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Sagittarius is a constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere. Its name is Latin for "archer".

Ancient Mesopotamia

Figures depicting a centaur armed with bow and arrow on Mesopotamian boundary stones date as far back as the second millennium BC. In early legends, this figure may not yet have been tied to a constellation, but the depiction of an archer-centaur overlapping a scorpion matches the position of Sagittarius and Scorpius in the night sky.

A boundary stone cataloged as S12/London-101 shows a centaur with two tails (one being that of a scorpion) and two heads (one being the same as the panther-head of Nergal).

Wikipedia tells us that "... the Babylonians identified Sagittarius as the god Nergal, a centaur-like creature firing an arrow from a bow. It is generally depicted with wings, two heads, one panther head and one human head, as well as a scorpion's stinger raised above its more conventional horse's tail.

Ian Ridpath adds the story of σ Sagittarii, called Nunki:

"This name was applied relatively recently by navigators, but it was borrowed from a list of Babylonian star names. The Babylonian name NUN-KI was given to a group of stars representing their sacred city of Eridu on the Euphrates. The name has now been applied exclusively to Sigma Sagittarii, and is reputed to be the oldest star name in use."

Note by the author: In 2017, the IAU Working Group on Star Names formally approved 86 new star names drawn from Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, South African and Aboriginal Australian cultures. Among the "new" star names was Unurgunite, the name given to σ Canis Majoris based on a myth of the Boorong people, an Australian Aboriginal nation in what is now north-western Victoria. The Boorong are commonly recognized as the world's first astronomers. With star lore dating back ten thousand years or more, Nunki may have passed the torch of the oldest star name to Unurgunite.

In Babylonian star catalogues, an asterism consisting of Shaula (λ Scorpii), Lesath
(υ Scorpii) and Kaus Australis (ε Sagittarii) is listed as PA-BIL-SAG.

Pabilsaĝ was a tutelary God of the city of Isin.

Gavin White notes that "... The familiar image of the Greek constellation as a horse-centaur armed with a bow and arrow is, in fact, a simplified version of the Babylonian figure, which is a truly composite character with a number of features not seen in the Greek version, such as a set of wings, a scorpion’s tail and the head of a dog. The details of Pabilsaĝ's iconography show a considerable amount of variation."

Sources: J.H. Rogers: Origins of the ancient constellations, Ian Ridpath,
G. White: Babylonian Star Lore

Centaur-Archer on Babylonian boundary stone Source: J. H. Rogers

Relief carving of Nergal from Hatra in Iraq
first or second century AD; Source: Wikipedia

Boundary stone image of a scorpion-bodied archer, 12th cent. BC
Source: G. White

Ancient Greece

The Greeks adopted the Mesopotamian figure of Pabilsaĝ as a centaur-like archer although the omitted the wings. As there is already a Centaur in the Greek skies (the constellation Centaurus), there is no particular Greek myth associated with this constellation. Ian Ridpath describes the confusion:

"Aratus spoke of the Archer, Τοξότης (Toxotes), and his Bow, Τόξον (Toxon), as though they were separate constellations. Most likely this is because the stars of the bow and arrow are the most distinctive part of the figure. They form the asterism that we now know as the Teapot.

Some doubted that this was a centaur at all, among them Eratosthenes who gave as one of his reasons the fact that centaurs did not use bows. Instead, Eratosthenes described Sagittarius as a two-legged creature with the tail of a satyr. He said that this figure was Crotus, son of Eupheme, the nurse to the Muses, who were nine daughters of Zeus. The Roman mythographer Hyginus in his Fabulae added the information that the father of Crotus was Pan, agreeing with Eratosthenes that the archer was a satyr rather than a centaur.

Crotus was said to have invented archery and often went hunting on horseback. He lived on Mount Helicon among the Muses, who enjoyed his company. They sang for him, and he applauded them loudly. The Muses requested that Zeus place him among the stars, where he is seen demonstrating the art of archery. In the sky he was given the hind legs of a horse because he was a keen horseman.

Aratus and Ptolemy, though, both spoke of the archer as a four-legged creature, which is how he is usually depicted. Ptolemy described him with a flowing cloak, known as the ephaptis, attached at his shoulders. By his forefeet is a circle of stars that Hyginus said was a wreath ‘thrown off as by one at play’. This circlet of stars is the constellation Corona Australis."

Source: Ian Ridpath.

Sagittarius woodcutting,
Johannes Regiomontanus, 1512
Source: Wikipedia

Sagittarius in the Leiden Aratea
Source: Wikimedia

Medieval Europe - Tarabellum

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).

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

From the 13th to the 16th century, Tarabellum 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.


Ancient India

In Hindu Astronomy, the stars Kaus Media (δ Sgr) and Kaus Australis (ε Sgr) are the center of the 20th Nakashtra, called Purva Ashāḍhā (पूर्वाषाढ़ा), the "first of the aṣāḍhā."

The stars Ascella (ζ Sgr) and Nunki (σ Sgr) are in the center of the 21th Nakashtra, called Uttara Ashāḍhā (उत्तराषाढ़ा), the "second of the aṣāḍhā."

Ashāḍhā means "the invincible one."

Source: Wikipedia

Ancient China

In Chinese, Sagittarius is written 人 馬 座.

In Chinese astronomy, the constellation forms nine asterisms, belonging to two Lunar Mansions, located in two quadrants.

, the seventh Lunar Mansion is located in the Azure Dragon of the East, while Dǒu, the eighth Lunar Mansion is located in the Black Tortoise of the North. The constellations that lgave their names to those lunar mansions are both located in Sagittarius. Ian Ridpath (partially quoted in the following paragraphs) provides an extensive and graphic description of the main asterisms:

, the "winnowing basket" consisted of four stars – γ, δ, ε and η Sagittarii – and represented a basket used for separating rice grains from chaff by shaking it in the air. The chaff, blown away by the breeze, is represented by a single star nearby called Kang, although opinions differ as to whether Kang lay in Sagittarius, Scorpius, or even Ophiuchus.

Chinese asterisms in Sagittarius
Map based on

A related constellation was Chu, the pestle, to the south of in Ara, for pounding the rice to remove the husks.

Dǒu, the dipper, also known as Nandǒu, (the southern dipper) was formed by μ, λ, φ , σ, τ and ζ Sagittarii, These same stars, bar μ, form the present-day asterism called the Milk Dipper. In a Chinese proverb, the southern dipper marks life while the northern dipper (Beidou, our Big Dipper in Ursa Major) marks death. A single star nearby, probably 5th-magnitude HR 7029, also called HD 172910, was Nóngzhàngrén, an old farmer, perhaps measuring out grain with the dipper and using the winnowing basket.

The Hong Kong Space Museum tells the story of the two dippers:

It was said that, in the Period of Three Kingdoms (220-280), there was a famous Taoist priest named Guan Lu. Once day he met a young man named Yan Chao. As an expert in physiognomy, he found the young man would die soon and told the man his ill fortune. At the time, Yan Chao was only nineteen and was really upset by the bad news. He begged the priest to help him. Guan Lu instructed, "You should go home fast and prepare a bottle of good wine and a plate of deer meat. Then go to the south of the wheat fields. Under a giant mulberry tree, you will find two old men playing Go. Serve them well and don't say a word. They may help you."

Following the instruction, Yan Chao finally found the old men as described. He stood beside still and served them with wine and meat silently. Being too concentrated on the game, they enjoyed the feast subconsciously. After some time, the old men to the North suddenly noticed the present of Yan Chao and annoyingly said, "What are you doing here?" Without saying a word, Yan Chao fell on his knees and kowtowed.
Two old men
Source: Hong Kong Space Museum
Not knowing how to deal with the young man, the old man finally said, "we've enjoyed his offerings. Let's do something to reward him." The old man to the South said, "Give me your record of death." When he found that Yan Chao was destined to live only nineteen years, he crossed the record out and changed it into ninety. Delighted with unexpected good result, Yan Chao thanked the old men and went home. Afterwards, Guan Lu explained, "the old man sitting to the North is Northern Dipper, the one to the South is Southern Dipper. Southern Dipper is responsible for the birth and Northern Dipper is responsible for the death."
To the north of Dǒu the arc formed by υ, ρ, 43, π, ο and ξ Sagittarii was known as Jiàn, representing a flag or banner, perhaps at a city gate. (Wikipedia describes Jiàn as "Establishment.")

Next to Jiàn was Tiānjī, the "celestial cock", formed by 55 and 56 Sagittarii; the bird represented by this constellation was said to be in charge of time, because it was the first to crow at dawn and all others followed it.

South of Tiānjī were two canine-related constellations. Gǒuguó centered around ω Sagittarii is translated as "territory of dogs" or "dog kingdom"; it could represent a nation that appears in a Chinese fable or it may simply be an area for dogs around a farm. Next to it was Gǒu, formed by 52 and χ
1 Sagittarii, representing a guard dog.
The Celestial Cock
Source: bestiarumvocabulum

Torres Strait Islanders / Australia

To the Torres Strait Islanders, Sagittarius was a hunter called Gep.

Gep is a ray-finned sucker fish, that was used to catch small turtles by latching a rope to its tail and throwing it near a turtle for it to latch itself to the turtle's shell and be pulled by the hunters.

Sources: Tommy Pau, Wikipedia

Suckerfish and turtle
© Tommy Pau

Navajo / North America

Shash, the Bear constellation is considered a spring and summer constellation. It consists of the stars of the Greek constellation Sagittarius.

Shash will first appear with the heliacal rise in the pre-dawn hours of early spring and signifies the coming of spring. The Bear constellation will emerge in the eastern horizon with the ears and nose appearing first. When the nose appears on the horizon in conjunction with the last star of the Thunder’s feather, it is said that the First Thunder sounds, heralding the onset of spring on earth. This is about the same time that bears emerge out of their caves after winter hibernation.

Source: Navajo Skies

Shash © Melvin Bainbridge

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