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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,
please let me know!

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And here fantastic fishes duskly float,

Using the calm for waters, while their fires

Throb out quick rhythms along the shallow air.

Mrs. Browning's A Drama of Exile.

Pisces, the Fishes,

are the German Fische, the Italian Pesci, the French Poissons, the Anglo-Norman Peisun, and the Anglo-Saxon Fixas. The Alfonsine Tables of  p337 1521 had Pesces, and the Almagest of 1515 Echiguen, Bayer's Ichiguen, a word that has defied commentators unless Caesius has explained it as being a corruption of Ichthues.

The figures are widely separated in the sky, the northeastern one lying just south of β Andromedae, headed towards it, and the southwestern one east from and headed towards Aquarius and Pegasus, the lucida marking the knot of the connecting bands. Both are north of the ecliptic, the first culminating on the 28th of November, and the second about three weeks earlier. In early days they were shown close together, one above the other, but in reversed directions, although united as now.

By reason of precession this constellation is now the first of the zodiac, but entirely within its boundaries lies the sign Aries; the vernal equinox being located in a comparatively starless region south of ω in the tail of the southwestern Fish, and about 2° west of "a line from α Andromedae through γ Pegasi continued as far again." This equinoctial point is known as the First of Aries, and the Greenwich of the Sky; and from their containing it, the Fishes are called the Leaders of the Celestial Host.

The Greeks knew them as Ἰχθύε, and Ἰχθύες, in the dual and plural; the Romans as we do, often designating them as Imbrifer Duo Pisces, Gemini Pisces, and Piscis Gemellus. Classic authors said Aquilonius, sometimes Aquilonaris; and very appropriately, for the Aquilo of the Romans, perhaps derived from aqua, or aquilus, signified a rain-bringing wind from the north, and well represented the supposed watery character of the constellation, as also its northerly position. Ampelius, however [Lib. Mem. 4], ascribed Aquilo to Gemini, and Eurus, or Vulturnus, the Southeast Wind, to Pisces.

Miss Clerke thinks that the dual form of this constellation recalls the additional month which every six years was inserted into the Babylonian calendar of 360 days; and Sayce, agreeing in this opinion, translates the early title for these stars as the Fishes of Hea or Ia. It has also been found on Euphratean remains as Nuni, the Fishes, a supposed equivalent of its other title, Zib, of the later Graeco-Babylonian astronomy; although this last word may mean "Boundary" as being at the end of the zodiac. Another signification is the Water, which we have already seen with Aratos for this part of the sky; this also is the meaning of the word Atl, the Aztecs' name for Pisces.

It was the Babylonian Nūnu, the Syriac Nūno, the Persian Mahīk, and the Turkish Balīk, all translated "Fish"; while Kircher cited, from Coptic Egypt, Πικοτώριων, Piscis Hori, which Brown translates "Protection," but claims for a Coptic lunar asterism formed by β and γ Arietis.

In earliest Chinese astronomy, with Aquarius, Capricornus, and a part of  p338 Sagittarius, it was the northern one of the four quarters of the zodiac, the Dark Warrior, or the residence of the Dark, or Northern, Emperor; but later, in their zodiac of twelve figures, it was the Pig, Tseu Tsze; and, after the Jesuits, Shwang Yu, the Two Fishes.

With the Arabians it was Al Samakah, — Chilmead's Alsemcha, — or, in the dual, Al Samakatain; and Al Hūt, the Fish, referring to the southern one, the Vernal Fish, as marking that equinox; the northern being confounded with Andromeda's stars and so not associated with the zodiac. From these came Sameh, Haut, El Haut, and Elhautine in Bayer's Uranometria.

Dante combined the two in his Celeste Lasca, the Celestial Roach or Mullet, saying that here and in Aquarius geomancers saw their Fortuna Major; and thus [Inf. XI.113‑114] described I Pesci:

quivering are the Fishes on the horizon,

And the Wain wholly over Caurus lies.

This was on a Saturday morning, and the positions of the constellations indicate that the time was just before sunrise in the month of April; Caurus, or Corus, the Northwest Wind, symbolizing that quarter of the heavens.

Varāha Mihira mentioned the constellation as Ittha, in which the Greek word appears; but before his day it was Anta, Jitu, and Mina or Minam in the Tamil dialect.

The 26th nakshatra, Revatī, Abundant or Wealthy, lay here in the thirty-two stars from ζ northwards, figured as a Drum or Tabor. But the manzil, Baṭn al Ḥūt, the Fish's Belly, or Al Rishā᾽, the Cord, and the corresponding sieu, Koei, or Kwei, Striding Legs, were formed by sixteen stars in a figure 8 from ψ Piscium to ν Andromedae, and mainly lay in this constellation, although β and ζ in Andromeda seem to have been their determinant points. All of these stations, however, may have been even more extended, for there certainly is "a perplexing disagreement in detail among the three systems."

Al Bīrūnī asserted that "the name of the sign in all languages signifies only one fish," and it is probable that the original asterism was such, for, according to Eratosthenes, it symbolized the great Syrian goddess Derke or Derketo, and so, later, was named Dea Syria, Dercis, Dercetis, Dercete, Proles Dercia, and Phacetis. The Greeks called this Ἀτάργατις1 and from a supposed derivation of this word from Adïrº and Dag (Great and Fish) it was drawn with a woman's head upon a huge fish's body. In this manner it was connected with the Syrian Dāgōn and the Jews' Dagaïm, their  p339 title for the Two Fishes, — Riccioli's Dagiotho. Avienus called the constellation Bombycii Hierapolitani; Grotius correcting the error in orthography to Bambycii, as Derke was worshiped at Bambyce, — the Mabog of Mesopotamia, or Hierapolis, — on the borders of Syria. Thus, too, it was Dii Syrii.

But the Greeks confounded this divinity with another Syrian goddess, Astarte, identified with Ἀφροδίτη (Venus), who precipitated herself, with her son Ἔρως (Cupid), into the Euphrates when frightened by the attack of the monster Typhon; these becoming two fishes that afterwards were placed in the zodiac. Latin classical authors, with the same groundwork of the story, made Pisces the fishes that carried Venus and her boy out of danger, so that, as Manilius said,

Venus ow'd her Safety to their Shape.

The constellation was thus known as Venus et Cupido, Venus Syria cum Cupidine, Venus cum Adone, Dione, and Veneris Mater; and it has been Οὐρανίαº and Urania, the Sarmatian Aphrodite. All this, perhaps, was the foundation of the Syrians' idea that fish were divine, so that they abstained from them as an article of food; Ovid repeating this in the Fasti, in Gower's rendering:

Hence Syrians hate to eat that kind of fishes;

Nor is it fit to make their gods their dishes.

But Xenophon limited this restriction to the fish of the river Chalos.

A scholiast on Aratos, commented on by Grotius, said that the "Chaldaeans" called the northernmost Fish Χελιδόνιας ἰχθύς; shown with the head of a swallow, a representation that Scaliger attributed to the appearance of the bird in the spring, when the sun is in this region of the sky. Dupuis had much to say about this changed figure, calling it l'Hirondelle, but as of the Arabs; and this idea has led to confusion in the Piscine titles already noticed under Apus. The Greek word, however, was common for a Tunny, so that there is reason enough for its application to either of the Pisces in their normal shape. This northern Fish has sometimes been considered as representing the monster sent to devour Andromeda, and its proximity to the latter would render this more appropriate than the comparatively distant Cetus; in fact, Κῆτος was as often used by the Greeks for the Tunny as it was for the Whale.

Some of the Jews ascribed the joint constellation to the joint tribes of Simeon and Levi, whose sanguinary character Jacob on his death-bed so vividly portrayed; others, to Gad the Marauder. Perhaps it was from  p340 this that Pisces was considered of such malignant influence in human affairs, — "a dull, treacherous, and phlegmatic sign"; yet this opinion, doubtless, was anterior to the patriarch's time, for the Egyptians, the instructors of the Hebrews in astrology, are said to have abstained from eating sea-fish out of dread and abhorrence; and when they would express anything odious, represented a fish in their hieroglyphics. Pliny, too, asserted that the appearance of a comet here indicated great trouble from religious differences besides war and pestilence; but this became the common reputation of comets wherever they showed themselves.

In early astrology the constellation appropriately was under the care of the sea-god Neptune, and so the Neptuni Sidus of Manilius; and it was the Exaltation of Venus, as Chaucer said in the Wyf of Bathes Tale, —

In Pisces where Venus is exaltat, —

which Sir Thomas Browne, the author-physician of the 17th century, thus commented upon:​a

Who will not commend the wit of astrology? Venus, born out of the sea, hath her exaltation in Pisces.

Thus it naturally ruled the Euphrates, Tigris, and the Red Sea, and Parthia; but in later days was assigned to the guardian­ship of Jupiter, whose House it was, reigning over Egypt, Calabria, Galicia, Normandy, Portugal, Spain, and Ratisbon. It was predominant in influence with mariners, and had charge of the human feet; the designated color being a glistening white, as of fish just out of the water; and it was fruitful, like its namesakes, for, according to Manilius:

Pisces fill the Flood.

Ptolemy distinguished the members of the constellation as ἐπόμενος, "the rear or eastern," and ἡγουμένος, "the front or western"; the Southern Fish being his νότιος; a precaution rendered necessary by the frequent confounding of these three by classical writers. A notable instance of this is seen in the Poeticon Astronomicon, where our Pisces are made to receive the water from the Urn. In Humboldt's Cosmos they are Pisces boreales.

The constellation is popularly thought to have taken its name from its coincidence with the sun during the rainy season; and the symbol for the sign, , to represent the two Fishes joined; but Sayce thinks it the Hittite determinative affix of plurality.

Postellus asserted that the Fishes represented those with which Christ fed "about five thousand men, beside women and children"; and Caesius, that they were the ΙΧΘΥΣ of Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Ὑιός Σωτήρ, a fish  p341 always being the symbol of the early Christians' faith; but when the old twelve figures were turned into those of the apostles, these became Saint Matthias, successor to the traitor Judas.

The Fishes were changed to a Dolphin in the zodiac sculptured on the wall of Merton College, taken from the armorial bearings of Fitz James, bishop of London, and warden of the college from 1482 to 1508;​b a dolphin being of as sacred significance among pagans as a fish was among Christians.

Within their boundaries took place the three distinct conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in the year 747 of Rome, — the year to which for a long time was assigned Christ's birth; these phenomena strikingly agreeing in some of their details with Saint Matthew's account of the Star of Bethlehem. The opinion that these appearances guided the Magi in their visit to Judaea was first advanced and advocated by the celebrated Kepler, and worked out in 1826 by Ideler, and in 1831 by Encke.​2 It is noticeable that the Rabbis held the tradition, recorded by Abrabanel in the 15th century, that a similar conjunction took place in Pisces three years previous to the birth of Moses, and they anticipated another at their Messiah's advent. Thus the Fishes were considered the national constellation of the Jews, as well as a tribal symbol. Jupiter and Saturn were again together here in February, 1881, Venus being added to the group, — a well remembered and most beauti­ful sight.

Here, too, was the seat of the predicted conjunction of three planets that Stoffler said would cause another Deluge in 1524, — an announcement that created universal consternation; but, unfortunately for the prophet's reputation, the season was unusually dry.

It was in Pisces, on the 2nd of September, 1804, that Harding, of Lilienthal in Hanover, discovered the minor planet Juno.

In his Shepheard's Kalendar for November, Edmund Spenser thus described the constellation's place in the sky:

But nowe sadde Winter welked hath the day,

And Phoebus, weary of his yerely taske,

Ystabled hath his steedes in lowly laye,

And taken up his ynne in Fishes haske.

La Lande, quoting indirectly from Firmicus [Mathesis, VIII.30.12], mentioned as from the Egyptian sphere of Petosiris:

au nord des Poissons, il place Ie Cerf, & une autre constellation du Lièvre;

 p342  but this second Hare I cannot trace, although Bayer had Cerva as a title for Cassiopeia "north of the Fishes."

There is a sprinkling of indistinct stars between the Fishes and the Whale (Cetus) that Vitruvius [IX.5.3] called Ἑρμεδόνη,º explained by Hesychios as the Stream of Faint Stars, but by some French commentator as les délices de Mercure, whatever that may be. Riccioli, calling it Hermidone, said that it was effusio Aquarii, the classical designation for the Stream from the Urn; but Baldus, with Scaliger, said that the word was Ἁρπεδόνη, the Cord, although this seems equally inapplicable here. These stars may be the proposed new Testudo noted under β Ceti.

Argelander gives 75 components visible to the naked eye, and Heis 128; but the lucida is only of the 4th magnitude.

α, Double and probably binary, 4 and 5.5, pale green and blue.

Al Rescha, or Al Rischa, derived from the Arabians' Al Rishā᾽, the Cord, is 20° south from the head of Aries, 2°.7 north of the celestial equator, and marks the knot in the united cords of the Fishes; the same title being applied to β Andromedae. this word originally may have come from the Babylonian Riksu, Cord.

Hipparchos and Ptolemy designated it as Σύνδεσμος τῶν Ἰχθύων, or τῶν Λίνων, the Knot of the Fishes, or of the Threads, varied by Aratos and Geminos in Δεσμός; these words being transcribed by Germanicus and the scholiasts as Sundesmos and Desmos. They were rendered by Cicero and others as Nodus, Nodus coelestis, and Nodus Piscium; but Pliny as Commissura Piscium [XVIII.311]; and in the 1515 Almagest as Nodus duorum filorum.

The Arabians translated these by ʽUḳd al Ḣaiṭain, which, as Okda and Kaitain, are not unusual titles now.

The uniting cords branching from α through ο, π, η, and ρ to the tail of the northernmost Fish, and through ξ, ν, μ, f, e, ζ, ε, and δ to ω that marks the tail of the one to the south, were Ptolemy's λίνον, "thread," the λίνοι of other authors. Cicero called them Vincla, the Bonds; and the scholiast on Germanicus, Alligamentum linteum or luteum, divided by Hevelius into Linum boreum and austrinum. Some of these terms also were applied to the star δ as marking one of the cords.

The Arabians knew these cords as Al Ḣaiṭ al Kattāniyy, the Flaxen Thread; and Al Aṣmaʽī, about the year 800, mentioned them in his celebrated romance Antarah as a distinct constellation; but Pliny had done the same long before him.

 p343  Al Rischa, though lettered first, is somewhat fainter than γ and η.

It culminates on the 7th of December.

The component stars are 3″ apart, at a position angle of 324°.

β, a 4½‑magnitude, is given by Al Achsasi as Fum al Samakah, the Fish's Mouth, descriptive of its position near that feature in the westernmost of the two. With γθι, and ω it was the Chinese Peih Leih, Lightning.

δ, 4.1,

has in Bayer's Uranometria many of the titles already noted under α, but they would seem to be words merely indicative of the star's position on the Cord, although some have used them as proper names. δαεζμν, and ξ made up the Chinese figure Wae Ping, a Rolled Screen.

ζ, a double 5th- and 6.3‑magnitude, apparently unnamed, was prominent in Hindu astronomy as marking the initial point of the celestial sphere about the year 572, when it coincided within 10′ of longitude with the vernal equinox. It formed part of the Khorasmian lunar station Zidadh, the Sogdian​3 Riwand, and of the 26th nakshatra, Revatī, Rich, being the junction star between Revatī and Açvini. With ε it was the Persian lunar station Kaht and the Coptic Kuton, Cord.

η, Double, 4 and 11.

Epping asserts that this marked the 1st ecliptic constellation of the Babylonians, Kullat Nūnu, the Cord of the Fish, which, if correct, would show the origin of the Greek title, and the probable great antiquity of the present figure. Another signification may be the Dwelling of the Fish.

In China, with ορ, and χ, it was Yew Kang, the Right-hand Watch.

The components of η are 1″ apart, at a position angle of 12°.9.

κ and λ, 4th‑magnitude stars just above the ventral fin of the western Fish, were the Chinese Yun Yu, the Cloud and Rain.

ο, 4.6, appeared in the 1515 Almagest as Torcularis septentrionalis, a translation of ληνός, erroneously written for λίνος, this star being on the Thread northeast from α. But the Latin word should read Torcular.

Fl. 65, a 6th‑magnitude double, has been regarded by Maxwell Hall as the Central Sun of the Universe.

The Author's Notes:

1 Allusion was made to this Atargatis in the apocryphal 2nd Book of Maccabees, xii.26; and gems now in the British Museum show the fish-god with a star or other astronomical symbol.

Thayer's Note: Oddly, though Ατεργατεῖον appears in the Septuagint text in that careful online transcription, it seems not to have been translated in either the Vulgate or the English Bible.

2 More recent determinations, by the late Reverend Mr. Charles Pritchard of Oxford, have somewhat altered the previous conclusions, while our chronologists, meanwhile, have changed the date of the Nativity, so that the time-honored identification of the Star of the Magi with these planetary conjunctions now seems to be discarded.

3 The Arabs considered Sogdiana one of the four fairest lands on earth; its capital Samarkhand, was the home of the great Tamerlane and of Ulug Beg, his grandson.

Thayer's Notes:

a James Eason, of the Sir Thomas Browne site, writes me that the bon mot is "in what Wilkin calls Browne's Hints and Extracts: to his Son, Dr. Edward Browne, in vol. IV of the Wilkin edition. Wilkin got it out of a manuscript and 'collated' it with two others." As of writing (Aug 07), this hybrid text is not online.

b This reads ambiguously. Richard Fitz-James was bishop of Rochester, 1497; of Chichester, 1503 or 1504; and of London only from 1506. His arms are blazoned in Parker's Glossary, s.v. Dolphin; but, despite the beauti­ful Virtual Tour of Merton College on Oxford University's site, I've been unable to find the mural zodiac in which he apparently chose to memorialize them and himself. If you should have better luck or another source of information, please drop me a line, of course.

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