05 Sep 2015

2D1S Celestial Complexes

Star names in ancient Arabia were often overlapping and multivalent

05 Sep 2015
 Celestial Complexes

Star names in ancient Arabia were often overlapping and multivalent themselves. The same star or pair of stars might be called different terms in different contexts, even by the same person. Existing surveys of Arabic star names tend to work through the sky spatially by star, or sometimes alphabetically by name. This tends to make culturally bound groups of stars invisible, or at best fragmented.

My solution to this problem is to present these stars in their “celestial complexes,” a term that I am using to designate a grouping of stars that share a certain kind of cultural significance. Some stars are culturally bound to each other because they factor into a story that is told about them. Others together make a picture in the sky, whether large or small. These kinds of groupings, bound by the shared beliefs or stories of a community, I shall call a folkloric celestial complex. The other major type of celestial complex is the calendrical celestial complex, an association of stars or star groupings that together delineate a period of time, most commonly the solar or sidereal year, or the lunar month. By presenting the Arab stars within their celestial complexes, my hope is to make visible these cultural meanings and their multivalency.

One more concept that I wish to introduce is the “celestial chronotope.” The word “chronotope” was first coined by Mikhail Bakhtin (1937, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”) to describe the interconnectedness of time and space within distinct literary genres. This word was later applied by anthropologist Keith Basso (1984, “Stalking with Stories: Names, Places, and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache”) to describe geographic features that embody moral teachings connected to a tribe’s history, in this case the Western Apache.

In relation to the stars, a celestial chronotope is a star or star grouping whose position in the sky at a certain time of night evokes a season and the cultural significance attached to it. Having grown up in New Jersey, I distinctly remember the sight of the Big Dipper’s bowl resting squarely on the horizon in the early evening shortly before Halloween. For myself, it is a strong emotional memory; if my community shared this sentiment as well, it would qualify as a celestial chronotope. We will see that celestial chronotopes are strongly evidenced through both pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabic poetry.

Folkloric ComplexesFolkloric Complexes
Rain Stars (anwa')Rain Stars (anwa')
Lunar Stations (manazil al-qamar)Lunar Stations (manazil al-qamar)
Rhymed Prose (as-saj'a)Rhymed Prose (as-saj'a)

Folkloric celestial complexes among the Arabs range from asterisms of just a few stars to enormous megaconstellations that spanned as much as 130 angular degrees in the sky. The Bucket (ad-dalw) and its components, described in our first star calendar post, is an example of a folkloric celestial complex composed of just a few stars. The Lion (al-asad) and the Camel (an-naqa) are examples of very large folkloric complexes.

Much has been written by grammarians concerning the nature and origins of the term naw’ (singular), anwa’ (plural). Generally, most agree that a naw’ is a star whose rising or setting shortly before sunrise signals the onset of rains, a season or some other culturally significant event. Poetry and early star calendars tend to treat naw’ as a setting star, while rhymed prose and later calendars tend to identify it as a rising star. Initially, a star was considered a naw’ only if its setting (or rising) came with rain. Later, its definition widened to include the stars associated with the lunar stations (see below).

The lunar stations, sometimes translated as lunar mansions, is a complex of 28 individual stars or small groups of stars that largely parallel the path that the moon takes through the sky. Each night, the moon rests (“stations”) near one of these star groupings. Since the lunar month is approximately 29.5 days, the phase of the moon when it stops at one of the lunar stations changes sightly from month to month. The Arab lunar stations as a system developed after the translation of Hindi sources that described the Indian lunar mansions (nakshatra). This new system assimilated star names that already existed to form the 28 stations.

Arabic rhymed prose was a literary form that ended each phrase with a rhyme but lacked the formulaic internal meter of poetry. In reference to the stars, pieces of rhymed prose began formulaically with “When [star name] rises…” (idha tala’a [star name]…). Almost all of these sayings describes the dawn rising of the star or asterism, in contrast to the setting rain stars. Qutrub (d. 821 CE) was the first to present a list of stellar rhymed prose as a star calendar, the Stars of Summer and Winter.

Leave a comment
More Posts