Ancient Zodiacs, Star Names, and Constellations: Essays and Critiques
The Entry of Arabic Star Names into Europe by Gary D. Thompson
Copyright © 2001-2018 by Gary D. Thompson
Return To Site Contents Page
The Entry of Arabic Star Names into Europe
The process of naming Western constellations and stars has been a continuous one from early times to the 19th-century CE. Medieval Europe perhaps had names for most of the visible stars.
Richard Allen in his highly influential book Star-Names and Their Meanings (1899) 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. Paul Kunitzsch a science historian at the University of Munich, and an expert on Arabic star names, has done extensive research on the transmission of Arabic star names into European usage. The document research by Kunitzsch has established that at least 210 naked-eye stars have names derived from Arabic words. Of these 210 Arabic star names that he has identified, he concludes that just over half originate from authentic Arabic originals, and most others originate from translated Ptolemaic originals. Some 19 'Arabic' star names variously originate from conjecture, erroneous readings or artistic choice.
Present-day Western constellation names (and some star names) originated from a number of Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The cuneiform evidence recovered since the mid 1800s indicates that Greek uranography borrowed from the earlier Babylonian uranography, established circa late 2nd-millennium BCE. Some late Egyptian influence is also indicated. Most proper star names are a legacy from Islamic astronomers of the Middle Ages, the oldest system of stars names that is still used today. The majority of modern star names in the European languages are corrupt forms of the Arab-Islamic names (mainly due to linguistic adaptation and the inaccuracies of transliteration). In a few cases present-day astronomers have even used ancient Babylonian star names. As example: Girtab (θ Scorpii), Nunki (σ Sagittarii). Originally Nunki was the Babylonian name for the star Canopus.
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; not ethnic-religious.)
The leading expert on star names in Arab-Islamic astronomy, the German historian Paul Kunitzsch, has identified two traditions of star names in Muslim heritage. The first is the traditional star folklore of the Arabic peoples prior to Islam which he has named "indigenous-Arabic", the second being the scientific Arab-Islamic tradition, which he designates "scientific-Arabic".
A large amount of Arab-Islamic star nomenclature found its way into the Latin (European) astronomy of the Middle Ages. The movement of Arab-Islamic star names into Europe is rather complex. At first, Latin translations were made by European scholars from Islamic-Arabic translations of original Greek astronomical manuscripts. Soon after a number of Arab-Islamic astronomical and mathematical treatises were also translated into Latin. Somewhat later, with the discovery of Greek manuscripts in the Byzantine Empire, important Greek works were translated directly into Latin from the Greek.
The transmission of Arab-Islamic star names to Western Europe was accomplished in 3 distinct phases. The first phase was during the medieval period. This initial phase saw the transmission of the greatest number of Arabic star names, including the Ptolemaic corpus (150 CE), moving from al-Sufi (964 CE) to the astronomical compendium of Spain's King Alfonso X "El Sabio." The second phase was during the late Renaissance period. This phase saw the transmission of most of the star names moving from the first printed edition of the works of King Alfonso X (1483) and from the first printed edition of Ptolemy's Almagest (Gerard's 1175 Latin translation from Arabic, published in 1515) to Bayer's Uranometria (1603). The third phase was during the 19th-century, with most of the star names transmitted from al-Sufi to Ulugh Beg's star list to Hyde's translation (1665) to Piazzi's Palermo star catalogue (1803).
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 dome of a bath house at Qusayr 'Amra, the only remaining building of an Arab palace in Jordan built circa CE 715, contains a unique hemispherical celestial map. The surviving fragments of the fresco show parts of 37 constellations and 400 stars. This celestial map furnishes a connecting link between the classical representations of the constellations and the later Islamic forms. Most Arab-Islamic star names in use are contractions of Arabic terms for "the body part of the constellation figure." The star name Vega is a corrupt form of the Arab-Islamic [al-nasr] al-wdqi, "the swooping [vulture]" which has no counterpart in classical Greek star nomenclature. The star name Denbola is a corrupt form of the Arab-Islamic dhanab al-asad, "the tail of the Lion." This descriptor was exactly the way the ancient Greeks referred to this star.
European astronomers and celestial map makers began to use Arabic star names in preference to Latin names circa 12th-century CE. This practice kept on increasing with the increasing ease of European access to Islamic texts and instruments. By the end of the 15th-century the process of European adoption of Arabic star names was essentially complete. The "Arabic" names were retained in the formal, scientific nomenclature until the end of the 19th-century. Due to Arabic influence on Europe during the Middle Ages several hundred stars now have proper names. (These are basically Latinised Arab-Islamic star names.) When Arab-Islamic astronomy reached Europe the Arabic names of stars and constellations were translated into Latin. However, both Latin and Arabic were used as scientific languages in Europe for some considerable time. On European celestial globes each constellation often had its name in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. However, numerous Arabic words in astronomy (including constellation and star names) were simply adopted in Europe without translation. As example: The star name Aldebaran (meaning "the follower"), the star name Rigel (meaning "the foot"), and the constellation name Aquila (meaning "the flyer"). Examples of prominent bright stars with Arabic names include: Altair, Algol, Betelgeuse, Deneb, Rigel, and Vega .
Whilst our inherited constellation names are basically Greek our European inherited star names are largely due to the influence of medieval (Arabic) Islamic astronomy on medieval European astronomy. The influence of Arabic names on Western star names dates from around the 10th-century AD when Arab astronomy flourished. (The Arabs (correctly Arab-Islamic astronomers) increased the number of individual star names. Most individual star names were introduced by al-Sufi when he published his own version of Ptolemy's Almagest in the 10-century CE.) After the demise of the Roman Empire most Greek scientific works were translated into Arabic (including Ptolemy's Almagest). Eventually these texts were re-introduced back into Europe (and into Latin and Greek) through Arab Spain. With the Arabs the influence of the Greek language was not very strong in the names of stars and constellations. Modern star names are mostly derived from Arabic translations (or use) of Ptolemy's Almagest, chiefly Shiraz astronomer al-Sufi's 10th-century book Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of Constellation Figures), and also the introduction of hundreds of Arabic astrolabes into Europe. Al-Sufi's book Kitab suwar al-kawakib is our best authority for post-Islamic Arabic star-names and constellations. It also included the folk tradition of Arabic star names.
Not all of these Arabic names in Western usage would be immediately recognisable by present-day Arabs. Some of the star names are simply fragments of longer Arabic names - often shortened to fit on medieval astrolabes. Some star names derived from Arabic sources have been distorted beyond recognition over the centuries, due to transcription and copying errors.
The Renaissance period was the catalyst for their being mixed together and passed down to present-day in Latin characters. The retransmitted Latin translation of Ptolemy's Almagest by Gherardo of Cremona (Lombardy) in the 12th-century was an Arabic-Latin version. This began the distorted use of Greek-Arabic-Latin words that appear in modern lists of star names. It was the only version known in Western Europe until the later discovery of copies of the original Greek texts and their translation into Latin texts in the 15th-century. Commonly used present-day individual star names include: Aldebaran, Algol, Altair, Antares, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, Canopus, Capella, Deneb, Fomalhaut, Mira, Pollux, Procyon, Regulus, Rigel, Sirius, Spica, and Vega. A few proper star names, such as Polaris (North Star), are not Arabic.
The reason that most most of the common star names sound rather strange to Europeans is that most of these star names are of Arabic origin. Aldebaran ("The Follower"), Algol ("The Ghoul"), Arrakis ("The Dancer"), Deneb ("Tail"), Fomalhaut ("The Fish's Mouth"), Rigel ("Foot"), Thuban ("Snake"), Vega ("Plunging [Eagle]"). Betelgeuse (usually pronounced beetle-jooz) is an example of an odd star name in Western usage. The derivation of Betelgeuse is somewhat problematic. However, experts have traced the name back to the Arabic yad al-jawza', "The Hand of the Giant" - the giant being Orion. A transcription error, confusing the initial letters b and y (in Arabic, ba and ya) because of their similar shape, dates back to the 13th-century, with a star-table established by John of London (who lived and worked in Paris) in 1246, and in which he named the star Bedalgeuze. Accepting this form, later European scholars like the French polymath Joseph Scaliger, mistakenly thought the name meant "Armpit of the Giant" (properly, ibt al-jawza'). The name yad al-jawza' goes back at least to the description of the constellations given by the Arab-Islamic astronomer al-Sufi in the 10th-century CE, and is likely to be much older.
Rome's Lack of Contribution
The European Middle Ages inherited constellations and star names from Roman antiquity. Rome transmitted very little of what has been called 'Greek thought' to Christian Europe. The very little that was transmitted did not include the astronomical systems of Hipparchus or Ptolemy. The Roman texts that transmitted astronomical knowledge to medieval Western Europe included: Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius Theodosius (5th-century CE), and On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury by Martianus Capella (early 5th-century CE). Other sources were: Calcidius's commentary on Plato's Timaeus, and Pliny's Natural History. (Commentary on the Dream of Scipio was one of the most important sources for Platonism in the Latin West during the Middle Ages.) However, the European Middle Ages initially inherited star names and constellations from Roman antiquity, mainly through Latin literary texts. The early Middle Ages depended heavily on late Roman manuscripts still extant in the Carolingian centres of learning. Carolingian centres of learning were mostly Abbeys with productive scriptoria and possessors of large libraries. As example: The so-called Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian manuscript of the Germanicus-translation of Aratus with paintings of the constellations remodelling traditions of later antiquity. Then, from the 11th-century onwards, Arabic texts in Latin translation (i.e., the star-atlas Al-Sufi latinus, a Latin version of an Arabic book with different types of constellation illustrations) and instruments (i.e., astrolabes with their star name markings - often abbreviated for lack of space - on the rete) became available in Western (Latin) Europe. The Arabic constellation figures and names were not compatible with the existing European scheme derived from late Roman literary texts. These 2 different traditions were combined in Latin Europe, the Arabic tradition predominating. As example: The text of the Pseudo-Hyginus' De Astronomia, a Roman text on the constellations, was revised and supplemented with the names of the astrolabe-stars to combine the 2 different traditions.
Most 'Greek thought' remained in Greek, and was not translated into Latin. As knowledge of Greek declined with the fall of the Roman Empire, so did the knowledge of Greek texts, many of which remained untranslated into Latin. Greek astronomical knowledge came to Europe via 3 (perhaps actually 4) major episodes of translation.
'Greek thought' did not come into Europe in the same form that it had left Greek culture over 1000 years before. The works of Greek authors such as Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Euclid had been edited, corrected, and partially rewritten by generations of Arab-Islamic scholars. When introduced to Latin Europe/culture they not only came within the context of nativized Arab-Islamic learning but also with the addition of Arab-Islamic scientific treatises. This was the basis for the 12th-century Renaissance, a crucial episode in Medieval intellectual history.
Ptolemy's Star Catalogue
The 48 traditional star constellations are now known usually by Latin names though most of them represent Greek mythical figures. The constellation names are inherited from Ptolemy of Alexandria, the 2nd-century Hellenic astronomer whose star catalogue was handed down to the medieval world. Many of the Greek star figures were themselves borrowed from the earlier uranography of Mesopotamia. However, most of the popular names of the naked-eye stars in these constellations are Arabic in origin. Some of the Arabic star names have originated from the star pictures of pre-Islamic Bedouins; others are Arabic translations of Ptolemy's Greek terms.
The earliest Western star catalogue (as we understand the term) originated with Ptolemy. The culmination of Greek establishment of constellation (and star) names was contained in (Book VII and Book VIII) of Ptolemy's Almagest written circa 140 CE. In it Ptolemy listed 1025 (fixed) stars. (The Almagest contained no star maps.) The scheme was Aratean in origin.
The constellation list in Ptolemy's star catalogue standardised the Western constellation scheme. The constellation scheme described by Ptolemy consisted of 21 northern constellations, 12 zodiacal constellations, and 15 southern constellations.
The northern constellations: (1) Little Bear, (2) Great Bear, (3) Dragon [Draco], (4) Cepheus, (5) Ploughman, (6) Northern Crown, (7) Kneeler [Hercules], (8) Lyre, (9) Bird [Cygnus], (10) Cassiopeia, (11) Perseus, (12) Charioteer (Auriga], (13) Serpent Holder, (14) Serpent [Serpens], (15) Arrow, (16) Eagle, (17) Dolphin, (18) Forepart of Horse [Equuleus], (19) Horse, (20) Andromeda, (21) Triangle.
The zodiacal constellations; (1) Ram, (2) Bull, (3) Twins, (4) Crab, (5) Lion, (6) Virgin, (7) Scales [Claws], (8) Scorpion, (9) Archer, (10) Goat-horned, (11) Water-pourer, (12) Fishes.
The southern constellations: (1) Sea-Monster [Whale], (2) Orion, (3) River, (4) Hare, (5) Dog [Greater Dog], (6) Dog's Forerunner [Lesser Dog], (7) Argo, (8) Watersnake, (9) Bowl, (10) Raven, (11) Centaur, (12) Beast [Wolf], (13) Censer [Altar], (14) Southern Crown, (15) Southern Fish.
Ptolemy's Almagest, and its star catalogue, became dominant and influential for many centuries both in the Arab-Islamic world and in Western Europe.
Transmission of Aratean Constellation Figures
The Aratean-based illustrative representations of the constellations were established by the end of the Roman Empire. (Artistically, Aratean constellation imagery can be traced to the Atlas Farnese dated to the 2nd-century BCE. On the globe held by Atlas the images of the constellations appear minus their stars.) These were subsequently modified by illustrators in the Byzantine, Islamic, and Carolingian traditions. Knowledge of Greek culture and texts was lost to Western Europe by the early middle ages (the start of which is dated from the fall of Rome in 476 CE). The Classic Aratean tradition of constellations and constellation illustration was revived in Western Europe during the Carolingian period (circa 8th-century CE to circa early 11th-century CE). The Carolingian Renaissance peaked with the rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious in the 8th- and 9th-centuries. (There was an increase in the arts, literature, liturgical, and scriptural studies.)
In the Carolingian world, however, the Latin versions of the Phainomena of Aratus were treated primarily as literary sources. They were produced primarily for non-technical general interest. They were treated as catalogues of constellation names and constellation stories. The constellation figures that accompanied Carolingian Aratea manuscripts (1) usually did not accurately reproduce the proper positions of the individual stars in each constellation in accordance with the text; and (2) very often failed to reproduce the correct number of stars in each constellation in accordance with the text.
Under Charlemagne there was a deliberate classical revival in almost every cultural field (scholarship, literature, art, and architecture). The court of Charlemagne in Aachen systematised astronomical learning (and revived other aspects of classical knowledge). (The impetus was Charlemagne's claims to the imperial status of Roman emperors and his extension of Carolingian power into Italy. Charlemagne's quest was to establish a legacy of greatness that connected back to the Holy Roman Empire. As much as anything his efforts to revive the title of Latin Emperor had its basis in the vast realm that he reigned over. With his coronation on Christmas day 800 CE as Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne laid claim to his succession to the Roman emperors of antiquity, and indeed, to the classical past.) The Carolingian revival lasted for approximately 100 years, spanning the 9th-century, and largely involved the recovery, mostly from Italy, of as many classical scientific and literature texts as could be found.
Most of the classical Latin works that have survived were preserved through the copying efforts of Carolingian scholars (monastic schools and scriptoria (centres for book copying) throughout Francia (Western Europe). Most of the earliest manuscripts available for ancient texts are Carolingian. (Possibly most of the (surviving) recovered texts came from the city of Ravenna as it had remained a political and cultural power into the 6th-century CE. Charlemagne conquered North Italy and established himself as master of Rome.) Carolingian illuminators referenced classical styles and mythological meaning and carefully reproduced the classical constellation figures. (Charlemagne's scribes were responsible for copying more than 7,000 manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost.) However, the Carolingian illustrations of the constellations lack accuracy in their relationship to each other and consistency in terms of their projection.
The breakup of the Roman Empire in the West occurred during the 5th-century CE. Considerable anarchy reigned throughout most of Western Europe until circa 1000 CE. By 1000 CE the Islam religion proclaimed by Mohammed in 622 CE had moved out from the Arabian peninsula and had spread over a large part of the globe.
"The star names used in the classical Islamic world were derived from two distinct sources: (1) the various (non-standardised) names originated by pre-Islamic groups of Bedouins (the nomadic desert Arabs of the Arabic Peninsula) (older body), and the main body (younger group) of indigenous Arabic star/asterism names were probably formed in the period 500-700 CE (prior to the introduction of Islam in the 7th-century CE); and (2) 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." (Islamicate Celestial Globes by Emilie Savage-Smith (1985) Page 114.) "A third set of names derived from the Arabic were bestowals, often ill-based, by early modern Western astronomers even though they had never been used by Arabian astronomers. Most of these names have disappeared. Thuban, alpha Draconis, is an exception." (Early Astronomy by William O'Neill (1986) Page 162.) Both Emilie Savage-Smith and William O'Neill are reliant on the fundamental studies of Paul Kunitzsch. An example of the first category of star names of Arabic origin is Aldebaran from Al-Dabaran. An example of the second category of star names of Arabic origin is Fomalhaut from Fam al-Hut. An example of the third category of star names derived from Arabic is Thuban, alpha Draconis.
Greek Influence on Classical Arab-Islamic Uranography/Cartography
Islamic star mapping mostly followed the Ptolemaic tradition. Knowledge of the fixed stars in Greek-based Arab-Islamic astronomy was derived mainly from Ptolemy's Almagest which contained a catalogue of 1025 stars arranged in 48 constellations (circa 150 CE). Ptolemy's star catalogue remained the standard star catalogue in both the Western and Islamic world for circa 1000 years. The dome of a bath house at Qusayr 'Amra, the only remaining building of an Arab palace in Jordan built circa CE 715, contains a unique hemispherical celestial map. The surviving fragments of the fresco show parts of 37 constellations and 400 stars. This celestial map furnishes a connecting link between the classical representations of the constellations and the later Islamic forms.
The Arab-Islamic scholars of the Medieval period translated Ptolemy's Greek star names into Arabic. Some added star names inherited from the pre-Islamic Bedouins of the Arabian peninsula. According to Paul Kunitzsch the Arabs also preserved star names from the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Babylonians.
From the 8th- to the 10th-centuries Greek scientific texts were translated into Arabic and formed the foundation for the various Arab-Islamic sciences such as astronomy and astrology. Arab-Islamic civilisation inherited its knowledge of Greek astronomy primarily through 3 translations of Ptolemy's Almagest into Arabic. The process of the translation into Arabic of Greek philosophical and scientific involved works that had been preserved by Eastern Christians in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. The translators were mostly Nestorian and Syrian Christians, working in the two hundred years following the Abbasid period. The most important translator of this group was the Syriac-speaking Christian Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809 CE-873 CE), known in Latins as Joannitius. The Greek texts were first translated into Syriac, then into Arabic. Despite this extended process of translation the translations were generally accurate. The translations aimed for a literal reading rather than elegance.
Ptolemy's major book on astronomy was translated twice into Arabic in the 9th century and became famous. Many of the Arabic-language star descriptions in the Almagest came to be used widely as names for stars. Ptolemy's Almagest was first translated into Arabic circa 827. The first competent (clear), thorough, non-mathematical (descriptive) summary of Ptolemy's Almagest into Arabic was carried out by the Egyptian astronomer and geographer Abd al-Abbas al-Farghani. Its title was Elements of Astronomy and was written in the period between 833 and 857. Al-Farghani was born in Farghana (present-day Fergana), Uzbekistan, and died in Egypt. He was a member of the House of Wisdom established by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mūn in the 9th-century. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad became the centre for both the work of translating and of research.
The Aratean Constellation Fresco at the Qusayr 'Amra Lodge and Bath House
The dome/cupola of the "hot room" of the hamman (bath house), comprising the remains of the Qusayr 'Amra lodge and bath house in present-day Jordan, is one of the more remarkable frescos in the Qusayr 'Amra. The little dome of the calidarium depicts a very early representation of the constellations 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.
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.
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.
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.
European Use of Arabic Star Names
When Arab-Islamic books - translated by Christian scholars - were introduced into Latin Europe, they were naturally translated into Latin. However, the stars kept their Arabic names. The Arabic astrolabe, which has crafted points representing specific stars, further helped to spread the use of the Arabic star names into Latin Europe. (Note: Manuscript traffic was another source of information. In the rare example of the mention of a source, Hugo of Santalla states that his patron, Michael bishop of Tarazona, acquired the Arabic manuscript of a work on astronomical tables from the library of the Banu Hud after they were driven out of Saragossa (in 1110) by the Almoravids, and settled in the fortress of Rueda de Jalón in Aragon.)
European astronomers and celestial map makers began to use Arabic star names in preference to Latin names circa 12th-century CE. This practice kept on increasing with the increasing ease of European access to Islamic texts and instruments. By the end of the 15th-century the process of European adoption of Arabic star names was essentially complete. (According to Emilie Savage-Smith it has been established that a nearly complete Arabic version of al-Sufi's treatise on the constellations must have reached Germany by the 1530's, for information in it was employed in a limited way by Peter Apian, who from 1527 to 1552 was professor of mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt.) The "Arabic" names were retained in the formal, scientific nomenclature until the end of the 19th-century.
When the Arabic texts were translated into Latin beginning from the 12th century, the Arabic tradition of star names was passed down to the Latin world. However, this happened often in a highly corrupted form that either changed the meaning, or in extreme cases gave birth to words with no meaning at all. Also, other names were mistakenly transferred from one star to another, so that a name might even refer to a different constellation (Greek or Arabic) rather than to the one of the star's actual constellation.
In pre-Islamic times the early Bedouin Arabic people (i.e., the nomadic desert dwelling tribes of the Arabic Peninsula) gave individual names to the numerous stars. (It is still erroneously believed that the folk tradition of Arabic star names was preserved as the lunar mansions. It was Julius Wellhausen (Reste Arabischen Heidentums (1897)) who correctly concluded that the concept of 28 "lunar mansions" was borrowed from the astronomy of the Hindus and merged with elements of Arab star lore after the introduction of Islam. Later Islamic scholars attached seasonal almanac lore onto this imported calendar system.) This particular practice has ultimately influenced the naming of individual stars in Western constellations. Whilst our inherited constellation names are basically Greek our European inherited star names are largely due to the influence of medieval (Arabic) Islamic astronomy on medieval European astronomy. The influence of Arabic names on Western star names dates from around the 10th-century AD when Arab astronomy flourished. (The Arabs (correctly Arab-Islamic astronomers) increased the number of individual star names. Most individual star names were introduced by al-Sufi when he published his own version of Ptolemy's Almagest in the 10-century CE.) After the demise of the Roman Empire most Greek scientific works were translated into Arabic (including Ptolemy's Almagest). Eventually these texts were re-introduced back into Europe (and into Latin and Greek) through Arab Spain. With the Arabs the influence of the Greek language was not very strong in the names of stars and constellations. Modern star names are mostly derived from Arabic translations (or use) of Ptolemy's Almagest, chiefly Shiraz astronomer al-Sufi's 10th-century book Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of Constellation Figures), and also the introduction of hundreds of Arabic astrolabes into Europe. Al-Sufi's book Kitab suwar al-kawakib is our best authority for post-Islamic Arabic star-names and constellations. It also included the folk tradition of Arabic star names.
The Influence of Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi
Most of the Arabic star names in European use today can be traced back to the influential star catalogue of the Arab-Islamic astronomer al-Sufi (full name was Abu 'l-Hussain 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Omar al-Sufi)
The first critical revision of Ptolemy's catalogue of fixed stars was carried out by al-Sufi. However, al-Sufi adopted Ptolemy's basic scheme and pattern of constellations. He did not add or subtract stars from Ptolemy's star list and neither did he re-measure their (frequently incorrect) positions. Also, though al-Sufi based his constellation drawings (figures) on the classical Aratean tradition his figures have a distinct oriental character.
Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (Al-Sufi; known in Medieval Western Europe by the Latinized name Azophi) was born in 903 CE in Rayy (near modern Tehran), Persia and died in 986 CE. Al-Sufi lived and worked mostly in Isfahan (Persia) at the court of Emir Adud ad-Daula. (He worked in both Isfahan (Iran) and Baghdad (Iraq).) Al-Sufi studied and wrote in Arabic (the common language of the Arab-Islamic empire). Under the patronage of the Buwayhid Dynasty, he conducted astronomical observations in his homeland and in Baghdad, capital of the realm. His mentor was Ibn al-Amid, the vizier of the Buwayhid ruler. Ibn al-Amid wrote the foreword for one of al-Sufi's books, a major work on the astrolabe. He is most widely known, and became most influential, for his translation and partial revision of Ptolemy's star catalogue as the Book of the constellations of the Fixed Stars (Kitab suwar al-kawakib). It became a classic of Arab-Islamic astronomy, and it had a major influence on Islamic and European science for more than a millennium. It was the first-ever critical revision of Ptolemy's star catalogue. It was published circa 964 CE and it was frequently copied and translated.
Al-Sufi was both a translator and author. He was involved in translating Hellenistic astronomical works (that had been centred in Alexandria) into Arabic, especially Ptolemy's Almagest. He wrote numerous works on astronomical, astrological, and mathematical subjects. His most outstanding work is his illustrated book on the constellations (Kitab suwar al-kawakib). In this work he comprehensively describes the 48 classical constellations, which were established by Ptolemy and transmitted to the Islamic world in translations of Ptolemy's Almagest. Like all other Islamic scholars of the period he wrote all his works in Arabic (the scientific language of the Arab-Islamic world). In producing his own version of the star catalogue in Ptolemy's Almagest al-Sufi introduced many traditional Arabic star names. (Most star names used by al-Sufi (and his contemporaries) were direct translations of Ptolemy's descriptions.) It was the first attempt to relate (integrate/synthesise) the Greek stars of Ptolemy's star catalogue with the indigenous (traditional) Arabic star names and constellations (the Arab anwa tradition). Because some of the Arabic star names were centuries old their meanings were lost to al-Sufi and his contemporaries, and they remain unknown today. Another problem is that al-Sufi used anwa texts from the Islamic period as his sources. This somewhat limits their connection with indigenous pre-Islamic Arabic anwa traditions.
The book covers all 48 constellations in the Ptolemaic system. Al-Sufi had the intention to integrate Ptolemy's star catalogue with Arab star tradition and terminology, and also to define boundaries for the constellations. The constellation drawings in Al-Sufi's catalogue comprising Kitab suwar al-kawakib quickly became canonical. (This influence was later introduced into Europe.) Al-Sufi corrected erroneous observations and added others not recorded by Ptolemy. The stars of each constellation are described in detail - positions, colours and brightness, or magnitude - with criticisms of some of Ptolemy's measurements that al-Sufi found to be in error. Al-Sufi's work was groundbreaking science for several reasons. It provided real star observations, at a time when most astronomers relied on the ancient measurements of Ptolemy's star catalogue.
In Kitab suwar al-kawakib the description of each constellation comprises the following four sections: (1) A general discussion of the constellation and its individual stars. Also included in this section is al-Sufi's criticism of the Ptolemaic tradition and also notices of al-Sufi's own observations. (He described all the stars catalogued by Ptolemy and added his own criticism in each individual case.) (2) A record of the indigenous Arabic star names falling within each constellation, and the exact identification of each of these stars with the corresponding Ptolemaic stars. (3) Two drawings of the constellations, one depicting the constellation as it is seen on the celestial globe (i.e., as seen by an observer looking inwards towards earth), and the other one as it is seen in the sky (i.e., as seen by an observer looking outwards from earth). (4) A table of the stars making up each of the constellations, including a verbal description of each star's location and its longitude, latitude, and magnitude. (The magnitudes given were according to al-Sufi's own observations.) This table closely follows the arrangement of Ptolemy's star catalogue in the Almagest. In this book al-Sufi also described the boundaries of the constellations.
In al-Sufi's Kitab suwar al-kawakib the constellation figures and the individual stars comprising them are shown separately (i.e., separated from each other) without any information on their relative positions being given. No sky map (with all the constellations charted) appears in the book.
Al-Sufi's star catalogue was also the first scientific effort to identify the old Arabic star names with astronomically located stars. Before al-Sufi, the wealth of star names had been handed down in literary or philological works, with little regard for identifying which stars they actually applied to. Al-Sufi was not 100 percent successful in his identifications, for some of the names were associated with more than one star in a single constellation or with several stars in different celestial images. But he was, however, successful in pinning down most of them. This contributed to al-Sufi's star catalogue becoming the primary source for Arabic star names for centuries to come. Most of the star names that are used in Western Europe today came to us from al-Sufi's list. (The process was somewhat complicated by the fact that the Arabs translated Ptolemy's work, including its Greek star names, into Arabic and then passed it back to Latin Europe, who had lost the original Greek version of Ptolemy's work until recovered in Byzantine in the 15th-century.)
Al-Sufi's book on the constellations (and the constellation drawings contained in it) served as models for further work on the fixed stars in the Arab-Islamic world for many centuries. His description of the constellations became the basis for all later studies. (Al-Sufi's drawings of the constellation figures established a standard typology for the constellations.) Islamic constellation figures were introduced into Europe as least as early as the 13th-century. It is stated by some sources that al-Sufi's Kitab suwar al-kawakib was never translated into Latin. This is incorrect. A fully illustrated translation was (anonymously?) made in Palermo, Sicily, in the 12th-century at the instigation of Guillaumine II (1166-1189).the Norman king of Sicily. (A Latin manuscript of it, titled Liber de locis stellarum fixarum, now resides at the Arsenal Library in Paris as part of MS # 1036 (a collection of astronomical manuscripts with the general title Liber de stellis stellarum). The Liber de locis stellarum fixarum contains 49 illustrations representing the constellations and the signs of the zodiac. The Arabic-Persian iconography, based on characters in the One Thousand and One Nights story, is kept. The Parisian copy, made anonymously, is the oldest existing Latin copy. It is dated to the third quarter of the 13th-century and is believed to be a copy of the translation made earlier in Sicily. (It is sometimes identified as being made from a manuscript in Spain.) (The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, at his court in Palermo, Sicily, financed translations of Arabic works into Latin.) Al-Sufi's book was also fully translated into Spanish by Alfonso X ("Alfonso the Wise") of Leon and Castile, as Libros del Saber de Astronomia. It was through these translations that it influenced the star names of used in western Europe. Its contents were transmitted into Europe and in medieval Europe its constellation drawings were imitated in numerous Latin astronomical manuscripts.
Numerous common names for stars still in popular use today come indirectly from al-Sufi's work.
The Influence of pre-Islamic Bedouin Arabs
An additional source of star/constellation names originated with the groups of nomadic desert Arabs of the (pre-Islamic) Arabic Peninsula. In pre-Islamic times the early Bedouin Arabic people (i.e., the nomadic desert dwelling tribes of the Arabic Peninsula) gave individual names to the numerous stars. However, according to Paul Kunitzsch, the influence of earlier Babylonian nomenclature are sometimes discernable in the body (older group) of (non-standardised) star/asterism names of nomadic desert Arabs of the (pre-Islamic) Arabic Peninsula. Paul Kunitzsch also holds that the main body (younger group) of indigenous (pre-Islamic) Arabic star/asterism names were probably formed in the period 500-700 CE. The folk tradition of Arabic star names was preserved by later Arab-Islamic astronomers. This has ultimately influenced the naming of individual stars in Western constellations.
In the Greek texts, stars were referred to with descriptive sentences that delineated their positions within the Greek constellation figures. In the old Arabian tradition most stars had individual (singular or very short) names. Occasionally they were related to each other with indigenous folklore stories. However, they were mostly identified individually and were used as sky marks for (1) agricultural purposes, and (2) nightly desert travel. As a result of Greek translations into Arabic in the 8th and 9th centuries the Greek constellation traditions and the old Arabian traditions became mixed together. In the 10th-century al-Sufi made a special effort to separate the 2 star traditions. In his book, al-Sufi usually gave the name and position of each star in the Greek tradition first and then supplemented that with Arabian traditions about the particular star.
In producing his own star descriptions Peter Apianus in his Astronomicum Caesareum followed the example of al-Sufi. Apianus gave the star name according to Greek tradition and then gave the Arabic single name per al-Sufi. Later Latin star atlas makers such as Johann Bayer (star atlas Uranometria published 1603) and Johannes Hevelius (star atlas Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia published 1690) adopted and perpetuated the use of the earlier Arabian star names. It was largely through this process that the use of ancient Arabian single star names became preferential to the traditional, verbose full phrase descriptions of the Greek tradition.
First Phase of Arab-Islamic Star Name Transmission to Europe: through Spain
The first contacts of (Latin-speaking) Europeans with Arab-Islamic science dates to late 10th-century CE Catalonia (Spain). The first phase of transmission of Arabic star names to Europe took place in the Middle Ages, from the 10th to the 13th centuries. (The 12th and 13th centuries are known as the 'great age of translation.') During this period approximately 48 Arabic star names passed into Latin Europe. This was the only period of direct "borrowings," where star names were translated directly from Arabic star catalogs into corresponding European astronomical works. Most of this transmission occurred in Spain, where Christian scholars eagerly accessed and translated Arab-Islamic works on astronomy.
One of the rulers of Muslim Spain, Al-Hakam II (915-976 CE, the 2nd Caliph of Cordoba), initiated an effort to gather books from all over the Arab-speaking empire, creating a library which would later become a centre for translation into Latin. The library was one of the largest libraries in the world, housing at least 400,000 volumes.
During the 12th-century Toledo was a multi-cultural city, an important centre of Arab and Jewish culture, and full of libraries and manuscripts. Some libraries there were reputed to hold up to 400,000 manuscripts. Thousands of texts were available for purchase from booksellers. Toledo became a centre for educational studies of Arabic scientific and literary texts. King Alfonso VI of Castile, with the aid of El Cid, had taken Toledo (and the surrounding region) from the Moors in 1085. Prior to this Toledo had been a provincial capital in the caliphate of Cordoba. In the following decades many European scholars who had mastered Arabic began the task of translating Arabic books into Latin. The Moors had arrived in Toledo in 712 CE. During the 12th-century Toledo also became the Christian base for driving the Moors out of southern Spain. It is estimated that up to 1,000,000 Arabic books were burnt when the Catholic monarchs regained control of Moorish Spain.
The southern Spanish cities of Toledo, Cordova, and Seville became the most important centres for the transmission of Arabic scientific texts into medieval Europe. (Other important centres were located in Southern Italy and Sicily at Salerno, Monte Cassino (a Benedictine monastery), Palermo, and Syracuse. Copies of Ptolemy's Almagest were translated into Latin both in Spain and in Sicily. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, at his court in Palermo, Sicily, financed translations of Arabic works into Latin.) During the 1140s leading European church figures such as Abbot Sugar (Abbot of St-Denis, statesman and historian) (circa 1081-1151) and Peter of Montboissier (Peter the Venerable, General of the Benedictine Order) (1092-1156) expressed the belief that before fighting an enemy, one must first understand them. This led to the systematic translation of Arab-Islamic writings into Latin.
Al-Sufi's work first became known in the West through Spain, where Christian and Muslim kingdoms coexisted and, when they were not jostling for influence or territory, cooperated. Christian king Alfonso X of Castile (known as Alfonso the Wise), a serious student of astronomy, ordered a free translation or adaptation of al-Sufi into Old Spanish, called the Libros de las Estrellas de la Ochaua Espera (1252–1256), and added it to his omnibus astronomy "textbook" known as the Libros del Saber de Astronomía (Books of Astronomical Knowledge). This opus also included the Alfonsine Tables, which furnished new data for calculating the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets in relation to the fixed stars, and revised the numbers in the Toledan Tables originally compiled by Andalusian astronomer al-Zarqali (called Arzachel in Europe) several centuries earlier.
During the Medieval period there was sometimes a multitude of names for stars and constellations. As example: There were a total of 10 names for the constellation Boötes.
The Introduction into Europe of al-Sufi's Book Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of Constellation Figures)
Al-Sufi's 10th-century book Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of Constellation Figures) was not among the numerous Arab-Islamic scientific works that were translated into Latin by European scholars from the late 10th- to the 13th-centuries.However, during this period, European astronomers obtained knowledge of his constellation drawings. In the late 13th-century in Europe a Latin translation was produced in which his constellation drawings were added to a translation of Ptolemy's star catalogue from Arabic.
Between the early 15th and the early 17th centuries, European star charts progressed from being imprecise, often decorative illustrations based on medieval manuscripts to sophisticated map projections with systematized nomenclature for the stars. Significant influences for this transformation appear to be the reimportation into Europe of technical classical texts such as Ptolemy’s Almagest, as well as Islamic works such as al-Sufi’s Book of Constellation Figures with its rather precise constellation maps.
The Influence of Gherardo of Cremona
The retransmitted Latin translation of Ptolemy's Almagest by Gherardo of Cremona in the 12th-century began the distorted use of Greek-Arabic-Latin words that appear in modern lists of star names. In Greek astronomy the stars within the constellation figures were usually not given individual names. (An exception was made for a few of the brighter stars.) Ptolemy did not identify the stars in his catalogue with Greek letters, as is done by modern astronomers. Each of the 1025 stars listed by Ptolemy (Book VII and Book VIII of the Almagest) was identified (1) descriptively by its position within one of the 48 constellation figures; then (2) by its ecliptic latitude and longitude; and then (3) its magnitude. When the Arabic astronomers translated Ptolemy's Almagest, and adopted the Greek constellations, they also applied their own star names to the listed stars. Beginning with Gherardo, when the Arabic texts of the Almagest were translated into Latin, the Arabic star names were retained but were frequently translated in a corrupted form. The medieval European astronomers adopted the system of using individual (Arabic) star names in their uranography. Hence the star names we use today were essentially introduced by the medieval European translators of Arabic texts of Ptolemy's Almagest, the translation from Arabic to Spanish of al-Sufi's Book of the constellations of the Fixed Stars (Kitab suwar al-kawākib), and also by the introduction of hundreds of Arabic astrolabes into Europe during this period.
The principal channel for the recovery of the Almagest in Western Europe was the Arabic to Latin translation by Gherardo of Cremona. It was made at Toledo using several Arabic versions and completed in 1175. It was widely circulated in manuscript copies before appearing as a printed book in 1515. (The European printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.) Gherardo's translation was the only version of Ptolemy's Almagest known in Western Europe until the later discovery of copies of the original Greek texts and their translation into Latin texts in the 15th-century. However, Gherardo's translation was very literal and hard to follow. (Some translations from the Greek text were, however, made in medieval times. Ptolemy's Almagest in the original Greek continued to be copied and studied in the eastern (Byzantine) empire. Some years earlier to Gherardo's translation, circa 1160, a very literal translation of Ptolemy's Almagest was made directly from the Greek text into Latin by an unknown translator in Sicily. However, this particular version had little circulation and made no effect. The copy in the Vatican library came through the great Florentine book collector Coluccio Salutati.) In the 15th-century European scholars, first George of Trebizond and then Johannes Regiomontanus, independently translated Ptolemy's Almagest from copies of the original Greek text.
What resulted in Europe was a polyglot system of Greek constellations with Latin names containing stars with (largely) Arabic titles.
Avner Ben-Zaken writes (Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660 (2010, Page 2)): "Early modern European intellectual history started, arguably with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Geek texts flowed into Europe, giving Europeans access to classical texts previously known only through Arabic and Hebrew translations. Scholars promptly embarked on retranslations of classical works."
Gherardo of Cremona was born in Cremona, Lombardy (Italy) circa 1114 and died in Toledo in 1187. He is most famous as the translator of Ptolemy's Almagest from Arabic texts found in Toledo. The date he went to Toledo (Spain) is uncertain but was no later than 1144. His specific initial intention was to learn Arabic so that he could read Ptolemy's Almagest. (Gerardo had left Italy mainly in quest of Ptolemy's Almagest.) At the time known copies of Ptolemy's Almagest only existed in the Islamic world (in Arabic and Syriac (a pre-Islamic language of ancient Syria). Even though no Latin copies existed up to the 12th-century it retained its traditional high reputation among European scholars. Gherardo was one of a small group of European scholars who revitalised medieval European astronomy in the 12th-century by transmitting Greek and Arabic science texts to the West in the form of translations into Latin. Gherardo remained in Toledo for 30 years and continued to make Latin translations of Arabic scientific texts until his death. (It was Islam's conquest of Spain that would bring the seeds of modern astronomy to Europe.)
The Influence of Michael Scotus
In England the school of astrology under the leadership of the mathematician, philosopher, and scholar Michael Scotus (Scot) (born circa 1175 - died circa 1234) replaced the Aratean tradition almost completely. His book Liber de signis (containing a section on the constellations) set out a new set of constellations that differed from the set of 48 Ptolemaic constellations. Others imitated his new scheme of constellations. For example he was followed by Bartholomew of Parma in his Breviloquium de fructu totius astronomie. (Bartholomew of Parma flourished circa late 13th-century and early 14th-century. Parma is a city in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.) This new constellation set appears to have originated from 12th-century CE elaborations of literal translations of Islamic-Arabic texts (on astrology).
For his new constellations Michael Scotus borrowed from Arab-Islamic sources images of the constellations that had their origins in the Sphaera Barabarica. (Especially the decans and paranatellons.) The art historian Fritz Saxl showed that the representations of the planetary gods in the works of Michael Scotus can be traced back through Arab-Islamic sources to ancient Babylonian sources. Basically, the Arab-Islamic figures of the planets reflect the Babylonian gods: Nebo (= Mercury), Ishtar (= Venus), Ninib (= Mars), Marduk (= Jupiter), and Nergal (= Saturn). The transmission of an uninterrupted textual transmission was made possible by the survival, in certain isolated districts of Mesopotamia, of groups that invoked the Babylonian planetary gods and venerated their images, such as the Harranite Sabeans. Planetary illustrations in Arab-Islamic manuscripts match the planetary effigies which adorned Harranite sanctuaries. (The Harran region encompassed southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria.) The Arab-Islamic book the Picatrix, which was an essential intermediary in the transmission of Babylonian planetary figures, was a translation of the 11th-century CE book on magic, the Ghâya. The Picatrix, likely written circa 1200 CE, was translated in to Latin and was well known in Western Europe. The book had a major influence on magical thinking in Western Europe, especially from circa 1400 to circa 1600.
The Replacement of Aratea by Michael Scotus
The works of Michael Scotus on the constellations, and his manner of illustrating them, caused a lengthy eclipse of Aratea during the latter Middle Ages. Rembrandt Duits states the Arabic constellation iconography when reintroduced into Europe from the 13th-century onwards gradually replaced the images from the existing Western Aratea tradition in astrological illustrations. The illustrations devised by Michael Scotus were an important influence. The mid 12th-century German manuscript, Vienna ÖNB 12600 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 12600, fol. 25r., De ordine ac positione stellarium in signis), had departed from classical prototypes. It is not an astrological manuscript but an astronomical manuscript; an illustrated catalogue of 42 constellations (traceable back to the Aratea of Hyginus).
In the 15th-century, the majority of the manuscripts referring to the constellations are astrological in content and included mostly the constellation illustrations devised by Michael Scotus. The constellation illustrations had little astronomical reality and were being used to show the details that were supposed to be important for their astrological interpretation.
Prior to the mid 15th-century star maps tended to be used to illustrate text in books. Free-standing celestial images were quite rare (and accuracy was usually sacrificed for art). During the Middle Ages pictures appeared illustrating the individual constellations. In these illustrations the classical constellations were separated from the celestial globe and also the individual constellation stars were often omitted. (The astrologer Michael Scot (Scotus), a contemporary of Peter of Abano (circa 1250-1310), included constellation figures in the margins of his 2-volume book on astronomy/astrology.) In the high Middle Ages, unlike the previous periods, the ancient constellation figures were transformed by illuminators to an almost unrecognisable degree. Traditional (classical) constellation representation (per the pseudo-classical Carolingian forms) was influenced by Romanesque and Germanic (Gothic) forms (and also Graeco-Arabic forms). (The end result was the classical subject matter was divorced from its classical form.) The height of this transformation of classical constellation representation occurred during the 13th-century.
In England the school of astrology under the leadership of the mathematician, philosopher, and scholar Michael Scotus (Scot) (born circa 1175 - died circa 1234) replaced the Aratean tradition almost completely. His book Liber de signis (containing a section on the constellations) set out a new set of constellations that differed from the set of 48 Ptolemaic constellations. (Also worthwhile noting is that a series of astrological pictures in Liber introductorius were identified by both Franz Boll and Fritz Saxl as a (further) development away from the classical tradition of the Germanicus-Aratus manuscripts. A number of the astrological pictures are considered to be largely the work of Michael Scotus himself, or his particular alterations.) Others imitated his new scheme of constellations. For example he was followed by Bartholomew of Parma in his Breviloquium de fructu tocius astronomie. (Bartholomew of Parma flourished circa late 13th-century and early 14th-century. Parma is a city in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.) This new constellation set appears to have originated from 12th-century CE elaborations of literal translations of Islamic-Arabic texts (on astrology).
For his new constellations Michael Scotus borrowed from Arab-Islamic images of the constellations that had their origins in the Sphaera Barabarica. (Especially the decans and paranatellons.) The art historian Fritz Saxl showed that the representations of the planetary gods in the works of Michael Scotus can be traced back through Arab-Islamic sources to ancient Babylonian sources. Basically, the Arab-Islamic figures of the planets reflect the Babylonian gods: Nebo (= Mercury), Ishtar (= Venus), Ninib (= Mars), Marduk (= Jupiter), and Nergal (= Saturn). The transmission of an uninterrupted textual transmission was made possible by the survival, in certain isolated districts of Mesopotamia, of groups that invoked the Babylonian planetary gods and venerated their images, such as the Harranite Sabeans. Planetary illustrations in Arab-Islamic manuscripts match the planetary effigies which adorned Harranite sanctuaries. (The Harran region encompassed southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria.) The Arab-Islamic book the Picatrix, which was an essential intermediary in the transmission of Babylonian planetary figures, was a translation of the 11th-century CE book on magic, the Ghâya. The Picatrix, likely written circa 1200 CE, was translated in to Latin and was well known in Western Europe. The book had a major influence on magical thinking in Western Europe, especially from circa 1400 to circa 1600.
The illustrations introduced by Michael Scotus were an attempt at adaptation and fusion; an effort to make European forms out of the astral gods/goddesses of ancient Babylon. In this they shown the influence of Romanesque and Germanic (Gothic) forms.
Michael Scotus, who (as the surname signifies) was born in Scotland, lived mostly in France, Spain, and Sicily. In 1230 he visited Oxford, England where he had spent time studying as a young student. In his illustrations of the constellations he combined Graeco-Arabic and mythological imagery with Latin Aratean tradition. His illustrations of constellations supplanted the classical types of the Carolingian tradition. His work on the illustration of the constellation figures was very influential until the Renaissance period. Also, Michael Scotus undoubtedly had access to earlier, popular star lore. (During the Middle Ages in Western Europe classical mythological subjects were not usually represented within the limits of the classical style. The artistic forms under which classical concepts were continued during the Middle Ages were utterly different from the classical style.) During the Gothic period in Europe (circa 1100-1450 CE) there was a disinterest in illuminated astrological manuscripts.
It is probable that Michael Scotus (a polymath) was the finest intellect at the court of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) in Palermo, Sicily. He had gone there circa 1200 in the role of "court astrologer" after being enticed by the Norman king Frederick II to join his court in Sicily. (There is little evidence for Fredrick II having an interest in astrology. The title of Imperial Astrologer was given to Michael Scotus in the colophon to his Astronomia.) He then left (circa 1209) to work at the great Arab translation centre in Toledo (Spain) and then returned again to Sicily circa 1220. On his return he gave his attention to science and medicine. He remained there until his death. Though Frederick II was the ruler of both Germany and Sicily he preferred to live in Sicily. In 1220 he acquired the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was in Sicily at this period that tolerance enabled the coexistence of European and Arab scholars.
The astrological text written by Michael Scotus (and containing his illustrations of the constellations) was widely copied throughout the late medieval period. However, by 1500 this text seems to have become somewhat forgotten. His texts include: Liber introductorius, Liber particularis, Liber phisionomie [the short title of this medical treatise is: Physionomia], and Liber de signis. In his two later books which followed Astronomia, the Liber introductorius and the Liber particularis, he set out a popular exposition of both astrology and astronomy. The extraordinary increase in the prestige of astrology in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages was due to the introduction of Arab-Islamic philosophy and science into Sicily and Spain.
The Influence of Albrecht Dürer
During the Renaissance period (at its height circa 1450-1550 CE) many illustrators began altering the non-classical constellation figures, such as those found in the astronomical/astrological manuscripts of Michael Scotus, with representations that looked more classical. In this they were strongly influence by the constellation depictions in the early 16th-century star charts drawn by Albrecht Dürer. Ultimately, the depictions of the constellations of post-Renaissance Europe derive from the constellation figures of the artist and engraver (printmaker) Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Albrecht Dürer was a native of Nürnberg (Nuremberg), Germany. (His father was Hungarian.) In 1515, in cooperation with Johannes Stabius and Conrad Heinfogel, he produced the first (scientifically rigorous) printed star charts (and they are considered the first modern star charts). The northern star chart (planisphere) was titled Imagines Coeli Septentrionales and the southern star chart (planisphere) was titled Imagines Coeli Meridionales. These mapped the constellations and the key stars of both the northern and southern heavens quite accurately. The constellation figures were portrayed in a classical style and this was followed by later European star chart makers. Dürer was an artist - not an astronomer. The constellations are depicted from the point of view of an external observer looking in towards the earth. It appears a key influence on Dürer were the depictions of constellation figures on Arab-Islamic celestial globes. (Because the Arab-Islamic constellation figures were neither Classical nor contemporary European the Latin illustrators basically ignored them and simply followed the text-descriptions of the constellations to make contemporary images.) On both of Dürer's sky maps (planispheres) the classical constellation figures appear (except Lyra) with their classical attributes correctly drawn.
The Influence of the Astrolabe
The very earliest Latin sources for Arabic star names were two 11th-century instruction manuals for astrolabes: De mensura astrolabii (1045) attributed to the German scholar Hermann of Reichenau (1013-1054) and De utilitatibus astrolabii (late 10th- or early 11th-century), attributed Gerbert d'Aurillac (946-1003, prolific scholar, teacher, and pope). One section of this work has been attributed to Hermann of Reichenau. Both works transmitted many Arabic concepts. They were likely composed in Spain and contain a handful of Arabic star names whose form has remained unchanged down to the present-day (including Aldebaran, Algol, Alhabor (an alternate name for Sirius), Rigel and Vega).
It has been long believed that al-Sufi's book on the constellations was the (exclusive) key source for the establishment of star names in western Europe. However, this now appears to be over-simplified and somewhat incorrect. Astrolabes were an important means for the transmission of Arabic star names into Latin Europe. The science historian Owen Gingerich writes ("Islamic Astronomy," Scientific American, Volume 254, April, 1986, Pages 68-?): "It now seems that his [i.e., Ptolemy's] 14th- and 15th-century Latin translators went to a Latin version of the Arabic edition of Ptolemy himself for the star descriptions, which they combined with al-Sufi's splendid pictorial representations of the constellations. Meanwhile the Arabic star nomenclature trickled into the West by another route: the making of astrolabes." (Some of these astrolabes have distorted Arabic names for stars.)
The astrolabe, essentially a two-dimensional model of the sky, was originally a Greek invention (dating circa 3rd-century BCE) to enable the problems of spherical astronomy (i.e., the prediction of star positions) to be solved. (The astrolabe was a 'flattened' and more portable version of the armillary sphere. It was a two-dimensional representation of the celestial sphere and was used for solving problems in celestial geography.) It moved with the spread of Islam through North Africa into Spain (Andalusia). It would appear that England, due to the scientific activity centred at Oxford, was the conduit for the introduction of the astrolabe from Spain into western Europe in the late 13th-century and the 14th-century.
Historians have not settled the debate over who was responsible for the transmission of the astrolabe from Muslim Spain into Europe and when and where the astrolabe first appeared in Europe. However, by 1030 CE at the latest some European scholars possessed astrolabes and were teaching their use. Early Christian recipients of Arab astronomy (including the astrolabe) included Gerbert of Aurillac and Hermannus Contractus. Gerbert of Aurillac (circa 946-1003 CE) (later to become Pope Sylvester II (999-1003 CE)) spent several years (967-969 CE) studying in Spain in the Christian-held city of Barcelona and also possibly in the Moorish-held cities of Córdoba and Seville. (He originally went to the cathedral school of Vic, in the province of Catalonia which was on the frontier of Moorish Spain. As a result there was considerable communication between Catalunya and the Muslims of al-Andalus to the south.) It is thought that Gerbert of Aurillac may have been the author of a description of the astrolabe ( The Book of the Astrolabe which was the first Latin text explaining the astrolabe and providing instructions for the construction of an astrolabe) that was edited by the Benedictine monk Hermannus Contractus (1013-1054 CE) some 50 years later.
Many of these early astrolabes that were introduced into Europe carried both Arabic and Latin star nomenclature. It has been noted by Paul Kunitzsch that star names that appear on medieval astrolabes in Europe are often quite different from star names that appear in star lists in medieval manuscripts. The astrolabe was widely used in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance with its popularity peaking in the 15th- and 16th-centuries. (The astrolabes of the 11th-16th centuries were an important instrument for predicting star positions.) It became one of the basic astronomical education tools. Europeans eventually began to manufacture astrolabes. In the 15th-century European astrolabe manufacturing was centred in Augsberg and Nuremberg in Germany, with some manufacturing also in France. By the middle of the 17th-century astrolabes were being manufactured all over Europe.
David King has commented on "the generally sad fate of serious Arabic star-names at the hands of our medieval forebears." He has pointed out that "medieval instrument makers were a law to themselves and did not prepare themselves for their task [of making astrolabes for wealthy clients] by consulting manuscripts. A pot purri of imagined/distorted and invented 'Arabic' star names appeared on medieval astrolabes (bearing no relationship to any manuscript). Simply: The star-names found on medieval astrolabes are often quite different to those found in star-lists in medieval manuscripts.
Another issue was on the rete of astrolabes star names were often abbreviated for lack of space.
The Influence of Islamic Astronomical Globes
Islamic astronomical globes also became highly prized in medieval western Europe. Some were purchased and used without translation of Arabic terms as Arabic was a scientific language in medieval Europe. Some were purchased and copied with the names of stars and constellations being translated into Latin versions of Arabic. Arabic was frequently used on European globes along with other scientific languages. Globes were manufactured and used with astronomical terms in Latin, Greek, and Arabic.
Ulugh Beg (Muhammad Taragay)
In the East, meanwhile, al-Sufi's book was regarded as canonical and was relied upon through the centuries by the great astronomers of the Islamic world, including one with a substantial impact on the West, Ulugh Beg of Samarkand (1394–1449). The nomenclature of the later Oriental star catalogues, celestial globes and other instruments went back mostly to al-Sufi or Ulugh Beg ("Ulugh Beg" is a title meaning "the Great Prince"). His actual name was Muhammad Taragay. When only 16-years old he was appointed by his father Shah Rukh to rule over Samarkand, Ulugh Beg successfully ruled Samarkand and its surrounding province for 40 years. Ulugh Beg became not only a patron of mathematics and astronomy but also a skilled astronomer himself. He collaborated with numerous leading scholars and founded at Samarkand one of the largest and most important observatories in the Islamic world. Ulugh Beg handpicked its astronomers and at its peak the observatory employed 60 to 70 working astronomers. With these impressive scientific resources, Ulugh Beg set in motion a project to compile the Zij-i Sultani star catalogue (published in 1437), listing names and newly observed positions for 994 fixed stars, a work often described as comparable to al-Sufi's. The catalogue included 27 stars from al-Sufi's own work that were too far south in the sky to be observed from Samarkand.
Second Phase of Arab-Islamic Star Name Transmission to Europe: during the Renaissance
The second phase of of the transmission of Arabic-origin star names occurred in late-Renaissance Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period some 22 additional Arabic star names entered common use in Europe, both among scientists and in literature. Most of them were introduced by a German lawyer and amateur astronomer named Johann Bayer.
The Renaissance period was also the catalyst for Arabic star names being mixed together and passed down to present-day in Latin characters. The retransmitted Latin translation of Ptolemy's Almagest by Gherardo of Cremona (Lombardy) in the 12th-century was an Arabic-Latin version. This began the distorted use of Greek-Arabic-Latin words that appear in modern lists of star names. It was the only version known in Western Europe until the later discovery of copies of the original Greek texts and their translation into Latin texts in the 15th-century. Commonly used present-day individual star names include: Aldebaran, Algol, Altair, Antares, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, Canopus, Capella, Dened, Fomalhaut, Mira, Pollux, Procyon, Regulus, Rigel, Sirius, Spica, and Vega.
The Renaissance period saw the appearance of philological studies into the history of stellar nomenclature. The focus of these philological studies was the Arabic and Latin names of the medieval period but also included classical Greek and Roman names from a few recovered classical texts.
The Influence of Petrus Apianus (Peter Apian)
Petrus Apianus (Peter Apian) (1495-1552) the 16th-century German astronomer and geographer took star names from al-Sufi's book on the constellations and placed them on his star charts and mentioned them in his writings. (See the chapter on the constellations in his Astronomicum Caesareum (1540).)
The French scholar Guillaume Postel (1510-1581) is described as a brilliant eccentric polymath and one of the most learned men of his day. The science historian Deborah Warner commented on his "prodigious erudition and output." He was a linguist (considered a master of oriental languages), astronomer, diplomat, professor, theologian, traveller, Kabbalist, mapmaker, author, translator, publisher, and collector. Postel was also a prophet and mystic.
To some extent he was self educated (especially with languages) but he acquired Master of Arts and Bachelor of Medicine degrees at the Collège Sainte-Barbe. (On numerous occasions he supported himself by giving public lectures.) In 1539 he was appointed a Royal Professor (specifically Professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages) at the Institut Royal in Paris (later becoming the Collège de France).
Postel is considered the first true Orientalist and also the first European scholar to conduct research into the history and linguistic origins of star names. The book Signorum coelesttium vera configuratio aut asterismus containing the results of his researches into star names was published in 1553. Nick Kanas (Star Maps, 2007, Page 347) notes that the book included 4 woodcut celestial maps. On page 348 he describes them as: "Two were hemispheres centered around an ecliptic pole that were each 23 cm in diameter and used a polar stereographic projection and geocentric orientation, without figures. The other two were the northern and southern ecliptic hemispheres of Honter." (Johannes Honter [Honterus] (1498-1549) was a German humanist, cosmographer, and cartographer.) The historian of Arabic science George Saliba notes it mentions only 36 constellations.
Postel (and also other European scholars of like calibre) was not dependent on Latin translations of Arabic scientific works. Postel could easily read the original Arabic texts and understand their content (and at times identify corrections to the texts). George Saliba is of the opinion that Postel's interest in Arabic astronomy was likely life-long. Saliba identifies that Postel played a highly important role in the transmission of Islamic scientific ideas into Latin Europe. (Likewise the distinguished orientalist Jean-Albert Widmanstadt (1506-circa1559).)
His writings (as well as his great interest in the Hebrew and Arabic languages) provoked his 1555 trial for heresy before the Venetian Holy Office. (Later he served time in the Papal jail in Rome.)
The constellation scheme established in Ptolemy's Almagest remained virtually unchanged until the European era of celestial mapping in the 17th- and 18th-centuries. (The cartographer Kaspar Vopel may have been the first person to add to the list of constellations handed down by Ptolemy. In 1536 he charted the constellations Coma Berenices and Antinous on a celestial globe (the globe still exists).
The Post-Renaissance Period
During the Renaissance period (broadly the 200 years between 1400 and 1600), and also the post-Renaissance period (particularly the heyday of celestial mapping in the 17th- and 18th-centuries), European astronomers also searched through the philological studies for new individual star names to apply to the star charts and celestial globes they developed. A number of scholars contributed works that provided Arabic star names to the European corpus during the second phase of transmission. The German Orientalist Jakob von Christmann (1554–1613) developed an interest in astronomy and in 1590 published a Latin translation of the writings of al-Farghani (called Alfraganus in Europe), a prominent ninth-century Abbasid astronomer who worked at the famed Baghdad centre of learning, Bayt al-Hikma. Another philological work was A learned treatise of globes by the English scholar John Chilmead (Latin edition 1594; English translation 1638).
An analysis of extant manuscripts has shown that from the High Middle Ages (circa 1000-1300 CE) until the beginning of early modern astronomy circa 1750 CE there were several significant efforts made to bring together and assimilate the different sources of constellation iconography and tradition.
The Influence of Johann Bayer
Johann Bayer (1572-1625) was born in Rain, Bavaria. He studied philosophy at Ingolstadt University and later earned a law degree at Augsburg. He worked as a lawyer in Augsburg and served as a magistrate there. Bayer was also a skilled and serious amateur astronomer. In 1603, at the age of 31, Bayer published an important astronomical work, the Uranometria, which has been described as the first modern star atlas. It became the standard reference for all later star atlases. Though later astronomers named new constellations and introduced new projection systems, as well as totally different artistic styles for drawings of the constellations, the Bayer influence was always present: The Uranometria was always the benchmark standard for comparison.
The Bayer atlas contains 51 star maps or charts - one for each of the 48 traditional constellations of Ptolemy, plus a chart of the recently discovered southern skies and two planispheres, or flat representations of the celestial hemispheres (northern and southern). An important feature of Bayer's atlas was his new system of star nomenclature. Bayer introduced the use of lower case Greek letters to name and organise the stars. He assigned Greek letters to the brighter stars, usually in order of magnitude. For example, the bright star in Taurus, the bull's eye, became α Tauri or Alpha Tauri. The Greek letters were recorded on the charts themselves and also in accompanying tables. (However, the Bayer system is full of inaccuracies.) Today's astronomers still use the binomial designation invented by Bayer.
Latinised Arabic star names were well established in Europe by the time Johann Bayer published his Uranometria in 1603. Bayer did not make any attempt at reforming this practice of denoting star names.The most relevant feature of Bayer's atlas was his recording of popular names for important stars, drawn from the works of Ptolemy and his successors, to assure that all known stars could be identified with those he had listed in his atlas. Bayer relied in large part on the first printed edition (published in Venice in 1515) of Gerard of Cremona's 1175 Latin translation of the Arabic version of Ptolemy's Almagest, as well as on the Alfonsine Tables and other parts of the astronomy "textbook" of King Alfonso X, including an old-Spanish (Castilian) translation of al-Sufi's Book of Constellations of the Fixed Stars. He also consulted important commentaries on these works by Joseph Scaliger, and by the Dutch philosopher and theologian Hugo Grotius.
The Influence of Wilhelm Schickard
The German Wilhelm Schickard (1592–1635), mathematician, astronomer, and professor of Oriental languages at Tübingen, supplied the Arabic letters and star and constellation names for Coelum stellatum Christianum by Julius Schiller (1627). Julius Schiller's Christianised star atlas was a part of the Counter-Reformation attempt to de-paganise the heavens and substitute Judeo-Christian imagery. Philippus Caesius (Philipp von Zesen) (1619-1689), poet and author, wrote a work in Latin in 1662 about the constellations and the legends attached to them, in the light of contemporary astronomy.
The Influence of Jacob Golius
Another source of names derived from the Arabic were bestowals, often ill-based, by early modern Western astronomers even though they had never been used by Arabian astronomers. (Some European astronomers inventing their own constellations also invented their own Arabic star names.) The earliest likely example is the Dutch Orientalist and mathematician Jacob Golius (1596-1667). Most of these names have disappeared. Thuban, alpha Draconis, is an exception.
In 1665, English orientalist Thomas Hyde published the first-ever translation of Ulugh Beg's star tables for European readers, with an extensive commentary on the star names. This Latin work, published at Oxford, bore the appropriately scholarly title Tabulae longitudinis et latitudinis stellarum fixarum ex observatione Ulugh Beighi. This translation and commentary was particularly valuable during the third phase of the transmission of Arab star names to Europe.
Third Phase of Arab-Islamic Star Name Transmission to Europe: during the Early 19th-Century
The third phase of Arabic star names entering into European usage occurred in the early 19th-century. Similar to the second phase, Western astronomers took what became modern star names not from the original Arabic sources, such as al-Sufi or Ulugh Beg, but from translations of these sources - that is, from European renderings of the Arabic star nomenclature. About one-third of corrupted star names derived from Arabic (by early modern Western astronomers) had never been used by Arab-Islamic astronomers as star names. Most of these particular star names are no longer in use. An exception is Thurban (alpha Draconis). Approximately 140 star names of Arabic origin were utilised in European star charts during this period. Several other western scholars played significant roles during the third phase of transmission.
" ... some modern star names descend from Arabic names that have no counterpart in the classical tradition. For example, our Vega is a corruption of [al nasr] al waqi', "the swooping [vulture]." (The Classical Tradition (2010) edited by Anthony Grafton et al.)
The Influence of Giuseppe Piazzi
Of the approximately 140 star names of Arabic origin that were utilised in European star charts during the third phase of transmission, 94 of them originated in a single star catalogue published in 1803 by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi (1746–1826). The Italian Theatine monk, mathematician, and astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi (1746-1826) introduced nearly 100 new star names (mostly "Arabic") in his Palermo Catalogue published in 1814 (his 2nd star catalogue). These star names were derived by Giuseppe Piazzi from the philological study Tabulae longitudinum et latitudinum stellarum fixarum ex observatione principis Ulugh Beighi (1665) by the English Orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636-1703).
Piazzi, a native of Lombardy, and a a Catholic priest, taught higher mathematics and then astronomy at the University of Palermo. He was commissioned by Prince Caramanico, viceroy of Sicily, to build an observatory there. Upon completion of the observatory Piazzi compiled his famous star catalogue, containing 6784 stars (7464 entries in the revised 1814 edition).
In 1665 the accomplished English Orientalist Thomas Hyde had published his translation of Ulugh Beg's star catalogue Tabulae longitudinum et latitudinum stellarum fixarum ex observatione principis Ulugh Beighi, to which he added his own copious notes. For star names, Piazzi's Palermo catalogue relied heavily on Hyde's 1665 translation of the Ulugh Beg star list. (Despite its age, Hyde's work had remarkable staying power, being reprinted, with corrections, at Oxford in 1767 by Gregory Sharpe and in London in 1843 by Francis Bailly, among others, up to the modern era.) According to Paul Kunitzsch in his Arabische Sternnamen in Europa (1959), Piazzi fashioned new names from Hyde's transcriptions of the names used by Ulugh Beg in the table text as well as names and endings brought forward in the commentary from all other sources. Kunitzsch showed that Piazzi generally did not follow Hyde's orthography very exactly and many simplifications were introduced. Kunitzsch also found Piazzi occasionally relied on German astronomer Johann Bode's star atlas Uranographie (1801) for some of his star-name forms. Piazzi's star names enjoyed wide circulation. His catalogue was regarded as a standard reference work of the 19th-century and was highly regarded by European and North American astronomers well into the 20th-century.
Christian Ludwig Ideler
Christian Ludwig Ideler (1766–1846), a leading Prussian chronologist, historian, and astronomer, made some noteworthy contributions to the understanding of Arabic star names. In 1809, he published a then major work on the origin and meaning of star names that incorporated his own translation of the astronomical section of Zakariya' al-Qazwini's popular 13th-century cosmography, 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation), supplemented with notes from classical and other sources. Ideler was the first western scholar to divide Arabic star names into two groups: truly Arabic names and those which the Arabs fashioned by translating Ptolemy's Greek descriptions of stars' positions in the constellations.
Christian Ludwig (sometimes Ludewig) Ideler was a German astronomer, chronologist, historian, and philologist. Ideler studied theology, philology, astronomy, and mathematics at the Universitat Halle/Saale. "In 1794 he was appointed at Berlin an astronomer for reckoning time, becoming a member of the "royal calendar deputation."" (See: Handbuch der Orientalistik: The Near and Middle East. H-M, Part 1 by Wolfgang Benn (2006, Page 142).) After holding various official posts under the Prussian government he became a Professor at the University of Berlin (Academie in Berlin) in 1821. (Professor de Astronomie und Mitglied (Professor of Astronomy and Chronology).) From 1816 to 1822 he was tutor to the young Prussian princes William and Charles. Ideler was a member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften from 1810. Circa 1839 he became a foreign member of the Institute of France. In 1825-1826 he published his great work, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie (2 Volumes), which still remains useful. (This original edition is now extremely scarce. However, there have been several (revised) reprints.) Most of his life was spent studying ancient systems of chronology.
Ideler made an important and long-standing (but flawed) contribution to the philological study and historical explanation of Arabic star names. His publications included the book: Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen [Inquiry into the Origin and Meaning of the Names of Stars] (1809, reprinted 1994). It was one of the earliest extensive studies of the history, derivations and meaning of star names that had passed into European astronomy. Much of the discussion involves star names derived from Arabic. Ideler was an Arabic scholar as well as being a Greek scholar. The book is now thoroughly dated and unreliable. His Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen (1809) was used as a basic reference source in the West for over 150 years. Unfortunately, Ideler did not have access to al-Sufi's book on the fixed stars, and his work is riddled with errors due to his use of unreliable and chiefly secondary Arabic sources. Due to the author's additional use of numerous unreliable and mostly secondary Arabic sources the book unavoidably contains numerous errors.
Richard Allen (1838–1908), from Buffalo, New York, was also an important figure in the third phase of transmission. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm was greater than his level of scholarship and philological accuracy. He became interested in the history of star names through curiousity concerning a reference to the star name: Hamal ("The Ram" in Arabic), also known as Alpha Arietis, the first star in the constellation Ares. His interest in the history of star names became a hobby and then a lifelong pursuit. Allen compiled a comprehensive work on star-name lore, published in 1899 as Star-Names and Their Meanings (later reprinted as Star-Names: Their Lore and Meaning). Unfortunately, for most of his Arabic star name material, he relied on Ideler and so repeated/perpetuated Ideler's many errors. Allen's book helped popularize star names and star lore and is still frequently quoted today. Some of Allen's variants on these Arabic star names names have been included in modern reference works, including the American Nautical Almanac and Webster's International Dictionary. It is somewhat curious that regardless of the nature of the borrowing most of Allen's predecessors - the European and Arabic-speaking astronomers, cosmographers, philologists and others that he cites extensively in his book - remain shrouded in obscurity and in most cases have been effectively forgotten.
The complicated process of transmission of Arabic star names into European usage use today was neither uniform nor consistent. It is described by Paul Kunitzsch as, "a conglomeration of heterogeneous words fashioned at different times and in different ways." Direct borrowings happened only during the Medieval period. The word formations of the second and third phases are indirect borrowings - cases in which scholars and astronomers have taken terms from translations that appeared in the European literature. The process of the borrowing Arabic star names, regardless of the actual borrowing process, continued for almost a millennium, with new incursions of Arabic star names into the literature of the West from time to time through the centuries.
The majority of stars names are related to their constellation, e.g., the star Deneb means "tail" and names that part of Cygnus the Swan. Others describe the star itself, such as Sirius, which translates literally as "scorching," a suitable enough name for the brightest star in the sky. Quite a lot of prominent stars bear Arabic names, in which al corresponds to the article "the" and often appears in front, e.g., Algol, "The Ghoul." Its inclusion has become somewhat arbitrary over time. Most other names of stars inherited from the past have Greek or Latin names.
Henninger, Joseph. (1954). "Über Sternkunde und Sternkult in Nord- und Zentralarabien." (Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, Volume 79, Pages 82-117). [Note: A study of pre-Islamic Arabian astronomy and astral beliefs.]
Kunitzsch, Paul. (1959). Arabische Sternnamen in Europa. [Note: The best and most reliable study of Western use (i.e., adaptations) of Arabic star names. It critically traces the histories of approximately 210 constellations/star names.]
Kunitzsch, Paul. (1961). Untersuchungen zur Sternnomenklatur der Araber. [Note: A study of indigenous Arabic constellations and star names. One of the few easily accessible studies.]
Kunitzsch, Paul. (1983). Über eine anwa-Tradition mit bisher unbekannten Sternnamen. [Note: An update to his Untersuchungen zur Sternnomenklatur der Araber.(1961).]
Montgomery, Scott. (1996). "Naming the heavens: A brief history of earthly projections. Part I: Nativizing Arab Science." (Science as Culture, Volume 5, Issue 4, Pages 546-587). [Note: Excellent. The author is a geologist, independent scholar, and affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington, Seattle.]
Montgomery, Scott. (1996). "Naming the heavens: A brief history of earthly projections. Part II: Nativizing Hellenic Science." (Science as Culture, Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 73-129). [Note: Excellent.]
Montgomery, Scott. (1999). The Moon & the Western Imagination [Note: Excellent.]
Montgomery, Scott. (2000; 2002). Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time. [Note: Excellent.]
Lebling, Robert. (2010). "Arabic in the Sky." (Saudi Aramco World, Volume 61, Number 5, September/October, Pages 24-33). [Note: Generally excellent overview but contains a few errors.]
Appendix: Extract from: "Arabic Origins of Modern Western Star Names" by Khalid Baheyeldin. (http://baheyeldin.com/astronomy/arabic-origins-of-modern-western-star-names.html)
"..... But what happened is more interesting than just mere straight forward translation. Often, there were errors introduced that make for interesting discussions today.
 Constellation Name As Star Names
And (sic) example is how many star names are actually constellation names.
For example ... (Aqrab) is the name of the scorpion. But when it made its way from the Middle East to Europe, it became the name of a star in that constallation (sic): Acrab.
This is a recurring theme in many constellations.
Alpha Sagittae, is Sham (mistranslated from: ... sahm) which means arrow, the name of the constellation: Sagitta.
Dubhe ... means Bear, Ursa Major.
Alpha Coronae Borealis is known as Alphecca, which is a shortening of ... nayyir Al Fekka, meaning: The brightest of Al Fekka.
Another interesting mistranslation is how the same name applies to more than one star. For example, also in Scorpio, Dschubba and Nu Scorpi (Jabbah, or Jabhat are both translated from "the forehead of the scorpion".
Another forehead, is Gamma Leonis, called Algieba and is "The forehead" of the lion.
 Duplicated Name Variants
Another recurring theme is having the same name, with or without variations for different stars.
Sometimes this is within the same constellation.
For example, Alnitak ... in Orion's belt means Belt or Girdle. But so is Mintaka ... meaning the same thing.
In other cases, it is across constellations.
An example, is Alnair ... which means "The Brightest [of ...]", which got chopped off (just like Western languages do with Abu and Abdul) and applied as a proper name. This is the case with both Zeta Centauri and Alpha Gruis.
The same goes for Ruchbah (Delta Cassiopeiae) ... (knee) in Cassiopeia, and Rukbat (Alpha Sagittari) in Sagittarius. Both mean: knee.
And also Sadr (Gamma Cygni) in Cygnus, and Shedir (Alpha Casssiopeiae) in Cassiopeia, both meaning ... breast.
We also have at least two elbows, one is Mirfak and another is Marfik (or Marsik). Both come from Arabic ... with some corruption for the latter.
The name Zubana ... which means 'claw', found its way to many stars. Starting with Acubens (Alpha Cancri), and to Zuben al-Akrab claw of the scorpion, in Libra, when it was still part of the constellation Scorpio, as well as Zubeneschamali (Beta Librae, northern claw), and Zubenelgenubi (Alpha Librae, southern claw).
There is also an abundance of tails. Deneb is the tail of the hen (Cygnus the swan in Western constellations), while Epsilon and Zeta in Aquila are known as Deneb Al-Okab, ... tail of the Eagle. Also, Delta Capricorni is Deneb Algedi (... tail of the ram). And there is Deneb Kaitos, tail of Cetus, where Cetus was literally translating from Greek to Arabic. There is also Denebola which is a shortened, corrupted version of ... Dhanab Al Laith, Tail of the Lion.
 Plurals As Singulars
The star Adhara means 'maidens' or 'virgins', but as with Abu/Abdul, the other words in the clause was dropped, giving a plural as a singular proper name.
Another star in the same constellation has another variant that is singular: Aludra meaning 'The Virgin'.
 Numbered Names
In some cases, there were numbers made into names.
For example, Alula, Tania and Talitha mean First ..., Second ... and Third ... respectively.
 Unintended Opposite Meaning
One funny case, is the star Eta Vir in Virgo. It was translated as Zaniah, ... which in Arabic means 'adulteress' (contrast that with Virgin!). This is a corruption of Az-Zawiyah, ... which means 'the angle'.
 A Constellation Born Out of Mis-Translation
But the most interesting is the multiple mistranslation that led to a new constellation to be created. Canis Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. They were a part of Bootes, the shepherd, being his staff. It got translated literally as: The Staff With a Hook ..., from Greek into Arabic. When it came to Europeans turn to translate, they mistook the "hook" for "dogs", because in Arabic short vowels are not written. Later, it was made into its own constellation that did not exist during Greek or Arab times. All due to mistranslation!
Return to top of page.
This web page was last updated on: Sunday, November 5, 2017, 8.00 am.
This web page was created using Arachnophilia 4.0 and FrontPage 2003.
You can reach me here by email (but first delete the obvious attempt in the email address to foil the spammers):
Return To Site Contents Page