Magellanic Clouds

Star Lore

The Magellanic Clouds are two irregular dwarf galaxies visible to the naked eye at locations south of 20 degrees north.

They have been part of mythology and astronomy in Africa, Australia and South America since ancient times.

There is no mythology about the Clouds in Europe or the Middle East, simply because one cannot see them there. In the Islamic world, they have been know since traders traveled to the south of the Arabic Peninsula, while Europeans discovered them during the first sea voyages into the South Atlantic Ocean.
Magellanic Clouds; Wikipedia
Before we get into the lgends surrounding the Clouds in the southern hemisphere, we will take a short detour across the northern hemisphere. It is not really star lore, but the history of how the clouds got to be known in the north and how they received their names is worth to be told.

Arab Sailors

The people of Tihama call them al-a‘bār

The Magellanic Clouds can only be seen from latitudes south of 20 degrees North. As the Rub' al Khali desert isolates parts of the Arabic Peninsula south of 23°N, there was no record of the galaxies in the ancient Arab world. In the early 9th century, Arab sailors explored the full extend of the Red Sea and in 851, Persian explorer Sulaiman al-Tajir sailed all the way to China, meaning he definitely would have noticed the Magellanic Clouds.

Wikipedia reports that Persian polymath Ibn Qutaybah wrote that "... beneath Canopus there are two stars known as the feet of Canopus, and on their extension, behind them bright big stars, not seen in Iraq, the people of Tihama call them al-a‘bār."

R. H. Allen writes that Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi mentioned the Large Cloud as Al Bakr, the "... White Ox, of the southern Arabs, and invisible from Baghdad, or northern Arabia, but visible from the parallel of the Strait of Babd al Mandab, in 12°15′ of north latitude."

Michel Dennefeld raises doubts about this observation, stating that a different translation of the same text refers to stars and not clouds.

Sources: Wikipedia, SEDS: Students for the Exploration and Development of Space,
Michel Dennefeld: A history of the Magellanic Clouds and the European exploration of the Southern Hemisphere

A distance of ten fingers from Canopus

Ian Ridpath credits Ahmad ibn Mājid, an Arab navigator and poet, called "the Lion of the Seas" with the first report of the clouds in the Arab world.

Ibn Mājid wrote about the Magellanic Clouds, but for good reasons he and other sailors did not use them for navigation: Seen from earth, the Small and the Large Magellanic Clouds have diameters of about two and five degrees, respectively. Navigation requires point-targets. An error in just one degree in the sky can results in an error of up to 60 nautical miles - which can be the difference between the safe open sea and a coast line dotted with cliffs and sandbanks.

Ahmad ibn Mājid, measuring a distance with his fingers

In about 1465, ibn Mājid wrote As-Sufaliyya, a nautical poem about Sofala, a port in what is now northern Mozambique. In it, he gave one of the first authenticated descriptions of the Magellanic Clouds, calling them the "clouds of the south pole."

There are two White Clouds, � brother: one is visible to the naked eye, the other one is faint.
The position of the White Clouds is between Canopus and Sirius;
but it is at a distance of ten fingers from Canopus, listen to my discourse, that is one arrow;
and at a distance of two arrows from Sirius you can see both of them in straight line with the naked eye.

(Translation by I. Khoury; 1983)

Source: Michel Dennefeld: A history of the Magellanic Clouds and the European exploration of the Southern Hemisphere

European Sailors

I saw three Canopes

The first Europeans to see the southern sky in its full glory were the Portuguese sailors of the fleet of Prince Henry the Navigator, exploring the South Atlantic Ocean, reaching Cape Verde in 1456, the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and Brazil in 1500.

It is most certain, that they had noticed the Clouds, but - like their Arab counterparts - they deemed them useless for navigation. If they made any records of them, those records got lost.

The first written report in Europe come from Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was probably the best versed writer of the early explorers, which made his reports more popular. In 1501, Vespucci was hired as pilot of a fleet of three Portuguese ships under the command of Gonçalo Coelho to explore the coast of Brazil.

During this voyage, Vespucci wrote, "...and among the others I saw three Canopes: two were very clear, the third was dark and unlike the others." The dark one was later identified as the Coalsack Nebula, the two clear ones are believed to be the Magellanic Clouds. Vespucci published his observations in 1503 in his pamphlet Mundos Novus (New World).

Vespucci did not provide any coordinates of the Clouds. The first reliable sketch was given by Italian explorer Andrea Corsali, who in 1515 sailed around the Cape of Good Hope on a Portuguese ship.

From Kochi, India Corsali wrote: "... and evidently there are two clouds of reasonable size continuously surrounding [the south pole], now lowering and now rising in circular motion, walk, with a star always in the middle, which with it turns away from the pole about eleven degrees..."

In 1519 A fleet of five Spanish ships with 270 men on board left Seville, attempting to find a western route to the Spice Islands. Three years later, one ship and 35 survivors returned to Spain, completing the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Neither the fleet's admiral, Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) nor his chief pilot Andrès de San Martin survived the journey. One of the lucky men who made it back to Spain was Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta. His journal was the most important document of Magellan's epic voyage. It also contained another written account of the Clouds:

"The Antarctic Pole is not so starry as the Arctic is. Because we see several stars packed together, which are in the guise of two clouds a little separated from each other..."

Sources: Wikipedia, Michel Dennefeld

1505 Woodcut of Vespucci's voyage
Source: Wikipedia

Sketch from Andrea Corsali's letter
Source: Michel Dennefeld

Clouds of the Cape, Nubeculae and Magellanic Clouds

In the second half of the 16th century, the Clouds became common knowledge among sailors and astronomers. They first appeared (still without a name) on a celestial globe made by Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius in 1589.

Sailors called them the "Clouds of the Cape" as they were best seen on voyages around Cape of Good Hope, or Cape Horn, respectively.

The scientific community called them Nubecula Major and Nubecula Minor (Latin for Large and Small Cloud). These were the names used in globes manufactured by Petrus Plancius and Jodocus Hondius between 1598 and 1601.

Most likely, these globes were the source for Chart 49 of Johann Bayer's star atlas Uranometria. Published in 1603, Uranometria was the first star atlas covering the entire sky, introducing a broad public to the constellations of the southern hemisphere as they had been observed by European sailors.

In Bayer's chart, the two galaxies are shown as cumulus clouds.

In the 17th and 18th century, sailors commonly associated the clouds with the name of Magellan, while astronomers still held on to the Latin term Nubecula.

THe perhaps most distinct depiction of the "nubeculae" came in 1731 in Firmamentum Firmianum, a star map by Corbianus Thomas.

The two great observers of the southern sky, Edmond Halley and Nicolas de LaCaille recognized the name, but only unofficially.

In his Catalogus Stellarum Australium (published in 1679), Halley writes about "two clouds which sailors call the Magellan Nebulae" (translation from the original Latin by the author).

De Lacaille refers to the galaxies in his Coelum Australe Stelliferum (published in 1763), as "commonly called the clouds of Magellan by the Dutch and the Danes" (translation from the original French by the author).

Hondius's globe of 1600; Michel Dennefeld

Cloud in Bayer’s Uranometria of 1603; Ian Ridpath

Nubecula major and Nubecula minor;
Firmamentum Firmianum, 1731

However, in their maps and charts, both astronomers still used the plain term "Cloud", Halley in Latin (nubecula) and de Lacaille in French (nuage).

Source: Michel Dennefeld

It deserves mentioning that de Lacaille hypothesized that the Clouds were detached parts of the Milky Way - only a few years after Immanuel Kant published his theory of Island Universes.

In his History of the Magellanic Clouds..., Michel Dennefeld writes:

"John Herschel (1847), in a section however entitled "On the two nubeculae or Magellanic Clouds", talks only about Nubeculae. Only in the accompanying figure, where he gives his visual observations ..., does he mention again, The two Magellanic Clouds as seen with the naked Eye.

So he uses both the scientific denomination and the more public name, and Herschel seems to have been the first one to use the name Magellanic Clouds in a scientific publication.

Later, in the 20th century, in the first edition (1910) of the well-known Norton's Star Atlas, it is stated that, the Magellanic Clouds or Nubecula Major and Nubecula Minor appear to the naked eye like detached portions of the Milky Way, and are a marvelous sight in the telescope as if their names were obvious, but without any further note on Magellan ...

So, although no precise date can be given, it seems that by the late 19th century, the term Nubecula was still being used in scientific exchanges, but the term Magellanic Clouds was progressively passing from nautical circles to the public and scientific spheres, finally replacing Nubeculae only once scientists abandoned Latin."

Source: Michel Dennefeld
Large Magellanic Cloud in a modern star chart

Small Magellanic Cloud in a modern star chart

After this little detour, we are going to look at cultures who knew the Clods for millennia.

South Asia


In Sri Lanka, historically, the Magellanic Clouds were called Maha Mera Paruwathaya meaning "the great mountain", as they look like the cloud covered peaks of a distant mountain range.

Source: Wikipedia

Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
© D. Sansoni / Three Blind Men



To the Sotho people of southern Africa, Canopus (α Car), the second brightest star in the night sky is known as Naka, the Horn Star.

Achernar (α Eri), the brightest star in the constellation Eridanus is called Senakane, meaning the Little Horn.

The "Horn" most likely refers to a horned animal, like an antelope, as the Sotho consider the Magellanic Clouds the tracks of the "Horn Star" and the "Little Horn."

Source: ASSA - African Ethnoastronomy

Antelopes in a rock painting
Source: Don Hitchcock



In the mythology of the Garadjari of Western Australia, the Magellanic Clouds are the spirits of two ancestral heroes, called Bagadjimbiri.

The Bagadjimbiri were two brothers and creator gods who arose from the ground as dingos. Once, when they took human form, they had an argument with the cat-person Ngariman, who was annoyed by their laughter. Ngariman took the brothers underground and killed them, but their mother Dilga drowned Ngariman and revived her sons, turning them into snakes. Their spirits went to live in the sky as clouds.

Sources: Wikipedia, Dianne Johnson p. 162

© Bill Yidumduma Harney


To the Wati in the Western Desert, Canopus (α Carinae), the second brightest star in the night sky and Achernar (α Eridani) are the fires of two sky heroes, which are represented by the Magellanic Clouds.

The heroes judge the life and accomplishments of people when they are dying. Evil people are speared by the older spirit (the Large Magellanic Cloud) and then taken to Achernar, which is the fire of the younger spirit (the Small Magellanic Cloud), where they are being cooked and eaten. The spirits of good people are protected by the older spirit and are taken to his fire, which is Canopus.

Sources: Wikipedia, Dianne Johnson p. 174

Fire Dreaming
© Jorna Newberry


The Warnindhilyagwa live far away from the Wati at Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, but to them too, Achernar is the fire of spirits represented by the Magellanic Clouds. For the Warnindhilyagwa , the Clouds represent the Jukara, an old man and an old woman who cannot gather their own food.

Source: Dianne Johnson p. 163

Spirits of Fires
© David Dunn

The Yolngu people in the Northern Territories see two sisters and their dogs in the Magellanic Cloud.

The older sister (the Large Magellanic Cloud) is believed to leave during the dry season (April to September) as only the Small Magellanic Cloud is visible during that time.

Source: Dianne Johnson p. 165

Dreamtime Sisters
© Colleen Wallace Nungari

South America


An Inca myth mentions the god Ataguchu. Ataguchu and his twin brother Piguero are part of the Inca creation myths in which they showed the first people how to escape the underworld.

In a myth told on the website of the European Southern Observatory, Ataguchu kicked the Milky Way in a fit of anger, causing a fragment to fly off and form the Small Magellanic Cloud. The Coalsack is the black mark left behind where the broken fragment was.

Sources: European Southern Observatory,


The Tupi-Guarani people in what is now the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, see the Clouds as fountains, called Hugua. They see a Tapir and a pig drinking from the fountains in the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud, respectively.

Source: Michel Dennefeld


The Mapuche in southern Chileand Patagonia see the Clouds as water ponds, called R�ganko or Menoko. According to Mapuche legend, there were initially three ponds, but one has already dried out and a second one is going to dry out. Michel Dennefeld identified these two as the CoalsackNebula and the small Magellanic Cloud. They say that the end of the Universe will come when the last pond (identified as the Large Magellanic Cloud) is also dry.

Michel Dennefeld adds that "... Modern calculations (e.g. Wang et al. 2019) show indeed that a few hundred million years ago, one of the ponds did indeed loose some "water" to create the Magellanic Stream, but we still have one or two billions of years before the final "dry out". These water ponds are in the Wenu Mapu, the heavens above, and are associated with the Wenu Leufu/, the river above, i.e., our Milky Way. The similar nature of the Milky Way and the Clouds was therefore recognised long ago."

Source: Michel Dennefeld
Leading arm of the Magellanic Stream measured by Hubble Telescope

Modern Fiction and Art

Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list of modern day fiction regarding the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

Here are a few examples:

In the first season of the 1970s anime series Space Battleship Yamato, the Large Magellanic Cloud is the destination of the spacecraft Yamato and later the host galaxy for the season.

In two Star Treck Novels of Lost Era and the Titan series, the Small Magellanic Cloud is home to the Neyel, an offshoot of humanity who dominated several species native to the Cloud.

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel The Sirens of Titan, Salo, a space traveler stranded on Titan hails from the fictional planet Tralfamadore, located in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Source: Wikipedia

The picture above is an oil painting by Washington, D.C. artist Barbara Sheehana.

The picture below looks like one of Van Gogh's creations. However, it is not a painting at all, but an image of the microwave to infra-red regions of the electromagnetic spectrum around the Large Magellanic Cloud. The picture was taken by ESA's Planck spacecraft in an effort to picture the cosmic microwave background � radiation left over from the birth of the universe.


Seahorse in the Large Magellanic Cloud
© Barbara Sheehana

Microwave image of the Large Magellanic Cloud
Source ESA / Planck Collaboration

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