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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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 p. v 

"Wilt thou lere of sterres aught?

. . . . . .

Elles I wolde thee have told,"

Quod he, "the sterres names, lo,

And al the hevenes signes to,

And which they ben."

Dan Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame.


This list of star-names is published in the endeavor to fill an acknowledged vacancy in our popular astronomical literature. It is not intended for the professional astronomer, who, as a rule, cares little about the old designations of the objects of his study, — alphabets, numerals, and circles being preferable, indeed needful, for his purposes of identification. Yet great scholars have thought this nomenclature not unworthy their attention, — Grotius, Scaliger, Hyde, and our own Whitney, among others, devoting much of their rare talent to its elucidation; while Ideler, of a century ago, not without authority in astronomy as in other branches of learning, wrote as to inquiry into star-names:

This is, in its very nature, coincidently a research into the constellations, and it is so much more worth while learning their history as throughout all ages the spirit of man has concerned itself with a subject that has ever had the highest interest to him, — the starry heavens.

Old Thomas Hood, of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1590 asserted that they were "for instruction's sake . . . things cannot be taught without names"; and it is certain that knowledge of these contributes much to an intelligent pleasure when we survey the evening sky. For almost all can repeat Thomas Carlyle's lament:

Why did not somebody teach me the constellations, and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead, and which I don't half know to this day?

 p. vi  Naturally these titles are chiefly from the Arabs, whose Desert life and clear skies made them very familiar with the stars, as Al Bīrūnī​1 wrote:

He whose roof is heaven, who has no other cover, over whom the stars continually rise and set in one and the same course, makes the beginnings of his affairs and his knowledge of time depend upon them.

So that the shaykh Ilderim well told Ben Hur at the Orchard of Palms:

Thou canst not know how much we Arabs depend upon the stars. We borrow their names in gratitude, and give them in love.

But many star-names supposed to have originated in Arabia are merely that country's translations of the Greek descriptive terms, adopted, during the rule of the Abbasids,​2 from Claudius Ptolemy's Ἡ Μεγάλη Σύνταξις τῆς Ἀστρονομίας, the Great System of Astronomy, of our second century. For it was early in this khalifate,

in the golden prime

Of good Haroun Alraschid

(Aaron the Just), that Ptolemy's Σύνταξις3 was translated as Al Kitāb al Mijisti, the Greatest Book. This, in its various editions, substituted among the educated classes a new nomenclature; while, as revised by Al Thabit ibn Ḳurrah in the latter part of the 9th century, it eventually became, through a Latin version by Cremonaeus (Gerard of Cremona) of the 12th century, the groundwork of the first complete printed Almagest. This, published at Venetian in 1515, so manifestly showed its composite origin that Ideler and Smyth always referred to it as the Arabo-Latin Almagest. The Greek text of the Syntaxis seems to have been practically unknown in Europe until translated into Latin from a Vatican manuscript by Trapezuntius (the monk George of Trebizond), several editions  p. vii of this issuing during the 16th century. From all these and kindred works have come the barbarous Graeco-Latin-Arabic words that, in a varied orthography, appear as star-names in modern lists.

But there were other purely indigenous, and so very ancient, titles from the heathen days of the Ishmaelites anterior to Mediterranean influences, perhaps even from the prehistoric "ʽArb al Baidā," the Arabs of the Desert, — these titles generally pastoral in their character, as accords with such an origin. So that we find among them the nomads' words for shepherds and herdsmen with their maidens; horses, horsemen, and their trappings; cattle, camels, sheep, and goats; predatory and other animals; birds and reptiles. It should be remembered, however, that the archaic nomenclature of the Arabs — archaic properly so called, for we know nothing of its beginnings — in one respect is unique. They did not group together several stars to form a living figure, as did their Western neighbors, who subsequently became their teachers; single stars represented single creatures, — a rule that seems rarely to have been deviated from, — although the case was different in their stellar counterparts of inanimate objects. Even here they used but few stars for their geographical, anatomical, and botanical terms; their tents, nests, household articles, and ornaments; mangers and stalls; boats, biers, crosses, and thrones; wells, ponds, and rivers; fruits, grain, and nuts; — all of which they imaged in the sky.

They had, too, still another class of names peculiar to themselves, such as Al Ṣaidak, Al Simāḳ, Al Suhā, respectively the Trusted One, the Lofty One, the Neglected One; their Changers, Drivers, Followers, and Wardens; their Fortunate, or Unfortunate, Ones, and their Solitary Ones, etc. None of these early asterisms, however, were utilized by the scientific Arabians, but, with their titles, became merely interesting curiosities to them, as to us. These were known as "of the Arabs," while Ptolemy's figures were "of the astronomers," — a distinction maintained in this book by the use of "Arab" or "Arabic" for the first, and "Arabian" for the last. The Persian astronomical writer, the dervish ʽAbd al Raḥmān Abū al Ḥusain, now better known as Al Sufi,​4 the Mystic or Sage, made mention of this early distinction, in  p. viii 964, in his Description of the Fixed Stars; Kazwini following, three centuries later, with the same expressions.

The various Arabic titles that we see applied to a single star or group, and the duplicate titles for some that are widely separated in the sky, apparently came from the various tribes, each of which had to a certain extent a nomenclature of its own.

The rest of our star-names, with but few exceptions, are directly from Greek or Latin originals, — many of these, as is the case with the Arabians, although now regarded as personal, being at first only adjectival or merely descriptive of the star's position in the constellation figure; while some are the result of misunderstanding, or of errors in translation and oft-repeated transcription. But these are now too firmly established to be discontinued or even corrected.

Vergil wrote in the 1st Georgic:

Navita tum stellis numeros et nomina fecit;

and Seneca, the traditional friend of Saint Paul, in his Quaestiones Naturales:

Graecia stellis numeros et nomina fecit;

both of these heathen authors almost exactly following the words of the sacred psalmist, who, at least four hundred years before, had sung:

He telleth the number of the stars;

He giveth them all their names,

and of the prophet Isaiah:

He calleth them all by name.

While Seneca's statement may have some foundation, and Vergil's assertion as to the sailor's influence in star-naming may be true in part, yet for most of this we should probably look to the Desert, where the stars would be as much required and relied upon for guidance as on the trackless ocean, and so necessarily objects of attentive interest and study. Indeed, Muḥammad told his followers, in the 6th Sura of the Ḳur᾽ān:

God hath given you the stars to be your guides in the dark both by land and sea.

 p. ix  It seems safe to conclude that they were first named by herdsmen, hunters, and husbandmen, sailors and travelers, — by the common people generally, rather than by the learned and scientific; and that our modern lists are the gradual accumulation of at least three thousand years from various nations, but chiefly from the nomads, as well as the scholars, of Arabia, —

Those earthly godfathers of heaven's lights,

That give a name to every fixed star, —

and from Greece and Rome.

It may be thought that too much attention has been paid to stellar mythology, now almost a hackneyed subject; but it serves to elucidate the literary history of the stars, and the age of its stories commands at least our interest. Indeed, we should remember that the stars were largely the source of these stories, — Eusebius, early in our 4th century, asserting in his Praeparatio Evangelica:

The ancients believed that the legends about Osiris and Isis, and all other mythological fables [of a kindred sort], have reference either to the Stars, their configuration, their rising and their settings, etc.

And Proctor wrote in his Myths and Marvels of Astronomy that the chief charm of this study

does not reside in wonders revealed to us by the science, but in the lore and legends connected with its history, the strange fancies with which in old time it has been associated, the half-forgotten myths to which it has given birth.

Yet these myths, occidental as the present forms of some of them may be, are but modern and trivial when one goes back into the dim past to their probable fountainhead among the Himalayas and on the Ganges, or along the banks of the Euphrates, where the recent study of mythology discovers their origin in serious connection with the most ancient of earthly religions, long antedating Moses, — "attempted explanations of natural phenomena," drawn from observations on the earth and in the sky of the powers of nature and of nature's God.

The world-wide field of research that I have endeavored to traverse, containing the records of four or five millenniums, it need hardly be said  p. x demands for its exploration the best efforts, long continued, of the scientist and scholar accomplished in archaeology, astronomy, literature, and philology. None such, however, has appeared since Ideler's day, nearly a century ago; so that, with the desire of taking up again this most interesting task, and the hope of thus stimulating obstructs more competent to carry it on, I have done what I could, although frankly confessing that I have fallen very short of my ideal. Originality is not claimed for my book. Much of it has been gathered from widely scattered sources, brought together here for the first time in readily accessible form, although doubtless with errors and certainly with much omission; for while I have sought, as did Milton's Il Penseroso, to

sit and rightly spell

Of every star that heav'n doth show,

yet in preparing my material I have seen, as Doctor Samuel Johnson wrote in the preface of his Dictionary,

that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed.

So that, following him,

I set limits to my work, which would in time be ended though not completed.

While to temper such criticism as may be bestowed upon my efforts, I quote again from the same source:

Dictionaries​5 are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.

Doctor Christian Ludwig Ideler's Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen, dated in Berlin the 2d of April, 1809, is the main critical compendium of information on stellar names — Arabic, Greek, and Latin especially. It is to him that we owe the translation of the  p. xi  original Arab text of Kazwini's​6 Description of the Constellations, written in the 13th century, which forms the basis of the Sternnamen, with Ideler's additions and annotations from classical and other sources. From this much information in my book is derived.

The Bedford Catalogue in Captain (afterwards Vice-Admiral) William Henry Smyth's​7 Cycle of Celestial Objects, a book of exceptional value as to information on star-names and unique in its racy style, also has been drawn from.

Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer's recent Dawn of Astronomy — a most interesting work even if all his deductions are not accepted — has furnished many of the references to Egypt and its temple worship of various stars; this new study in orientation having been initiated by Professor Nissen of Germany, although independently so, about the same time, by Lockyer.

Professor D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's Glossary of Greek Birds has been utilized as to the ornithological symbolism​8 on early coinage, sculpturing, etc.; for this, hitherto unintelligible, is now thought to be largely astronomical.

The details of star-spectra mainly are from the Spectralanalyse der Gestirne, of 1890, by Doctor J. Scheiner, of the Royal Astrophysical Observatory of Potsdam, translated by Professor E. B. Frost, of Dartmouth College, in 1894.

The matter connected with the astronomy of China is chiefly from Mr. John Williams' work of 1871, — the Observations of Comets from 611 B.C. to A.D. 1640, extracted from the Chinese Annals, — the star-names being  p. xii from that or from Mr. John Reeves' Appendix​9 to Volume I, Part 2, of the Reverend Doctor Robert Morrison's Dictionary, published at Macao in 1819, with Bode's star-numbers. I have as been aided by the Reverend Doctor Joseph Edkins' recent papers in the China Review. The translations of the names in Reeves' list are by Professor Kazutami Ukita, of the Doshisha Theological School of Kyoto, Japan; but he expresses misgivings as to the correctness of many of them in their stellar application.

Professor Richard J. H. Ottheil, of Columbia University, has very kindly supervised the transcription and translation of the Hebrew and Arabic star-names, and has added the table of the Arabic alphabet and the English equivalents of its letters. But his absence abroad while the earlier pages were going through the press will account for some errors, which, however, I have endeavored to correct in the Index. The Euphratean​10 titles are from various sources.

The star-magnitudes are from the Estimates of the Harvard Photometry, a list of 4260 naked-eye stars north of the 30th parallel of south declination, published in 1884 by the Professor Edward C. Pickering, or from the Uranometria Argentina11 of the late Doctor Benjamin A. Gould, published in 1879.

The star-maps of the northern sky to which I generally refer are those of Doctor Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander in his Uranometria Nova, published at Berlin, in 1843, with 3268 stars down to the 6th magnitude; and of Doctor Eduard Heis in his Atlas Coelestis Novus of 1872. But  p. xiii the last-named acute observer includes those to the 6½ magnitude​12 — 5421 stars from the pole to 40° of south declination, in eight tenths of the heavens. Smyth more conservatively wrote of this oft-mooted point in observational astronomy:

The number of those seen by the naked eye at once is seldom much above a thousand; though from their scintillation, and the indistinct manner in which they are viewed, they appear to be almost infinite. Indeed, albeit the keen glances of experience might do more, the whole number that can be generally perceived by the naked eye, taking both hemispheres, is not greatly about three thousand, from the first to the sixth magnitudes, in about these proportions:

20 70 220 500 690 1500 , —

3000 in all. Professor David P. Todd, in his New Astronomy of 1897, increases the number of 5th‑magnitude stars to 1400, and of those of the 6th magnitude to 5000, — 7185 in all; but exceptional conditions of eyesight and atmosphere probably must exist for confirmation of this.

The star-colors generally are from Smyth's list whenever noted by him; but it should be remembered that even good authorities sometimes differ as to stellar tints, and those assigned here will not be accepted by all, and in the case of minute objects are very doubtful.

I have begun my work with brief notices of the Zodiacs, — Solar and Lunar, — that necessarily are constantly alluded to in treating of the individual Constellations; following these with three chapters on the latter, — their history among the nations, cataloguing and early treatment by authors, and their connection with astrology, art, folk-lore, literature, and religion. The detailed list of the Constellations, in alphabetical order, and of their named components follows, with the derivation, signification, and history of their titles, and some facts as to the scientific aspects of the stars. In this last feature of my book Professor Charles A. Young, of Princeton University, has afforded me much valuable assistance, for which, although very inadequately, I here return my sincere thanks. A chapter on the Galaxy ends the work.

 p. xiv  Where thought necessary, the accentuation of the star-titles is given in the Indices, although in some cases, from the uncertainty of origin, this may be doubtful.

In conclusion, I would acknowledge my obligations for this useful suggestions to Professor Edward S. Holden, till lately the Director of the Lick Observatory; to Mr. Addison Van Name, of the Yale University Library, for access to volumes of reference and help in translations; to Messrs Theodore L. De Vinne & Co. (the De Vinne Press), for their accustomed skill in the make‑up of my book; and to Mr. P. J. Cassidy, for his interest and intelligent care in its proof-reading. Lastly do I thank my young friend Miss Lucy Noble Morris, of Morristown, for long-continued aid in various ways, especially in her tasteful selection of poetical illustrations.

And now, with the hope that my work, even with its imperfections, may serve to foster a more intelligent interest in the nomenclature and "archaeology of practical astronomy," I submit it to all lovers of the stars.

Richard Hinckley Allen.

Meadow View,

Chatham, New Jersey,

February 16, 1899.

He made the stars also

Genesis i, 16

Stars indeed fair creatures be

Honest George Wither

Make Friendship with the stars

Mrs. Sigourney

The Author's Notes:

1 This was the celebrated Khorasmian Abū Raiḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad of A.D. 1000, whose designation in literature came from his birthplace, a bīrūn, or suburb, of Khwārizm. His Vestiges of Past Generations, a chronology of ancient nations, and his India, are of interest and authority even now.

2 This first organized government among the Arabs began in 749, and under "its enlightened and munificent protection Baghdad soon became what Alexandria had long ceased to be."

3 This was subsequently designated as Ἡ Μεγίστη to distinguish it from his smaller astrological work in four books, the Τετράβιβλος Σύνταξις. Our word Almagest is now supposed to be composed of the principal letters of the Greek title.

4 Al Sufi also was known as Al Razi, are his birthplace, Al Rayy, east of Teheran. A French translation of his work was published in 1874 by the late H. C. F. C. Schjellerup of Saint Petersburg.

5 It is greatly to be regretted that our dictionaries, without exception, are singularly unsatisfactory as to star-titles, being always deficient and too often erroneous. The recent Century Cyclopedia of Names, however, contains the most correct, detailed, concise, and scholarly list that we have.

6 His customary designation is from his birthplace, Ḳazwīn, in northern Persia, and has been variously given; Smyth abbreviating it to ᾽Omadu-d‑dīn Abu Yahya Zakariyā Ibn-Mahmūd Ansārī al‑Kazwīnī. The name is correctly written Zaḳariyā ibn Muḥammad ibn Maḥmūd al Ḳazwīnī. He was collaborator was his noted fellow-countryman Nasssr al Dīn al Ṭūsī, who, in 1270, compiled the Ilkhanian Tables, used in Persia perhaps to the present day.

7 It is pleasant to us Americans to know that Smyth was a lineal descendant of Captain John Smith of Virginia fame; and of interest to all New Jersey people that his father was from the province of East Jersey, but, as a loyalist in our Revolution, was compelled to flee to England, where the son was born in 1788. He died, in 1865, after a most useful and distinguished career in the British navy and as astronomer and hydrographer.

8 This subject originally was broached by Gorius, in 1750, in his De Gemmis Astriferis; and Dupuis treated of it, although in an exaggerated way, a century ago.

9 The original of Reeves' list is from the 31st volume of the Leuh Leih Yuen Yuen, in one hundred volumes, issued in the reign of Kang Hi, with Jesuit assistance. The early native titles seem to have been arbitrarily applied to single stars or small groups, with no apparent stellar signification.

10 The term "Euphratean" is used throughout these pages in a general way for the material lately discovered in the Euphrates Valley, the source of which — Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Chaldaean, or Assyrian — is as yet largely undetermined. The references to this material I have taken bodily from the works of Hommel, Sayce, Strassmaier and Epping, Jensen, and Robert Brown, Junior.

11 This great work is designed to include all stars down to the 7th magnitude in that portion of sphere within 100° of the south pole, — the favourable atmospheric conditions at Córdoba, whence the observations were made, rendering even that magnitude readily visible. It comprises, of course, all the southern constellations, with 6733 stars, and those part of the northern, with 997 stars, that lie below the 10th degree of north declination, — 66 constellations in all, with 7730 stars.

12 He was enabled to do this by means of special arrangements for shutting off outside light from the field of sky under view; so that the observations, although by the naked eye, were not unaided.

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