Feature image credit: NASA-ESA-AURA/Caltech
An ancient Arab legend speaks of a woman named Jawza’. A very long time ago, she was promised to a man named Suhayl. This man lived across the river with his two sisters, known together as the Shi’rayan (the Two Shi’ra). When her wedding day came, Jawza’ and Suhayl were at last united, but her wedding night brought disaster. No one knows what happened for certain. Some say Suhayl broke her back as they consummated their marriage. Whatever the cause, Jawza’ was dead by morning.
Suhayl feared for his life as the family of Jawza’ sought blood vengeance, so he fled far to the south, away from his two sisters. One of his sisters crossed the river to be closer to him as he fled, and so she was thereafter called the Shi’ra Who Crossed Over (ash-shi’ra al-‘abur). Suhayl’s other sister stayed at home on the other side of the river, where she cried and cried until tears and puss filled her eyes. She was thereafter called the Little Bleary-Eyed Shi’ra (ash-shi’ra al-ghumaysa’).
The characters in this legend correlate with exceptionally bright stars in the winter sky. The Shi’ra Who Crossed Over is the brightest star in the entire night sky and lies on the western bank of the river, the Milky Way. On the northeastern side of the river, her sister, the Little Bleary-Eyed Shi’ra, is a little bit dimmer because her eyes are clouded with her tears. Suhayl is the second brightest star in the sky and lies far to the south, unseeable by observers who live above 35 degrees latitude. Jawza’, the bride, is a striking trio of very bright stars that are lined up equidistant from each other in a perfectly straight line.
Amazingly, the star that correlates to the Shi’ra Who Crossed Over really did cross over the river, the Milky Way. This star is so bright in part because it lies very close to the Earth and Sun. Because of this closeness, it moves in relation to the other stars that are much further away, a feature called proper motion, just as the Moon and planets move in relation to the (relatively) fixed stars. Mathematical models allow us to trace the path of this Shi’ra back in time, and we find that indeed it once did lie on the eastern bank of the river…50,000 years ago. This doesn’t mean that the legend itself is necessarily 50,000 years old, though it may be. Just 15,000 or 20,000 years is still long enough to track Shi’ra coming out of the river.
Like Thuraya in our last post, Jawza’ is a fantastically old star name that has been anthropomorphized over time. By the time of Ibn Qutayba (died 889 CE), Jawza’ was a fully articulated human figure, the only one in the Arabian sky. (Thuraya has just a head and two magnificent arms.) However, it is most likely that the earliest iteration of this asterism consisted of just the three central stars that form a straight line. Indeed, the name Jawza’ comes from the Arabic root that means something in the center. These three stars are known to us today as the Belt of Orion.
How to observe Jawza’
The proper time to observe a star’s morning setting (or rising) is called ghalas in Arabic, at time when the darkness of night mixes with the white and red light of dawn in the tracts of the horizon (How to Observe). Look to the western horizon about 45 minutes before your local sunrise (times available at timeanddate.com). Jawza’ will appear as a trio of very bright stars arranged in a short, straight line. The Footstools and Feet of Jawza’ begin to set a couple weeks before the central three stars of Jawza’ do.
Jawza’ as a rain star asterism
For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.
The three central stars of Jawza’ are unmistakeable in the night sky and very bright. Their setting in the morning just before sunrise marked the onset of the winter rainy season called ash-shatawi (or, ash-shita’), according to the rain star calendar of Qushayr. This was a season of intense cold and correlates well with our notion of winter. As I write from Tucson in Arizona’s Sonoran desert, winter here in the desert is a season of extremes. Low humidity means that even when winter daytime temperatures are moderate, nighttime temperatures can easily go below freezing. The verse below from the famous poet An-Nabigha adh-Dhubyani demonstrates the use of Jawza’ as a wintry rain star grouping as early as the 6th century CE.
أسرت عليه من الجوزاء سارية تزجي الشمال عليه جامد البرد
There came to him by night a pillar of cloud from Jawza’;
the north wind drove frozen hail gently upon him.An-Nabigha adh-Dhubyani,
6th century C.E.
In the 6th century, and for a few hundred years later, the three stars of Jawza’ set as a diagonal line that was centered between the stars that later would represent her right hand and her left foot. All setting at precisely the same time, these five stars created a striking appearance at the setting of Jawza’.
Over time, additional elements were added to the three central stars that originally represented Jawza’. It is likely that the brighter stars were added first, her Two Hands (al-yadan) and Two Feet (ar-rijlan), and a fainter trio of stars that represented her head. With these in place, the three central stars became her Belt of Pearls (an-nazm or an-nitaq). She also acquired Flowing Locks of Hair (adh-dhawa’ib), a Bow (al-qaws) held by her left hand and a Footstool (al-kursi) for each foot. Far away, there is a separate grouping of stars that at some point came to represent her Maidenhood (‘udhrat al-Jawza’), or perhaps the loss of her virignity. The central star of this three-spoked grouping is an orange star and may represent the breaking of her hymen, which is also consistent with the Arabic term ‘udhra. The origin of this asterism’s name is not known, but it is conceivable that it may relate to the ancient story of Jawza’ on her wedding night.
The Hair Whorl and the Neck Mark as lunar stations
For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.
Two lunar stations lie within the extended figure of Jawza’, the Hair Whorl (al-haq’a) and the Neck Mark (al-han’a). Although they use some of the stars of the celestial complex of Jawza’, their names betray a rather different connotation. Using the same trio of stars as the Head of Jawza’, the Hair Whorl is the fifth lunar station and was named for the whorl of hair that can appear on the chest of a horse. There were some 18 distinguished hair whorls that could appear at different locations on a horse. The Hair Whorl star grouping was said to resemble the three stones of a Bedouin cooking trivet. Such stones would be arranged in a roughly equilateral triangle to elevate the cooking pot off the ground.
Following the Hair Whorl is the sixth lunar station, the Neck Mark, a pair of stars that also form the hilt of the Bow of Jawza’. These stars are named for a mark that sometimes appears on the neck of a camel. As calendrical asterisms, both the Neck Mark and the Hair Whorl are difficult to use, for neither grouping is very bright, given the many brilliant stars in the figure of Jawza’. Indeed, in the early morning hours these two lunar stations get washed out by the light of dawn well before the bright stars of Jawza’ do.
Arab Lady, Greek Giant
What happened to Jawza’? Much like the Jawza’ of ancient legend, the celestial Jawza’ died from memory. As we have seen several times before, the introduction of Greek astronomy ultimately led to her celestial death. Being located close to the Greek zodiacal constellation of Gemini, the name Jawza’ was adopted to designate Gemini, the Twins. For a time, Jawza’ referred to both the Arab figure we have examined above and the Greek figure of Gemini, generating much confusion. In time, the Arab figure of Jawza’ was displaced by the Greek figure of Orion, received by the Arabs as the Giant, al-Jabar. In this transition from the Arab woman Jawza’ to the Greek male Giant, Jawza’ lost her long locks of hair and her footstools, and she wound up with a smaller bow, placed in the opposite hand.
Although Jawza’ as a name for the whole complex of stars has passed away, many of her individual star names did survive through modern times. The individual stars in her Belt of Pearls each bear one of the names that used to designate the trio as a whole: Alnitak (ζ ORI, from al-nitaq), Alnilam (ε ORI, from al-nizam) and Mintaka (δ ORI, from al-mintaqa). The well-known star Rigel (β ORI) is taken directly from the Arabic rijl, “foot,” but this could be the foot of either Jawza’ or the Giant. Far away in the Greek constellation of Canis Major, the Maidenhead (al-‘udhra) of Jawza’ survives in the star names of Aludra (η CMA) and Adhara (ε CMA), the latter of which is taken from the plural al-‘adhara.
Since the celestial death of Jawza’, the only vestige of her name in the modern figure of Orion is the curious star name Betelgeuse (α ORI). Still in its original location, this name was originally yad al-Jawza’, the Hand of Jawza’. Centuries of copying manuscripts resulted in the misreading of the dots in the Arabic, and the name changed to bat al-jawz(a’), the Armpit of Jawza’. In Latin transliteration, this became the star name Betelgeuse. However, this is not the end of this star name’s story. In contemporary times, I have seen a few modern Arabic astronomy books extract from the word Betelgeuse the Arabic phrase bayt al-qaws, the House of the Bow. Ironically, this modern Arabic star name correctly identifies this star as the hand that held the bow, and so it can be appealing to take this as the star’s original name. Although it does agree with the original star picture, in this name we lose entirely any reference to the woman named Jawza’.
In the next post, we will encounter an ancient celestial beast that consumes almost the entire breadth of the sky.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below, and tell me about your observations of these ancient asterisms. Be sure to include your city and state/country so we can see how the timings vary by location.
Star Catalog Entries for this Celestial Complex
Jawza’ Celestial Complex (al-jawza’, الجوزاء)
Jawza’/The Lady in the Middle (al-jawza’, الجوزاء)
The Belt of Pearls (an-nazm, النظم, an-nizamالنظام)
The Hands of Jawza’ (yada al-jawza’, يدا الجوزاء)
The Feet of Jawza’ (rijla al-jawza’, رجلا الجوزاء)
The Head of Jawza’ (ra’s al-jawza’, رأس الجوزاء)
The Flowing Locks of Hair (adh-dhawa’ib, الذوائب)
The Bow of Jawza’ (qaws al-jawza’, قوس الجوزاء)
The Front Footstool (al-kursi al-muqadam, الكرسي المقدم)
The Rear Footstool (al-kursi al-mu’akhar, الكرسي المؤخر)
The Maidenhead of Jawza’ (‘udhrat al-jawza’, عذرة الجوزاء)