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Star Lore

Leo is a Zodiac constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere. Its name is Latin for lion. Due to its many bright stars and a distinctive shape, it is one of the most easily recognizable constellations in the sky.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Mesopotamians had a Lion constellation as early as 4000 BC. J.H. Rogers points out that early Mesopotamian artwork depicted large numbers of lions, bulls and (to a lesser amount) scorpions as symbols of power.

Around 3200 BC, these three animals had been defined as constellations. At that time, these constellations, together with Aquarius, marked the four cardinal points: spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox and winter solstice.

In the Three Stars Each tables, the constellation's main star Regulus was known as "the star that stands at the Lion's breast." The star was recorded as LUGAL, meaning "King."

In the MUL.APIN Tables, the constellation was recorded as UR.GU.LA, the "Great Lion".

Some mythologists believe that in Sumeria, Leo represented the monster Humbaba, a monstrous giant with a lion's face.

Sources:Wikipedia, J.H. Rogers: Origins of the ancient constellations.,
Gavin White: Babylonian Star-Lore

Lion at Babylon's Ishtar Gate
Picture taken by the author

Humbaba, 2000 BC
Souce: Wikipedia

In Akkadia, the first ancient empire of Mesopotamia (ca. 2334 – 2154 BC), an asterism, consisting of ε, η, γ, ζ, μ and ε Leonis was known as Gis-mes, the Curved Weapon (see below).

Source: R.H. Allen
Gis-mes; Souce:

Greek Mythology

Greek mythology adopted the visualization of the constellation as a lion and identified Leo as the Nemean Lion which was killed by Heracles during the first of his twelve labours.

Wikipedia tells the story:

The Nemean Lion would take women as hostages to its lair in a cave, luring warriors from nearby towns to save the damsel in distress, to their misfortune. The Lion was impervious to any weaponry; thus, the warriors' clubs, swords, and spears were rendered useless against it.

Realizing that he must defeat the Lion with his bare hands, Heracles slipped into the Lion's cave and engaged it at close quarters. When the Lion pounced, Heracles caught it in midair, one hand grasping the Lion's forelegs and the other its hind legs, and bent it backwards, breaking its back and freeing the trapped maidens.

Zeus commemorated this labor by placing the Lion in the sky.

Sources:Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Heracles and the Nemean Lion
Mosaic in Paphos, Cypriot stamp

Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion
Pieter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639,
Source: Harvard Art Museums

Ancient Rome

The Roman poet Ovid called the constellation Herculeus Leo and Violentus Leo.

Another name was Bacchi Sidus, the star of Bacchus, as the god Bacchus has always been identified with this animal.

Roman poet and astrologer Marcus Manilius called it Jovis et Junonis Sidus, the Star of Jupiter and Juno. R.H. Allen supports the idea of Hercules "being under the guardianship of these deities." In Greek Mythology, the Roman deities Jupiter and Juno were Zeus and Hera and Heracles literally means "Pride of Hera."

Sources: Wikipedia, R.H. Allen

Heracles fighting the Nemean Lion
Roman era relief, 2nd century AD Souce: Wikipedia
In his list of constellations, Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder describes a constellation called "The Sickle, consisting of η, γ, ζ, μ and ε Leonis, with Regulus (α Leo) being the handle.

The asterism predates Roman astronomy.

In Akkadia, the first ancient empire of Mesopotamia (ca. 2334 – 2154 BC) it was known as Gis-mes, the Curved Weapon; in Khwarazm and Sogdia in northeastern Persia, it was called Khamshish, the Scimitar.

Source: R.H. Allen

The Sickle in Leo; Map based on

Medieval Europe - Vexillum

Roughly one half of today's constellation was defined by Ptolemy in the first century. The other half was the result of the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th century. In the 1,400 years between these two eras, only two new constellations creations were added to the European sky.

Around the year 1225, Scottish mathematician and scholar Michael Scot added two constellations, Vexillum and Tarabellum to the horoscopes he developed for Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (During the Middle Ages, there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology and Scot worked in both fields).

Vexillum in Il Dittamondo, 1355 Souce:
Scot describes Vexillum's location as partially in Leo and partially in Virgo.

From the 13th to the 16th century, Vexillum was displayed in European astrological and astronomical manuals as an equal among the constellations of the Zodiac. With the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment and the separation of Astrology and Astronomy, the constellation slowly disappeared.


al-asad - the original Lion

Before abd al-rahman al-sufi and other Arabic astronomers adopted Ptolemy's constellations, people on the Arabian Peninsula had their own way to navigate the sky, creating constellations like Lam, Ostriches and Vulture.

Some of their constellations were based on patterns first developed in Mesopotamia 4,000 years earlier.

Working on her PhD at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Danielle Adams developed an excellent project called Arab Star Calendar to preserve the astronomical knowledge of the people of the Arabian Desert.

Author's sketch of al-asad, based on a presentation by Danielle Adams
Click the image to see the original in the Arab Star Calendar

The largest of these Arabian constellations is al-asad, the Lion. Covering 135 angular degrees of the northern sky, it is perhaps the largest constellation ever conceived by stargazers. R.H. Allen (in Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning) called is a "monstrosity", Danielle Adams, (in the Arab Star Calendar) much more appropriately calls it a "Celestial Complex".

Danielle Adams provides an extensive description of all sections of this celestial complex.

She writes:
"The Lion of ancient Arabia was so massive that it roared from January to May, stretching across three seasons in its pre-dawn stellar settings, according to the rain star calendar of Qushayr. The cold season of winter continues with the setting of the Two Forearms and then the Nose of the Lion. The setting of the Forehead of the Lion marks the end of winter and the onset of the warm spring rains. Some weeks later, the Two Shanks of the Lion set about 40 days apart, defining between them the rainy portion of the summer.

All of this seasonal rain activity unfolds over the course of about four months, between the morning settings of the two brilliant pairs of stars (its Two Forearms and its Two Shanks) that roughly define the boundaries of the Lion."

Colored reproduction of al-sufi's illustration
Source: Stuart Rankin; taken at the Library of Congress
Here is a listing of all stars of the different segments of the al-asad celestial complex.

Clicking on the headline name of a segment takes you to an extensive description of that segment in the Arab Star Calendar, which provides a lot more valuable information.
The Clenched Forearm
adh-dhira’ al-maqbuda
الذراعة المقبوضة

Procyon (α Cmi)
Gomeisa (β Cmi)

The Extended Forearm
adh-dhira’ al-mabsuta
الذراعة المبسوطة

Castor (α Gem)
Pollux (β Gem)

Collectively, The Clenched Forearm
and The Extended Forearm are
The Two Forearms
adh-dhira’an - الذراعان

The Claws
al-azfar - الأظفار

Wasat (δ Gem)
Mebsuta (ε Gem)
Mekbuda (ζ Gem)
ι, κ, λ, ρ, τ, υ Geminorum

The Two Nostrils
al-mankhiran - المنخران

Asellus Borealis (γ Cnc)
Asellus Australis (δ Cnc)

The Sneeze
an-nathra - النثرة

Praesaepe (M 44)

Collectively, The Two Nostrils
and The Sneeze are
The Nose of the Lion
anf al-asad - أنف الأسد

The Eyes
at-tarf - الطرف

Ras Elased Australis (ε Leo)
Subra (ο Leo)

The Eyelashes
al-ash’ar - الأشعار

Ras Elased Borealis (μ Leo)
Al Minliar al Asad (κ Leo)
Alterf (λ Leo)
ξ, 6, 10 Leonis, 2 Hydrae

The Forehead
al-jabha - الجبهة

Regulus (α Leo)
Algieba (γ Leo)
Adhafera (ζ Leo)
Al Jabhah (η Leo)

The Mane
az-zubra - الزبرة

Zosma (δ Leo)
Chertan (θ Leo)

The Sheath of the Penis
qunb al-asad - قنب الأسد

Denebola (β Leo)

The Two Haunches
al-warikan - الوركان

Zavijava (β Vir)
Porrima (γ Vir)
Minelauva (δ Vir)
Vindemiatrix (ε Vir)
Zaniah (η Vir)

The Two Shanks
as-saqan - الساقان

Spica (α Vir)
Arcturus (α Boo)

The Rump
al-‘ajz - العجز

Kraz (β Crv)
Gienah (γ Crv)
Algorab (δ Crv)
Minkar (ε Crv)

The Tail Hair
al-hulba - الهلبة

Coma Star Cluster
γ Comae Berenices,
8, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 31 Com

The Tail Hair Strikes
darb al-asad bi hulbatihi
ضرب الأسد بهلبته

Alula Borealis (ν UMa)
Alula Australis (ξ UMa)
Tania Borealis (λ UMa)
Tania Australis (μ UMa)

In her Star Calendar Blog, Danielle Adams kept the memories of this magnificent constellation alive.
Check out her essays on the Roaring of the Lion, the Dog Tooth of Time and the Sky-Raisers.
The Protracted Roaring of the Lion
Abundant rains from an ancient beast
The Smiling Dog Tooth of Time
The Lion brings warmer weather
The Setting of the Sky-Raisers
Widespread rains of summer

Medieval Islamic Astronomy

Throughout the Middle East, the constellation is called Lion in many languages. The Persians called it Ser or Shir; the Turks Artan; the Syrians Aryo; the Jews Arye; all meaning "lion."

Source:R.H. Allen

in the Book of Fixed Stars, Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi adopted Ptolemy's constellations, but there was an original Arabic Lion constellation long before that (see below).

Most of today's Arabic names of stars in Leo can be attributed to al-Sufi, but some of them may be a lot older than that.

15th Cent. reproduction of al-Sufi's Book of Fixed Stars
Source: Malek Museum, Teheran

α Regulus قلب الأسد qalb al-asad The Heart of the Lion
β Denebola ذنب الاسد ðanab-al-asad The Tail of the Lion
γ Algieba الجبهة al-jabhah The Forehead
δ Zosma الزبرة al-zubra Lion's Mane
ε Ras Elased Australis الرس الأسد الجنوبية al rās al asad al janūbiyyah The Southern Star in the Lion's Head
ζ Adhafera الضفيرة aḍ-dafīrah The Braid / the Curl
η Al Jabhah أل جبهة al-jabhah The Forehead
θ Chertan الخراطان al-kharātān Two Small Ribs
κ Al Minliar al Asad المنهار الأسد al minhar al asad The Lion's Nose
λ Alterf الطرف aṭ-tarf The View (of the Lion)
ο Subra زبرة zubra Upper Part of the Back
μ Rasalas الرس الاسد الشمالي al rās al Asad al Shamaliyy The Northern Star in the Lion's Head
Official names derived from Arabic origins are shown in bold.

Regulus (α Leo) is Latin for "prince" or "little king." In Arabic, the star was called qalb al-asad, meaning "Heart of the Lion." While in this case the Latin name prevailed, many of the other stars in Leo kept their Arabic names.


Denebola (β Leo) is shortened from Deneb Alased, from the Arabic phrase ðanab al-asad "tail of the lion."

The star formed the twelfth Arabic Lunar Mansion, called al-sarfrah (the Weather Changer). Timurid sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg used Al-Sarfrah as the name for β Leonis.

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

Algieba (γ Leo) originated from the Arabic al-jabhah, meaning "the forehead."


Zosma (δ Leo) is derived from the Arabic al-zubra, which can mean both "Shoulder" and "Lion's Mane."

al-zubra is also the name of the eleventh Arabic Lunar Mansion, formed by Zosma and Chertan (θ Leo).

Ulugh Beg called the star Al Ṭhahr al Asad, the Lion's Back.

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

Ras Elased Australis (ε Leo) and Ras Elased Borealis (μ Leo) are combinations of Arabic and Latin. The original names were al rās al asad al janūbiyyah and al rās al asad al shamaliyy, meaning "The Southern Star in the Lion's Head" and "The Northern Star in the Lion's Head", respectively. "Southern" and "Northern" were later replaced with the Latin expressions Australis and Borealis.

Derived from al Janūbiyyah (southern), ε Leonis is also known as Algenubi.

For μ Leonis, the IAU approved the shortened name Rasalas.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wikipedia

15th century copy copy of
al-Sufi's illustration
Pergamenthandschrift M II 141,

13th century Spanish reproduction of al-Sufi's illustration;

Chertan (θ Leo) is derived from the Arabic al-kharātān "two small ribs", originally referring to δ and θ Leonis.


Adhafera (ζ Leo) comes from the Arabic aḍ-ḍafīrah "the braid/curl", a reference to the lion's mane.


Al Jabhah (η Leo) means "the Front" or "the Forehead" (of the lion).

Al-Jabhah is also the name of the tenth Arabic Lunar Mansion, formed by Regulus (α Leo), Algieba (γ Leo), Adhafera (ζ Leo) and Al Jabhah.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafezs

Al Minliar al Asad (κ Leo) means the "Muzzle of the Lion."


Alterf (λ Leo) comes from the Arabic aṭ-ṭarf, meaning "the view" or "the Eyes" (of the lion). .

Al-Ṭarf is also the name of the nineth
Arabic Lunar Mansion, formed by Alterf and χ Leonis.

Wikipedia, Ihsan Hafezs

Subra (ο Leo) is derived from the Arabic Arabic al-zubra, which can mean, "Shoulder", "Lion's Mane" or "upper part of the back."

The name was originally applied to δ and θ Leonis.


Leo in The Book of the Birth of Iskandar

Ancient India

In Hindu Astronomy, the constellation Leo stretches across three Lunar Manisons, called Nakashtras.

Regulus (α Leo) is the center of the 10th Nakashtra, called Maghā, मघा, "the bountiful."

Zosma (δ Leo) and Chertan (θ Leo) form the 11th Nakashtra while Denebola (β Leo) is the centre of the 12th Nakashtra. These two Lunar Mansions are called Pūrva Phalgunī पूर्व फाल्गुनी and Uttara Phalgunī उत्तर फाल्गुनी, respectively, meaning the "first reddish one" and the "second reddish one."

Ancient China

In Chinese, Leo is written 獅子座

In Chinese astronomy, the constellation is located in the quadrant of the Vermilion Bird of the South and partially in the Three Enclosures. Together, the stars of Leo form a total of 12 asterisms.

Wikipedia and Ian Ridpath have detailed descriptions of the mansions and the stars belonging to each one.

Here is how Ian Ridpath describes the largest formations in this constellation:

Asterisms in Leo
Map based on

"On Chinese star charts the Sickle of Leo is recognizable, but as part of a rather different constellation figure. From the top of the Sickle extended a snaking line that took in Lambda and Kappa Leonis before heading north into Lynx.

In all, 17 stars were involved in the chain, including Regulus and Omicron and Rho Leonis either side of it; the whole formation was known as Xuānyuán, the Yellow Dragon.

Denebola (β Leo) was not part of Xuānyuán, but nevertheless was connected to it in myth. In China, Denebola was called Huángdìzuò the Yellow Emperor. This name comes from a legendary ruler who is credited with being the main founder of Chinese civilization; the Yellow Dragon (Xuānyuán) snaking among the other stars of Leo was said to be his image immortalized in the sky. So Xuānyuán, with the nearby Huángdìzuò, is one of the few Chinese star patterns that can boast a mythology comparable to that of the Greek constellations.

Four faint stars to the north, south, west, and east of Huángdìzuò governed the four seasons. Taken together, Huángdìzuò and its companions formed a group known as Wǔdìzuò, the Five Emperors (or deities). Their chariots were represented by the five stars that outline the shape of Auriga". [End of Ian Ridpath quote].
The Yellow Dragon, personification of the Yellow Emperor
Source: Wikipedia

Also part of Wǔdìzuò are 88 Leonis and a number of faint stars in Leo. Wǔdì ("Five Deities") or Wǔshén ("Five Gods") are, in Chinese canonical texts and common Chinese religion, the five-fold manifestation of the supreme God of Heaven.

Xuānyuán is part of the 25th Lunar Mansion, called Xīng (Star).

For the following, I partially quote Ian Ridpath, added with remarks coming from Wikipedia:

To the north of this group of five celestial gods lay the real ruling Emperor’s heir or crown prince, Tàizǐ, represented by 93 Leonis, with Cóngguān, his personal assistant, hovering at a respectful distance (92 Leonis), and a bodyguard, Hǔbēn (72 Leonis), keeping watch.

The Five Deities; Source: Wikipedia

Wǔdìzuò, Tàizǐ, Cóngguān and Hǔbēn fell within a larger area called Tài Wēi Yuán, representing a court where the Chinese Emperor met with his privy council, which extended into neighboring Virgo. (Wikipedia refers to this area as the Supreme Palace enclosure.

One of the boundary walls of Tài Wēi Yuán was marked out by a chain of five stars heading southwards from Delta via Theta, Iota, and Sigma Leonis to Beta Virginis. This wall is called Tàiwēiyòuyuán, the "Right Wall."

A fainter line of four stars stretching northwards from Leo into Leo Minor formed Shǎowēi, seen as either a delegation of nobility welcoming Huángdìzuò as he approached Tài Wēi Yuán, or a retinue of scholarly advisors. Sources differ as to the identity of these stars, but they could have been 53 Leonis to 41 Leonis Minoris. This same line later became known as Chángyuán (the "Long Wall"), an outer protective barrier for Tài Wēi Yuán.

Among the smaller constellations that the Chinese imagined in this area, Xi Leonis, together with Psi and Omega Leonis were Jiǔqí, the banner of a wine maker or merchant, possibly associated with the kitchen (Wàichú) in Hydra to the south. This is the only formation within the boundaries of Leo that is part of the 24 Lunar Mansion, called Liǔ (Willow).

The stars around Chi Leonis, straddling the ecliptic represented Língtái, an astronomical observatory.

Tau, Phi and Upsilon Leonis formed Míngtáng, the "The Hall of Glory" according to Wikipedia or the "bright hall" according to Ian Ridpath, an administrative center where the Emperor announced the annual calendar of events at the start of each year; the "brightness" in its title might be a reference to the luminous presence of the Emperor himself.

Sources: Wikipedia and Ian Ridpath
The Great Wall; Wikipedia

The Yellow Emperor
Source: Wikipedia

The Bright Hall; Wikipedia

/Gwi; Southern Africa

Regulus (α Leo) is called /edzini, the Fire-Finisher by the /Gwi people of southern Afric.

Regulus only sets when the firewood has been exhausted.

Source: Astronomical Society of Southern Africa - African Ethnoastronomy

Bushmen at a fire

Modern Day Fiction

Wolf 359 (CN_Leonis) is a red dwarf of apparent magnitude 13.5 and thus can only be seen with a large telescope. However, at approximately 7.8 light-years away it is the seventh-closest stellar system to the Sun. Thus, even though it is suspected to be a flare star, it has attracted the attention of science fiction authors, filmmakers, and game developers. For a comprehensive list, see Wikipedia's Wolf 359 in Fiction.

In the Star Trek Universe, Wolf 359 is mentioned several times in connections with Humanity's battles with the Borg. In The Best of Both Worlds, a two part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the star is the location of the Battle of Wolf 359, a dicisive battle between Earth and the Borg.

Source: Wikipeda and

Battle of Wolf 359

Flags and Coat of Arms
The flag of the city of Portsmouth, England, shows a golden star and a crescent moon. Both have been the City's arms for over 800 years and were a taken from an early version of the coat of arms of King Richard I.

One interpretation suggest that the star is Regulus, which at the time was commonly known a "Cor Leonis", or "Heart of the Lion" - making the arms a play on words on Richard's nickname "Lionheart".

Source: Flags of the World
Portsmouth Flag; Wikipedia

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