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Centaurus

Star Lore

Centaurus is a bright constellation in the southern sky. The constellation represents a Centaur, a creature from Greek mythology with the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The constellation can be traced back to Mesopotamian roots, but details are sketchy.

Gavin White and Solaria Pubs write in "Babylonian Star-lore" write about
MUL.GUD.ALI, a MBabylonian constellation known as "The Bison-man". This being was depicted in two major forms: firstly, as a 4-legged bison with a human head, and secondly, as a being with a man's head and torso attached to the rear legs and tail of a bull or bison. It has been closely associated with the Sun god Utu-Shamash from very early times.

Source:Wikipedia

J.H. Rogers makes no mention of MUL.GUD.ALI. He defines Centaurus as EN.TE.NA.MASH.LUM in the Three Stars Each and as EN.TE.NA.BAR.HUM in the MUL.APIN tables and relates the constellation to Ningursu, the Sumerian god of agriculture and healing.

Source: J.H. Rogers: Origins of the ancient constellations

Gary D. Thompson also refers to EN.TE.NA.BAR.HUM, adding that the term has not yet been translated but may refer to a mouse or a rodent.

Source: Gary D. Thompson: Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

Greek Mythology

Although the name Centaurus or Centaur is somewhat generic, the constellation represents a very specific centaur named Chiron, the one that Homer called the "wisest and justest of all the centaurs." in the Iliad.

Wikipedia tells us, that in Greek mythology, "... Centaurs were notorious for being wild, lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, violent when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents. Chiron, by contrast, was intelligent, civilized and kind, because he was not related directly to the other centaurs due to his parentage. He was the son of the Titan Cronus and the Oceanid Philyra."

Ian Ridpath adds to the story, that "...Cronus ... one day caught and seduced the sea nymph Philyra. Surprised in the act by his wife Rhea, Cronus turned himself into a horse and galloped away, leaving Philyra to bear a hybrid son.

Chiron grew up to be a skilled teacher of hunting, medicine, and music; his cave on Mount Pelion in eastern Greece became a veritable academy for young princes in search of a good education. Chiron was so trusted by the gods and heroes of ancient Greece that he was made foster-father to Jason (of Argonauts fame) and Achilles; but perhaps his most successful pupil was Asclepius, son of Apollo, who became the greatest of all healers and is commemorated in the constellation Ophiuchus."

In the end, however, Chiron died a tragic and unfortunate death, but even in death, he displayed the greatness of his character. There are several variants of the story of Chiron's death. They all have in common that Chiron was accidentally wounded by his friend and student Heracles with one of the arrows that that had been treated with the blood of the Hydra.

For mortals, these arrows meant instant death; for the immortal son of a Titan, it meant agonizing pain for eternity. Chiron therefore decided to give up his immortality and ask Heracles to negotiate a trade with his half brother Zeus: His life for the life of Prometheus.

Zeus grudgingly agreed and after Chiron's death, he placed the noble centaur in the sky.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan who is credited with the creation of humanity from clay, and who defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. For this act, he was punished by Zeus and chained to the Caucasus Mountains for eternity.

Prometheus is arguably the most famous Greek hero who did NOT receive his own star or constellation. It took 2000 years, until humanity honored the fire-bringer with a place in the skies. In 1960, a small rock approximately 8.7 miles in diameter in the outer region of the asteroid belt was named Prometheus. A 17 mile-long volcanic pit on Jupiter's moon Io, discovered by Voyager 1 and one of Saturn's inner moons discovered during the Cassini mission were also named Prometheus in 1979 and 1985, respectively.

Sources:Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath, Chandra Observatory

Chiron, Peleus and infant Achilles
from Hutchinson, A book of Greek fairy tales, 1914
Source: Wikipedia

The Education of Achilles by Chiron
fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century AD
Source: Wikipedia

Heracles frees Prometheus
by Carl Bloch (18341890)
Source: greeklegendsandmyths.com

Medieval Arab Astronomy

There does not seem to be a specific legend regarding the Centaur in Middle Eastern mythology. R.H. Allen informs us that there was an early Arab constellation called Al Ḳaḍb al Karm, the Vine Branch or Al Shamārīḣ, the broken-off Palm Branches.

The picture of a palm branch loaded with dates was also used by Ptolemy, who described Centaurus as holding Lupus, the wolf in one hand and the palm branch in the other.

Source: R.H. Allen

Al-Sufi, in his Book of Fixed Stars adopted Ptolemy's constellation and called it Al Kentaurus.

Several depictions in the Islamic world adopted Ptolemy's concept and today, many of the stars of Centaurus carry Arabic names.

Source: Wikipedia

Seen from Earth without visual aid, Alpha Centauri appears as one bright star - the third brightest star in the night sky. However, the Alpha Centauri system consists of three stars, each with its very own name.

Rigil Kentaurus is the traditional name for Alpha Centauri. It comes from the Arabic Rijl al-Qinṭūrus (رِجْل القِنْطورُس‎), meaning the "Foot of the Centaur."

An alternative name for Alpha Centauri was Toliman, which is an approximation of the Arabic aẓ-Ẓalīmān (الظَّلِيمَان‎), meaning "The Ostriches."

Lupus and Centaurus in a 15th century copy
of Al-Sufi's Book of Fixed Stars
Source:Science Photo Library


Centaurus on the 17th century Manuchihr Globe
Source:Wikipedia


The name was originally given to λ and μ Sagittarii by 13th century Persian astronomer Zakariya al-Qazwini but later appeared in European star charts as a name for Alpha Centauri.

In 2016, the Working Group on Star Names of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided to attribute proper names no longer to multiple systems but to individual stars instead. In 2016, the name Rigil Kentaurus was assigned as the proper name for Alpha Centauri A.

In 2018, the name Toliman was officially approved for Alpha Centauri B.

The third star of the system, Alpha Centauri C carries the Latin name Proxima Centauri.

Source: Wikipedia.

Hadar, the official name of Beta Centauri comes from the Arabic hadara (حضار), which describes a "settled, civilized area."

There was also a commonly used Latin name, Agena which was derived from genua, meaning "the Knee" (of the Centaur).

Source: Wikipedia

Muhlifain (γ Cen) comes from the Arabic muħlifayn (محلفين), meaning "Jurors." The star shares its linguistical roots with the slightly differently spelled Muliphein (γ Canis Majoris).

Source: Wikipedia

Alnair (ζ Cen) is derived from the Arabic Nayyir Badan Qanṭūris
(نير بطن قنطورس), meaning "The Bright (Star) of the Body of the Centaur."

Sources: Wikipedia, Kunitzsch, Smart: A Dictionary of Modern Star Names

Menkent (θ Cen) means "Shoulder of the Centaur." It is a hybrid of the Arabic word mankib (منكب), meaning "shoulder" and the Latin kentaurus.

Sources: Wikipedia, Constellation of Words

Several sources provide the name Alhakim for ι Centauri without giving any further explanation. In Arabic, Al-Hakeem (الحكيم) means "The Wise," referring to the wise Centaur.

Sources: Wikiwand, seasky.org

Traditionally μ, ν and φ Centauri were called Kabkent, a fusion of the Arabic word Qalb (قلب), meaning "heart" and the Latin kentaurus.

Source: Wikiwand

Centaurus, Lupus and Ara, in Liber de stellis stellarum fixarum, a 13th century Latin translation of al-Sufi
Sources:Louvre Abu Dhabi, @HistAstro

Ancient China

In Chinese, Centaurus is written 半 人 馬 座

Not all of Centaurus is fully visible in the Chinese sky. In Chinese astronomy, the visible parts form six asterisms in three Lunar Mansions in the quadrant of the Azure Dragon of the East.

Most of the Centaur stars visible in China are part of Jiǎo (Horn), the First Lunar Mansion.

Here, ζ, η, θ, ξ
1, γ, τ, σ and ω Centauri, together with fainter stars form the walls of an Arsenal, called Kůlu.

Ian Ridpath adds, that in addition to the wall, the arsenal also had a tower, which according to Sun and Kistemaker may have been the stars of the the Southern Cross.

Lunar Mansions in Centaurus
Map based on seasky.org

The other large constellation in the First Lunar Mansion is Zhǔ (Pillars), which Ian Ridpath describes as "poles for tethering cavalry horses." The brightest stars in this asterism are υ, ψ and ι Centauri.

In the middle of Kůlu is Hng, literally translated as "Scale." Wikipedia translates it as "Railing", while Ian Ridpath describes it as "a parade ground for troops." It consists of ν, μ, φ and χ Centauri.

Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus is part of a small asterism called Nnmn, the "Southern Gate". Ian Ridpath mentions, that " Two stars formed Nanmen, ..., but sources disagree as to their identity; different charts show the two stars as either Alpha and Beta Centauri, α and ε or ε and χ Centauri."

The very detailed tables in Wikipedia settle for Alpha and Epsilon.

Another gate called Yngmn (Gate of Yang), symbolizing a Frontier's gate consists of the faint (magnitude 4) stars b Centauri and c
1Centauri. This asterism is the only part of the Second Lunar Mansion, which is called Kng - the Neck of the Azure Dragon.

The Third Lunar Mansion is called , which translates to "root" and means "Root in the Sky" - the Azure Dragon's chest and the front foot. This Lunar Mansion is present in Centaurus only with one star: κ Centauri, which is part of the asterism Qguān, the Imperial Guards. The other Imperial Guards are all part of the constellation Lupus.

R.H. Allen specifically lists the name Ke Kwan, derived from Qguān for Kappa Centauri.

Sources:Wikipedia and Ian Ridpath, R.H. Allen

Ian Ridpath mentions one additional asterism:

Quoting Sun and Kistemaker, who, in turn quote the 579 AD treatise Star Manual of the Masters Gan and Shi, he tells us about Qifu, "... a storehouse for musical instruments. Qifu consisted of 32 stars scattered over the rich Milky Way area of Centaurus, Carina, and Vela. It had the second-largest number of stars of all Chinese constellations.

Sun and Kistemaker note that the original stars of Qifu sank below the southern horizon over time because of precession and later maps placed it too far north.


A base-relief from the former Han showing the performance of music, dancing and acrobatics in ancient China. These games with musical acompaniment were called , "A hundred Kinds of Games." This picture may be related to the constellation Qifu of Gan Shi.
Source: Sun Xiaochun & Jacob Kistenmaker: The Chinese Sky During the Han

In the case of the Dunhuang star chart, it is 20 too far north. Its stars were depicted in a stylized criss-cross pattern, making it impossible to work out which stars were intended.
The sky around the south celestial pole cannot be seen from China and was therefore not included in the Three Enclosures and Twenty-Eight Mansions system.

In 1601, Italian Jesuite priest Matteo Ricci was the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing on an invitation by emperor Wanli. He became the emperor's court advisor in matters of astronomy and calendrical science.

Ricci introduced Chinese scientist Xu Guangqi to the constellations of the southern skies as they were observed by European explorers. Starting in 1629, Xu Guangqi intruduced 23 new asterisms from European star charts into the system of Chinese astronomy. They became known as the Southern Asterisms.

The bright star Beta Centauri, which cannot be seen in China became part of Mǎfù, which translates to "Horse's Abdomen"; δ and ρ Centauri were part of Mǎwěi, the "Horse's Tail" and λ Centauri became part of Hǎishān (See and Mountain), an asterism that covers parts of Centaurus, Carina, Musca and Vela.

R.H. Allen specifically lists the name Ma Wei, derived from Mǎwěi for δ Centauri.

Sources:Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath, R.H. Allen
Matteo Ricci with Xu Guangqi
Source: Wikimedia

Southern Hemisphere
Crux, Centaurus, and
the Coalsack Nebula

The further south one travels, the brighter the Southern Cross shines. Thus, the constellation plays a prominent role in star lore in the southern hemisphere.

Very often, the stars of the Cross are combined with the two bright stars of Eridanus and with the Coalsack Nebula.

Alpha and Beta Centauri pointing towards the Cross
Source: earthsky.org

Right: Coalsack Nebula and Southern Cross
Source: Wikipedia
Alpha Centauri and Hadar (β Centauri) are among the brightest stars in the southern sky - Alpha Centauri is the third brightest star in the night sky. The two stars are called the Pointers, as a line connecting the two leads directly to the southern Cross.
The Coalsack Nebula is the most prominent dark nebula in the skies, visible to the naked eye near the Southern Cross, as a dark patch obscuring a brief section of the Milky Way.

Africa

Sotho, Tswana, Venda, Bushmen, Khoikhoi

The Sotho, Tswana and Venda call these stars Dithutlwa, the Giraffes. The bright stars of of the Cross are seen as male giraffes, the two Pointers are female. The Venda called the fainter stars of the Southern Cross Thudana, The Little Giraffe.

The /Xam Bushmen interpret three brightest stars of the Southern Cross as female lions and the two Pointers as male lions. In their legends, they were once men, but a magical girl turned them into stars.

The Khoikhoi in southwest Africa call the Pointers Mura, the Eyes of some great celestial beast.

Source: ASSA - African Ethnoastronomy

Girafe in a rock painting
Source: Don Hitchcock


Australia
Aranda

The Aranda people of the central Australian part of the Northern Territories see the talon of an eagle in the Southern Cross with the Coalsack Nebula being its nest and the pointers being its throwing stick.

Source: Australasian Science

According to Haynes et al., the Aranda and their neighbors, the Luritja people formed a quadrangular constellation called Iritjinga out of γ Centauri, δ Centauri, γ Crucis and δ Crucis. Iritjinga means "Eagle-Hawk", another word for the Wedge tailed eagle.

Source: Wikipedia

Eagle-Hawk in the Arms of the Nortnern Territory
Source: Wikipedia

Boorong

The Boorong of north-Western Victoria see two great hunters in the pointer stars of Centaurus. They tell a story of Bunya, who was chased by the emu Tchingal.

In great fear, Bunya laid his spears at the base of a tree and ran up it to avoid his pursuer. Bunya had to wait so long in the tree, that he turned into an opossum.

The opossum can be seen in the sky as the Southern Cross with Gacrux (γ Crucis) being its nose.

Bunya was eventually saved by the Berm Berm-gle, two hunters, represented by the pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. The eastern stars of the Cross are the points of the brother's spears that have passed through Tchingal - one at the foot through his neck, and one in the arm through his rump.

Sources: Museum of Victoria, Australasian Science, John Morieson: The Night Sky of the Boorong

Opossum Tree
© Narritjin Maymuru
Wotjobaluk

The Wotjobaluk (also from what is now Victoria) have a similar story. In their version, the brothers are called the Bram-bram-bult brothers and β Crucis is their mother, called Druk.

β Crucis is Bunya, the timid possum. δ, ε and α Crucis are the three spears that struck Tchingal in the chest, through his neck, and in the rump, repectively.

Source: Budja Budja Aboriginal Cooperative


Torres Strait Islanders

In the mythology of the Torres Strait Islanders, the creator is a great hero named Tagai.

The islanders have a large constellation consisting mostly of stars from the western constellations Centaurus and Lupus.

For a map of Torres Strait Islanders constellations, click the image to the right. For a detailed description with the native names of all the stars involved, see Folk-Lore Quarterly,

Here is a story about Tagai, as told by the Torres Strait Islanders. For an illustrated version of the story, see Tommy Pau's Story of the Stars from Eastern Torres Strait.

Tagai, a great fisherman, was out with his crew of 12, called the Zugubals on their canoe. They were having no luck catching any fish so Tagai left the group and went searching for fish in a nearby reef.

Tagai had left the group for a long time and as the day grew hotter, the remaining crew of 12 became tired and frustrated. They consumed all their own water supplies and eventually drank all of Tagais water.

When Tagai returned and saw his supplies consumed, he flew into a rage and killed all 12 of his crew. He sent six of the crew to Usal (the Pleiades star cluster) and the other six he sent to Utimal (Orion) and there he told them to wait, never to bother him again.

Sources: deadlystory.com, Wikipedia, Tommy Pau,
The Great Canoes in the Sky, Folk-Lore Quarterly, Vol. I, 1890,
Astronomy and Music in the Torres Strait

Constellations of the Torres Strait Islanders
(Click to enlarge)
Source: Queensland Curiculum

Tagai and Crew
© Tommy Pau


Galbu

To the Galbu (part of the Yolngu language group in the Northern Territories), the stars of the Southern Cross form a stingray that is eternally pursued by a shark, represented by the Pointers.

Source: Dianne Johnson p. 164

Stingray
© Donald Blitner
Ngarrindjeri

Half a continent away, the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia have the same story of a stingray named Nunganari, pursued by two sharks.

Source: Australasian Science


Pacific
Hawaii

In Hawaii, Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri Are called Ka-maile-mua (The first maile) and Ka-maile-hope (The last maile), respectively.

Maile is a vine, native to Hawaii. It is the most popular plant used for traditional Hawaiian lei, a wreath of flowers presented upon arriving or leaving as a symbol of affection.

Sources: Johnson and Mahelona: Hawaiian and Pacific Star Names, Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Hawaiian Lei


Tonga

In Tonga, the Southern Cross is known as Toloa, the duck; it is depicted as a duck flying south, with one of his wings (Imai; δ Cruc) wounded because Ongo tangata, two men, represented by α and β Centauri, threw a stone at it.

The Coalsack is known as Humu, the triggerfish.

Samoa

In Samoa too, α and β Centauri are two men, called Luatagata, but the triggerfish, called Sumu, is projected directly into the stars of the Cross.

Source: Wikipedia,

Triggerfish
Source Wikipedia


Māori

In Māori, The Southern Cross is called Māhutonga and the pointers are acalled Te Taura o te Waka o Tamarēreti.

As individual stars, Alpha Centauri is called Uruao and Beta Centauri is called Ranginui.

They are part of a larger constellation, representing the anchor (the Southern Cross) and the anchor line (the Pointers), of a canoe called Te Waka o Tamarēreti.

Orion's Belt, called Tautoru, meaning "The Three Friends" forms the stern of the canoe while Te Waka o Mairerangi, the "tail" of Scorpius is the bow.

Sources: Wikipedia, Maori Dictionary, Maori Star Names,
Tūhoe legends surrounding the creation of star constellations, Part 1 and Part 2

Te Waka o Tamarēreti
Source: Youtube

NameExoworlds

The 2019 NameExoWorld project, in which each country on earth could name one star and one exoplanet, added new names for one star and one planet in the Cassiopeia constellation.

Cte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) selected two deities from the local Akan mythology.

The star WASP-15 was named Nyamien after the supreme creator deity of the Akan religion.

Planet WASP-15b was named Asye after the Akan Earth goddess.

Source: IAU100 Name ExoWorlds: Approved Names

Picture credits: New Orleans Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institute

Asye
Dofida means "our star" in the language of the people of the Nias Archipelago off the western coast of Sumatra.

It was the name chosen by Indonesia for the star HD 117618.

Planet HD 117618 b was named Noifasui, coming from the Nian words no, meaning past and present and and ifasui, meaning to revolve around.

Source: IAU100 Name ExoWorlds: Approved Names

Warrior dancer on Nias Island
Source: pinterest.com
In the local Pitkern language, spoken by the 40 inhabitants of the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean, Uklun means "us."

The people of the world's smalles country by population picked that name for the star HD 102117.

Leklsullun, meaning Child or children was chosen as the name for planet HD 102117 b.

Source: IAU100 Name ExoWorlds: Approved Names

The children of Pitcairn Island
Teaching and Living on Pitcairn Island

Modern Day Fiction

In the 2009 science fiction film Avatar, director James Cameron conceived a fictional universe in orbit of Alpha Centauri A.

Location of the fictional story is the moon Pandora, one of many moons of the gas giant Polyphemus, which orbits Alpha Centauri A.

Source :Wikipedia

For a comprehensive list of Science Fiction focusing on Alpha Centauri, see Wikipedia's Alpha Centauri in fiction.

Artist's concept of fictional moon Pandora and planet Polyphemus
Source: Wikipedia
In the television series Babylon 5, Proxima III is an Earth Alliance colony that seceded from the Alliance when Earth became a dictatorship in 2260.

Source :Wikipedia

For a comprehensive list of Science Fiction focusing on Proxima Centauri, see Wikipedia's Stars and planetary systems in fiction.

The Battle of Proxima III
Source: babylon5.fandom.com
The Photon Ship (Фотонният звездолет) was a science fiction novel, written in 1964 by Bulgarian writer Dimitier Peew.

The novel told the fictional story of humanity's first expedition to Proxima Centauri.

It was the first science fiction novel, the author red (at age 12). It laid the foundation for over half a century of fascination with the stars, whithout which this site would have never happened.
The Photon Ship

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