Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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Q: Amateur Western Constellation Studies

36: Richard Allen's Star-Names: Their Lore and Meaning

Star-lore enthusiast Richard Hinckley Allen (1838-1908).

Richard Allen was interested in astronomy from childhood. He was born in the village of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where his father, Richard L. Allen, purchased a large tract of land in the 1830's.

Richard Allen briefly attended Yale College (later to become Yale University). He completed 1 year (with honour) at Yale College in the class of 1860, with the hope of becoming an astronomer. He dropped out because of permanent serious problems with his eyesight. He initially withdrew for a year but he then went into business with his father. From 1860 to 1865 he was actively involved in his father's export trade business. (His brother Arthur Allen became a minister.) He also spent some time traveling. He tried his hand at various business enterprises and became a moderately successful businessman. After the death of his father in 1869 he became the manager of his father's estate.

Richard Allen had a wide range of scientific interests and continued his interest in scientific pursuits as a life-time hobby. His pastimes included farming, stock raising, amateur ornithology, and astronomy. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the National Geographic Society. His research into star-names and star-lore was primarily pursued for his own personal enjoyment.

His wide range of interests and knowledge resulted in his friends naming him "the walking encyclopedia."

He lived most of his life in New Jersey either at Newark (his usual residence because of his business dealings in New York) or Chatham (his country home). In his latter years he spent more time at Chatham where he was an elder and trustee of the Ogden Presbyterian Church (and an important financial benefactor), and superintendent of the Sunday School.

He suffered from poor health in his later years and died after a severe bout of influenza which worsened into pneumonia. His death occurred 6 days after travelling to attend the funeral of his sister. At the time of his death the author was working on a revised edition but it remained unfinished. His book on star-names was only published after the encouragement of some close friends, and was the only book on astronomy that he published.

See the (English-language) article "Richard Hinckley Allen." by Lucy Morris in Popular Astronomy, Volume 14, 1906, Pages 592-594.

Recent cover of 1963 Dover reprint of Richard Allen's 1899 book Star-Names and their Meanings.

The original 1899 edition (U.S.A.), and the 1936 reprint (France), was titled Star-Names and Their Meanings. (The 1936 reprint is hardly mentioned and seems almost unknown.) The 1963 reprint title was Star-Names: Their Lore and Meaning. The 1936 reprint was simply a reprint of the original 1899 edition. The 1963 reprint only included grammatical corrections. (The original edition is now very scarce.) It remains a very influential book.

The book should really not be used as it is an uncritical compilation from out-dated secondary sources and contains numerous errors; especially regarding Arabic, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian constellations and star names. At the time he wrote the information on non-European star/constellation names was very incomplete and often simply quite wrong. As examples: (1) Regarding his discussion of Arabic star names. Allen had no knowledge of Arabic and he uncritically relied upon Ideler's outdated book Sternnamen. Allen never made any attempt to check the accuracy of this secondary source he used with any of the primary sources - as Paul Kunitzsch did in the 1950s for his doctoral thesis. The Arabist scholar Paul Kunitzsch has demonstrated the unreliability of Ludwig Ideler as a reliable source for Arabic material. (2) The 1899 book is completely useless for Mesopotamian star and constellation names because important cuneiform sources - such as the Mul.Apin series - were not yet published.  (3) The knowledge contained in Egyptian Astronomical Texts by Otto Neugebauer and Richard Parker (3 Volumes, 1960-1969) was also not available.

Though a number of his bibliographical references are obscure it is possible to successfully identify most of his main sources. In the "Introduction" to his book Richard Allen indicates the main core of his sources as comprising Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen, by Ludwig Ideler (1809) (main source of Arabic and other European material); The Cycle of Celestial Objects, by William Smyth (the edition used is not identified but either 2 volumes 1844, or the revised one volume edition by George Chambers, 1881) (the main source of Western historical star lore and general material); The Dawn of Astronomy, by Norman Lockyer (1894) (the main source of Egyptian material); Observations of Comets: from B.C. 611 to A.D. 1640: extracted from the Chinese Annals, by John Williams (1871) (a main source of Chinese material); A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, by Robert Morrison (3 Parts, 1815-1823) (a main source of Chinese material); and unspecified publications by Johann Strassmaier and Joseph Epping, Archibald Sayce, Robert Brown Junior, Peter Jensen, and Fritz Hommel (the main sources of Mesopotamian material, generally circa 1895 latest).

As an example of how unreliable Richard Allen's book on star names can be simply refer to one of books by James Hewitt (one of the sources Allen uses). Primitive Traditional History (2 Volumes, 1907) will suffice as an illustrative example. James Hewitt is described by Allen as an "English essayist." Allen used material by Hewitt when discussing the identification of the star Vanant (See page 59 of the 1963 edition of Allen's book on Stars Names). James Hewitt (1835-1908) was actually a civil servant (Bengal Civil Service) - Commissioner of Chutia Nagpur - for much of his career, and considered himself to be an anthropologist. All reviewers/commentators agree that Hewitt's books on what he calls "mythic history" are largely fantasies, and make no sense at all.

 The Assyriologist and Panbabylonist Peter Jensen, in his 1890 book Die Kosmologie der Babylonier, proposed (erroneously) an original 6-constellation Babylonian zodiac (dating to circa 4000 BCE. Richard Allen was one of a number of people who picked up the idea and repeated it. Because Allen's book is dated and has been twice reprinted without corrections Jensen's dated and erroneous idea is still repeated. Allen wrote at a time when it was generally believed (without suitable evidence) that most of the constellations in the Greek sky originated circa 4000-3000 BCE.

Richard Allen stated that European star names came chiefly from the Arabs. Allen, who had no real understanding of Arabic, also concluded that many Arabic star-names were actually translations of Greek descriptive terms transmitted through Arabic into Latin (and from Latin into English and other languages). When the linguist Maio Pei made a check of 183 English star-names he concluded that 125 were from Arabic, and 9 were from Arabic-Latin. (See: Story of the English Language by Mario Pei (1967; Page 225).) Paul Kunitzsch and Tim Smart (A Dictionary of Modern Star Names (2006; Page 11) write: "A statistical analysis of the 254 star names here presented reveals that (counting five double entries only once) 175 names (= 70%) are Arabic and 47 (= 19%) are Greek or Latin." The modern authority on such matters is Paul Kunitzsch. Emilie Savage-Smith wrote (Islamicate Celestial Globes (1985; Page 114)): "The star names used in the classical Islamic world were derived from two distinct sources: the names used by pre-Islamic Bedouins, and those transmitted from the Greek world. As Greek astronomy and astrology were accepted and elaborated, primarily through the Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Almagest, the indigenous Bedouin star groupings were overlaid with the Ptolemaic constellations that we recognize today." 

For Western constellations and star names use of Richard Allen's Star-Names should be replaced with: Planetarium Babylonicum, by Felix Gössmann (1950) (but now becoming outdated); Egyptian Astronomical Texts, by Otto Neugebauer and Richard Parker (3 Volumes (plus 1 Volume of photographs/illustrations), 1960-1969); Gestirnnamen bei den indogermanischen Völken, by Anton Scherer (1953); (importantly) Le vocabulaire latin de l'Astronomie, by André Le Boeuffle (3 Volumes, 1973) (who traces both Greek and Babylonian antecedents for Latin constellation/star names); and Arabische Sternnamen in Europa, by Paul Kunitzsch (1959); and for star lore its use can be replaced with Mythen der Sterne, by Friedrich Norman (1925); The New Patterns in the Sky: Myths and Legends of the Stars, by Julius Staal (1988); and (importantly) Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets, by Ed. Krupp (1991). Note: The most recent and the most satisfactory likely identifications of ancient Egyptian constellations (with modern Western constellations) is set out in Table 6.1 (Pages 162-163) in Lull, José. and Belmonte, Antonio. (2009). "The constellations of ancient Egypt." In: Belmonte, Juan. and Shaltout, Mosalam. (Editors). In Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy. Identifications are made for 31 ancient Egyptian constellations.


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