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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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Hercules with flashing mace.

Bryant's The Constellations.


stretching from just west of the head of Ophiuchus to Draco, its eastern border on the Milky Way, is one of the oldest sky figures, although not  p239 known to the first Greek astronomers under that name, — for Eudoxos had Ἐνγούνασι; Hipparchos, Ἐνγόνασι, i.e. ὁ ἐν γόνασι καθήμενος, Bending on his Knees; and Ptolemy, ἐν γόνασιν. Aratos added to these designations Ὀκλάζων, the Kneeling One, and Ἔιδωλον, the Phantom, while his description in the Phainomena well showed the ideas of that early time as to its character:

. . . like a toiling man, revolves

A form. Of it can no one clearly speak,

Nor to what toil he is attached; but, simply,

Kneeler they call him. Laboring on his knees,

Like one who sinks he seems; . . .

. . . And his right foot

Is planted on the twisting Serpent's head.

But all tradition even as to

Whoe'er this stranger of the heavenly forms may be,

seems to have been lost to the Greeks, for none of them, save Eratosthenes, attempted to explain its origin, which in early classical days remained involved in mystery. He wrote of it, οὐτός,º φασὶν, Ἡρακλής ἐστίν, standing upon the Ὄφις, our Draco; and some modern students of Euphratean mythology, associating the stars of Hercules and Draco with the sun-god Izhdubar​1 and the dragon Tiāmat, slain by him, think this Chaldaean myth the foundation of that of the classical Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. Izhdubar is shown on a cylinder seal of 3000 to 3500 B.C., and described in that country's records as resting upon one knee, with his foot upon the Dragon's head, just as Aratos says of his Ἐνγόνασι, and as we have it now. His well-known adventures are supposed to refer to the sun's passage through the twelve zodiacal signs, appearing thus on tablets of the 7th century before Christ. This myth of several thousand years' antiquity may have been adopted by Greece, and the solar hero changed into Hercules with his twelve familiar labors.

This constellation is said to have been an object of worship in Phoenicia's most ancient days as the sky representative of the great sea-god Melkarth. Indeed, it has everywhere been considered of importance, judging from its abundant nomenclature and illustration, for no other sky group seems to have borne so many titles.

The usual Greek name was transliterated Engonasi, Engonasis, and Engonasin down to the days of Bullialdus, with whom it appeared in the queer  p240 combination of Greek and Roman letters Ὁ εn Γοnacín; but the poets translated it as Genuflexus, Genunixus, and Geniculatus; Ingeniculatus with Vitruvius [IX.4.5]; Ingeniclus and Ingeniculus with Firmicus [VIII.17.4]; while Ingenicla Imagoa and Ignota Facies appear in Manilius, — his familiar line [I.315],

Nixa venit species genibus, sibi conscia causae,

being liberally translated by Creech,

Conscious of his shame

A constellation kneels without a name.

We see with other authors the synonymous Incurvatus in genu, Procidens, Prociduus, Procumbens in genua, and Incumbens in genibus; Defectum Sidus and Effigies defecta labore; and the Tetrabiblos of 1551 had Qui in genibus est.

It also was Saltator, the Leaper; Χάρωψ, the Keen-eyed One; Κορυνήτης, and Κορυνηφόρος, the equivalents of Clavator and Claviger, the Club-bearer of the Latins: all applied to the constellation in early days, from classical designations of the hero Hercules, whose own name has now become universal for it. Although we first find this in the Catasterisms, Avienus asserted that it was used by Panyasis, the epic poet of 500 B.C., and uncle of Herodotus, perhaps to introduce into the heavens another Argonaut. The Nessus of Vitruvius​b came from the story of Deianira, the innocent cause of Hercules' death, when, as in the Death of Wallenstein,

Soared he upward to celestial brightness;

Nisus, from the city of Nisa; Malica, Melica, Melicartus, and Melicerta, from the name of its king, known later as Palaemon, — although some refer these to the title of the great god of Phoenicia, Melkarth, the King of the City; and Aper, from the Wild Boar slain at Elis. It was Cernuator,​c the Wrestler, from the hero's skill; Caeteus, Ceteus, and Cetheus, as son of Lycaon, and so uncle or brother of Kallisto, who, as Ursa Major, adjoined this constellation; indeed, it was even known as Lycaon himself, weeping over Kallisto's transformation. Ovid's Alcides was a common poetical title, either from Ἀλκή, Strength, or from Alcaeus, Hercules' grandfather; while Almannus and Celticus came from the fact that a similar hero was worshiped by the Germans and Celts, themselves noted for strength and daring deeds, and said to have been descended from Hercules. The unexplained Pataecus and Epipataecus are from Egypt; Maceris, from Libya; while Desanaus, Desanes, and Dosanes, or Dorsanes, are said to be of Hindu origin.

 p241  Other titles are Ixion, laboring at his wheel, perhaps because Hercules also labored; or from the radiated object shown on Euphratean gems, a supposed representation of the solar proto­type of Hercules, which in later times may easily have been regarded as a wheel; Prometheus, bending in chains on Caucasus; Thamyris,º sad at the loss of his lyre; Amphitryoniades, from the supposed sire of Hercules; Heros Tirynthius, from the place where he was reared; and Oetaeus, from the mountain range of Thessaly whence he ascended the funeral pyre. The Sanctus that has appeared as a title is properly Sancus, the Semo Sancus, of Sabine-Umbrian-Roman mythology, identified with Hercules. Theseus was a name for this constellation, from the similar adventures of the originals; Mellus and Ovillus trace back to the Malum and Ovis in the myth of the Apples, or Sheep, of the Hesperides, with which the story of Hercules is connected, — different ideas, but both from μῆλον, with this double signification; although La Lande thought that reference was made to the skin of the lion thrown over the hero's shoulder. We also occasionally see Diodas, Manilius, Orpheus, and Trapezius, the exact connection of which with our sky figure is not certain.

The 4th edition of the Alfonsine Tables singularly adds Rasaben, from the neighboring Draco's Al Ras al Thuʽban.

Bayer erroneously quoted Γνύξ ἐριπών, on Bended Knee, as if from Homer; and gave Ἔιδωλον ἄπευθος, the Unknown Image, and Imago laboranti similis. He also cited the Persians' Ternuelles, which Beigel suggested might be from their mistaken orthography of the word Hercules; and Hyde added another term, from that people, in Ber zanū nisheste, Resting on his Knees, a repetition of the earliest idea as to the figure.

Flammarion states that he found our modern title first mentioned in an edition of Hyginus of 1485, — but he had not read Eratosthenes; and some say that even this Hercules of Hyginus was really designed for the adjacent Ophiuchus.

The modern Italians' Ercole is like their Roman predecessors' abbreviated name for the deity, who was one of their most frequent objects of adjuration.

Our stellar figure generally has been drawn with club and lion-skin, the left foot on Draco and the right near Boötes, the reversal of these by Aratos being criticized by Hipparchos; but the Farnese globe shows a young man, nude and kneeling; while the Leyden Manuscript very inappropriately drew it as a young boy, erect, with a short star-tipped shepherd's crook, bearing a lion's skin and head. Bayer shows the strong man kneeling, clothed in the lion's skin, with his "all brazen" club and the Apple Branch.

 p242  This last he called Ramus pomifer, the German Zweig, placing it in the right hand of Hercules, on the edge of the Milky Way; but this even then was an old idea, for the Venetian illustrator of Hyginus in 1488 showed, in the constellation figure, an Apple Tree with a serpent twisted around its trunk. Argelander followed Bayer's drawing, but Heis transfers the Branch to the left hand, with two vipers as a reminder of the now almost forgotten stellar Cerberus with serpents' tongues, which Bayer did not know. The French and Italians, who give more prominence to these adjuncts of Hercules than do we, have combined them in a sub-constellation Rameau et Cerbèreº and Ramo e Cerbero. In all this, as well as in some of the titles of the Hercules constellation and of Draco, reappears the story of the Golden Fruits of the Hesperides with their guardian dragon.

It may have been the serpent and apples in our picturing of the constellation that aided Miss Rolleston to her substitution of the biblical Adam for the mythological Hercules. Others, however, changed the latter to Samson with the jawbone of an ass; and Julius Schiller multiplied him into the Three Magi.

The Arabians turned the classical Saltator, or Leaper, into Al Raḳīs, the Dancer;​2 as also Ἐνγόνασι, into Al Jathiyy aʽla Rukbataihi, the One who Kneels on both Knees; this subsequently degenerating into Elgeziale rulxbachei, Alcheti hale rechabatih, Elzegeziale, and Elhathi. It also has often appeared as Alchete and Alcheti; as Algethi, and, in the 1515 Almagest and Alfonsine Tables of 1521, as Algiethi incurvati super genu ipsius.

Argelander catalogues 155 naked-eye stars in Hercules, and Heis 227.

Between ζ and η, two thirds of the way from ζ, is NGC 6205, 13 M., the finest cluster in the northern heavens. Halley discovered this in 1714 and thought it a nebula, whence its early title, the Halley Nebula; but it is remarkable that it was not sooner seen, for it is visible by the unaided eye, although only 8′ in diameter. Herschel's estimate that it contains 14,000 stars is so high that some regard it as a typographical error for 4000; the number counted by Harvard observers is 724, outside of the nucleus. Miss Clerke records an opinion that it may be 558,000 millions of miles in diameter, and distant from us sixty-five light years; but we have as yet no certain determination of either size or distance. Burnham notes one of its central stars as double, an infrequent occurrence in compressed clusters; and Campbell of the Lick Observatory writes:

 p243  In the Hercules cluster the stars are perhaps very little denser than the streams of nebulous matter in which they are situated, and hence their density is [i.e. may be] only something a thousand millionth part of that of the sun.

Bailey finds no variables in it.

In the early days of Arab astronomy a space in the heavens, coinciding with parts of Hercules, Ophiuchus, and Serpens, was the Rauḍah, or Pasture, the Northern Boundary of which, the Nasaḳ Shāmiyy, was marked by the stars β and γ Herculis, the Syrians' Row of Pearls, with β and γ Serpentis in continuation of the Pasture line; while δ, α, and ε Serpentis, with δ, ε, ζ, and γ Ophiuchi, formed the Southern Boundary, the Nasaḳ Yamaniyyah. The group of stars now known as the Club of Hercules was the Sheep within the Pasture.

α, Double and both irregularly variable, 3.1 to 3.9 and 5 to 7, orange red and bluish green.

Ras Algethi, also Ras Algathi, on Malby's globe Ras Algothi, is from Al Rās al Jāthīyy, the Kneeler's Head; but it often is Ras Algeti, sometimes Ras Algiatha, and the Standard Dictionary has Ras Algetta. It was Rasacheti with Chilmead. Riccioli's Ras Elhhathi and Ras Alhathi probably came from Ras Alheti of the first three editions of the Alfonsine Tables; but in the 4th edition very incorrectly appeared Rasaben for both the star and the constellation, probably taken from the neighbouring Al Rās al Thuʽbān of Draco; — all Arabian translations of the Greek names.

The nomads' title for it was Al Kalb al Rāʽi, the Shepherd's Dog, that our α shared with the adjoining lucida of Ophiuchus, 5° distant.

The Chinese called it Ti Tso, the Emperor's Seat; and Tsin.

Some small stars in Hercules, near α, were included with ι and κ Ophiuchi in the asterism Ho, one of the measures of China.

This is a beauti­ful pair, but apparently not binary, for there has been no certain change in the last century. The components are 4″.8 apart, at a position angle of 119°. Its variability, discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1795, is now described by Chandler as shown by "very irregular oscillations in periods of two to four months." It is one of the most noted of Secchi's 3d type with banded spectra.

α culminates on the 23d of July.

β, 2.8, pale yellow.

Korneforos and Kornephoros are from the Κορυνηφόρος which we have seen applied to the whole figure. Burritt has Kornephorus vel Rutilicus,  p244 perhaps the diminutive of rutilus, "golden red," or "glittering," an adjective applied to Arcturus; but this term is by no means appropriate for β. The Arabo-Latin Almagest of 1515 reads rutillico, adding propinque cillitico, this last unintelligible unless explained by the Basel edition of 1551 as penes axillam seu scapulam; so that we may perhaps consider the alternative title to be from the barbarism used to show the star's position on the shoulder of the figure. Indeed, Bayer said of it, Rutilicum barbari dicunt. Ideler, however, asserted his belief that it was from rutellum, the diminutive of rutrum, a sharp instrument of husbandry or war, in Roman times, that Hercules in some early representations, especially on the Arabic globes, is carrying. The Century Cyclopedia gives Rutilico as a rarely used name.

β was the Chinese Ho Chung, In the River, while the 4th‑magnitude γ was Ho Keen, Between the River.

Its spectrum is like that of the sun, and the star is approaching our system at the rate of about 22 miles a second.

ζ, 3.1 and 6.5, is a remarkable binary with a period of only 34½ years, the distance between the stars ranging from 0″.6 to 1″.7. According to Belopolsky, it is approaching us at the rate of nearly forty-four miles a second, — the greatest velocity of approach or recession so far ascertained.

θ, 4.1, with adjacent small stars, was Tien Ke, Heaven's Record.

κ, Double, 4.8 and 7, light yellow and pale garnet.

Marfak, Mirfak, Marsia, Marfic, and Marsic are all found for this star, — as for λ Ophiuchi; but it properly is Marfik, from Al Marfiḳ, the Elbow; the titles written with the letter s probably coming from early confusion with the letter f. The Dorians similarly called it Κύβιτον, the Elbow.

In China, with two other stars near by, it was Tsung Tsing, an Ancestral Star.

Ptolemy and the Arabian astronomers located it on the right elbow, but Smyth on the left; Heis places it in the right hand, as did Bayer; while Burritt has Marsic in the proper place, but letters it χ.

λ, 4.8, deep yellow.

Masym, Maasym, Maasim, Mazym, Mazim, and Masini are from the Arabic Miʽṣam, the Wrist, although Ptolemy as well as most of the stellar map-makers located ο on that part of the figure; but Bayer, probably by an oversight, gave the title to λ, not far from the left shoulder, and hence the mistake which still survives. Burritt applied Masym to this lettered  p245 star at the elbow, and duplicated it at the one on the hand, omitting the letter; but this title had appeared in the Latin Almagest of 1515 and the Alfonsine Tables of 1521, not as a proper name, but simply indicative of the position of the star ο, which, though now unnamed, should bear that title instead of λ. The same word is used in those works to describe the positions of θ and η Aurigae in the similar location, but is there written Mahasim. The Century Cyclopedia, by a misprint for λ, uses Masym for χ Herculis in the left hand of the giant.

λ also was Chaou, one of the early feudal states of China.

The Sun flies forward to his brother Sun;

The dark Earth follows wheel'd in her ellipse.

Tennyson's The Golden Year.

Although Johann Tobias Mayer of Göttingen seems to have been the pioneer, in 1760, in the efforts to ascertain the direction of the sun's motion among the stars, yet Sir William Herschel was the first success­ful investigator as to this, about 1806, and he settled upon the vicinity of λ as the objective point of our solar system, the Apex of the Sun's Way; and his determination was, in a great measure, confirmed by later astronomers.

Some recent observations, however, change this: either to ν of this constellation, to the group of small stars four or five degrees north of west from ν, to the immediate vicinity of Wega in the Lyre, or to the neighborhood of Arided, near the tail of the Swan, — yet all in the same general quarter of the heavens. Thirty-five separate determinations of this Apex, made from 1783 to 1892, locate it variously between 227°18′ and 289° of right ascension, and between 14°26′ and 53°42′ in north declination; the weight of authority being in favor of some point​3 in Hercules near the boundary between it and Lyra. The velocity of the sun's motion is found by Potsdam computers of spectroscopic observations to be from 7½ to 11¼ miles a second; this is more reliable than the value deduced by other methods.

The Sun's Quit, the point in the heavens opposite to the Apex, according to Todd, lies about midway between the stars Sirius and Canopus.

μ1, a 4th‑magnitude triple, half-way between Wega of the Lyre and α Herculis, was the Chinese Kew Ho, the Nine Rivers.

The distance between the large star and its 9th‑magnitude companion is  p246 31″; while the companion itself is a close binary with a period of about 45 years, the distance seldom exceeding 1″.

ν and ξ, of the 4th magnitude, with the small b, were the Chinese Chung Shan, the Middle Mountain. Some recent investigations place here the Apex of the Sun's Way.

ω, a 4th‑magnitude double, by some early transcriber's error, is now given as Cujam, from Caiam, the accusative of Caia, the word used by Horace for the Club of Hercules, which is marked by this star. Gaiam, Guiam, and Guyam, frequently seen, are erroneous. In Burritt's Atlas the star is wrongly placed within the uplifted right arm.

The Club of Hercules is supposed to have been a separate constellation with Pliny.

The Author's Notes:

1 Izhdubar was identified with Nimrud, and known, too, as Gizdhubar, Gilgamesh, or Gi‑il-ga‑mes, the Γίλγαμος of Aelian. He was aided in his exploits by his servant-companion, the first Centaur, Ea‑bani, or Hea‑bani, the Creation of Ea.

2 The foregoing Dancer, Beigel said, was in the East merely a posture-maker, which the configuration of these stars plainly shows, and hence this title is appropriate. It seems to have wandered to the near-by Draco for the faint μ, although with a different signification, — the Trotting Camel.

3 Professor Young thinks the Apex in about 267° of right ascension and 31° of declination, but that the data are not yet sufficient to give a very close determination of either the sun's speed or direction, since the problem is embarrassed by the probability of systematic motions among the stars themselves. Results so far obtained are to be regarded only as rather rough approximations.

Thayer's Notes:

a Ingenicla Imago may not have been written anywhere by Manilius, despite the citation "Manil. 5, 645" in Lewis & Short: in the edition of the Astronomicon found online, V.645‑647 (q.v.) reads:

Nixa genu species et Graio nomine dicta

Engonasin, cui nulla fides sub origine constat,

dextra per extremos attollit lumina Pisces.

b No Nessus is to be found in Vitruvius, under any spelling.

c Cernuator, wherever it might appear — the word is not given in Lewis & Short — would be derived from the rare verb cernuo, listed in that same dictionary as attested only before and after the classical period, and meaning "to throw or fall head foremost". The noun would be a person who did so.

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