Middle East

Middle Eastern Star Lore

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Taurus

Hebrew astronomy

Taurus was the first constellation in the early Hebrew Zodiak and was represented by Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

Source: R.H. Allen

Taurus in a 6th cent. Hebrew Zodiac
Source: Wikipedia

Medieval Islamic Astronomy

Several of the stars in Taurus carry traditional Arabic names. Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi based his description in the Book of Fixed Stars on Ptolemy and depicted the constellation accordingly. But some of the Arabic names might go back much furthern than Ptolemy.

Aldebaran (α Tau) comes from the Arabic al Dabarān, which means "the follower," referring to the star following the Pleiades.

The Pleiades form the third Arabic Lunar Mansion, called al-Thurayyā. The Arabic name of α Tauri was taken from the name of the fourth Lunar Mansion, al Dabarān.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafez: Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi and his book of the fixed stars: a journey of re-discovery

Elnath (β Tau) is derived from the Arabic word an-naţħ, meaning "the butting," referring to the bull's horns.

Source: Wikipedia

Colored European copy of
al-Sufi's illustration
Source: pinterest.com

Ain (ε Tau) means "Eye" in Arabic and refers to one of the bull's eyes (the other, bloodshot one being Aldebaran).

Source: Wikipedia


Ursa Major

Medieval Islamic Astronomy

Most of today's names of the stars of Ursa Major - including all seven stars of the Big Dipper - are of Arabic origin:

α Dubhe ظهر الدب الاكبر żahr ad-dubb al-akbar Back of the Greater Bear
β Merak المراق al-maraqq Loins' (of the bear)
γ Phecda فخذ الدب fakhth al-dubb Thigh of the bear
δ Megrez المغرز‎ al-maghriz Base (of the bear's tail)
ε Alioth عليات الحمال alyat al-hamal The sheep's fat tail
ζ Mizar المئزر miʼzar Apron; wrapper; cover
η Alkaid
(Benetnasch)
قائد بنات نعش al-qā'id bināt naʿsh The leader of the daughters of the bier

Ursa Major in Al-Sufi's
Book of Fixed Stars
Source: Bodleian Library, Oxford

Both names for Eta Ursae Majoris, Alkaid and Benetnasch are derived from the same arabic phrase al-qā'id bināt naʿsh (leader of the daughters of the bier).

A bier is a stand on which a corpse, coffin, or casket containing a corpse is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave. The daughters of the bier, i.e. the mourning maidens, are the three stars of the handle of the Big Dipper, Alkaid, Mizar, and Alioth; while the four stars of the bowl, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe, are the bier.

Source: Wikipedia
Arabic Names of the stars of the Big Dipper
In addition to the Big Dipper, Arab astronomers identified two asterisms within Ursa Major:
θ, τ, 23, υ, φ, 18 and 15 UMa formed Sarīr Banāt al-Na'sh, the Throne of the Mourners, also known as Al-Haud, the Pond.

In the south of Ursa Major are three pairs of stars, collectively known as Ḳafzah al Ṭhibā,the Springs of the Gazelle, each pair making one spring; the Gazelle being imagined from the unformed stars since gathered up as Leo Minor, and the springing of the animal being due to its fear of the greater Lion's tail. Eventually the gazelle jumped into Al-Haud, the Pond.

ν and ξ were called Al Ḳafzah al Ūla - the first spring;
λ and μ were called Al Fiḳrah al Thānia - the second spring;
ι and κ were called All Ḳafzah al‑thālithaḥ - the third spring.

Arab asterisms in Ursa Major



Ursa Minor

Medieval Islamic Astronomy

R.H. Allen tells us, that early in Arab astronomy Ursa Minor was called the Lesser Bier (with Ursa Major being the Larger Bier).

A bier is a stand on which a corpse, coffin, or casket containing a corpse is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave. The three stars in the "tail" or "handle" of the constellation were called Banāt al Naʽash al Ṣughrā, the (mourning) Daughters of the Lesser Bier.

In the Book of Fixed Stars (964 AD), al-Sufi presented the constellation as Al Dubb al Aṣghar, the Lesser Bear.

Source: R.H. Allen

Ursa Minor in a colored edition of the Book of Fixed Stars
Source: Utrecht University


R.H. Allen reports two Arab names for Polaris: Al Ḳiblah, "because it is the star least distant from the pole ... and helped them, in any strange location distant from an established place of worship, to know the points of the compass and thus the direction of Mecca and its Kaʽbah.

As marking the north pole it also bore the title Al Ḳuṭb al Shamāliyy, the Northern Axle.

In Damascus, Polaris was called Mismār, meaning Needle or Nail, while the Turks called it as Yilduz, the Star par excellence. A Turkish myth reports that its light was concealed for a time after their capture of Constantinople.

Source: R.H. Allen


Virgo

Arabian Peninsula: as-simakan - The Sky Raisers

as-simakan (السماكان), The Sky Raisers is one of eleven Folkloric Celestial Complexes identified in the Arabic Star Catalog, developed by Danielle Adams at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The two main stars of this complex are Arcturus (α Botis) and Spica (α Virginis).

According to Danielle Adams, on the Arabian Peninsula, the term simak "... indicated something that was used to raise something else high up." When the Two Sky-Raisers reached the midpoint of their travels across the night sky, Arcturus was almost at the zenith while Spica was almost directly below it, about halfway up the sky.

The Sky Raisers; presentation by Danielle Adams
Source: Arab Star Calendars

The Two Sky-Raisers, the brightest and tenth brightes stars visible in the night sky of the northern hemisphere were "... the pillars that held up the canopy of the heavens."

The complex was divided into two parts. The Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser and the Unarmed Sky-Raiser.

as-simak al-azal (السماك الأعزل), The Unarmed Sky-Raiser, the lower one of the Two Sky-Raisers, was represented by Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. It resides on a Throne, made up of stars from today's constellations Corvus.
Source: Arab Star Calendars

For the Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser, see the detailed description of the constellation Botes

For more information on this ancient Sky Raiser complex, see Danielle Adams' essay The Setting of the Arabian Sky-Raisers: Widespread rains of summer.

Islamic Astronomy

Today, α Virginis goes by the Latin name Spica (see above). In the Arab world, the star was known as as-simak al-azal, the Unarmed Sky-Raiser (see above). Other Arabic names were Alarph, the grape-gatherer and Sumbalet, derived from sunbulah (سنبلة), Ear of Grain - both Arabic translations of traditional Greek and Latin names.

According to Ihsan Hafez, α Virginis is the center of the 14th Arabic Lunar Mansion, called al-simāk, referring to the Sky Raiser.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafez, R.H. Allen

The Arabic name for ε Vir was Mukdim al Kitāf - a translation of its Latin name Vindemiatrix, the grape-harvestress.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafez, R.H. Allen

Syrma, the official name of ι Virginis is an Arabic translation of the Greek name Srma (Σύρμα), describing the Train of the Virgin's robe.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafez, R.H. Allen

R.H. Allen puts ι Virginis, together with κ and φ Virginis in a Lunar Mansion called al-ghafr (الغفر) the Covering.

al-ghafr is the source of the official name of φ Virginis: Elgafar.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafez, R.H. Allen

R.H. Allen calls al-ghafr the 13th Lunar Mansion. Ihsan Hafez, on the other hand, numbers it as the 15th Lunar Mansion and names the stars belonging to it as ι, λ and χ Virginis.

Sources: Ihsan Hafez, R.H. Allen

Coptic Star Names

Walter Ewing Crum, a Scottish scholar in Coptic language identified the source of Khambalia, the name of
λ Virginis as a Lunar Station from a Coptic manuscript. The meaning of the name, however, remains unknown.

Source: Wikipedia,

al ʽawwāʼ - the Barker

In a star catalogue published by Egyptian astronomer Muḥammad al-Akhṣāṣī al-Muwaqqit, a V-shaped asterism (now called the Bowl of Virgo) was called al ʽawwāʼ, the Barker.

According to Ihsan Hafez, al-ʽawwāʼ is the 13th Arabic Lunar Mansion, consisting of β, γ, δ, ε and η Virginis.

In Islamic Astronomy, al ʽawwāʼ was also the name used for the constellation Botes.

Al ʽAwwāʼ - the Barker
Map based on a map provided by seasky.org

In the "Barker" constellation, the name of β Vir, zāwiyat al-awwa, corner of the barker was the origin of the star's modern name Zavijava.

al-Muwaqqit's name for γ Vir was Laouiyet al Aoua, the angle of the barker.'

δ Vir was called Min al-ʽawwāʼ, meaning "in the lunar mansion of ʽawwāʼ." It is the root of its modern name Minelauva.

The traditional (and official) name for η Vir is Zaniah (from zāwiyah, meaning corner). However, in al-Muwaqqit's catalogue, it was called Thanih al Aoua, the second barker.

In addition to the five stars of the "Bowl", μ Virginis bore the name Rijl al-awwā, foot of the barker.

Source: R.H. Allen, Wikipedia, constellationsofwords.com, Ihsan Hafez

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