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Star Names

As a recent project, I started to trace back the name of the stars to their origins. I limited myself to the names used by to the scientific community. These are derived from peoples who lived around the Mediterranean Sea, although Polynesian, Native American, African and Asian names would all be equally valid. Just about every star brighter than the ninth magnitude (stars you could hope to glimpse with normal binoculars) has a designator, but these hardly qualify as a name. Only a few hundred stars have names familiar to most astronomers.

The very oldest star names are ancient Egyptian: Sirius [derived from the ancient god Osirus] and Thuban [the Pole Star four thousand years ago]. While a few star names survive, the system of Egyptian constellations were absorbed or lost by the constellations which the Greeks created. Hipparchus [for whom we named the modern star mapping satellite] invented a "scientific" Zodiac, grouping stars in units of 30 degrees each about 140 BC. The Romans renamed the Zodiac based not on logic but how they appeared. It was also the Romans who named most of the constellations visible in the northern hemisphere. These systems became accepted as fact. Claudius Ptolomy, a Greek working in Rome during the second century writer of The Major Systems of Astronomy" was so influential that no major European astronomical texts were written for a millenia until Alfonso X of Spain neglected his duties as the king to go star gazing in the 13th century AD.

While very little was occurring in Europe, a great deal was occurring just south and east of the Mediterranean Sea. During the golden age of Moslem learning, science and teaching, the individual stars were being named. Perhaps no one was more influential than the northern Persian astronomer, mystic and poet Abd al Rahman Abu al Husain commonly called Al Sufi (the Sage). He wrote his Description of the Fixed Stars during the 10th century AD. The 10th century Persian astronomers accepted the Roman system of constellations, but gave them their own manes. For example, Ursa Major became Al Dubb al Akbar which may sound completely differant but both translate as The Great Bear, the constellation we usually The Big Dipper in the United States and The Plow in England.

As I proceeded to trace back the names, I soon recognized that most of the names of the stars were contractions of "the body part of the constellation". Where we might say "the great bear's back" they would say "Thahr al Dubb al Akbar" (exactly the same). However over the years this long phrase has been contracted into Duhbe (pronounced Dubhe). Sometimes the translation sounds peculiar to modern ears. Betelguese (the brightest star in the huge constellation Orion) is often described today as the "left shoulder of Orion". The Arabians called it Ibt al Jauzah became corrupted as Bet al Gauza and finally Betelguese. Translated literally it is "Arm pit of the Central Giant".

A minority of names come more directly from Latin or classical Greek. The Greeks named the twin brothers Castor (the horseman) and Pollux (the boxer) were fathered on the same night by Tyndarus and Zeus. Pollux gave up his immortality so that his mortal brother would not be jealous. The Romans named stars such as Bellatrix (after the beautiful Amazon warrior queen), Vindemiatrix (the lady who stomps on wine grapes) and Spica (the stalk of wheat) that Virgo [The Maiden] carries as a symbol of her readiness to marry.

Sometimes names sneak in that really shouldn't have made it at all. My favorite example was Sir Edmund Halley who wanted to be appointed as an Astronomer Royal by Charles II of England. He renamed the brightest star in Canes Venitici (The Hunting Hounds) as Cor Coroli (Charles' Heart). Not to be outdone, Flamstead renamed this whole constellation Sidii Georgii (George I's Stars), but by now this practice was passe and it soon reverted back to the original name.

There is a promoter who claims to to sell the naming rights of any star you choose to you. There is no validity to this claim since all astronomical names are administered by The IAU [International Astronomical Union]. After charging an exorbitant amount, they send you a "certificate" proclaiming that such and such a star shall henceforth be named whatever you specified. Such a claim is no more valid than if I made up a certificate proclaiming that I was the Rightful King of the United States. Please don't make the mistake of sending this predator your money. What makes this practice particularly reprehensible is that "sales" of "star name" sales are often promoted as a suitable memorial to dead loved ones, particularly dead children. This scam continues to pop up here and there in spite of successful prosecutions in many courts. It really breaks our hearts when visitors bring such a "certificate" to FDO wanting to see the star named after their dead infant.

If you would like to learn more about the names of stars I can recommend three sources. The most scholarly of the three sources is the 1899 book by Richard Hinckley Allen Star Names; Their Lore and Meaning. This is a wonderful if somewhat quaint book by modern tastes, but full of details accessible nowhere else. We have made the derivations of star names available at our website.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Aug 1, 2001
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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