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Star Lore

Cancer is a constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere. Its name is Latin for crab.

Ancient Babylon

The MUL.APIN tables list an asterism called AL.LUL, which translates to "deceptive digger." J.H. Rogers refers to this entry as "the crab" and "the seat of Anu."

There are no records of a crab on boundary stones or cylinder seals depicting a crab, which makes it unlikely that a constellation with that name existed in ancient Mesopotamia.

R.H. Allen cites German orientalist Peter Jensen, who mentions, that the constellation was called the "Tortoise of Babylonia" 4000 BC in both Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Sources: J.H. Rogers: Origins of the ancient constellations,
R.H. Allen:Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning, G. White: Babylonian Star Lore.

Babylonean turtle amulet
Source: British Museum

Ancient Egypt

R.H. Allen reports Egyptian records of about 2000 B.C. in which the constellation Cancer was was described as a sacred Scarabaeus, an emblem of immortality.

In ancient Egypt, the scarabaeus pushing balls of dung across the desert was seen as a synonym to the sun being pushed through the sky. The sacred beetle was associated with birth, death and regeneration.

Source: R.H. Allen

Papyrus painting of a Scarabaeus
© M. Gamal

Ancient Greece

Ian Ridpath tells us that the crab "... is a minor character in one of the labours of Heracles. While Heracles was fighting the multi-headed monster called the Hydra in the swamp near Lerna, the crab emerged from the swamp and added its own attack by biting Heracles on the foot. Heracles angrily stamped on the crab, crushing it. For this modest contribution to history, we are told that the goddess Hera, the enemy of Heracles, put the crab among the stars of the zodiac. Its name in Greek was Καρκίνος (Karkinos), or Carcinus in Latin transliteration."

Ian Ridpath also tells us that Asellus Borealis (γ Cnc) and Asellus Australis (δ Cnc) have their own legend. They were known to the Greeks as Onoi (Ὄνοι), the asses;

During the Gigantomachy, the battle between the Gods and the Giants that followed the overthrow of the Titans, the Gods Dionysus, Hephaestus, and some of their companions joined the battle riding on donkeys.

Eratosthenes tells us, that the Giants, having never heard the braying of donkeys got deathly scared. Fearing a giant monster was unleashed upon them they fled the scene of the battle.

Grateful for their service, Dionysus put the asses in the sky. Between the two stars is a cluster, described by Ptolemy as a "nebulous mass in the chest of cancer."

The Greeks called the cluster Phatne (Φάτνη), the Manger, from which the asses seem to be feeding.

To astronomers, the cluster became known by the Latin name Praesepe. The dual meaning of Praesepe, which can mean both "manger" and "hive" led the the popular English name Beehive Cluster.

Source: Ian Ridpath

The crab attacking Heracles, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Gigantomachy, the battle between Gods and Giants
Pergamon Altar, Berlin, Author's own picture

Dionysus and Hephaestus riding donkeys
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;

Christian Interpretations of Cancer and Praesepe

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 Zodiac were replaced with the Twelve Apostles and Cancer became St. John the Evangelist.

In the 6th century, Bishop Cassius of Narni interpreted the Praesepe cluster as the Breastplate of Righteousness (aka. the Armor of God). Other Catholic scholars saw Praesepe as the Manger in which Christ was born.


Sancti Ioannis Apostoli et Evangelistć
Source: Wikipedia

Medieval Islamic Astronomy

According to R.H. Allen, Arab astronomers called this constellation al saraṭān, meaning "Crab."

It was also part of the ancient Arabic mega-constellation al-asad - the Lion. This constellation (The Arab Star Calendars of the University of Arizona calls it a "celestial complex") centers in modern day Leo and Gemini, but also reaches into Canis Minor Cancer, Hydra, Virgo, Boötes, Corvus and Ursa Major.

Sources: R.H. Allen, Arab Star Calendars.

Cancer's two main stars still carry Arabic names today. The names of the two other stars are Latinised versions of former Arabic Names.

Colored copy of
al-Sufi's illustration

α Acubens الزبانى‎ al-zubanāh The Claws
β Tarf أل طرف al tarf The End
γ Asellus Borealis الحمرين al-ḥimārain The Two Asses
δ Asellus Australis الحمرين al-ḥimārain The Two Asses
Official names derived from Arabic origins are shown in bold.

Acubens (α Cnc) is derived from the Arabic al-zubanāh, "The Claws."

Sources: R.H. Allen, Wikipedia.

Tarf (β Cnc) comes from the Arabic al-tarf, meaning "The End. According to R.H. Allen, the name refers to the end "...of the southern foot on which it lies." Another translation, also mentioned by Allen refers to the ancient Lion (al-asad) constellation, interpreting al-tarf as the Glance (of the lion's eye).

Sources: R.H. Allen, Wikipedia.

Adopting the myth of the Greek gods and their donkeys, (see above), γ and δ Cancri were collectively known as al-ḥimārain, "The Two Asses." The name was Latinized to Aselli. Individually, the two stars became Asellus Borealis, "The Northern Ass" (γ Cnc) and Asellus Australis, "The Soutern Ass" (δ Cnc).

Source: R.H. Allen

γ and δ Cancri flank the Beehive Cluster, an open star cluster that, to the naked eye, looks like a small nebulous object. (The brightest star in the cluster is ε Cnc. According to Star-Facts, the name Meleph for this star comes from the Arabic al-ma᾽laf, “the stall.”

In the ancient al-asad constellation, the two stars were seen as al-mankhiran (المنخران) The Two Nostrils.

The Beehive Cluster was seen as an-nathra (النثرة) - The Sneeze.

Collectively, The Two Nostrils and The Sneeze were anf al-asad (أنف الأسد), The Tip of the Nose of the Lion.

Source: Arab Star Calendars

Cancer in Pergamenthandschrift M II 141, a 15th century copy of al-Sufi's drawing; Source:

The Two Nostrils
Source: Arab Star Calendars

an-nathra is also the name of the 8th Arabic Lunar Mansion, formed by the Beehive Cluster, together with γ and δ Cancri.

Source: I. Hafez: Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi and his book of the fixed stars: a journey of re-discovery

In ancient Coptic manuscripts, λ Cancri was the center of a Lunar Station named named Piautos (πιαυτος).
The origin of the name is unknown.

In 2018, the name Piautos was oficially adopted as the proper name for λ Cancri A.

Source: Wikipedia
In ancient Persian astronomy, ξ Cancri and λ Leonis formed the 10th Lunar Station, called Nahn, meaning "Nose, referring to the ancient Lion (al-asad) constellation.

In 1971, NASA used the name Nahn for ξ Cancri in a technical memorandum containing 537 Named Stars.

In 2018, the name Piautos was oficially adopted as the proper name for ξ Cancri.

Source: Wikipedia, Raham Asha: Lunar Mansions, NASA: A reduced star catalog containing 537 named stars

Ancient India

In Hindu Astronomy, Asellus Borealis (γ Cnc), Asellus Australis (δ Cnc) and Theta Cancri are the center of the eighth Nakashtra called Pushya, the nourisher.

In Hindu mythology, the Hindu god Bharata was born under this Nakshatra. It is also mentioned in the story of the Birth of Buddha.

In Sanskrit, Pushya, is written पुष्य.

Source: Wikipedia

Bharata; Wikipedia

Ancient China

In Chinese, Cancer is written 巨 蟹 座.

In Chinese astronomy, the constellation forms six asterisms, belonging to four Lunar Mansions, all located in the quadrant of the Vermilion Bird of the South.

α and β Cancri, the brightest stars of the constellation belong to an asterism that has its main part located in the constellation Hydra. Liǔ, the Willow gave its name to the 24th Lunar Mansion. According to Ian Ridpath, the willow is a traditional symbol of mourning and of rebirth.

Chinese asterisms in Cancer
Map based on
In the center of Cancer are three Chinese formations, all belonging to the 23rd Lunar Mansion: Asellus Borealis (γ Cnc), Asellus Australis (δ Cnc) and Theta Cancri are part of Guǐ, the "Ghost" - the asterism that gave its name to this Lunar Mansion.

The Guǐ asterism surrounds the Beehive Cluster, which is called Jīshī, a group of corpses.

According to Ian Ridpath, the Beehive Cluster and its four surrounding stars "...were sometimes seen as a ghost being carried in a sedan chair; hence this quadrilateral was also given the alternative name Yugui, Ghost Wagon."
Also part of the "Ghost" Mansion is a group of faint stars around ψ, λ and χ Cancri. This group is seen as a beacon fire on a watchtower, called Guàn.

Tegmine (ζ Cnc) lies somewhat outside of the main part of Cancer. It forms an asterism called Shuǐwèi that extends into Canis Minor and is part of the 22nd Lunar Mansion, which is called Jǐng, the Well.

The faint stars in the very north of Cancer, among others σ, τ, ξ and ν Cancri are part of the 25th Lunar Mansion, called Xīng, which means Star. They form a large asterism, that extends into Leo. It is called Xuānyuán which is the given name of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary Chinese sovereign and cultural hero who is said to have reigned from 2698 BC to 2598 BC.

Sources: Wikipedia and Ian Ridpath
Yellow Emperor
Source: Wikipedia

Navajo - North America

Navajo astronomy depicts the Beehive Cluster as Tsetah Dibé, the Mountain Sheep. It is considered a winter constellation, primarily because of its association with the Navajo winter Nightway ceremony. The constellation is thus visible in the winter months to the naked eye when it is very cold outside and when the moon is not too bright. The constellation will appear over the evening eastern sky in early winter and will be overhead at dawn.

During this time the winter nine-night ceremonies are being conducted and the sparkling constellation overhead is an indicator of dawn coming, signaling the completion of the night ceremonies.

Source: Navajo Skies

Tsetah Dibé © Melvin Bainbridge


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

The star 55 Cancri A (one of the components of double star 55 Cnc) was named Copernicus by the Royal Netherlands Association for Meteorology and Astronomy, Netherlands in honor of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the developer of the Heliocentric Model.

The 55 Cancri planetary system was the first discovery of a system of exoplanets containing more than three planets.

The planets 55 Cnc b, 55 Cnc c, 55 Cnc d, 55 Cnc e and 55 Cnc f were named after Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe, German-Dutch telescope maker Hans Lipperhey, Dutch telescope maker Zacharias Janssen and English astronomer Thomas Harriot, respectively, using only their last names.



Galileo Brahe Lipperhey Janssen Harriot
All images were taken from their respective Wikipedia sites (see links above)
The 2019 NameExoWorld project, in which each country on earth could name one star and one exoplanet, added one additional name for a star and a planet in the Andromeda constellation.

The Himalayan kingdom Bhutan selected the name Gakyid, meaning Happiness for star HD 17156.

Bhutan considers the introduction of the concept of Gross National Happiness as one of its main contributions to the world.

Planet HD 17156 b was named Drukyul, which is the native name of the country, meaning "land of the thunder dragon."

Source: NameExoWorlds Approved Names
National Flag of Bhutan

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