of it is thus beautifully given by Miss Edith M. Thomas:

Silent with star-dust, yonder it lies —

The Winter Street, so fair and so white;

Winding along through the boundless skies,

Down heavenly vale, up heavenly height.

Faintly it gleams, like a summer road

When the light in the west is sinking low,

Silent with star-dust! By whose abode

Does the Winter Street in its windings go?

And who are they, all unheard and unseen —

O, who are they, whose blessed feet

Pass over that highway smooth and sheen?

What pilgrims travel the Winter Street?

Are they not those whom here we miss

In the ways and the days that are vacant below?

As the dust of that Street their footfalls kiss

Does it not brighter and brighter grow?

 p480  Steps of the children there may stray

Where the broad day shines to dark earth sleeps,

And there at peace in the light they play,

While some one below still wakes and weeps.

The old Norsemen had a similar title in their Vetrarbraut; and the Celts knew it as Arianrod, the Silver Street, which also occurs for the Northern Crown, but there as the Silver Circle.

In England, for centuries, the Galaxy has been the Way of Saint James, sometimes the Way to Saint James, and thus figuratively the Via regia; in Italy, the Via lattea; in France, the Voie lactée. But with the French peasantry it always has been the Road of Saint Jacques of Compostella, this last itself a stellar word from the Campus Stellae of Theodomir, bishop of Idria, who was guided by a star in 835 to the bones of Saint James in a field. The same title obtains in Spain, but there it is popularly known as El Camino de Santiago, the patron saint in the battle of that country, Longfellow writing of this in his Galaxy:

The Spaniard sees in thee the pathway, where

His patron saint descended in the sheen

Of his celestial armor, on serene

And quiet nights when all the heavens were fair.

In the Basque tongue it is Ceruco Esnibidia.

Wherever this idea of a road was held in early times it seems to have referred to the Milky Way as traveled by the departing souls of illustrious men, who, Manilius wrote, were

loos'd from the ignoble Chain

Of Clay, and sent to their own Heaven again, —

to those stars, that were regarded not only as the homes of such, but often as the very souls themselves physically shining in the skies, as, metaphorically, they had upon the earth. Thus it was known in classical times as Heroum Sedes. Following out this conception, the Galaxy later became the Italian Strada di Roma; the Swiss Weg uf Rom; the Slovak Zesta v' Rim,º — all signifying the "Way of Rome," because only through that capital of the church could access to heaven be secured.

Thomas Moore somewhat changed the figure in his Loves of the Angels, where he says as to the stars in general:

Rolling along like living cars

Of light, for gods to journey by! —

a thought that also is found with Pliny, and even with Saint Clement.

 p481  Romieu says that the Galaxy was Masarati, probably Assyrian, and identifies it with the hieroglyphic Masrati, the Course of the sun-god, that may be the origin of the story of Phaëthon, and we see very much the same title in the Babylonian Creation Legend as applied to the zodiac. This word, similar to the Hebrew Mazzārōth that some rabbis positively asserted signifies the "Milky Way," appears in Stoffler's De Sphaera as Maiarati, apparently taken from Ptolemy, and supposed by Canon Cook, in the Speaker's Commentary on the Book of Job, xxxviii.32, to be the equivalent of the Arabic Al Majarrah, the Milky Track.

In addition to this last, — Riccioli's Almegiret, — the Arabians had Ṭarīḳ al Laban of the same meaning, but also knew the Galaxy as Ḍarb al Tābānīn, the Path of the Chopped Straw Carriers, and as Ṭarīḳ al Tibn, the Straw Road.

Riccioli gave this as the Hebrew Nedhībath Tebhen, correctly Nethībhath, which the Syrians translated Shɛbhīl Tebhnā; the Persians, Rah Kakeshan, or simply Kakeshan; the Copts, Pimoit ende pitoh; and the Turks, Samān Ugh'risi. These last also called it Hagjiler Yūli, the Pilgrims' Road, traversed in their annual journey to Mecca.

Riccioli also cited the "Aethiopian" Chasara tsamangadu; and Grimm, the same country's Pasare Zamanegade, the Straw Stalks lying in the Road; — both probably from one original differently transcribed. And a singular legend, from some unknown source, tells us that these Stalks, or Chopped Straw, marking the Pilgrims' Road, were dropped by Saint Venus (!) after her theft from Saint Peter; hence her Armenian title Hartacol, or Hartacogh, the Straw-thief. In China it shared the zodiac's name of the Yellow Road, from the color of this scattered straw.

In classic folk-lore the Milky Way was marked out by the cornº ear dropped by Isis in her flight from Typhon; or was the result of some of Juno's nursery troubles with the infant Hercules. Alluding to these, Manilius wrote that it

justly draws

Its name, the Milky Circle, from its cause.

From this doubtless came the Roman Circulus Junonius. Early India accounted for it in somewhat the same way in connection with Saramā; and a similar thought is expressed by the Arabic Umm al Samā᾽, the Mother of the Sky.

Caer Gwydyon, the Castle of Gwydyon, the enchanter son of Don, the King of the Fairies, is one of its Celtic titles in more modern times, others of the family appearing in Cassiopeia and Corona Borealis. But the Celts also thought it the road along which Gwydyon pursued his erring wife.

 p482  The Incas of Peru said that it was the dust of stars, and gave titles to its various parts; the Ottawa Indians, that it was the muddy water stirred up by a turtle swimming along the bottom of the sky; while the Polynesian islanders know it as the Long, Blue, Cloud-eating Shark.

In poetry, too, the Milky Way has ever been a favorite — indeed, a hackneyed — subject. Miss Myra Reynolds tells us in her Treatment of Nature in English Poetry:

From Waller on, the Milky Way typifies virtues so numerous that they shine in one undistinguished blaze;

and that Swift's Apollo's Edict of 1720, among its prohibitions to authors of the use of some of the more wearisomely frequent similitudes, specifically forbids their even naming the Milky Way, — a rule that would have been equally applicable to the classical authors as to those of our day. Among the former, Manilius wrote of it:

as a beaten Path that spreads between

A trodenº Meadow, and divides the Green.

Or as when Seas are plow'd behind the Ship,

Foam curls on the green surface of the Deep.

In Heaven's dark surface such this Circle lies,

And parts with various Light the Azure skies.

Or as when Iris draws her radiant Bow

Such seems this Circle to the World below.

Among recent poetical similes we find Edward Young's

this midnight pomp,

This gorgeous arch with golden worlds inlaid;

Joseph Rodman Drake's

The milky baldric of the skies,

and in the Culprit Fay:

the bank of the milky way;


marvelous round of milky light

Below Orion;

while in the Lady of Shalott he likens the "gemmy bridle" of Sir Lancelot to

some branch of stars we see

Hung in the golden Galaxy.

The Finnish Topelius made it the

 p483  starry bridge of light,

Which now smiles down upon the earth from heaven's placid face,

And firmly binds together still the shores of boundless space.

This was built by the lovers Zulamith and Salami that they might be united in heaven as they had been on earth.

They toiled and built a thousand years

In love's all power­ful might:

And so the Milky Way was made —

A starry bridge of light;

and when the task was successfully accomplished they were merged together in the single star Sirius.

Homer strangely did not allude to it, unless he may have personified it in the Iliad. Nor did Ptolemy express any opinion as to its nature, although he called it the Band, — Fascia in one Latin translation, — and fully described it the 8th book of the Syntaxis; his account of it being considered "certainly superior to all the rather fantastic representations given in the maps published before the last quarter of our century."

Dante gave much attention to it in his Convito, repeating various of the opinions of the ac philosophers. He said that Anaxagoras considered it reflected light from the sun, an opinion shared by Aristotle, Democritus, and even by the later Avicenna (Ibn Sina of Bokhara) of about A.D. 1000; and he attributed to Aristotle another theory — that it was the gathering of vapors under the stars of that region. His own lines in the Paradiso [XIV.97‑99]  —

distinct with less and greater lights

Glimmers between the two poles of the world —

accurately describe it, as does his

Galassia si, che fa dubbiar ben saggi;

for speculation concerning it was almost as varied as its observers.

Aristotle expressed still a third opinion, that it was the gases from the earth set on fire in the sky; Oinopides and Metrodorus considered it the early course of the sun abandoned after the bloody banquet of Thyestes; the Pythagoreans and others, that it marked the blazing path of the disastrous runaway when, as in the Inferno,

Phaeton abandoned the reins,

Whereby the heavens, as still appears, were scorched;

or, as in Longfellow's The Galaxy:

Phaeton's wild course that scorched the skies

Where'er the hoofs of his hot coursers trod.

 p484  Some thought it the sunbeams left behind in the track of the sun's chariot, — the Vestigium Solis, that Macrobius termed Zona perusta, the Girdle Burned; and others, Via perusta. Plutarch said that it was the shadow of the earth as the sun passed beneath us. Diodorus the Sicilian,​c of the 1st century before Christ, and the philosopher-naturalist Theophrastus, of the 3d, asserted that it marked the junction of the two starry hemispheres, — a statement thus versified by Manilius:

Whether the Skies grown old here shrink their frame,

And through the chink admit an upper Flame,

Or whether here the Heaven's two Halves are joyn'd,

But odly clos'd, still leave a Seam behind.

Or here the parts in Wedges closely prest,

To fix the Frame, are thicker than the Rest.

Like Clouds condens'd appear, and bound the Sight,

The Azure being thickened into White.

Even as late as 1603 Bayer wrote:

Constat hic circulus ex tenui nebulosa substantia;

and such probably was the general scientific conception of the Galaxy until seven years later Galileo's "glazed optic tube" revealed its larger constituent stars, and, as he wrote in the Nuncius Sidereus,

got rid of disputes about the Galaxy . . . for it is nothing else but a mass of innumerable stars planted together in clusters.

A few, however, even in antiquity seem to have known, or at least suspected, its true character; for Democritus, the master of Epicurus, about 460 B.C., and Pythagoras before him, said that it was a vast assemblage of very distant stars, in which belief Aristotle seems to have coincided; although several other, and absurd, opinions are attributed to this eminent man, as well as to Democritus. Manilius thus expressed this belief:

Or is the spatious Bend serenely bright

From little Stars, which there their Beams unite,

And make one solid and continued Light?

Arabian poets wrote similarly, as Ta᾽abbata Sharran, whose verse is quoted in the Ḥamasah, —

The Mother of clustered stars.

Our knowledge of it may thus briefly be summed up: It covers more than one tenth of the visible heavens, containing nine tenths of the visible stars, and seems a vast zone-shaped nebula, nearly a great circle of the sphere, the  p485 poles being in Coma and Cetus. In a measure it can be resolved by slight optical aid into innumerable stars, although even the largest telescopes will not resolve the faintest parts. Many of these stars are small, "not at all comparable with our sun in dimensions." It is inclined about 63° to the celestial equator, and, Sir John Herschel wrote,

is to sidereal what the invariable ecliptic is to planetary astronomy — a plane of ultimate reference, the ground-plane of the sidereal system.

Our position close to its central plane is not favorable to a correct survey; but, as we see it, it is marked by strange cavities and excrescences, with branches in all directions, and is interrupted in its course, especially at Ophiuchus and Argo, apparently by the operation of some force still at work, — these interruptions being in its width as well as in its course. Its apparent structure is not uniform, but curdled or flaky, — bright patches alternating with faint or with almost absolute vacancies.

While it contains a large number of star-clusters, it has but few true nebulae, although among these are the important Horseshoe Nebula below Scutum, the Dumb-bell in Vulpecula, and the Trifid in Sagittarius; yet large diffused masses of nebulosity are found in several portions of it.

Pickering's spectroscopic work seems to indicate that the Milky Way forms a system separate from the rest of the sidereal universe; but Gould inclined to the opinion that it is "the resultant of two or more superposed galaxies," which will perhaps account for the brighter portions in Cassiopeia and Crux as representing "the intersection of the two crossed rings visibly diverging in Ophiuchus." And Miss Clerke thus concludes the chapter on the Milky Way in her System of the Stars:

What is unmistakable is that the entire formation, whether single or compound, is no isolated phenomenon. All the contents of the firmament are arranged with reference to it. It is a large part of a larger scheme exceeding the compass of finite minds to grasp in its entirety.

The Author's Note:

1 It is only fair to say that there are other derivations for Watling Street, — one by no means improbable, Minsheu to the contrary notwithstanding, namely, that it was called after Vitellianus, the Roman director in its construction, whom the Britons knew as Guetalin.

Thayer's Note: The origin of the name is unknown, though theories abound. Among those not mentioned above — there are others yet — Grimm, precisely in part because he was influenced by the use of the name for the Milky Way, derived it from waðol, "wandering", making it mean "Wanderers' Way"; but the celebrated 18c student of Roman roads William Stukeley seems to me to have been closer to the truth, deriving the name from the Welsh word for "Irishmen", Gwyddel, which although unattested in surviving Anglo-Saxon texts, would have been spelled wætel: making the road lead to Ireland, which indeed it does.

Thayer's Notes:

a The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is native only to Africa. The Patagonian rhea (Pterocnemia pennata) is meant.

b Minsheu was right to go into a whole panoply of Roman roads in connection with "Watling Street": as with most ancient roads, the name covers a main trunk and a number of subsidiary roads — not so much a road as a network of roads. This system is covered in exhaustive detail in the first three chapters of Codrington's Roman Roads in Britain.

In addition, the name "Watling Street", like "Ermine Street", has been borne by several completely unrelated roads: see Codrington, pp31‑32.

c In fact, Diodorus says no such thing anywhere; his explanation of the Milky Way is the usual one of Phaëton's chariot (V.23.2).

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Page updated: 15 May 13