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.