Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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O: Modern Western Constellations

28: Post Islam Arabic-Islamic Constellations

The remains of the Qusayr 'Amra lodge and bath house in present-day Jordan. The photograph shows the rear of the remaining building comprising the bath house (audience hall, east bay, vault of bath house). The bath is built on the Roman model. The dome/cupola of the "hot room" of the hamman (bath house) is seen on the right. Outside light floods into the calidarium/caldarium - in the bath wing - through its 4 windows. One of the more remarkable frescos in the Qusayr 'Amra is that of the little dome of the calidarium, which is a very early representation of the night sky in the round surface. The constellations painted on the domed ceiling of the calidarium comprises the earliest extant evidence of Islamic celestial mapping. Also, the representation of constellations is among the earliest examples of pictorial art in the Islamic period that have survived to the present-day. The artist was influenced by pre-Islamic visual tradition.

The post-Islamic Arabic tradition of astronomy took up the organisation of the sky from Greek uranography. The constellations painted at Qusayr 'Amra demonstrate the close connection between late classical (Graeco-Roman art) and early Islamic art. In the private realm of Islamic art, representations of living beings remained permissible, Greek constellation figures at the Qusayr 'Amra lodge and bath house being an example.

The Qusayr 'Amra (also spelled Qasr Amra and Qusayr 'Amrah) bath house complex was built in a remote area in the eastern desert of present-day Jordan. (Properly, it is located in steppe, not desert. Some vegetation exists in the region.) The building is the remnant of a larger complex (provincial palace). It is situated about 80 kilometres east of Amman (Jordan). The bath house was built in Wadi Butm which was full of water in the spring. The water for the bath was drawn from a nearby well. The water was obtained by hydraulic means. (A beast-of-burden powered a hydraulic water raising system.) The building is constructed from red limestone and basalt. It formed part of a larger residential complex that was commonly used as a hunting lodge (desert lodge). The building was located in a hunting ground. (In the era of the Umayyad (661-750 CE) and 'Abbāsid (750-1258 CE) caliphates, hunting with cheetahs was a popular pastime for the political elite throughout the Middle East.) It is thought the original larger complex included residential quarters and a fortress. (A protective fort existed on a nearby hill and only the foundations now remain. The fort would have served to house troops on a temporary basis.) Today the bath house is the site's only remaining building for what could be termed an Arab palace complex - meant as a royal retreat, without any military function. (The remaining structure contains two main components: an audience hall and a bath house.) The whole complex was rather small so was not intended for lengthy residential use. (It was not a castle but frequently continues to be loosely described as a 'desert castle.') The building and its frescoes date to the Umayyad period. The Qusayr 'Amra complex was one of a number lodges believed to be used as a vacation residence for short (hunting) trips by the Umayyad rulers or for short stop-overs by judges or high functionaries on their journeys. The complex is believed to have been built between 711 CE and 715 CE by one of the Umayyad rulers. (The dating is enabled by a fresco depicting six rulers; "The Family of Kings" defeated by the Umayyads.) The attribution of the building to a certain person of the early 8th-century remains uncertain. It is usually held that it was built by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid I (ruled 705-715 CE) who, at this period of time, was gaining increasing dominance over the region. However, this identification may be incorrect. The more likely candidates are either Walid II or Yazid III. (Walid II (ruled 743-744) was the uncle of Walid I.) The complex is one of the most important examples of early Islamic art and architecture. (In each of its rooms the walls and ceilings are covered in richly painted frescoes.)

Educated mawálí (non-Arab clients who were responsible for the day-to-day running of Umayyad estates) of Greek origin abounded at the Umayyad court. They would have been able to recognize and understand a Greek zodiac if they saw one. The Umayyad rulers and high functionaries would have been able to recognise and perhaps understand a Greek zodiac, and other Greek art forms.

In the strictest form of Islamic art only patterns and colours are permitted. This meant that Islamic art is traditionally limited to abstract geometrical forms. However, the Qur'an, the holy book of the Islamic religion, does not explicitly forbid the representation of human or animal forms. Early Islamic traditions were generally against the the use of images by artists. Islamic art has typically focused, though not entirely, on the depiction of patterns rather than on figures. In the private world of early Islamic palaces (and similar) the representation of humans and animals continued unabated. The human and animal depictions on the frescoes at the the Qusayr 'Amra lodge are an example of this.

The long abandoned building was rediscovered in 1898 by the Czech archaeologist (he is also identified as an Austrian) Reverend Doctor Alois Musil of the University of Olmütz. In the early 1970s a Spanish Archaeological Mission was sent to Jordan to preserve and promote Qusayr 'Amra. They carried out limited archeological excavations of the area and discovered the remnants of a smaller courtyard castle 300 metres northwest of the bath house. Between 1971 and 1974 this team from the Madrid Archaeological Museum, under the direction of Martin Almegro, painstakingly cleaned and conserved the frescoes. (At the time of its discovery the celestial map painted in the bath house was in a poor state of preservation.) In 1998 a Franco-Jordanian project to collect new documentary material of the mural paintings in the buildings comprising the Qusayr 'Amra complex. From the data obtained by this project 2 more Ptolemaic constellations (Perseus and Auriga) were identified.

View of the constellations painted on the inside of the 2.75 metre (some sources say 2.60 metre) diameter dome at the Qusayr 'Amra bath house. The design/placement of the constellations is that which would be seen looking down on a globe. The decorated surface approximates to 10 square metres. On the lower right the zodiacal constellation Sagittarius is shown out-of-place in the space available between two arched windows. The four arched windows face the cardinal points. The only trace of an Islamic planispheric star-map is perhaps echoed on this constellation fresco at Qusayr 'Amra, and it was probably derived from late classical maps.

The classical Greek constellation set was readily adopted in the Islamic Middle Ages. Arab-Islamic star mapping mostly followed the Ptolemaic tradition. Ptolemy's star catalogue remained the standard star catalogue in both the Western and Islamic world for circa 1000 years.

The representation of the "Dome of Heaven" on the cupola of Qusayr 'Amra is not regarded as an isolated phenomena in the classical and postclassical world. Bath houses in the Greek East had similar ceiling depictions but none have been preserved. However, no other existing examples are known.

The 2.75 metre diameter dome/cupola of the the caldarium or "hot room" of the hamman (bath house) at Qusayr 'Amra contains a unique hemispherical celestial map. (The design of the baths follows the Roman bath custom of apodyterium, tepidarium, and caldarium.) The inside of the dome/cupola above the calidarium was presented as the "Dome of Heaven." It is painted with constellations of the northern hemisphere together with the signs of the zodiac. It is one of the earliest known astronomical charts surviving on such a scale. It is also thought to be the earliest surviving attempt to represent the constellation of the night sky on the inside of a hemispherical surface, rather than a flat surface. The surviving fragments of the astronomical fresco show parts of 37 constellations (involving some 400 stars). Similar to the Graeco-Roman tradition the constellations are represented by pictures only-  individual stars are not depicted/represented. This celestial map furnishes a connecting link between the classical representations of the constellations and the later Arab-Islamic forms. (The classical Greco-Roman constellation iconography found in Aratean manuscripts is evident in most of the constellations at Qusayr 'Amra. The iconography of most of the constellations is classical or early medieval (Western).) The hemispherical celestial map, like the rest of the frescoes, was probably painted between circa 730-750 CE. Also, it is likely a copy of an illustration in a manuscript - the artist seems to have been copying from a drawing which he has transposed in mirror-image, reversing the relationship of all the constellations.

Emilie Savage-Smith states: "In painting this early Syrian domed ceiling, the unknown artist ... was continuing a well-established pre-Islamic tradition of celestial mapping." The hemispherical dome fresco of Qusayr 'Amra was an attempt to portray scientifically the celestial sky. As on a celestial globe the constellation figures appear within a system of coordinates. Whilst the constellation depiction cannot be called scientifically correct, they are evidence of a thoroughly scientific approach. The zodiac, in particular, testifies to the artist's considerable skill in depicting on a hemispherical cupola the whole night sky visible in a given place. A number of technical adjustments were required, and the artist had to erase and redo several parts of his composition; in other words, he was interested in accuracy, not just aesthetic effect.

The map has circles and twelve radii that do not emerge from the centre of the dome but from the ecliptic North Pole, with the constellation signs arranged accordingly. From the length of the radial lines it is possible to calculate that the sky map was drawn for thirty-two degrees north and so is not simply a copy of a Greek sky map but is based on a surviving tradition. Only some 35 constellations now remain. The remaining constellations that are still distinguishable include Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear),  Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Orion. The signs of the zodiac are incorporated in easily recognisable forms. Sagittarius, for instance, is shown as a centaur, his human torso turning back to draw his bow, the classic pose for the Parthian shot.

The constellations are not portrayed as seen by the spectator within the globe. They are portrayed as they appear on the outer surface of the celestial sphere. Interestingly, the drawings of the constellations are reversed as well as their relative positions; they are depicted counterclockwise around the dome, suggesting that the 8th-century artist copied a drawing (or had used a celestial globe for assistance) without realizing that the astronomical order has to be reversed for a concave hemispherical surface like the inside of a dome. (The constellations are depicted as would be seen looking down on a globe, rather than as would be seen from earth.) Also, the orientation of some constellations figures, for example Sagittarius, is wrong.

Constellations from the southern sky are also portrayed. The equator is considerably above the base of the dome. (As a result, the tropic of Capricorn has a larger diameter than the equator.) The painter attempted to represent more than half of the sky on the inside of an almost hemispherical dome/cupola. However, inaccuracies exist indicating that the painter was an artist, not an astronomer. As well as all of the (primary) northern constellations the artist, who was especially interested in the constellations of the zodiacal belt, also recorded some of the southern constellations. The means of projecting the night sky on the available surface were inadequate. To avoid interruptions due to the four arched windows at the base of the dome/cupola he placed the pole in the zenith at the top of the dome/cupola and lifted the horizontal equator. The artist has attempted to portray the known celestial globe. As such the celestial equator is considerably above the base of the dome/cupola. As a result, the Tropic of Capricorn has a larger diameter than the celestial equator. The painter also crowded some of the ceiling areas too tightly and failed to have the band of the ecliptic pass through the northern solstitial point. The four windows at the base of the dome/cupola also interfered with the representation of the southern constellations. The ecliptic coordinates are represented by twelve longitude arcs that meet at the pole of the ecliptic, in the constellation Draco, and by the zodiacal belt. However, the zodiacal belt is depicted as laying to the north instead of both sides of the ecliptic. (The zodiacal zone is represented on the fresco by a pinkish white stripe edged with red that is about 10 degrees wide. The width of the zodiacal zone on the celestial sphere in Greek antiquity and until the 8th-century CE was actually 12 degrees. The median circle, the ecliptic itself, has not been represented.) The astronomical correspondence of the zodiacal constellations with the 30-degree intervals of longitude (marked by the 12 longitudinal arcs) is forfeited by the artist deciding to display the zodiacal constellation Sagittarius in the space available between two windows. 

The equator corresponds roughly to the 7th- or 8th-century CE. Because of the inaccuracies in the way the sky is represented it is impossible to date either the fresco (astronomical painting) or the original globe by the position of the equinoxes.

Source: "Frescoes in the Muslim residence and bathhouse Qusayr 'Amra." by Mab van Lohuizen-Mulder. (BaBesch [BABesch - Bulletin Antieke Beschaving], Volume 73, January, 1998, Pages 125-151, Page 131). The author believes that the frescoes were mainly made by Coptic artisans who painted in a recognisable Egyptian/Coptic style.

Appendix 1: The Constellations Identified

Saxl and Beer could both identify 33 Ptolemaic constellations or remaining parts of constellations. They disagreed on the identification of one. Saxl identified a remaining fragment with Cepheus, whereas Beer identified it as Cassiopeia. From the data obtained by the 1998 Franco-Jordanian project at the Qusayr 'Amra complex 2 more Ptolemaic constellations (Perseus and Auriga) were identified (by Brunet, Nadel, and Vibert-Guigue). 15 constellations are to the north of the zodiac (Ursa Minor, Ursa Maior, Draco, Cepheus, Bootes, Hercules, Lyra, Cygnus, Perseus, Auriga, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Aquila, Delphinus, Andromeda), 9 are in the zodiac (Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces), and 11 are to the south of the zodiac (Cetus, Orion, Lepus, Canis Minor, Navis, Hydra, Crater, Corvus, Centaurus, Ara, Corona Australis). Additionally, there is an image of an ivy leaf covering a group of stars above Leo's tail.  

Appendix 2: Early Planispheric Maps

The earliest completely preserved example of a planispheric map of the sky produced by stereographic projection is a diagram in a Carolingian period copy of an Aratean manuscript, copied in 818 CE. Emilie Savage-Smith states: "As the fresco at Qusayr Amrah predates the Carolingian map by a century, it seems certain at this point that the extant Western manuscripts of planisphere celestial maps produced by stereographic projections represent a much older, continuous tradition of mapping that reached Syria by the early eighth century along a route at present unknown." There are numerous accounts of  Caliph al-Walid I bringing Byzantine artisans into Damascus in the early 8th-century CE, for the construction of the great Umayyad mosque. Later, indigenous Bedouin uranography/starlore played a role in Islamic celestial mapping. Stereographic projection requires the notion of sphericity from which - using mathematical rules - points on a flat surface are plotted to correspond to points on a spherical surface, whether terrestrial or celestial.

The original Greek astronomical poem Phainomena by Aratus was translated into Arabic early in the 9th-century CE. This Arabic translation was used in Kitab al-'unwan (The book of models) (941-942 CE) by Mahbub (Agapius), who lived in the Syrian town of Manbij (northeast of Aleppo). It is not known whether the copy of Phainomena by Aratus translated into Arabic was illustrated. The extent of the influence of Aratean constellation illustrations on Islamic constellation iconography remains difficult to determine.

It is certain that planispheric maps were available in the Islamic world long before the translation (and certain introduction) of the Phaenomena early in the 9th-century. This is shown by the circa 71 l-715 CE frescoed dome of the constellations in the desert palace of Qusayr 'Amra, Jordan. The fresco represents the constellations of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres (although its damaged state allows only a fragmentary glimpse), and was probably copied from a planispheric map showing the constellations as they appear on a globe - the figures are depicted in mirror-image of their proper appearance in the sky. Fritz Saxl identified two Greek manuscripts containing planispheric maps which share "striking astrothetical errors" with Qusayr 'Amra as well as similarities in iconography. There are also enough iconographical differences between the Western manuscripts and the fresco to show "the orientalisation of the [classical constellation] types at an early stage." The fresco also demonstrates new activity in the classical mapping tradition, changes made in the Islamic world. Savage-Smith observes that the frescoed map uses a system of lines dividing the ecliptic into 12 segments, which is characteristic of Islamic celestial globes, and not used in the West. This shows that Qusayr 'Amra occupies a stage of transition between Greek and Islamic scientific/astronomical traditions. Savage-Smith stated that the absence of Libra from Qusayr 'Amra affiliates the fresco with "a pre-Ptolemaic conception of the skies," as represented by the planispheric maps in Aratean manuscripts. However, the fragmentary state of the Umayyad fresco does not conclusively show that Libra has indeed been omitted. The exact source of the planispheric map model for Qusayr 'Amra  is not known, but the constellation fresco points to active development of classical maps and constellation iconography within the Islamic world. While the Qusayr 'Amra mapping-lines demonstrate a more scientific approach than would be expected in the Phaenomena of Aratus, the ultimate source of the imagery may well have been a "globe-view" planisphere illustration to Aratus' text.

However, Elly Dekker (Illustrating the Phaenomena (2013)) has shown that the idea that medieval planispheres were based on stereographic projection cannot be maintained. She states that how the mappings at Qusayr 'Amra were realised is presently unknown. Her ideas in her section on Qusayr 'Amra in her book have yet to be utilised in this essay. Dekker's "... book is partly devoted to to dispel persistent histiographic myths and mistakes. The most remarkable example is the confutation of the claim that ancient and medieval northern and southern celestial hemispheres and planispheres are based on the same stereographic projection employed to make planispheric astrolabes. By measuring the positions of the stars, the constellations and the reference circles drawn on the maps, Dekker demonstrates that hemispheres and planispheres were not based on the stereographic projection. From the first medieval examples up to the end of the 15th century, such maps were instead based on an intuitive form of equidistant projection. The later facilitated the transfer of astronomical data from a star catalogue to a grid of meridians and uniformly spaced parallels. This cartographic structure also marks a tight connection between maps and globes. Dekker indeed suggests that old hemispheres and planispheres may originate from copying celestial globes taken as models." (Giorgio Strano, Book Review Illustrating the Phaenomena, Nuncius, Volume 30, 2015, Pages 715-717, Page 716.)

Appendix 3: Agade Mailing list: News 31 May, 2012: New discovery at early Islamic site in Jordan: Uncovered inscription reveals name of Umayyad prince.

"AMMAN, JORDAN.- Recent conservation work at Qusayr 'Amra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 85 kilometers east of Amman, has revealed the name of the Umayyad prince who commissioned the construction of the building. … The inscription, which previously could not be read due to accumulated dirt and previous unsuccessful cleaning attempts, is an invocation to Allah beginning with the formula "Allahumma aslih al-Walid ibn Yazîd" ("Oh God! Make al-Walîd ibn Yazîd virtuous"). This inscription was painted in white above a window in old Kufic alphabet without any diacritical dots. Sections of the three-line inscription are still being translated. Walid Ibn Yazid, or Walid II, was an Umayyad caliph who reigned for a little over a year, from February 743 to April 744. The inscription, however, is missing the typical expressions used for Umayyad caliphs ("God's servant," "Prince of the Believers"), indicating that it was painted when Walid was still a prince, during the reign of Hisham bin Abd el-Malik (723–743). The current conservation campaign at Qusayr 'Amra began in 2009 with the goals of consolidating the structure and cleaning the mural paintings. The latter activity is revealing brilliant colors and unexpected details that can be seen now for the first time, almost 1,300 years after the site was abandoned following the Abbasid revolution, which resulted in the defeat of the Umayyads in 750. …"


"The Frescoes of Amra." by Patricia Baker (Saudi Aramco World, Volume 31, Number 4, July/August, 1980).

"Qasr' Amra." by Rami Khouri (Saudi Aramco World, Volume 41, Number 5, September/October, 1990).

"Celestial Mapping." by Emelie Savage-Smith. In: The History of Cartography. Volume 2, Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies. (1992). Edited by John Harley and David Woodward. (Pages12-76).

Qusayr 'Amra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria by Garth Fowden (2004).

Illustrating the Phaenomena: Celestial Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages by Elly Dekker (2013). (Note: Contains a detailed and importance discussion of Qusayr 'Amra.)

See also the excellent discussion of the images in: Anderson, Benjamin. (2017). Cosmos and Community in Early Medieval Art.

The Confused Case of Algol as the Demon Star

Since the publication of Jerome Lettvin's article "The Gorgon's Eye" in the December, 1977, Technology Review (reprinted in the book Astronomy of the Ancients (1979) edited by Kenneth Brecher and Michael Feirtag), a number of people have assumed that it had been demonstrated that the ancient Greeks knew that the star Algol varied in brightness. Lettvin's paper ("The Gorgon's Eye") has been rightly criticized for being highly speculative. Regardless, other persons refer to a book by a Finnish researcher that Algol's variability is well-known in the skylore of the northern-Siberian people I initially thought this was likely to be Uno Holmberg's outstanding book Finnish-Ugric, Siberian Mythology (1927). Actually, the source is Shamanism and Culture by Juha Pentikäinen (1998). His claims are also doubtful. (Juha Pentikäinen, is now (2012) Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, University of Helsinki; Docent of Northern Ethnography and Culture, University of Lapland.)

Conference abstract (Celestial Aesthetics: The Aesthetics of Sky, Space and Heaven: 7th International Conference on Environmental Aesthetics, 26–28 March 2009, The Valamo Monastery, Heinävesi, Finland): "The following abstract is based on an article by Leena Tähtinen in the magazine Tiede in 2008. [Title:] The elk ran off to the sky. The starry sky of the ancient Finns was a stomping ground for international myths. Thanks to the shamans still active in Siberia, some of the millennia-old myths known from the mythologies of Egypt, Greece and Arabia, for example, can be localised in the current constellations. For ancient Finns, the sky was like a vault pierced with holes that turned around the pillar of the world. In the Kalevala it was called the speckled lid ('kirjokansi'). In Siberia, the Finno-Ugric culture has been conserved by deep-freezing, as it were. At 7 p.m. on 24 January 1990, the Khanty shaman Ivan Stepanovich Sopochin showed me a constellation representing a horned creature. Inside his hut he drew the outline of the figure in my notebook. The deer is related to the reindeer sacrifice and its rituals that guarantee the economic welfare of the Khanty living on the river Ob. Because of this, the myth about it is very important. According to the shaman, at the dawn of time, when life had only newly appeared on Earth, the deer had six legs. It was so swift that not even the best hunter could catch it. The son of the Earth God had tried for a long time, but in vain. One winter he approached the animal on a frozen lake, and it did not even try to flee. The hunter drew his knife and in his anger cut off the two hindmost legs of the deer. At the same time, he cursed the six-legged horned animal as a mistake of his father, and conjured up a four-legged creature in the sky. Up there, it would have to show hunters the way in the dark. After my return to Finland I showed the constellation drawn by the Siberian to Tapio Markkanen, Docent of Astronomy at the University of Helsinki. Markkanen checked the position of the sky at 7 p.m. on 24 January, when the horned creature shone at the top of the sky on the Ob. The same place on the star map was occupied by two present-day constellations, Perseus and Cassiopeia. The double-V formed by Cassiopeia makes a handsome pair of horns for a celestial deer or elk. Perseus, in turn, consists of stars that are located between Cassiopeia and Capella, the brightest star in the Charioteer constellation. These are not stars that one normally attaches any attention to, but the rather faint group of stars can easily be seen to form a body and legs for the horned head. The most interesting observation relates to the animal's legs. Close to them is Algol, a star belonging to Perseus, whose brightness regularly varies. Sometimes it is so faint that it cannot be seen at all with the naked eye. The peoples of north Siberia have noticed this variation, which was only discovered in the West in the late 1800s. This requires very close and accurate observation. Maybe the story about amputating the deer's legs actually started with the star that sometimes disappeared." The immediate problem is the statement: "Sometimes it is so faint that it cannot be seen at all with the naked eye." Algol changes from its usual magnitude of 2.1 to a magnitude of 3.4 in the middle of an eclipse. The professional folklorist Clive Tolley remarks (personal communication, 24 October 2014): "Juha Pentikäinen was excited by what the Khanty shaman Sopochin told him about this, and he got him to draw a picture, but when I quizzed Pentikäinen about exactly what stars were included, and which represented the two legs the elk lost, he couldn't really answer, as he hadn't bothered clarifying it with the shaman, and now we'll never know." Dr Clive Tolley is (2014) Docent, Department of Folkloristics, University of Turku, Finland.

An additional claim for ancient knowledge of the variability of Algol is related to a claim for the Hindu name of Algol. In his early article on Algol Stephen Wilks states: "More suggestive of ancient knowledge of Algol's variability is its rarely-cited Hindu name, Mayavati, meaning "The Changeful." The reference is to, Popular Hindu Astronomy (1905) by Kalinath Mukherji, a prominent Indian lawyer. A short but important critique of Mukherji's claims appears on page 123 of Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon (2000) by Stephen Wilk. Questioned is Mukherji's association of Mayavati with Algol (Mukherji is undecided whether the association can be made) and also Mukherji's translation of Mayavati as "The Changeful." It appears "the illusory one" is a more accurate translation. Interestingly, Traditions of the Seven RSIS (1982) by John Mitchiner; Page 43: "In astronomical terms, Arundhati – the wife of the Rsi Vasistha – is identified with Alcor, the small (almost invisible to the eye) [star] close beside ζ [Zeta] Ursa Major. A passage in the Adi Parvan of the Mahabharata offers an explanation for her being sometimes visible and sometimes invisible, saying that this is because she once doubted her husband Vasistha." [Mitchiner offers as reference: Brhat-samhita [6th-century CE Sanskrit Encyclopedia] 13.1-6 (but this reference seems irrelevant).]

The sinologist David Pankenier writes (2012): "In the Chinese context Algol is called 大陵五 (5th Star of the asterism Great Tumulus (NB: or "mound," but not "mausoleum"), and the star is referred to individually as 叠尸 dieshi  or earlier 積尸 jishi, both of which mean piled corpses, and evidently refer to the practice of piling up the corpses of the enemy dead as a grisly monument to victory. In the "Monograph on Astrology" (Tianwen zhi, ch. 1) of the History of the Jin Dynasty (265–420) 晉書, compiled early 7th c., one reads: "Within the Great Tumulus there is a star called Piled Corpses. When it is bright the dead are [piled high] as a mountain." The obvious implication is that the star is sometimes "not bright" but this is also said in reference to other stars and asterisms as well (for example, M44 Praesepe) presumably depending on seeing, so it is not conclusive evidence that Algol was being singled out for its variability. Adding to the potential for confusion, M44 was also sometimes referred to as "Piled Corpses", the surrounding square of stars in Cancer conventionally called Carriage Ghost (actually not originally a carriage but a spectral shape being conveyed in a sedan chair). M44 is obviously the "ghost"." The astronomer Robert van Gent commented (2012): "[The] ... apparent brightness changes of stars (and even groups of stars) mentioned in Chinese sources can not be taken as evidence that the ancient Chinese recognized their intrinsic variability but that they should be explained by variations in atmospheric extinction. This explanation also applies for stellar observations found in Babylonian astrological omen texts which in the past were also interpreted as evidence that the ancient Babylonians knew of the variability of Mira, Algol and other stars. These claims were refuted by N.T. Bobrovnikoff in ["The Discovery of Variable Stars." by Nicholas Bobrovnikoff (Isis, Volume 33, Number 6, June, 1942), Pages 687-689).]"

None of the sources, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Chinese, and medieval European, offer provide firm evidence that the variability of the brightness of Algol was known before the time of the 17th-century Italian astronomer and optician Geminiano Montanari, who first recorded (circa 1667) his discovery of its variability. (Algol is a partially eclipsing binary.) Most claims are simply based on lack of research and on the simple assumption that the star's variability must have been known to ancient astronomers because it is a fairly bright star and its variability is so obvious to a modern naked-eye observer. There are a multitude of claims invoking the "known fact" that the star was referred to in the distant past as the "Winking Demon" or the "Blinking Demon". However, a search (using Google Books) made by Robert van Gent, the prominent Dutch historian of astronomy, found the term "Winking Demon," linked to Algol, can only be traced back to 1882. Also, the earliest reference to Algol as a "Blinking Demon," can only be traced back to 1896.

The recent (2012) paper by Lauri Jetsu, et al. "Did the ancient Egyptians record the period of the eclipsing binary Algol - the Raging one?" has been criticized by astronomers Robert van Gent and Robert Zavala for failing to provide any firm/direct evidence that the ancient Egyptians actually kept track of variations in Algol’s brightness while offering prognostications - or were even actually observing Algol. (Lauri Jetsu (PhD (1994, Univ. Helsinki), Docent (1996, Univ. Helsinki), Docent (1997, Univ. Oulu)) is a lecturer, University of Helsinki, Finland.) See also recent (speculative) article: "Algol as Horus in the Cairo Calendar: the possible means and the motives of the observations." by Sebastian  Porceddu, et al. (Open Astronomy, Volume 27, 2018, Pages 232-263). [Kindly brought to my attention by Aurélien Rolland.]

It would seem conclusive that there is no firm evidence for pre-telescopic knowledge of the fluctuation in brightness of Algol. It would seem conclusive there is no direct reference (or evidence of any kind) in Arabic-Islamic texts that they had knowledge of the anomalous behavior of Algol. Also, the Greeks never attributed a pulsing eye(s) to Medusa or her 2 sisters. The 3 Gorgons had deadly stares; not deadly blinks/winks.

The Greek myth states the Gorgons/Medusa stared - and in his essay Jerome Lettvin concedes this - but modern interpreters, Lettvin included, exercise some popular philological arguments, etc, to attribute blinking/winking. Lettvin concedes he has no support from Richard Allen's popular book Star-Names (1899) for this. Effectively, Lettvin attempts to argue that the deadly staring eyes of Medusa are represented astronomically as the blinking of Algol and possibly ρ Persei, even though he admits no ancient source states this. Very few persons have attempted to make the effort to identify why Arab-Islamic astronomers gave the name Algol (demon). The Arab-Islamic astronomers - as standard practice - usually gave complimentary names to the stars. For a 'demon' star Algol is quite placid - its only characteristic is to fluctuate in brightness.

The historian Jean Seznec (1905-1983), in his book, The Survival of Pagan Gods (1981 printing, Page 180), discussing types of errors in the transmission of iconography, wrote: "A typical example of the first case is the curious transformation of the Medusa head in the illustrations of astronomical manuscripts: the Arab copyist, knowing nothing of Greek mythology, mistook the blood dripping from the severed head for a bard, and changed the Gorgon into a hirsute [hairy] demon. [Note 74] His error is even perpetuated in the terminology of modern astronomers who still give the name Algol, meaning "demon," to the strange star in the constellation Perseus whose brightness varies periodically." [Note 74:] "See for example, cod. Vat. 8174, cod. Vondob. 5415 (sky map), and the Perseus of the lapidary of Alfonso X; a Sûfi ms., Paris, Bib. Nat. cod. Arab. 5036; a ms. of Qazwin; cod. Vindob 1437; Brit. Mus. Cod. Or. 5323 (fig 60)." It is indicated the matter is also discussed by Anthony Cárdenas in his paper: "Alfonso X's Appropriation of the Perseus Myth: History and Science." (Medievalia et Humanistica, New Series, Number 25, 1998, Pages 15-30).

According to Paul Kunitzsch and Tim Smart (A Dictionary of Modern Star Names (2nd edition, 2006, Page 49)) 'Algol' is one of the oldest Arabic star names applied in the West, from the end of the 10th-century CE. It is an abbreviation of the Arabic ra's al-ghūl meaning 'the Demon's Head,' for Ptolemy's Gorgon head.

Appendix 1: 2015 Article by Lauri Jetsu, et. al.

"Ancient Egyptians described Algol's eclipses."

Summary: The Ancient Egyptian papyrus Cairo 86637 calendar is the oldest preserved historical document of naked eye observations of a variable star, the eclipsing binary Algol -- a manifestation of Horus, a god and a king. This calendar contains lucky or unlucky prognoses for each day of one year. Researchers have performed a statistical analysis of the Cairo Calendar mythological texts. Their analysis revealed that the periods of Algol (2.85 days) and the Moon (29.6 days) strongly regulate the actions of deities in this calendar. "Until now, there were only conjectures that many of the mythological texts of the Cairo Calendar describe astronomical phenomena. We can now unambiguously ascertain that throughout the whole year the actions of many deities in the Cairo Calendar are connected to the regular changes of Algol and the Moon," says Master of Science Sebastian Porceddu. This research confirms that the first variable star, as well as its period, were discovered much earlier than was previously thought. These two "classical" milestones in the history of natural sciences need to be shifted three millennia backwards in time to 1244 -- 1163 BC. This also confirms the two "modern" astrophysical results reported by the Helsinki group in the year 2013: The first direct observation ever of the expected increase of Algol's period and the accurate long--term estimate for the mass transfer in this binary system. "I would have serious doubts, if someone claimed, for example, that the Bible contains information about water in Mars. We claimed that Ancient Egyptian religious texts contain astrophysical information about Algol. It was no surprise to us that there were, and there still are, skeptics," says docent Lauri Jetsu. The research also confirms that the brightest phases of Algol and the Moon had particularly positive meanings for the Ancient Egyptians.

Journal reference: Lauri Jetsu, Sebastian Porceddu. "Shifting Milestones of Natural Sciences: The Ancient Egyptian Discovery of Algol's Period Confirmed." PLOS ONE, 2015; 10 (12).

Note: To avoid misunderstandings the term Arab-Islamic needs to be defined. Arabic is a linguistic term identifying Arabic language users and the use of Islamic has the sense of civilisation rather than religion. (The term Arab-Islamic = linguistic-cultural (those who wrote in Arabic); not ethnic-religious.)


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