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Bill Thayer

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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,
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 p295  Nubeculae Magellani, the Magellanic Clouds,

were the Cape Clouds of the earliest navigators, being the prominent heavenly objects seen as they neared the Cape of Good Hope; but after Magellan became noted and fully described them, they took and have retained his name. The Latin word is the diminutive of nubes, and literally signifies "the Little Clouds."

Miss Mitchell alluded to them as the Magellan Patches; and Smyth, as the Sacks of Coals of English navigators; but the latter term generally has been applied to the darkly vacant spaces in the Milky Way near the Northern and the Southern Cross, and to one near the Robur Carolinum.

Although Bayer seems to have been the first to figure them, they were thus mentioned by Peter Martyr in Eden's Decades:

Coompasinge abowte the poynt thereof, they myght see throughowte al the heaven about the same, certeyne shynynge whyte cloudes here and there amonge the starres, like unto theym whiche are seene in the tracte of heaven cauled Lactea via, that is the mylke whyte waye:

and by Corsali:

[We] saw manifestly twoo clowdes of reasonable bygnesse movynge abowt the place of the pole continually now rysynge and now faulynge, so keepynge theyr continuall course in circular movynge, with a starre ever in the myddest which is turned abowt with them abowte .xi. degrees frome the pole.

This star is γ Hydri, a 3,2‑magnitude red, now 15° from the pole.

According to Ellis, the Polynesian Islanders called the clouds Mahu, Mist, distinguishing them as Upper and Lower; and Gill, in his stories of the natives of the Hervey group, cited their somewhat similar Nga Maū.

Russell's photographs, taken at Sydney in 1890, show them to be spiral in formation, each with two centres of condensation, and, as Doctor William Whewell wrote in his Plurality of Worlds, composed of "masses of stars, clusters of stars, nebulae regular and irregular, and nebulous streaks and  p295 patches." The space around them is very blank, especially in the case of the Minor, "as if the cosmical material in the neighborhood had been swept up and garnered in these mighty groups."

Together they serve to show the location of the pole, marking two angles of a nearly equilateral triangle, of which the polar point is the third.

Nubecula Major, the Greater Cloud,

Nubes Major with Royer, is the Italian Nube Maggiore, the French Grand Nuage, and the German Grosse Wolke.

It lies in the constellations Dorado and Mons Mensae, 20° from the south pole, covering an irregular space in the sky of about forty-two square degrees; but the intensity of its light is inferior to that of the Lesser Cloud and is obliterated by the full moon. According to Flammarion, it contains 291 distinct nebulae, 46 clusters, and 582 stars.

Al Sufi mentioned it as Al Bakr, the White Ox, of the southern Arabs, and invisible from Baghdad, or northern Arabia, but visible from the parallel of the Strait of Babd al Mandab, in 12°15′ of north latitude. Ideler translated this as the Oxen of Tehama, — Tehama being a province on the Red Sea; this title probably includes the companion cloud.

Julius Schiller combined it with Dorado and Piscis Volans in his biblical figure Abel the Just.

Nubecula Minor, the Lesser Cloud,

Nubes Minor with Royer, is the Nube Minore of the Italians, the Petit Nuage of the French, and the Kleine Wolke of the Germans. It lies within the borders of Hydrus and Tucana, with which Julius Schiller fashioned it into the archangel Raphael.

According to Flammarion, it contains 37 nebulae, 7 clusters, and 200 stars, and covers about ten square degrees, the immediately surrounding space being almost devoid of stars, or, as Sir John Herschel wrote, "most oppressively desolate," and access to it on all sides "is through a desert."

Close to it, between η Hydri and κ Tucanae, is the centre of the constellational vacancy of 2400 to 2000 B.C., marking the place of the south pole of that date.

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Page updated: 24 Dec 07