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The Altar

Ara is a small constellation in the southern hemisphere.

It It is one of the 48 original Ptolemaic Constellations, though barely visible from the Mediterranean or the Middle East.

For a brief overview of the main stars of the constellation, click the Astronomy icon.

For an alphabetic listing of the constellation's main object in different cultures, click the Index icon.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Seen from Mesopotamia, the stars of Apus are just above the horizon. The constellation was part of an early Accadian Zodiac and was named Tul-Ku, the Holy Mound.

William T. Olcott saw it as "an altar towering to the skies...", like the
"... Biblical Tower of Babel surmounted by an altar."

In Accadian mythology, such an altar was used to weigh the souls of the deceased. Probably because of this relationship, the Zodiac constellation later shifted from Ara to the better visible Libra further north.

Sources: William T. Olcott: Star Lore of all Ages, p. 250,
NASA: Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Sjur Papazian

Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel ca. 1563
Source: Wikipedia

Ancient Greece

The first Greek astronomer to recognize Ara as a constellation was Aratus in 270 BC. Aratus called the constellation Thyterion (θυτήριον), which is short for Thymiaterion (θυμιατήριον) and means censer or incense burner.

400 years later, Ara became one of the southernmost constellations described by Ptolemy. Ptolemy used the name Thymiaterion, which was later Latinized to Ara, the Altar.

In Greek mythology, the stars of Ara, just above the horizon were seen as the altar where the gods - Zeus, Poseidon and Hades formed their alliance to defeat the Titans. After their victory in the epic battle called Titanomachy, Zeus placed the altar in the sky.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Colored version of Ara taken from J. Bayer's
Uranometria, first published 1603

Aratus reported that ancient Greek sailors used the constellation to predict storms at sea. If the altar was visible while other stars were covered by cloud, sailors expected southerly gales.

Sources: Ian Ridpath

Ancient Rome

The Romans called the constellation Thymele, the altar of Dionysus. For a time in Roman history, Ara, Lupus, and Centaurus were considered one constellation. In this formation, Ara was called Ara Centauri, Centaur's Altar.

The Leiden Aratea, created around 816, is an illuminated copy of an astronomical treatise by Roman general and poet Germanicus. In it, Ara is shown as an altar with burning incense.

In De Astronomica, an illustrated version of a treatise attributed to Latin author Hyginus, published in 1482, the altar is shown with flames and with devils or demons on both sides.

Sources: Wikipedia, NASA: Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Ara in Leiden Arathea
Source: Wikimedia

Ara in De Astronomica

Altaris Thymiamatis

In 1627, German lawyer and astronomer Julius Schiller published a star map called Coelum Stellatum Christianum (The Christian Starry Heaven). It was an (unsuccessful) attempt to replace the "pagan" constellations with Biblical names and themes.

The constellations of the northern hemisphere were replaced by characters and themes from the New Testament.

In general, Schiller exercised a high degree of creative freedom. In the case of Ara, however, he adhered to the ancient theme of an altar and Ara became Altaris Thymiamatis, the Showbread Table, or shulchan; a specially-dedicated table in the Temple in Jerusalem, always loaded with cakes or loaves of bread as an offering to G-d.

Altaris Thymiamatis and Diadematis Regis Salomonis
Source: Wikipedia

In Schiller's presentation, the constellations is shown together with Corona Australis, which represents King Solomon's Crown.

Sources: Wikipedia, SkyEye

Arab Astronomy

Ara was not recognized as a constellation in the ancient Arab world.

al-Sufi adopted Ptolemy's interpretation and called the constellation al-mijmarah, the Censer.

Source: The Manuchihr Globe

Ara on the Manuchihr Globe

Chinese Astronomy

In Chinese, Ara is written 天 壇 座.

In Chinese astronomy, the stars of Ara belong to two asterisms, both located in the quadrant of the Azure_Dragon of the East..

Located in the Seventh Chinese Lunar Mansion, called Ji, the Winnowing Basket, is the asterism Chǔ, a pestle for pounding rice, formed by α, β and θ and by the faint σ Arae.

Ian Ridpath explains, that in a a procedure known as hulling, pounding of the rice removed the husks. Later, the rice was separated from the chaff in a winnowing basket called Ji, which is located further north in Sagittarius. the chaff was represented by the asterism Kāng in Ophiuchus.

Part of the Sixth Chinese Lunar Mansion, called Wěi, the Tail, is Guī, a tortoise living in the river of the Milky Way. The asterism is formed by γ, δ, ε
1, η and ζ Arae.

Ian Ridpath notes, that "... tortoises are actually land animals, so Guī is better thought of as a turtle."

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Chinese asterisms in Ara
Map based on

Dragon-Turtle in the Forbidden City
Source: Wikimedia


The Wardaman people of Australia's Northern Territory saw two flying foxes in the stars of Ara and the neighboring constellation Pavo.

Source: Wikipedia

Flying Foxes
Source: Wikipedia
Aboriginal art
Source: Wikipedia


In the 2015 Name Exoworlds project, a star and a planetary system of four exoplanets in the constellation Ara received official names.

The star μ Arae was named Cervantes by the Planetary of Pamplona, Spain in honor of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, who is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language.

Cervantes' novel Don Quixote is often considered the first modern novel and one of the pinnacles of world literature.

The four planets orbiting μ Arae, discovered between 2001 and 2006, are named after the novel's main characters Don Quijote, his squire Sancho Panza, his lady love Dulcinea and his horse Rocinante.

The official names of the planets are Quixote (μ Ara b), Dulcinea (μ Ara c), Rocinante (μ Ara d), and Sancho (μ Ara e).

Don Quixote;

In the 2019 NameExoWorld project, in which each country on earth could name one star and one exoplanet, another star (and planet) in the constellation Ara received a proper name.
Peru selected the names Inquill for the star HD 156411 and Sumajmajta for planet HD 156411 b.

Inquill and Sumaj Majta were the two main characters in the story Way to the Sun and other works by Peruvian writer Abraham Valdelomar.

Source: Nameexoworlds - Final Results
Abraham Valdelomar

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