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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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 p269  the scale of night

Silently with the stars ascended.

Longfellow's Occultation of Orion.

Libra, the Balance or Scales,

is the Italian Libra and Bilancia, the French Balance, the German Wage, — Bayer's Wag and Bodes' Waage, — but the Anglo-Saxons said Wæge and Pund, and the Anglo-Normans, Peise, all meaning the Scales, or a Weight.

The early Greeks did not associate its stars with a Balance, so that many have thought it substituted in comparatively recent times for the Chelae, the Claws of the Scorpion, that previously had been known as a distinct portion of the double sign; Hyginus [Astron. II.26] characterizing it as dimidia pars Scorpionis, and Ptolemy counting eight components in the two divisions of his Χηλαί, — βόρειος and νότιος, — with nine ἀμόρφωτοι. Aratos also knew it under that title, writing of it as a dim sign, — φαέων ἐπιδυέες, — though a great one, — μεγάλας χηλάς. Eratosthenes included the stars of the Claws with those of our Scorpio, and called the whole Σκορπίος, but alluded to the Χηλαί; as did Hipparchos, although with him the latter also were Ζυγόν, or Ζυγός, these words becoming common for our Libra, and turned by  p270 codices of the 9th century into Zichos. They were the equivalents of the Latin Jugum, the Yoke, or Beam, of the Balance, first used as a stellar title by Geminos, who, with Varro, mentioned it as the sign of the autumnal equinox. Ptolemy wrote these two Greek titles indiscriminately, and so did the Latin poets the three, — Chelae, Jugum, Libra, — although the scientific writers of Rome all adhered to Libra, and such has been its usual title from their day. The ancient name was persistent, however, for the Latin Almagest of 1551 gave a star as in jugo sive chelis, and Flamsteed used it in his description of Libra's stars.

The statement, often seen, that the constellation was invented when on the equinox, and so represented the equality of day and night, was current even with Manilius, —

Then Day and Night are weigh'd in Libra's Scale

Equal a while, —

repeated by James Thomson in the Autumn of his Seasons, —

Libra weighs in equal scales the year, —

by Edward Young in his Imperium Pelagi, apostrophizing his king, —

The Balance George! from thine

Which weighs the nations, learns to weigh

More accurate the night and day, —

and by Longfellow in his Poet's Calendar for September, —

I bear the Scales, when hang in equipoise

The night and day.

This idea gave rise to the occasional title Noctipares; yet Libra is rarely figured on an even balance, but as described by Milton where

The fiend look'd up, and knew

His mounted scale aloft.

The Romans claimed that it was added by them to the original eleven signs, which is doubtless correct in so far as they were concerned in its modern revival as a distinct constellation, for it first appears as Libra in classical times in the Julian calendar​1 which Caesar as pontifex maximus  p271 took upon himself to form, 46 B.C., aided by Flavius, the Roman scribe, and Sosigenes, the astronomer from Alexandria.

Some have associated Andrew Marvell's line,

Outshining Virgo or the Julian star,

with Libra, but this unquestionably referred to the comet of 43 B.C. that appeared soon after, and, as Augustus asserted, in consequence of, Caesar's assassination, in September of that year, being utilized by the emperor and Caesar's friends to carry his soul to heaven. This comet, perhaps, was the same that has since appeared in 531, 1106, and 1680, and that may return in 2255.​a

Medals still in existence show Libra held by a figure that Spence thought represented Augustus as the dispenser of justice; thus recalling Vergil's beauti­ful allusion, in his 1st Georgic [I.32], to the constellation's place in the sky. Addressing the emperor, whose birthday coincided with the sun's entrance among the stars of the Claws, he suggested them as a proper resting-place for his soul when, after death, he should be inscribed on the roll of the gods:

Anne novum tardis sidus te mensibus addas,

Quā locus Erigonen inter Chelasque sequentes

Panditur; ipse tibi jam brachia contrahit ardens

Scorpius, et coeli justa plus parte relinquit;

so intimating that the place was then vacant, the Scorpion having contracted his claws to make room for his neighbour. But subsequently he wrote:

Libra die somnique pares ubi fecerit horas;

and a few lines further on tells of twelve constellations, — duodena astra.

Milton has a reference in Paradise Lost to Libra's origin, where

Th' Eternal, to prevent such horrid fray,

Hung forth in heav'n his golden scales, yet seen

Betwixt Astraea and the Scorpion sign;

and Homer's

Th' Eternal Father hung

His golden scales aloft,

is similar; but, although doubtless the original of Milton's verse, probably is not a reference to our Libra; for the Greek poet very likely antedated the knowledge of it in his country, and is supposed to have known but few of  p272 our stellar figures, — at all events, has alluded to but few in either the Iliad or the Odyssey.

Bayer said that the Greeks called it Σταθμός, a Weigh-beam, and Στάτηρ, a Weight; while Theon used for it the old Sicilian Λίτρα and Λίτραι, which, originally signifying a Weight, became the Roman Libra. Ampelius [Lib. Mem. 2.7] called it Mochos, after the inventor of the instrument; and Virgo's title, Astraea, the Starry Goddess, the Greek Δίκη, has sometimes been applied to these stars as the impersonation of Justice, whose symbol was the Scales. Addison devoted the 100th number of the Tatler — that of the 29th of November, 1709 — to "that sign in the heavens which is called by the name of the Balance," and to his dream thereof in which he saw the Goddess of Justice descending from the constellation to regulate the affairs of men; the whole a very beauti­ful rendering of the ancient thought connecting the Virgin Astraea with Libra. He may have been thus inspired by recollections of his student days at Oxford, where he must often have seen this sign, as a Judge in full robes, sculptured on the front of Merton College.​b

Manilius, using the combined title, wrote of it in much the same way as of influence over the legal profession:

This Rul'd at Servius' Birth, who first did give

Our Laws a Being, —

a reference to Servius Sulpicius Rufus Lemonia, the great Roman lawyer, pupil, and friend of Cicero.

Cicero himself used Jugum as though it were well known; and, with evident intention of upsetting Caesar's claim to its invention, wrote [de Div. II.98]:

Romam in Jugo

Cum esset Luna, natam esse dicebat.

The sacred books of India mention it as Tulā, the Tamil Tulam or Tolam, a Balance; and on the zodiac of that country it is a man bending on one knee and holding a pair of scales; but Varāha Mihira gave it as Juga or Juka, from ζυγόν, and so a reflex of Greek astronomy, which we know came into India early in our area; but he also called it Fire, perhaps a recollection of its early Altar form, mentioned further on.

In China it was Show Sing, the Star of Longevity, but later, copying our figure, it was Tien Ching, the Celestial Balance; and that country had a law for the annual regulation of weights supposed to have been enacted with some reference to this sign. In the early solar zodiac it was the Crocodile, or Dragon, the national emblem.

 p273  Manetho and Achilles Tatios said that Libra originated in Egypt; it plainly appears on the Denderah planisphere and elsewhere simply as a Scale-beam, a symbol of the Nilometer. Kircher gave its Coptic-Egyptian title as Λαμβαδία, Statio Propitiationis.

The Hebrews are said to have known it as Moznayim, a Scale-Beam, Riccioli's Miznaim, inscribing it, some thought, on the banners of Asher, although others claimed Sagittarius for this tribe, asserting that Libra was unknown to the Jews and that its place was indicated by their letter Tau, while still others claimed Virgo for Asher, and Sagittarius for Joseph.

The Syrians called it Masa᾽thā, which Riccioli gave as Masathre; and the Persians, Terāzū or Tarāzūk, all signifying Libra; the Persian sphere showing a human figure lifting the scales in one hand and grasping a lamb in the other, this being the usual form of a weight for a balance in the early East.

Arabian astronomers, following Ptolemy, knew these stars as Al Zubānā, the Claws, or, in the dual, Al Zubānatain, degenerating in Western use to the Azubene of the 1515 Almagest; but later on, when influenced by Rome, they became Al Kiffatān, the Trays of the Balance, and Al Mīzān, the Scale-beam, Bayer attributing the latter to the Hebrews. This appeared in the Alfonsine Tables and elsewhere as Almisan, Almizen, Mizin; Schickard writing it Midsanon. Kircher, however, said that Wazn, Weight, is the word that should be used instead of Zubānā; Riccioli adopting this in his Vazneschemali and Vazneganubi, or Vaznegenubi, respectively applied to the Northern and Southern Scale as well as to their lucidae.

Libra is stamped on the coins of Palmyra, as also on those of Pythodoris, queen of Pontus.

While it seems impossible to trace with any certainty the date of formation of our present figure and its place of origin, yet there was probably some figure here earlier than the Claws, and formed in Chaldaea in more shapes than one; indeed, Ptolemy asserted that it was from that country, while Ideler and modern critics say the same.

Brown thinks that its present symbol, , generally considered a representation of the beam of the Balance, shows the top of the archaic Euphratean Altar, located in the zodiac next preceding Scorpio, and figured on gems, tablets, and boundary stones, alone or in a pair. Miss Clerke recalls the association of the 7th month, Tashrītu, with this 7th sign and with the Holy Mound, Tul Ku, designating the biblical Tower of Babel, surmounted by an altar, — the stars in this constellation, αμξ, δ, β, χ, ζ, and ν, well showing a circular altar. Sometimes this Euphratean figure was varied to that of a Censer, and frequently to a Lamp; Strassmaier confirming this by  p274 his translation of an inscription as die Lampe als Nuru, the Solar Lamp, synonymous with Bir, the Light, also found for the sky figure. In this connection it will be remembered that another of the names for our Ara, a reduplication of the zodiacal Altar, was Pharus, or Pharos, the Great Lamp, or Lighthouse, of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world. This Lamp also has been found shown on boundary stones as held in the Scorpion's claws, and we see the same idea even as late as the Farnese globe and Hyginus of 1488, where the Scales have taken the place of the Lamp. When the Altar, Censer, and Lamp were in the course of time forgotten, or removed to the South, the Claws were left behind, and perhaps extended, till they in turn were replaced by Libra. Miss Clerke additionally writes:

The 8th sign is frequently doubled, and it is difficult to avoid seeing in the pair of zodiacal scorpions, carved on Assyrian cylinders, the proto­type of the Greek Scorpion and Claws. Both Libra and the sign it eventually superseded thus owned a Chaldaean birthplace.

Brown also says that the Euphratean Sugi, the Chariot Yoke, which he identifies with α and β of this constellation, remind us by sound and signification of the Ζυγόν and Jugum of Greece and Rome respectively, and that astrology adds evidence in favor of a Chaldaean origin, for it has always claimed Libra — the Northern Scale at least — as a fruitful sign, taking this from the very foundations of astrology in the Chaldaean belief that "when the Sugi stars were clear the crops were good." In modern astrology, however, the reverse of this held in the case of the Southern Scale.

It seems not unreasonable to conclude that in Chaldaea the 7th sign had origin in all its forms.

In classical astrology the whole constituted the ancient House of Venus, for, according to Macrobius, this planet appeared here at the Creation; and, moreover, the goddess bound together human couples under the yoke of matrimony. From this came the title Veneris Sidus, although others asserted that Mars was its guardian; astrologers of the 14th century insisting that

Whoso es born in yat syne sal be an ille doar and a traytor.

It was of influence, too, over commerce, as witness Ben Johnson in The Alchemist:

His house of Life being Libra: which foreshow'd

He should be a merchant, and should trade with balance;

 p275  and governed the lumbar region of the human body. Its modern reign has been over Alsace, Antwerp, Austria, Aethiopia, Frankfurt,º India, Lisbon, Livonia, Portugal, Savoy, Vienna, and our Charleston; but in classical times over Italy and, naturally enough from its history, especially over Rome, with Vulcan as its guardian. It thus became Vulcani Sidus.

To it was assigned control of the gentle west wind, Zephyrus,​2 personified as the son of Astraeus and Aurora.

Pious heathen called it Pluto's Chariot, in which that god carried off Proserpina, the adjacent Virgo; but early Christians said that it represented the Apostle Philip; and Caesius identified it with the Balances of the Book of Daniel, v.27, in which Belshazzar had been weighed and "found wanting."

Argelander enumerated in it 28 stars down to 5.8 magnitude; and Heis, 53 down to 6.5; but its boundaries often have been confused with those of Scorpio. The central portion of the figure is marked by the trapezoid of stars αι, γ, and β.

The sun is in the constellation from the 29th of October to the 21st of November.

α2 and α1, Widely double, 3 and 6, pale yellow and light gray.

In Greek astronomy these were Χηλή νότιος, the Southern Claw, from the name of the whole division now our Southern Scale.

Our Zubenelgenubi is from Al Zubān al Janūbiyyah, the exact Arabian equivalent of Ptolemy's term; but Zubenelgenubi and Janib are both wrong, and Zubeneschamali is worse, for it plainly belongs to β.

Chilmead's Mizan Aliemin is from an Arabian title for the constellation; yet that people also knew it as Al Kiffah al Janūbiyyah, the Southern Tray of the Scale, from which came the Arabo-Latin Kiffa australis of modern lists; and as Al Wazn al Janūbiyyah, the Southern Weight, distorted by Riccioli into Vazneganubi. The Lanx meridionalis of two centuries ago is synonymous with the first of these Arabian designations.

The alphas and β constituted the 14th manzil, Al Zubānā, although Al Bīrūnī said that this title should be Zaban, "to push," as though one of the stars were pushing away the other (!); while α marked the nakshatra Viçakha, Branched, under the rule of Indragni, the dual tutelary divinity Indra and Agni. This lunar station was figured as a decorated Gateway, and in later Hindu astronomy its borders were extended to include γ and ι, thus  p276 completing the resemblance to the object for which the asterism was named; ι was the junction star with Anuradha.

These same stars marked the sieu Ti, Bottom, anciently Dsi, and still earlier I shi, some Chinese authorities adding δ, μ, and ν.

The two alphas were the determinants of the 21st Babylonian ecliptic constellation Nūru-sha-Shūtu, the Southern Light; and some have included β and γ with them in the Euphratean Entena-mas-luv, the Star of the Tail-tip, as though they marked that part of the enormous, but undetermined, ancient Hydra of Chaldaea, the very early Afr of Arabia. Oppert considers them the Idχu that others apply to the star Altair.

They lie 10° southwest of β, close to the ecliptic and almost covered by the sun on the 5th of November, the components 230″ apart; but Bayer's map and text illustrate and mention only one star. They culminate on the 17th of June.

β, 2.7, pale emerald.

Zubeneschamali, sometimes Zuben el Chamali, is from Al Zubān al Shamāliyyah, the equivalent of Χηλή βόρειος, the Northern Claw; Kiffa borealis is Arabic and Latin for the Northern Scale Tray; Bayer's Lanx septentrionalis signifies the same thing; and Vazneschemali, the Southern Weight, was used by Riccioli. So that β, as well as α, seems always to have borne the name of that half of the constellation figure which it marked.

Miss Bouvier's and Burritt's Zubenelgemabi is entirely wrong, both in orthography and in application to this star.

Epping says that it marked the 22d ecliptic constellation of Babylonia, Nura sha-Iltānu, the Northern Light; while Jensen assigns it and α to that country's lunar asterism Zibanitu, connecting this word with the similar Arabic Zubānā; but this is not generally accepted. Brown considers that, under the name of the Sugi Stars, they were associated with Bilat, the Lady, or Beltis; and that the Persians knew them as Çrob, the Horned; the Sogdians, as Ghanwand, the Claw-possessing, equivalent to the Khorasmian Ighnuna, and the Coptic Pritithi, the Two Claws, — all these being lunar stations. According to Ptolemy, an observation was made at Babylon on the 17th of January, 272 B.C., — in the 476th year of Nabonassar, or Nabu-nazir, — of the very near approach of Mars​3 to β, one of the earliest records that we have of this planet. Hind, however, mentioned this approach as in connection with β of Scorpio.

 p277  Professor Young states the opinion that β Librae formerly was brighter than Antares, now more than a full magnitude higher, for Eratosthenes distinctly called β "the brightest of all" in the combined Scorpion and Claws; and Ptolemy, 350 years later, gave to it and Antares the same brilliancy. Yet Antares may be the one that has increased.

The color is very unusual, perhaps unique, in conspicuous stars, for Webb says that in the heavens "deep green, like deep blue, is unknown to the naked eye."

Its spectrum is Sirian, and the star is approaching our system at the rate of six miles a second.

The globular cluster NGC 5904, 5 M., discovered by Kirch in 1702, lies in Libra, above the beam of the Balance, not far from β and toward the 5th‑magnitude 5 Serpentis. Messier could not resolve this, but Sir William Herschel, with his forty-foot reflector, counted in it more than two hundred 11th- to 15th‑magnitude stars, besides those unresolved in the compressed nucleus. But it is chiefly noticeable from the recent photographic discovery by Bailey, at Arequipa, of at least forty-six, perhaps sixty, variables in the cluster, — a remarkable fact paralleled, so far as yet known, only in the cluster NGC 5272, 3 M., of Canes Venatici. In 1890 Parker already had discovered two variables in 5904 by visual observation.

δ, Variable, 5 to 6.2, white,

seems to have been associated with μ Virginis in the Akkadian lunar asterism Mulu-izi, the Man of Fire, connected with the star-god Laterak; and in the Sogdian Fasariva and the Khorasmian Sara-fasariva, both titles signifying the One next to the Leader, i.e. the preceding moon station, ικ, and λ Virginis.

It is a variable of the Algol type, discovered by Schmidt in 1859, with a period of nearly two days and eight hours, the light oscillation occupying twelve hours.

η, 5.5,

lies between the Northern Scale and the northern arm of Scorpio.

Burritt called it Zubenhakrabi, a title properly belonging to γ Scorpii. His errors, however, as to the nomenclature of these stars in Libra have caused much confusion in our popular lists, sometimes none too clear at their best; yet the Standard Dictionary seems to have adopted all his titles, even to Zubenelgenubi for γ Librae, which really is unnamed, as this word is merely a degenerate form of the name for the star α.

 p278  The Chinese asterism Se Han, named for a district of that country, lay around η, and included it with εζ, θ, ξ, and e.

κ and λ, 5th‑magnitude stars, bore the pretentious title Jih, the Sun.

ξ erroneously was called Graffias in Burritt's Atlas of 1835, but this title belongs to β Scorpii.

σ is the letter attached by Gould to the disputed γ Scorpii, as is more particularly noted at that star.

The Author's Notes:

1 The much-vaunted Julian calendar was substantially the same in its method of intercalation as that formed 238 B.C. under Ptolemy III (Euergetes), — a fact discovered by Lepsius, in 1866, when he found the Decree of Canopus at Sanor Tanis.

2 This was the same as Favonius, — Homer's Ζέφυρος, at first regarded as strongly blowing, but later as the genial Ζωηφόρος, the Life-bearing.

3 The Greeks knew it as Ἄρης and as Πυρόεις, the Fiery One; the Latins, as Hercules, in addition to its present title.

Thayer's Notes:

a A conjecture by Halley (he of the other more famous comet), based on three arguments, all of which have now collapsed: for details see this communication by Dr. Brian Marsden of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

b Despite a fairly diligent search on both my own site (Fletcher's Handy Guide to Oxford, pp39 ff.) and Oxford University's seemingly exhaustive photographic documentation of Merton College, I've been unable to find her. If you know where she is, please drop me a line, of course.

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Page updated: 4 Mar 14