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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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The starry Serpent . . .

Southward winding from the Northern Wain,

Shoots to remoter spheres its glittering train.

Statius  [Thebaid, V.530].


le Serpent in France, il Serpente in Italy, and die Schlange in Germany, probably is very ancient, and always has been shown as grasped by the hands of Ophiuchus at its pair of stars δε, and at ντ Ophiuchi. The head is marked by the noticeable group ικ, γ, φ, υρ, and the eight little stars all lettered τ, and consecutively numbered, 10° south from the Crown and 20° due east from Arcturus; the figure line thence winding southwards 15° to Libra, and turning to the southeast and northeast along the western edge of the Milky Way, terminating at its star θ, 8° south of the tail of the Eagle and west of that constellation's δ.

Of the four stellar Snakes this preëminently is the Serpent, its stars originally being combined with those of Ophiuchus, although Manilius wrote

Serpentem Graiis Ophiuchus nomine dictus dividit;

but it now is catalogued separately, and occasionally divided into Caput and Cauda on either side of the Serpent-holder.

The Greeks knew it as Ὄφις Ὀφιοῦχου, or simply as Ὄφις, and familiarly as Ἑρπετόν and Ἐγχέλυς, respectively the Serpent and the Eel; the Latins, occasionally as Anguilla, Anguis, and Coluber; but universally as Serpens, often qualified as the Serpent of Aesculapius, Caesius, Glaucus, Laocoön, and of Ophiuchus; and as Serpens Herculeus, Lernaeus, and Sagarinus. The 1515 Almagest and the Alfonsine Tables of 1521 had Serpens Alangue, thus combining their corrupted Latin with their equally corrupted Arabic, as often is the case with those works. It also was Draco Lesbius and Tiberinus, and, perhaps, Ovid's and Vergil's Lucidus Anguis.

In the astronomy of Arabia it was Al Ḥayyah, the Snake, — Chilmead's Alhafa; but before that country was influenced by Greece there was a very different constellation here, Al Rauḍah, the Pasture; the stars β and γ,  p375 with γ and β Herculis, forming the Nasaḳ Shāmiyy, the Northern Boundary; while δ, α, and ε Serpentis, with δ, ε, ζ, and η Ophiuchi, were the Nasaḳ Yamāniyy, the Southern Boundary. The enclosed sheep were shown by the stars now in the Club of Hercules, guarded on the west by the Shepherd and his Dog, the stars α in Ophiuchus and Hercules.

To the Hebrews, as to most nations, this was a Serpent from the earliest times, and, Renan said, may have been the one referred to in the Book of Job, xxvi.13; but Delitzsch, who renders the original words as the "Fugitive Dragon," and others with him, consider our Draco to be the constellation intended, as probably more ancient and widely known from its ever visible circumpolar position. The biblical school made it the serpent seducer of Eve, while in our day imaginative observers find another heavenly Cross in the stars of the head, one that belongs to Saint Andrew or Saint Patrick.

Serpens shared with Ophiuchus the Euphratean title of Nu‑tsir‑da, the Image of the Serpent; and is supposed to have been one of the representatives of divinity to the Ophites, the Hivites of Old Testament times.

The comparatively void space between ν and ε was the Chinese Tien Shi Yuen, the Enclosure of the Heavenly Market.

Argelander counts 51 stars within the constellation boundaries, and Heis 82. In its cluster NGC 5904, 5 M., Bailey has discovered 85 variables.

α, 3, pale yellow.

Unuk​1 al Hay, — or Unukalhai, — is from ʽUnḳ al Ḥayyah, the Neck of the Snake, the later Arabic name for this star; the Uunk al Hay of the Standard Dictionary is erroneous, — a type error perhaps for Unuk. It was also Alioth, Alyah, and Alyat, often considered as terms for the broad and fat tail of the Eastern sheep that may have been at some early day figured here in the Orientals' sky; but we know nothing of this, and these are not Arabic words, so that their origin in Al Ḥayyah of the constellation is more probable. Smyth somewhat indefinitely states that Alangue and Ras Alangue appear in the Alfonsine Tables, presumably for this star.

α may have been the lucidus anguis of Ovid and Vergil, as it certainly was the Cor Serpentis of astrology.

With λ it was known as Shuh of certain territory in China; and Edkins rather unsatisfactorily writes:

The twenty-two stars in the Serpent are named after the states into which China was formerly divided.

 p376  As their radiant point it has given name to the Alpha Serpentids of the 15th of February.

It is of Secchi's 2d type of spectra, and receding from us about 14 miles a second. It culminates on the 28th of July; and a 12th‑magnitude blue companion is 58″ distant.

β, Double, 3 and 9.2, both pale blue.

This was Chow with the Chinese, the title of one of their imperial dynasties; but it does not seem to have been named by any other nation. The components are 30″.6 apart, at a position angle of 265°.

Near it is the radiant point of the Beta Serpentids, a minor stream of meteors visible from the 18th to the 20th of April.

γ, a 4th‑magnitude, was Ching, and δ, Tsin, in Chinese lists.

This last, a white and bluish 4th- and 5th‑magnitude double, was first noted as a binary by Sir William Herschel. The components are 3″.6 apart, with a position angle at present of about 185°.

ε, of 3.7 magnitude, was Pa, the name of a certain territory in China.

ζ, a 4½‑magnitude, and η were Tung Hae, the heavenly Eastern Sea of that country; the latter star being a golden-yellow 3.3‑magnitude with a small, pale lilac companion.

θ, Binary and perhaps slightly variable, 4 and 4.5, pale yellow and gold yellow.

Alya, of the Palermo Catalogue and others (sometimes, but erroneously, Alga), probably is from the same source as the similar title of the lucida.

The Chinese knew it as Sen, one of their districts.

It is the terminal star in the Serpent; and lies southwest of Aquila, in a comparatively starless region between the two branches of the Milky Way. The components are 21″ apart, at a position angle of 104°.

ξ, 3.7, on the lower part of the body, was Nan Hae, the Southern Sea; and ν, 5.3, on the back of the head, was Cha Sze, a Carriage-shop.

The Author's Note:

1 Although errors in the adoption of Arabic star-names into our popular lists are common, indeed almost universal, this Unuk is peculiarly wrong, for ʽUnūḳ is the plural of ʽUnḳ.

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Page updated: 4 Mar 14