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Arab star names

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Auspicious Vultures in the Dark Sky

Feature image by Pierre Dalous CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first rains to follow the sweltering heat of summer in the desert (al-hamim) fell during the season called al-kharif. For many tribes of Arabia, the year consisted of six seasons of varying length, and the kharif was the last of these. It was called kharif because it was the time when people plucked (kharafa) dates and other kinds of fruit from their trees.

The season begins with the setting of the Two Vultures (an-nasran), according to the rain star calendar of Qushayr. At the same time, the first of ten Auspicious Asterisms (as-su’ud) begins to set, four of which complete the calendar of the lunar stations. Having diverged when the summer began, these two calendars come back together as the autumnal season of fruit harvest (al-kharif) concludes with the setting of the First Spout (al-fargh al-awal) of the Well Bucket (ad-dalw). This brings us full circle to our starting point a year ago.

ظعائن شمن قريح الخريف من الفرغ والأنجم الذابحة

The women traveling in camel litters
directed their gaze to see where the first rain
of the autumnal season of fruit harvest
would descend from the clouds,
the first rain from the Spout
and the stars of the Slaughterer.
At-Tirimah
743 C.E.

النسران

How to observe the Two Vultures

The Two Vultures (an-nasran) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-August.

The Two Vultures (an-nasran) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-August. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

The proper time to observe a star’s morning setting (or rising) is called ghalas in Arabic, a 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). You can spot the Two Vultures as a pair of very bright stars spaced widely apart just above the west-northwestern horizon. The one on the left was called the Flying Vulture (an-nasr at-ta’ir) because the two dimmer stars on each side were seen as its outstretched wings. The one on the right was called the Alighting Vulture (an-nasr al-waqi’) because its two closest stars created a V-shaped formation with the bright star, as if the bird had its wings contracted while descending from the sky.

النسران والأخضر

The Two Vultures and the Dark Green as rain stars

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

A griffon vulture alights.

A griffon vulture alights.

The rainy season of fruit harvest began with the setting of the Two Vultures (an-nasran). In modern-day Arabic, the term nasr more commonly indicates an eagle, but this was less common long ago. Back then, nasr designated a class of large birds known for plucking flesh with the curved ends of their otherwise flat beaks. These vultures were distinguished from the eagle (al-‘uqab) in part by their toes that terminated in large hooked claws rather than fully curved talons. The Egyptians revered the vulture for its utility in eliminating decaying animals, and the Arabs similarly regarded them favorably.

The two bright stars that marked the bodies of the Two Vultures set together along the west-northwestern horizon. Their positions far away from the path of the Moon through the sky (the ecliptic) excluded them from being considered as lunar stations. Nevertheless, these asterisms were highly regarded and were included in the rain star calendar of Qushayr to designate the beginning of the autumnal season of fruit harvest.

Following the setting of the Two Vultures, the rain star calendar of Qushayr mentions a star called the Dark Green (al-akhdar) as the second rain star of the kharif. The identification of this star in the sky is uncertain, but we know it had to set in the west after the setting of the Two Vultures and before the setting of the First Two Crossbars of the Well Bucket (‘arquwata ad-dalw al-ulayan), which the calendar of Qushayr identifies as the last asterism of al-kharif. The name al-akhdar generally indicated a green color, sometimes bright and verdant, other times a dusty green or an intense black that tended toward green. Clear water was said to tend toward this color. When used to describe the night, al-akhdar indicated it was very dark.

سعد الذابح وبلع والسعود والأخبية

The Auspicious Asterisms as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

Because they are located so far to the north, the Two Vultures were not included in the calendar of lunar stations. Instead, the lunar stations continued with four of the ten Auspicious Asterisms (as-su’ud). The Arabic term indicates good fortune or something that is auspicious, especially a star. A celestial complex in its own right, the Auspicious Asterisms are all pairs of otherwise unremarkable stars, except for one that is comprised of four stars. All located within the same region of sky, the Auspicious Asterisms begin to set just before the Two Vultures set. When the calendar of lunar stations was generated, the pre-existing Auspicious Asterisms that were located closest to the Moon’s path were incorporated as lunar stations.

The Auspicious Asterisms (as-su'ud) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early August.

The Auspicious Asterisms (as-su’ud) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early August. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

Continuing eastward from the 21st lunar station, the Wasteland (al-balda), the first Auspicious Asterism we encounter is the Auspice of the Slaughterer (sa’d adh-dhabih), a pair of stars that marked the 22nd lunar station. Very close to the northern star of the pair is a faint star that was called the Sheep (ash-shat), the one that is about to be slaughtered. It is this asterism that the 8th century poet at-Tirimah mentioned in the line of poetry above.

The 23rd lunar station was the Voracious Auspice (sa’d bula’), so called because it swallows everything. In this pair of stars, the western star is brighter than the eastern one, and so it was imagined to be moments away from swallowing the dimmer star and taking its light in the process.

The 24th lunar station was the Auspice of Auspices (sa’d as-su’ud), containing one of the brightest stars of the Auspicious Asterisms. The Auspice of Auspices was most sought after for good fortune among the ten Auspicious Asterisms, thus lending to its name. Ibn Qutuayba said the Auspice of Auspices was an asterism containing three stars, one bright and two dim, but most other accounts mentioned only two stars, one bright and one dim.

The final lunar station from among the Auspicious Asterisms was the Auspice of Woolen Tents (sa’d al-akhbiya). This asterism is the only one of the ten that contains more than two stars. The Auspice of Woolen Tents appears as a triangle of moderately bright stars with a fourth star located right in the center. The woolen tent (khiba’) for which the 25th lunar station was named was often made with 3 poles that met in the middle, a fitting description of the appearance of these stars in the sky.

Each of the lunar stations mentioned above is located along a line that parallels the path of the Moon through the sky. Following the Auspice of Woolen Tents, this line continues to the First Spout (al-fargh al-awal) of the Well Bucket (ad-dalw), which is where we began with the calendar of lunar stations a year ago.

The remaining six of the ten Auspicious Asterisms were not included in the calendar of lunar stations. The Scattering Auspice (sa’d nashira) was named for the wind that disburses the rain-bearing clouds or for the dry herbage that becomes green again during the rains at the end of the summer. The Auspice of the King (sa’d al-malik) included one of the brightest stars of the Auspicious Asterisms and was located between the Auspice of Auspices and the Auspice of Woolen Tents. The Auspice of Lambs (sa’d al-baha’im) followed a northerly track that took the remaining Auspicious Asterisms alongside the First Spout. The Auspice of the Aspiring One (sa’d al-humam), which referred to a magnanimous chief or king, and the Auspice of the Exalted One (sa’d al-bari’) each lay close to one of the two stars of the First Spout. The last of the group was the Auspice of Rain (sa’d matar), which set amid the setting of the Two Spouts that heralded the heavy marking rains (wasmi) of autumn.

النسران والسعود

The Vultures and Auspicious Asterisms still soar

Without Greek zodiacal constellations to break them up, the Two Vultures have survived into the lexicon of modern astronomy. The central bright stars of each of these asterisms bear names that derive from their specific Arabic names. Thus, the Flying Vulture (an-nasr at-ta’ir) survives in the star name Altair (α AQL), and the Alighting Vulture (an-nasr al-waqi’) survives as Vega (α LYR).

The Auspicious Asterisms are located in an area of sky that is now occupied by the Greek constellations Capricornus, Aquarius and Pegasus. Amazingly, every one of the ten Auspicious Asterisms endures in its original location, despite there being two zodiacal constellations in this area of sky. In Capricornus, one of the two bright stars of the Auspice of the Slaughterer (sa’d adh-dhabih) is called Dabih (β CAP), and even the sheep (ash-shat) that is about to be slaughtered is preserved in the star Alshat (ν CAP). On the other side of Capricornus, one of the stars of the Scattering Auspice (sa’d nashira) is called Nashira (γ CAP). In both of these cases, the other star of each pair bears a modern name that reflects the Arabic description of the Greek Goat, Capricornus: Algedi (α CAP), from the Arabic al-jady, “the kid,” and Deneb Algedi (δ CAP), “the tail of the kid” (deneb al-jady).

In Aquarius we find four more Auspicious Asterisms; in the first three of these, it is the brighter star that retains the name. The Voracious Auspice (sa’d bula’) bears an accurate but alternate name, Albali (ε AQR). Next are the Auspice of Auspices (sa’d as-su’ud), Sadalsuud (β AQR), and the Auspice of the King (sa’d al-malik), Sadalmelik (α AQR). Of the fours stars that comprise the Auspice of Woolen Tents (sa’d al-akhbiya), only the brightest bears a modern name: Sadachbia (γ AQR).

The remaining four Auspicious Asterisms lie in modern-day Pegasus. Because these asterisms were relatively dimmer and lay outside the Square of Pegasus (the ancient Well Bucket, ad-dalw), they were not displaced with other star names. Here, we find the Auspice of Lambs (sa’d al-baha’im) as Biham (θ PEG), which is derived from the alternate grammatical form (sa’d al-biham). There is also the Auspice of the Aspiring One (sa’d al-humam), Homam (ζ PEG), the Auspice of the Exalted One (sa’d al-bari’), Sadalbari (μ PEG), and the Auspice of Rain (sa’d matar), Matar (η PEG).

The Auspicious Asterisms have truly lived up to their name, for each one of them has had the good fortune of enduring to the present day in modern depictions of the night sky. It is these stars that lead us back to the Well Bucket as this year ends and the next begins. Thus we complete our year-long journey through two Arabian star calendars. Stay tuned for more to come in the next year.

 What’s next?

Please leave a comment below, and tell me about your observations of the Ostriches. 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

The Two Vultures Celestial Complex (an-nasran, النسران)
The Alighting Vulture (an-nasr al-waqi’, النسر الواقع)
The Flying Vulture (an-nasr at-ta’ir, النسر الطائر)

The Auspicious Asterisms Celestial Complex (as-su’ud, السعود)
The Auspice of the Slaughterer (sa’d adh-dhabih, سعد الذابح)
The Sheep (ash-shat, الشاة)
The Voracious Auspice (sa’d bul’, سعد بلع)
The Scattering Auspice (sa’d nashira, سعد ناشرة)
The Auspice of Auspices (sa’d as-su’ud, سعد السعود)
The Auspice of the King (sa’d al-malik, سعد الملك)
The Auspice of Lambs (sa’d al-baha’im, سعد البهائم)
The Auspice of Woolen Tents (sa’d al-akhbiya, سعد الأخبية)
The Auspice of the Aspiring One (sa’d al-humam, سعد الهمام)
The Auspice of the Exalted One (sa’d al-bari’, سعد البارع)
The Auspice of Rain (sa’d matar, سعد مطر)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

Ostriches in the Sweltering Wasteland


What comes to mind when you think of summer? Longer days, sunny weather, a dip in the pool or a visit to the beach? Do you recall the flaming summer barbecues? So did the Arabs long ago, because the hot desert felt like a living barbecue.

We’ve been tracking the seasonal rains as the weather has grown progressively hotter. Now, for the first time, we encounter a season in which there is no rain at all, the sweltering hamim. This is the most vehement heat of summer, when the days are oppressively hot and the nights don’t even make it down to room temperature. The Arabic word hamim brings to mind the blackening of hot coals or the charring of wood as a result of intense heat.

At this time of blistering heat, a flock of Ostriches (an-na’a’im) sets in the west just before sunrise, while an old friend rises in the east.

يتلو نعاما واردا وصادرا حيث سطع

He follows behind some ostriches,
those arriving at the water to drink
and those returning from the water,
wherever they appear, glistening.Al-Husni
7th century C.E.

النعائم

How to observe the Ostriches

The Ostriches (an-na'a'im) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in late June.

The Ostriches (an-na’a’im) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in late June. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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). The Ostriches are clustered in two groups of four individuals, each group forming an uneven quadrilateral in the sky. The first group to set are the Drinking Ostriches (an-na’am al-warid), who are still standing in the river of the Milky Way. The second group, located above the first as they are setting, are the Returning Ostriches (an-na’am as-sadir), who have already drunk from the river and are now walking away from it to return home to their Nest (al-udhi) with its eggs.

الدبران

The rising of the Follower

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Follower (ad-dabaran) of Thuraya as it appears rising in the east about 45 minutes before sunrise in late June.

The Follower (ad-dabaran) as it appears rising in the east about 45 minutes before sunrise in late June.

Following the setting of the Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser (as-simak ar-ramih), marking the end of the period of summer rains (as-sayf), the rain star calendar of Qushayr identifies a season with no rain at all, the hamim. It was the hottest part of the year, a time of oppressive heat without any rain. Because there was no rain during this time, the rain period had no rain stars, but the period began with the rising of the Follower (ad-dabaran) of Thuraya in the east just before sunrise. This is the only time in the rain star calendar of Qushayr that we see the rising of a star used to mark a season.

The Follower rose about two weeks after the last stars of the Scorpion (al-‘aqrab) set, and about five days before the first star of the Ostriches set. The calendar of Qushayr designates the hamim as a brief period lasting 20 days. Some sources identify the hamim with the season called al-qayz by other tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, which could last as long as a few months.

النعائم والبلدة

The Ostriches and the Wasteland as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The 20th lunar station was the Ostriches (an-na’a’im), a group of eight stars that represented two groups of ostriches. The first group of four stars to set were called the Drinking Ostriches an-na’am al-warid, so named because they were located in the river, the cloud-like band of the Milky Way. The second group of four stars were called the Returning Ostriches (an-na’am as-sadir) because they were imagined to have drunk already and were now returning from the river. Immediately above and between the two groups of Ostriches is a ninth star that was said to form the hump of a camel when joined with the other eight stars.

The whole of the Ostriches took about two weeks to set, from the first star of the Drinking Ostriches to the last star of the Returning Ostriches. The Follower rose shortly before the first of the Ostriches set, putting their setting firmly in the hot, dry period of hamim. Not far from the Returning Ostriches was the Ostrich Nest (al-udhi), a semi-circular group of six stars that resembles the widespread arrangement of ostrich eggs in their nest. These stars were not part of the lunar station. Outside of the celestial complex of the lunar stations, this same star grouping was called the Necklace (al-qilada) or, less commonly, the Bow (al-qaws).

Following the Ostriches was an unusual lunar station (the 21st) called the Wasteland (al-balda). It is remarkable because it was not marked by any stars; just the opposite, it was an area in the sky that was devoid of stars, hence its name. The Wasteland was located between the Ostriches and the 22nd lunar station. Sometimes the Moon deviated from its path through the Wasteland and instead stationed at the Ostrich Nest next to it.

The desolation of the Ostriches

No remnant of the Ostriches nor the Wasteland has survived into modern-day astronomy. The Greek image of Sagittarius the Archer supplanted the Arab asterism of the Ostriches in this region of the sky. Because Sagittarius already had a bow, located in part where the Drinking Ostriches were, the Arabs called the Greek constellation as a whole the Bow (al-qaws) or the Archer (ar-rami). The stars in this region bear modern names that combine this Arabic designation with Latin descriptions of their relative positions: Kaus Borealis (λ SGR, “the northern bow”), Kaus Meridionalis (δ SGR, “the medial bow”) and Kaus Australis (ε SGR, “the southern bow”). Another of the Drinking Ostriches represented the Blade (an-nasl) of the arrow, and this Arabic description of the Greek figure survives as Al Nasl (γ SGR).

 What’s next?

In the next post, the weather finally begins to cool off as two vultures set, along with a number of lucky asterisms.

Please leave a comment below, and tell me about your observations of the Ostriches. 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

The Ostriches Celestial Complex (an-na’a’im, النعائم)
The Ostriches (an-na’a’im, النعائم)
The Drinking Ostriches (an-na’am al-warid, النعام الوارد)
The Returning Ostriches (an-na’am as-sadir, النعام الصادر)
The Ostrich Nest (al-udhi, الأدحي)
The Wasteland (al-balda, البلدة)

The Follower (ad-dabaran, الدبران)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

Searing Heat from the Indelible Scorpion

Feature image by Minozig CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been following in parallel two different but connected star calendars in use by Arabs long ago, the rain star calendar used by the people of Qushayr and the standardized calendar of lunar stations. Whereas the lunar stations were somewhat evenly spaced across the sky, following the ecliptic (the moon’s path through the night sky), any bright star could function as a rain star if there was rain when it set. Up to this point, the two calendars have followed more or less the same path through the pre-dawn sky, and there is good reason for this: most of the bright stars used as rain stars so far have been located near the ecliptic.

The setting of the Two Sky-Raisers (as-simakan) begins a significant departure for the rain stars of Qushayr, because the Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser (as-simak ar-ramih) lies far to the north of the moon’s path. While the Two Sky-Raisers define the 40-day period of summer rains (as-sayf), the calendar of lunar stations continues from the Unarmed Sky-Raiser (as-simak al-a’zal) along the ecliptic toward the Scorpion (al’aqrab). These two calendars will not be aligned again until the setting of the Well Bucket occurs at the end of the year.

The feared Scorpion brought with it a period of intense heat and diminishing rain, but it did not figure into the rain star calendar of Qushayr. Its Two Claws (az-zubanayan) set about two and a half weeks after the setting of the Unarmed Sky-Raiser, and its Tail (ash-shawla) set about a week after the setting of the Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser.

وزفزفت للزبانى من بوارحها هيف أنشت بها الأصناع والخبرا

There blew a wind belonging to the Claw of the Scorpion,
one of its hot, violent winds of summer that carry the dust,
a hot, parching wind that boiled away
the water from the makeshift wooden cisterns
and the standing pools of water from which the lote-trees grow.Dhu ar-Rumma
735 C.E.

العقرب

How to observe the Scorpion

The Scorpion (al-'aqrab) as it appears setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-May.

The Scorpion (al-‘aqrab) as it appears setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-May. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

The proper time to observe a star’s morning setting (or rising) is called ghalas in Arabic, a 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). When the Scorpion begins to set, its form stretches out along the southwestern horizon. Look for a bright red star, which is its Heart (al-qalb). The Tail forms an S-shape to the left of the Heart, and the Claws extend to the right. The Scorpion was well-defined with Two Claws, a Head (Crown), a Heart with its Aorta, Segments, a Raised Tail and a Sting.

الزبانى والإكليل والقلب والشولة

The elements of the Scorpion as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Arabian Scorpion followed the image of the scorpion defined by the Sumerians more than 3000 years ago. The first part of the Scorpion to set was its Two Claws (az-zubanayan), a pair of stars that marked the 16th lunar station, usually mentioned in the singular, the Claw (az-zubana). Its setting in the heat of the summer was associated with the blowing of the hot, dust-laden winds that the 8th century poet Dhu ar-Rumma mentioned in his poem above. The more southerly of the pair was the first to set, followed by the northern star a week and a half later.

Just before the second Claw set, the Scorpion’s Crown (al-iklil) began to set. This asterism consisted of three bright stars arranged in a row like the central three stars of Jawza’. They represented the Head (ar-ra’s) of the Scorpion and the 17th lunar station. When the Crown set, the waters of the ground dried up and did not return until the heavy rains of autumn fell on the earth. Like the Two Claws, the stars of the Crown are arranged in a north-south direction, and they took about a week to set from first to last. A day before the last star set, the Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser (as-simak ar-ramih) set, marking the end of the summer rainy period (as-sayf).

At this time, too, was the setting of the 18th lunar station, the Heart of the Scorpion (qalb al-‘aqrab). This is a brilliant red star that is flanked on both sides by two dimmer white stars that were together regarded as its Aorta (an-niyat). When the Heart set, it was arranged with its Aorta in a short line along the horizon. Proceeding from the Heart to the left are a number of bright stars that are arranged in a hook-like shape. These were regarded as the Segments (al-faqar or al-fiqarat) of the Scorpion’s exoskeleton. Some of these stars began to set right after the first star of the Claws set. By the time the Heart set, nearly all of the Segments had set, too.

The final lunar station of the Scorpion (the 19th lunar station overall) was the Raised Tail (ash-shawla), with its Sting (al-ibra) located nearby. The Raised Tail is a pair of bright stars that are so close to each other they almost appear to touch. As the Raised Tail is setting, its Sting is located just above and the left of the pair of almost-touching stars and appears as a large cluster of dim stars. The Sting is best observed earlier in the morning, when the sky is still dark and it is higher above the horizon, where the thickness of the atmosphere would otherwise block its light.

العقرب

The indelible Scorpion survives

This part of the star calendar blog entry is usually where I tell you how the long-standing Arabic star names were effaced through the adoption of Greek astronomy among the Arabs. That is not the case this time, likely on account of the Scorpion’s readily recognizable figure in the sky and its long-standing significance that dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Although in the east the Scorpion bore the same form from ancient Sumerian times through to the time of the Arabs, the Greeks somehow inherited from the Babylonians a scorpion that had lost its giant Claws. Those two stars were instead used to define the Greek constellation of Libra, the balance. Despite this, the two stars of the Two Claws survive in near-perfect form in the internationally recognized star names of Zubeneschamali (β LIB), from the Arabic az-zubana ash-shamali (“the Northern Claw”) and Zubenelgenubi (α LIB), from the Arabic az-zubana al-janubi (“the Southern Claw”). Additionally, the star Zubenelakrab (γ LIB) in the left Claw of the Scorpion is a direct transliteration of the Claw of the Scorpion (zubana’l-‘aqrab).

In the Crown of the Scorpion, modern-day star names Dschubba (δ SCO) and Jabbah (ν SCO) recall the description of the Crown as the forehead (al-jabha) of the Scorpion, the same term used to describe the Forehead of the Lion (jabhat al-asad). In addition the whole of the Scorpion is preserved in the star name Acrab (β SCO), the name for a star located right by the Crown.

The first of the two Aorta stars is today known as Niyat (σ SCO), a direct transliteration of the Arabic term for the aorta. Finally, in the Raised Tail of the Scorpion, one of the two stars that almost touch is called today Shaula (λ SCO), another well-preserved transliteration of the Arabic ash-shawla. The other star is called Lesath (υ SCO), which ultimately derives from the Arabic term latkha, “a spot,” used long ago by the Arabs to describe the nebulous appearance of the star cluster that marks the Sting, when viewed with unaided eyes.

All in all, nearly every part of the Scorpion as described by the Arabs has survived as modern-day star names that still reference their original positions. The only star that falls outside this pattern is the bright red stars that for the Arabs marked the Heart. Among the Greeks, this star was seen to be similar in appearance to the planet Mars, which represented the Greek god of war, Ares. The Scorpion’s red star was thus named Antares, meaning “similar to Ares”. Now, how could a scorpion’s Heart compete with that?

 What’s next?

Rainless days are here to stay in our next post, when we encounter some desert wildlife.

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

The Scorpion Celestial Complex (al-‘aqrab, العقرب)
The Two Claws of the Scorpion (az-zubanayan, الزبانيان)
The Crown of the Scorpion (al-iklil, الإكليل)
The Heart of the Scorpion (al-qalb, القلب)
The Aorta (an-niyat, النياط)
The Segments (al-fiqarat, الفقرات)
The Raised Tail (ash-shawla, الشولة)
The Sting of the Scorpion (al-ibra, الإبرة)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

The Setting of the Arabian Sky-Raisers

Feature image by NOAA Photo Library CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Summertime in ancient Arabia began with rain, and that rain was marked by the pre-dawn setting of a remarkable pair of bright stars, the Two Sky-Raisers (as-simakan). In ancient Arabic, the term simak indicated something that was used to raise something else high up. The related term samk indicates the thing that was raised, like a ceiling or roof. When the Two Sky-Raisers reached the midpoint of their travels across the night sky, the uppermost one was almost at the zenith, right over your head, and the lower Sky-Raiser was almost directly below it, about halfway up the sky. The Two Sky-Raisers were the pillars that held up the canopy of the heavens. When they set, they defined the period of summertime rains(as-sayf).

جدا قضة الآساد وارتجست له بنوء السماكين الغيوث الروائح

…with good fortune at the dawn setting of the Lions,
and by means of the rain period of the Two Sky-Raisers
the widespread afternoon rains thundered vehemently upon him.Dhu ar-Rumma
735 C.E.

The Two Sky-Raisers also completed the picture of the Lion, as each one of the pair was regarded as a Shank of the Lion (saq al-asad).

الأسد

How to observe the Lion and its Sky-Raisers

When the whole Lion was above the horizon, it nearly covered the sky from west to east as it consumed some 135 angular degrees of the sky. In order to present this entire figure, the locator map below has a much larger scale than usual.

Wide-field view of the Lion (al-asad) and its elements as they appear when its Forehead (al-jabha) is in the middle of the sky.

Wide-field view of the Lion (al-asad) and its elements as they appear when its Forehead (al-jabha) is in the middle of the sky. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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).

السماكان

The Two Sky-Raisers as rain stars

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Two Sky-Raisers (as-simakan) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in late April.

The Two Sky-Raisers (as-simakan) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in late April.

In the calendar of Qushayr, the Two Sky-Raisers defined the beginning and end of the short rainy season of summer (as-sayf). These two bright stars set about 40 days apart, and whatever was between their settings was summer. The rain that fell during this period was plentiful and was said to connect the lands that had not yet been rained on to the rained-on lands that lay among them.

The first one to set was the Unarmed Sky-Raiser (as-simak al-a’zal), so named because it is was separated from the other stars. The last of the pair to set was the Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser (as-simak ar-ramih). It got this name from the star that lies in front of it, which was said to be its Spear (ar-rumh). The calendar of Qushayr refers to this second Sky-Raiser as the Watcher (al-raqib), a name that comes from its high position above the Unarmed Sky-Raiser when they are both high in the sky and when they are setting.

السماك الأعزل والغفر

The Unarmed Sky-Raiser and the Concealment as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Sky-Raisers demonstrate very well the difference between a rain star asterism and a lunar station. We just saw that in the calendar of rain stars, these two bright stars defined the start and end of the summer rainy season. In the calendar of lunar stations, however, only one of them was qualified to be a lunar station, the Unarmed Sky-Raiser. This is because the Moon’s path took it right by this star. The Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser, on the other hand, is located much further north in the sky, so the moon never stations next to it. The Unarmed Sky-Raiser was the 14th lunar station.

Sometimes when the Moon deviated to the south of its usual route through the sky, it stationed near a group of four stars located below the Unarmed Sky Raiser and called the Throne of the Sky-Raiser (‘arsh as-simak). Within the celestial complex of the Lion, this star grouping was called the Rump of the Lion (‘ajuz al-asad). (See the Lion’s star map, above.)

The Concealment (al-ghafr) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in late April.

The Concealment (al-ghafr) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in late April.

The 15th lunar station was the Concealment (al-ghafr), a trio of faint stars that follow in the path of the Unarmed Sky-Raiser. Its name comes from the verb ghafara, which means “to conceal, cover or hide”, so it plainly describes the faintness of this lunar station. Another possible meaning for this word is the downy hair that appears on the back of a person’s neck, as well as other places on the body, so named because it is not easy to see.

The Persian scholar al-Biruni (d. 1048 CE) reported that the Arabs saw this asterism to represent the neck armor (mighfar) of the Scorpion (al-‘aqrab), which is the next celestial complex that we’ll encounter. Al-Biruni’s contemporary, az-Zajaj, said that these stars represented the hair at the tip of the Lion’s tail. Neither of these interpretations of al-ghafr is consistent with the known Arab depictions of the Lion or the Scorpion, so they were most likely later embellishments. However, they both hint at a saying recorded by Ibn Qutayba (d. 889 CE) much earlier:

الغفر خير منزلة في الأبد
بين الزبانى وبين الأسد

The Concealment is the most fortunate lunar station for time without end,
between the Claws of the Scorpion and the Lion.Arab saying

The Concealment was called “the most fortunate lunar station for time without end, between the Scorpion and the Lion” because it lies between the hind legs of the Lion and the claws of the Scorpion, and yet it is never harmed. For the rest of time, this lunar station is concealed from those two formidable beasts.

السنبلة

A harvest of Babylonian corn

In this region of sky, the Arabian tradition of the Two Sky-Raisers dominated that of the Lion, whose Shanks never made it into the poetry like the Two Sky-Raisers did. Nothing of the Lion remains in this region of the modern sky. As for the Two Sky-Raisers, their influence did pass to European astronomy, for a time. The star that is today called Spica (α VIR) was in European medieval times called Azimech, which has an obvious sound correlation to as-simak. During the European Renaissance, with its focus on classical Greek sciences, the name Spica was discovered to have been applied to this star by the Greeks, Romans and Babylonians, and so it was reapplied by the Europeans. The name indicates an ear of corn and was prominent among Babylonians during the first millenium BCE. Ibn Qutayba commented that the mathematicians of his day (who studied Greek astronomy) used the Arabic translation of this term, as-sunbula, to refer to Spica, but the Arabs still referred to it as the Shank of the Lion (saq al-asad). The Arabs did have an asterism called the Ear of Corn (as-sunbula), but it was the large star cluster that also represented the Tail Hair of the Lion (hulbat al-asad).

 What’s next?

In the next post, we experience the first drought in our rain star calendar as a giant Scorpion dominates 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

The Lion Celestial Complex (al-asad, الأسد)
The Two Shanks (al-saqan, الساقان)
The Rump of the Lion (‘ajz al-asad, عجز الأسد)
The Tail Hair (al-hulba, الهلبة)
The Tail Hair Strikes (darb al-asad bi hulbatihi, ضرب الأسد بهلبته)

The Sky-Raisers Celestial Complex (as-simakan, السماكان)
The Two Sky-Raisers (as-simakan, السماكان)
The Unarmed Sky-Raiser (as-simak al-a’zal, السماك الأعزل)
The Spear-Bearing Sky-Raiser (as-simak ar-ramih, السماك الرامح)
The Spear (ar-rumh, الرمح)
The Throne of the Sky-Raiser (‘arsh as-simak, عرش السماك)

The Concealment (al-ghafr, الغفر)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

The Smiling Dog Tooth of Time

Feature image by By Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the weather warms up, and the rains with it, the stars of the great Arab megaconstellation of the Lion (al-asad) continue their westward march into the growing light of dawn. One of these stars, though also connected to the Lion, was more prominently known as the Weather Change (as-sarfa), which was nick-named the Dog Tooth of Time (nab ad-dahr). People typically show their canine teeth when they are smiling genuinely and broadly. The setting of the Weather Change was said to bring about such a smile on account of the growing herbage and flowers of spring. The spring rainy season (ad-dafa’i) was named for the warmth of its rains.

الصرفة ناب الدهر الذي يفتر عنه 

The Weather Change is the Dog Tooth of Time,
which it shows smiling broadly.Arab saying

الأسد

How to observe the Lion

When the whole Lion was above the horizon, it nearly covered the sky from west to east as it consumed some 135 angular degrees of the sky. In order to present this entire figure, the locator map below has a much larger scale than usual.

Wide-field view of the Lion (al-asad) and its elements as they appear when its Forehead (al-jabha) is in the middle of the sky. 

Wide-field view of the Lion (al-asad) and its elements as they appear when its Forehead (al-jabha) is in the middle of the sky. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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).

الجبهة والعواء والصرفة

The Forehead, the Howling Dogs and the Weather Change as rain stars

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

We saw last time that the setting of the first two stars of the Forehead of the Lion (jabhat al-asad) marked the end of winter (ash-shatawi). The setting of the second pair of stars of the Forehead heralded the beginning of the spring rainy season (ad-dafa’i). Although we now see these latter two stars set in the middle of March, from the latitude of Tucson and much of Arabia, this occurred in late February at the time that Qutrub wrote down his account of the rain star calendar of Qushayr. (This difference is a result of the precession of the equinoxes.)

The Howling Dogs (al-'awa') as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early March.

The Howling Dogs (al-‘awa’) as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early March.

Now, if you don’t happen to live in the desert, you might balk at the idea of the weather being anything close to “warm” in late February. After I came to Tucson, Arizona, from New Jersey many years ago, I remember spending my first January/February in the desert amazed at how quickly the desert heated back up to consistently warm temperatures. My winter had become much shorter than the one I had enjoyed in New Jersey.

About two weeks after the Forehead’s last star has set, the next asterism of the spring rains begins to set. The Howling Dogs (al-‘awa’) is a grouping of either four or five stars that was said to resemble either the Arabic letter kaf in its medial form (ىكى) or the Arabic letter alif in its final form (ىا). For English readers, it could be said to look like a tilted capital L, or perhaps a less-than sign (<). The whole asterism takes 25-30 days to set, depending whether you count four or five Howling Dogs. Regardless of the number of its dogs, this asterism gets its name from the coldness of the weather when it rises just before sunrise, which causes dogs to howl in discomfort. It was also said that this star grouping marked the Haunches (warikan) of the Lion.

The Weather Change (as-sarfa) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early March.

The Weather Change (as-sarfa) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early March.

The last rain star of the spring rainy season was regarded by some to represent the Sheath of the Penis of the Lion (qunb al-asad), on account of its location slightly between and ahead of the Haunches (warikan). However, this solitary bright star was far more widely known as the Weather Change (as-sarfa), and this is how Qutrub identified it in the calendar of Qushayr. Its name comes from the verb sarafa, which means “to turn back from its way” or “to shift from one condition to another.” It was so named because at its setting before dawn in late March (or mid-April for us today) the cold turned away and changed to warmth. Likewise, its dawn rising just ahead of the sun signaled the turning away of the heat and the transition to cold weather.

إذا فطم الصبي بنوء الصرفة لم يكد يطلب اللبن

When the child is weaned
by the rain star of the Weather Change,
he scarcely asks for milk.Arab saying

Looking at the star map, you might be inclined to argue that Qutrub must have been wrong in his presentation of the order of the rain stars of spring (ad-dafa’i), which places the Howling Dogs in the middle and the Weather Change at the end. The Weather Change lies further to the west than any of the stars of the Howling Dogs do, so it should set before them, right? Depending whether you count four or five Howling Dogs, its first star actually sets either ten or four days before the Weather Change does. This happens because the Howling Dogs have a lower elevation in the sky than the Weather Change does, so their stars begin to set first.

The Weather Change is the last rain star of the spring rains, but the Lion has one more rain star asterism to give us, which we will see in the next post.

الجبهة والزبرة والصرفة والعواء

The Forehead, Mane and following as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Forehead, the Howling Dogs and the Weather Change were each included in the calendar of the lunar stations, but their order was different than their order in the rain star calendar of Qushayr. The Forehead was the 10th lunar station, following the Eyes, as we saw in the last post. As for the Howling Dogs, even though they began to set before the Weather Change did, their location further east along the moon’s path made them the 13th lunar station, following the Weather Change, the 12th lunar station.

The Mane (az-zubra) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early March.

The Mane (az-zubra) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early March.

The calendar of lunar stations typically filled in the gaps between existing rain star asterisms, as long as those rain star asterisms were near the path of the Moon through the night sky. The 11th lunar station fills in the large gap between the Forehead (10th) and the Weather Change (12th) with a pair of bright stars that also belong to the Lion (al-asad). This 11th lunar station was the Mane (az-zubra) of the Lion. Outside of the context of the lunar stations, this pair of stars was also called the Two Ribs (al-kharatan). The two bright stars of the Mane follow in the tracks of the Forehead but lie closer to the Weather Change.

The final lunar station that has ties to the Lion will come in the next post, when we look at the season of summer (as-sayf).

الأسد

Roars of the Mesopotamian-Greek Lion

Returning again to the smaller image of the lion among the Greeks and the Mesopotamians before them, later Arab descriptions of this foreign image survive to this day as standardized star names. The bright star that the Arabs called the Weather Change, or the Sheath of the Penis of the Lion, was in this smaller depiction of the Lion its tail. Today, this star is called Denebola (β LEO), from the Arabic dhanab al-asad, “the Tail of the Lion.” The Weather Change (as-sarfa) has been lost in the modern sky.

The neighboring Greek constellation of Virgo, the Virgin, houses the four or five stars that among the Arabs once constituted the asterism of the Howling Dogs. I commented above that the shape of the Howling Dogs resembled a medial Arabic letter kaf or an English capital L. At some point, the middle star of this grouping, today called Porrima (γ VIR), was called zawiyat al-‘awa’, the Angle of the Howling Dogs. This name became corrupted under Latin transliteration and was much later applied in different forms to two other stars of this grouping as Zavijava (β VIR) and Zaniah (η VIR).

 What’s next?

In the next post, we conclude our extended journey through the stars of the Lion with a renowned pair of stars that by themselves defined the period of the summer rains.

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

The Lion Celestial Complex (al-asad, الأسد)
The Forehead (al-jabha, الجبهة)
The Mane (az-zubra, الزبرة)
The Weather Change (as-sarfa, الصرفة)
The Sheath of the Penis of the Lion (qunb al-asad, قنب الأسد)
The Howling Dogs (al-‘awa’, العواء)
The Two Haunches (al-warikan, الوركان)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

The Protracted Roaring of the Lion

Feature image by Alexander Vasenin CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the US, we say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. This saying may reference the rising of the Greek constellation of Leo in the east during sunset at the beginning of April, and the setting of Aries in the west after sunset at the end of the month.

In contrast to this, the Lion (al-asad) of ancient Arabia was so massive that it roared from January to May, stretching across three seasons in its pre-dawn stellar settings, according to the rain star calendar of Qushayr. The 8th century poet Dhu ar-Rumma addressed the protracted seasonal girth of the Lion by referring to it in the plural.

جدا قضة الآساد

…with good fortune at the dawn setting of the Lions…Dhu ar-Rumma
735 C.E.

Previously, we saw Jawza’ herald the onset of winter (ash-shatawi). This cold season continues with the setting of the Two Forearms (adh-dhira’an) and then the Nose of the Lion (nathrat al-asad). The setting of the Forehead of the Lion (jabhat al-asad) marks the end of winter and the onset of the warm spring rains (ad-dafa’i). Some weeks later, the Two Shanks of the Lion (saqa ‘l-asad) set about 40 days apart, defining between them the rainy portion of the summer (as-sayf). All of this seasonal rain activity unfolds over the course of about four months, between the morning settings of the two brilliant pairs of stars (its Two Forearms and its Two Shanks) that roughly define the boundaries of the Lion.

الأسد

How to observe the Lion

When the whole Lion was above the horizon, it nearly covered the sky from west to east as it consumed some 135 angular degrees of the sky. In order to present this entire figure, the locator map below has a much larger scale than usual.

Wide-field view of the Lion (al-asad) and its elements as they appear when its Forehead (al-jabha) is in the middle of the sky.

Wide-field view of the Lion (al-asad) and its elements as they appear when its Forehead (al-jabha) is in the middle of the sky. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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). To spot the magnificent Lion, first find its Two Forearms as they prepare to sink below the western horizon (see next star map below). Each forearm consists of a pair of stars located next to each other parallel to the horizon. The Clenched Forearm sets first, and at this time the other Extended Forearm is located to the right and above it. Located directly above the Clenched Forearm, at a level slightly higher then the Extended Forearm to the right, lies the Nose of the Lion, an unremarkable pair of stars located next to a large but dim star cluster. The remaining elements follow these stars high into the sky through the zenith to the upper parts of the southeastern sky.

الذراعان ونثرتهما والجبهة

The Two Forearms and the Forehead as rain stars

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Two Forearms and the Nose (adh-dhira'an wa'n-nathra) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

The Two Forearms and the Nose (adh-dhira’an wa’n-nathra) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

In the rain star calendar of Qushayr, the second asterism of the winter rainy season (ash-shatawi) is the Two Forearms (adh-dhira’an) of the Lion, along with the Tip of the Nose (an-nathra). Each Forearm is marked by a pair of bright stars, which makes for a good rain star asterism that is visible in the growing light of dawn. The Two Forearms set about two weeks apart, and one or both could be mentioned in the context of bringing rain. We’ve already run into the first pair to set: the brighter star in this pair is the Little Bleary-Eyed Shi’ra from the legend of Jawza’.

As rain stars, the Two Forearms were said to never break their promise. Even if there had been no rain in the year prior to their setting, the Forearms would certainly bring at least a weak rain. The following line of poetry describes a deluge of rain at the setting of one of the Forearms.

وأردفت الذراع لها بنوء سجوم الماء فانسجل انسجالا

The Forearm made to follow behind it
a rain period pouring forth much water,
and so it poured out a continuous flow of water.Dhu ar-Rumma
735 C.E.

The Tip of the Nose (an-nathra) consisted of a pair of faint stars that lies close to a large but dim star cluster. This is one of those times when English translation fails to communicate the full meaning of an Arabic word. The related verb nathara means “to scatter” or “to disperse,” so the noun an-nathra in its basic sense indicates “a scattering.” For obvious reasons, this word also came to indicate a sneeze, and by extension the tip of the nose, the place from which the sneeze originates. This is precisely what the Arabs saw in the Tip of the Nose, a pair of dim stars that appear to have sneezed out the star cluster, which on account of its dimness appears as a fuzzy blotch in the sky. More explicitly, some Arabs saw the two stars of the Tip of the Nose as the Two Nostrils (al-mankhiran) and the star cluster alone as the Sneeze (an-nathra). As an asterism, the Tip of the Nose was well-known but too faint to be visible in the growing light of dawn. As such, it could not function as a rain star on its own but instead was mentioned along with the Two Forearms.

The Forehead (al-jabha) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

The Forehead (al-jabha) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

Setting about a month after the second Forearm set, the four stars of the Forehead (al-jabha) marked the end of winter and the beginning of the warmer rainy season of spring (ad-dafa’i). More specifically, the first pair of stars from the Forehead that set marked the end of winter, and the second pair that set about a week later brought the onset of spring. At the setting of the Forehead, the brink of winter was broken, and new life began as the wind spread pollen around. Trees sprouted their leaves, truffles grew in central Arabia and every river valley appeared to fill with pasture. Also during this time, camels bore their young, and it was said, “If it were not for the rain period of the Forehead, the Arabs would not have camels.”

We will encounter more rain stars that belong to the Lion when we discover the warm spring rains in the next post.

الذراعة المبسوطة والنثرة والطرف والجبهة

The Extended Forearm and following as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The calendar of the lunar stations also included the Forearms, the Tip of the Nose and the Forehead, but with some significant differences. At some point, the Two Forearms were differentiated by the Arabs as the Clenched Forearm (adh-dhira’ al-maqbuda) and the Extended Forearm (adh-dhira’ al-mabsuta). The Clenched Forearm was the first pair to set and included the star that designated the Little Bleary-Eyed One (ash-shi’ra al-ghumaysa’). When a cat, whether wild or domestic, reaches it forearm outward to grab something, it often bares its claws. Likewise, the Extended Forearm of the Lion has lines of stars that radiate from it, and these were seen as the Claws (al-azfar) of the outstretched Forearm.

The Extended Forearm (adh-dhira' al-mabsuta) and the Clenched Forearm (adh-dhira' al-maqbuda) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

The Extended Forearm (adh-dhira’ al-mabsuta) and the Clenched Forearm (adh-dhira’ al-maqbuda) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

Although the ecliptic (the path of the Moon against the stellar background) passes more or less right between the two pairs of stars that made up the Two Forearms, the Moon comes somewhat closer to the Extended Forearm, and so within the context of the lunar stations only it, and not the Clenched Forearm, had the honor of being a lunar station. Often simply called the Forearm (adh-dhira’), the Extended Forearm was the seventh lunar station, following in the tracks of the Neck Mark (al-han’a).

The Tip of the Nose was then the eighth lunar station, and herein is another distinction. In the rain star calendar, the Two Forearms were the bright stars that the Arabs relied upon for observing their pre-dawn settings. The Tip of the Nose was always following closely behind, but it was too dim for use as a rain star on its own. In the calendar of lunar stations, the Tip of the Nose has its own status as a lunar station separately from the Forearm. The reinforces the idea that the calendar of lunar stations was more a conceptual calendar than a practical one.

The Eyes (at-tarf) as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

The Eyes (at-tarf) as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early January.

Following the Tip of the Nose is another pair of comparatively dimmer stars that made up the ninth lunar station, the Eyes (at-tarf). The identification of these stars has historically been rather problematic. Their description in the earliest surviving record is by Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), who says that these two stars are located right in front of the Forehead. He also says that many stars called the Eyelashes (al-ash’ar) are located in front of the Eyes. Considering the well-estabished locations of the Tip of the Nose and the Forehead in the sky, the most likely candidates for the Eyes are two stars that lie in front of the first and last Forehead stars and are comparable in brightness. There are several fainter stars in front of each of these two stars that would fit the description of the Hairs, indicating the Lion’s eyelashes. A century after Ibn Qutayba, as-Sufi identified the Eyes as a pair of faint stars that are located in front of the brighter stars that I just identified, and this identification has stuck ever since. It is possible that the brighter stars were originally identified as the Eyes but moved to the dimmer stars to be located closer to the midpoint between the Tip of the Nose and the Forehead.

The Forehead (al-jabha) then followed the Eyes as the tenth lunar station. As we enter the season of warm spring rains (ad-dafa’i) in the next post, we will see more elements of the Lion functioning as lunar stations.

الأسد

Roars of the Mesopotamian-Greek Lion

You may have seen in the Forehead of the Lion the familiar shape of the head of the Greek constellation Leo, also a lion. The Greek Leo is a much smaller stellar picture of a lion that they adopted from Babylonian astronomy. This lion likely dates back to 3rd or 4th millennium BCE Mesopotamia. In this depiction, the top of the Arab Forehead is the head of the lion, and the bright star at the bottom of the Forehead is its heart. It is possible, but by no means certain, that the Arabian Lion literally grew out of this Mesopotamian tradition long ago, extending both its Forearms and its hindquarters to attain its massive size.

When Greek astronomical texts were translated into Arabic, the stars of the Arabian Lion were realigned with the smaller Mesopotamian-Greek figure of the lion. Today’s modern star names for the bright stars of Leo derive largely from the Arabic descriptions of the Greek Leo. For example, the two stars Ras Elased Borealis (μ LEO) and Ras Elased Australis (ε LEO) come from the Arabic ra’s al-asad “the head of the lion,” designating the top of the head in the Mesopotamian-Greek figure. An exception to this is Algieba (γ LEO), one of the stars located in the Forehead whose name derives from the Arabic al-jabha. Some modern star charts also identify one of Leo’s stars as Alterf (λ LEO); ironically, this is not the location of one of the two stars that as-Sufi identified as the Eyes (at-tarf), but it is the more likely location of the northern star of the Eyes identified above.

What of the Two Forearms and the Tip of the Nose? Two stars in the Greek constellation of Gemini were arbitrarily named Mebsuta (ε GEM), from adh-dhira’ al-mabsuta, and Mekbuda (ζ GEM), from adh-dhira’ al-maqbuda. These, of course, are not the original locations of either of the Two Forearms, although these stars did belong to the Claws (al-azfar) of the Extended Forearm. Nothing remains of the Tip of the Nose in modern astronomy, as the formation was seen by the Romans as a pair of donkeys next to a manger (praesepe in Latin). This picture remains today in the internationally recognized star names of Asellus Borealis (γ CNC, “the Northern Donkey”), Asellus Australis (δ CNC, “the Southern Donkey”) and Praesepe (“the Manger”) for the star cluster.

Much as Asiatic lions are now endangered today, and their populations greatly diminished, so has the once enormous Arabian Lion been reduced to a diminutive Greek lion cub.

 What’s next?

Next time, we continue with the megaconstellation of the Lion and a significant shift to warmer weather.

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

The Lion Celestial Complex (al-asad, الأسد)
The Two Forearms (adh-dhira’an, الذراعان)
The Clenched Forearm (adh-dhira’a al-maqbuda, الذراعة المقبوضة)
The Extended Forearm (adh-dhira’a al-mabsuta, الذراعة المبسوطة)
The Claws (al-azfar, الأظفار)
The Tip of the Nose (an-nathra, النثرة)
The Two Nostrils (al-mankhiran, المنخران)
The Sneeze (an-nathra, النثرة)
The Eyes (at-tarf, الطرف)
The Eyelashes (al-ash’ar, الأشعار)
The Forehead (al-jabha, الجبهة)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

Jawza’, Snow Queen of the Arabs

Feature image credit: NASA-ESA-AURA/Caltech

قصة الجوزاء وسحيل والشعريان

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.

The story of Jawza', Suhayl and the Shi'rayan sisters, played out on the night sky, as seen from Tucson at 1:30am in early December or at 9:30pm in early February.

The story of Jawza’, Suhayl and the Shi’rayan sisters played out on the night sky, as they appear at 1:30am in early December or at 9:30pm in early February. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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.

الجوزاء

How to observe Jawza’

Jawza' as she appears setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

Jawza’ as she appears setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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.

الجوزاء

Jawza’ as a rain star asterism

Jawza' as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

Jawza’ as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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’.

The Maidenhead of Jawza' ('udhrat al-jawza') as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

The Maidenhead of Jawza’ (‘udhrat al-jawza’) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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.

الهقعة والهنعة

The Hair Whorl and the Neck Mark as lunar stations

The Hair Whorl and Neck Mark as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December.

The Hair Whorl and Neck Mark as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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.

Hair whorl on a horse

A double hair whorl on the head of a horse.
By Mochasweet (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

الجوزاء والجبار

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.

The Hands of Jawza' (yada al-jawza') as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

The Hands of Jawza’ (yada al-jawza’) as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early December. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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’.

 What’s next?

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)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

Thuraya, the Abundant Darling of the Heavens

Feature image credit: NASA-ESA-AURA/Caltech

The heavy marking rains of autumn (al-wasmi) conclude with the pre-dawn setting of Thuraya, a celestial object whose brilliance and beauty are renowned to this day in cultures around the world. This asterism is a bright cluster of stars that is easily visible to the unaided eye and known to us today as the Pleiades. An unmistakeable asterism of great significance, Thuraya was often called simply “the Asterism” (an-najm).

إذا ما الثريا في السماء تعرضت تعرض أثناء الوشاح المفصل

When Thuraya inclined obliquely in the sky
like the variegated gems of a beaded sash,
whose folds drape from shoulder to opposing waist.Imru’ al-Qays,
6th century C.E.

Thuraya as it appears from mid-northern latitudes when setting.

Thuraya (the Pleiades) as it appears from mid-northern latitudes when setting. Image by Lukáš Kalista, rotated and cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The verse above is from a pre-Islamic collection of poetry called the Mu’alaqat. The description of the appearance of Thuraya is not just vivid; it is also literal, for it describes the orientation of the asterism as it prepares to set, in this case, at the end of the night. Classical Arabic poetry is full of these uses of stars as celestial clocks that set the timeframe for a piece of poetry.

The name “Thuraya” is very old. Grammatically, the word is a diminutive, and so its meaning would be akin to “the Little Abundant One”, which grammarians tend to relate to its many stars. Additionally, this meaning may refer to the abundance of rain that falls during its rain period (see below). This possibility is strengthened by the existence of very a similar sounding word that indicates moisture. The feminine diminutive form of Thuraya gives the word a sense of endearment, like the English “dearie” or “horsey”. In legend, Thuraya is anthropomorphized as a woman.

الثريّا

How to observe Thuraya

The Hands of Thuraya (aydi ath-thuraya) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-November. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

The Hands of Thuraya (aydi ath-thuraya) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-November. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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). Thuraya itself will appear as a tight cluster of moderately bright stars located at the Tail of the Lamb (alyat al-hamal). The Hands of Thuraya begin to set about a month before Thuraya itself does, shortly after the Lamb begins to set.

ألا طرقت مي هيوما بذكرها وأيدي الثريا جنخ في المغارب

Won’t Mayya come in the night
to one amorously mystified by her mention,
when the Hands of Thuraya
reach for the western places of sunset?Dhu ar-Rumma,
735 C.E.

As an anthropomorphized figure, the Hands of Thuraya (aydi ath-thuraya) extend across a large amount of sky. Thuraya has two hands, the Amputated Hand (al-kaf al-jadhma’), which extends down to the left (south in the sky) of Thuraya, and the Henna-Dyed Hand (al-kaf al-khadib), which extends a longer distance across the sky in the opposite direction (north).

النجم

Thuraya as a rain star

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

Thuraya as it appears setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early November. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

Thuraya (ath-thuraya) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early November.

The pre-dawn setting of Thuraya marks the close of the wasmi “marking” rainy season, which began with the setting of the latter half of the Well Bucket in our first post. The calendars of Qushayr and Qays indicate that approximately 15 nights should pass between each of the three asterisms of al-wasmi. Each asterism requires some time for all of its stars to set, except for Thuraya. Therefore, about 15 nights should pass from the setting of the second star of the Rear Two Crossbars of the Bucket (al-‘arquwatan al-mu’akharatan min ad-dalw) until the setting of the first star of the Signs (ash-sharatan). Likewise, 15 nights should pass between the setting of the last star of the Signs until the setting of Thuraya.

الثريا والدبران

Thuraya and its Follower as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Follower of Thuraya (ad-dabaran) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early November.

The Follower of Thuraya (ad-dabaran) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early November.

Both the star cluster of Thuraya and the bright red star that is its Follower (ad-dabaran) are included within the calendar of lunar stations. In the account of Qutrub (died 821 CE), Thuraya is referred to as the Asterism (an-najm) and appears as the fifth lunar station. The Follower is the sixth lunar station. As we’ve seen before, this order shifts up two spots by the time of Ibn Qutayba (died 889), when these two lunar stations appear as the third and fourth, respectively.

The 8th century CE poet Dhu ar-Rumma famously describes the Follower of Thuraya as a red-turbaned camel herder. With a crowd of camels in front of him (the stars that make up the Hyades star cluster), the camel herder drives them to the watering hole. He forever follows in Thuraya‘s footsteps, neither falling behind nor overtaking her.

نجوم الثريا

The stars of Thuraya amidst the Greek constellations

The stars of Thuraya remain well-known in Arabic-speaking lands today, but this name did not survive among European astronomical works, and so today we know this star cluster as the Pleiades, a long-used Greek name.  Surprisingly, even though the Hands of Thuraya were chopped up into the Greek constellations of Cassiopeia, Perseus, Taurus and Cetus, several of its star names remain intact.

In the modern-day constellation of Cetus, the star gamma (γ) is known as Kaffaljidhmah, a rather close transliteration of the Arabic, al-kaf al-jadhma’, the Amputated Hand. Similarly, the end star of the other Hand, now located in modern-day Cassiopeia, is recognized officially as Caph, from al-kaf al-khadib, the Henna-Dyed Hand.

In Perseus, three of the many well-articulated points of the Henna-Dyed Hand also remain. The brightest star of Perseus (α) is known alternately as Mirfak (from al-mirfaq, the Elbow) or Algenib, which comes from an Arabic description of its location in the Greek figure of Perseus. Moving up to the shoulder area, both Menkib (ξ, from al-mankib, the Shoulder) and Atik (ο, from al-‘atiq, the Shoulder Blade) remain in their correct positions and have names that have been essentially unchanged from the Arabic.

Lastly, after fourteen or more centuries of cultural change, the Arabic name of the Follower, “ad-dabaran“, is nearly perfectly preserved as Aldebaran in modern-day Taurus. The red-turbaned camel herder continues to follow Thuraya across the night sky.

 What’s next?

In the next post, we will meet another famous female figure in the night sky, one whose story may go back tens of thousands of years.

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

The Hands of Thuraya Complex (aydi ath-thuraya, أيدي الثريا)

Thuraya/The Little Abundant One (ath-thuraya, الثريا), known as the Asterism (an-najm, النجم)
The Amputated Hand (al-kaf al-jadhma’, الكف الجذماء)
The Henna-Dyed Hand (al-kaf al-khadib, الكف الخضيب)
The Tattoo of the Wrist (washm al-mi’sam, وشم المعصم)
The Forearm of Thuraya (dhira’ ath-thuraya, ذراع الثريا)
The Pit of the Elbow (al-ma’bid, المأبد)
The Elbow (al-mirfaq, المرفق)
The Tip of the Elbow (ibrat al-mirfaq, إبرة المرفق)
The Upper Arm (al-‘adud, العضد)
The Shoulder (al-mankib, المنكب)
The Shoulder Blade (al-‘atiq, العاتق)
The Follower (ad-dabaran, الدبران)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

The Little Lamb that Changed the Calendar

Feature image by Ed Brambley CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The heavy autumnal rains continue this week with the setting of the Arabian constellation of the Lamb (al-hamal). But this lamb is a bit rambunctious, and he ends up shifting the entire Arab star calendar by a month. In this post, we pick up our second asterism of the rain star calendar shared by the Arab tribes of Qushayr and Qays, as well as two more lunar stations.

جاد لها بالدبل الوسمي من باكر الأشراط أشراطي
من الثريا انقض أو دلوي

The autumnal marking rain
fell abundantly upon the land in large drops,
from the first seasonal rain of the Signs
a rain that darted down from the stars of Thuraya,
or else a rain of the Well Bucket.Al-‘Ajaj,
7th/8th century C.E.

The poetry again relates this celestial complex back to the Well Bucket (ad-dalw). The Arabic term hamal refers to a first-year lamb, and this one in particular is of the fat-tailed sheep variety, perhaps an Awassi lamb like the one pictured above. These sheep were bred for their large fatty rumps and tails. The stars known as the Signs (al-ashrat in the poetry above) also mark the little horns of the Lamb, and its fatty tail is marked by the star cluster called Thuraya.

الحمل

How to observe the Lamb

The Lamb (al-hamal) and its elements as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-November.

The Lamb (al-hamal) as it appears setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-November. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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). The Two Horns of the Lamb (qarna al-hamal) will appear as two somewhat bright stars located directly to the left of the Belly of the Great Fish (batn al-hut). These two stars were also called the Butting and the Butter (an-nath w’an-natih), and their rising in the morning was regarded as inauspicious. The figure of the Lamb continues up the sky through its Belly (batn al-hamal) to its fatty tail (alyat al-hamal), marked by the Pleiades star cluster.

Awassi lamb

Image of a young Awassi lamb photographed by Ed Brambley CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This image of the Lamb in Arabia was rather different than the Greek image of the Ram (Aries), which itself was derived from a Babylonian asterism. The Babylonian asterism was originally depicted as a farmhand, but during the first millennium BCE it was elevated to the status of a zodiacal constellation to help flesh out the intended complement of 12 constellations. During this time, the vernal equinox (the point in space where the plane of the earth’s orbit intersects the earth’s equator projected into space) came to rest in this constellation. Its new status as the first constellation of the solar year may have led to its being honored with the divine symbol of the ram. This symbolism was adopted by the Greeks as Aries, and they called the vernal equinox the First Point of Aries. The Babylonian/Greek figure of Aries does not have a fleshy tail, and only one of the Arabian Horn stars lay on one of the curved ram’s horns.

الأشراط

The Signs as rain stars

For a brief description of the rain stars, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Signs (al-ashrat/ash-sharatan) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early November.

The Signs (al-ashrat/ash-sharatan) as they appear setting in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in early November. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

Our first post reported the beginning of the calendar of rains stars in what would have been late September some 1200 years ago. The coming of the wasmi “marking” rains was heralded by the pre-dawn setting of the Rear Two Crossbars of the Bucket (al-‘arquwatan al-mu’akharatan min ad-dalw). This week, the second entry in the rain star calendar, and still within the season of al-wasmi, is the Sign (ash-sharat), an asterism whose meaning is unclear. Authors writing in the 9th century CE attribute this to the fact that the sun began its new year in this asterism, so it served as a sign of the new year. This is true, but the first translations of Greek astronomy occurred after this asterism’s early appearances in poetry, which usually employed the plural form, al-ashrat (the Signs). It is possible that earlier Babylonian encounters introduced the Arabs to this name and its solar significance even before Islam. However, it is equally likely that the name had some other meaning that has since been lost to the ravages of history.

In most of the poetic references, including the earliest ones, this asterism is named in its plural form, al-ashrat (the Signs). In Arabic, this term is reserved for plurals of three or more, and so this term connoted the pair of bright Horn stars together with the somewhat dimer star that lies very close to them. In the rain star calendar, it is the singular term ash-sharat that is used, connoting the group of stars as a whole: “the Sign (of the stars)”. Although the Two Horns set in the west one after the other, about 5-6 days apart, they did rise together in the east. As we have seen already in al-farghan (the Two Spouts), al-‘arquwatan (the Two Crossbars) and qarna al-hamal (the Two Horns of the Lamb), pairs of stars were especially significant for many Arabs. Within the context of the Signs, the two Horn stars came to be called ash-sharatan (the Two Signs). This dual designation appears to have come into greater usage after the Arab adaptation of the Indian lunar stations.

الشرطان والبطين

The Two Signs and the Little Belly as lunar stations

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

Within the celestial complex of the lunar stations, the asterism of the Signs is always mentioned using the dual form ash-sharatan and never the singular ash-sharat or plural forms al-ashrat. In the account of Qutrub (died 821 CE), the Two Signs is listed as the third lunar station, following the Second Spout and the Great Fish. This matches the rain star calendar, which started its year with the Rear Crossbars, which use the same stars as the Second Spout. However, by the time of Ibn Qutayba (died 889), the organization of the lunar stations had shifted to recognize that the Two Signs was the location of the vernal equinox, and so he begins the listing of the lunar stations with the Two Signs. All subsequent listings follow this arrangement. This tells us that there was approximately a 4-week forward adjustment of the calendar that occurred sometime during the 9th century CE. This timing would have followed about half a century or more of Arabic translations of Greek astronomical texts, including the work of Hipparchus, who first defined the First Point of Aries.

The Little Belly (al-butayn) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-November.

The Little Belly (al-butayn) as it appears in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-November. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

Although the “new” first lunar station of the Two Signs did not directly invoke the Lamb, the second station was its Belly (batn al-hamal). As a lunar station, this asterism received a special diminutive name, the Little Belly (al-butayn). This tight grouping of three stars was said to resemble the three trivet stones (athafi) that would hold a cooking pot above the fire. Over the centuries, it has had two competing identifications in the sky. The first, and most likely in my opinion, was the trio 35, 39 and 41 ARI, the latter of which is the brightest star that lies between the Two Horns and the Fatty Tail of the Lamb. These three stars form a moderately bright, closely grouped equilateral triangle. This was the identification favored by Ibn Qutayba. However, al-Sufi favored a dimmer, wider trio of stars because they were located closer to the path of the moon through the sky: δ, ε and ρ ARI. Functionally, this second grouping is too dim to be seen through the morning twilight and therefore cannot have properly functioned as calendrical stars of this type.

The Fatty Tail of the Lamb (alyat al-hamal) also functioned as a lunar station, as well as a rain star. However, that story will have to wait for next time because its significance within Arab culture deserves its own blog post.

الحمل

Lamb stars amidst the Greek constellations

In my post about the Well Bucket, we saw its name given to modern-day Aquarius and its constituent star names scattered to the winds. Then, we saw a similar fate befall the Great Fish, whose name was given to modern-day Pisces. This time, the story is different. Although the interpreted figures of the Arab Lamb and the Babylonian/Greek Ram differed somewhat, they had much more in common. Therefore, whatever the origins for the larger Arab Lamb may have been, its conversion to the Greek Ram left most of its original star names intact. The term al-hamal is still used by Arabs today to describe what is now the Greek image of Aries, and so the little Lamb has become a full-grown Ram.

Remarkably, even the modern-day internationally recognized star names within Aries are in their proper positions. The brightest star in modern-day Aries is called Hamal (“the Lamb”). The second brightest one is called Sheratan (“the Two Signs”). Together, these two stars are the very stars that comprised the Two Signs or the Two Horns of the Lamb. The third star of the Signs (as al-ashrat) is today called Mesarthim, which was the result of ash-sharatan being corrupted and erroneously then to be the Hebrew word for “servants.” Its location, however, was correctly applied. The Little Belly has also survived as the modern star name, Botein (from al-butayn). It was applied to the brightest star of the alternative, dimmer trio of stars, δ ARI.

Al-nath (the Butting) also survives as the star name Elnath, but it was transferred to one of the horns in the Greek image of Taurus, the Bull. At least it still gets to do the butting, albeit with a much larger horn.

 What’s next?

The next post will introduce you to the greatest star grouping in Arab astronomy, past and present. It was so significant to the Arabs throughout the centuries that they often called it simply “the Asterism.”

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

The Lamb Complex (al-hamal, الحمل)
The Two Signs (ash-sharatan, الشرطان)
The Horns of the Lamb (qarna al-hamal, قرنا الحمل)
The Little Belly of the Lamb (al-butayn, البطين)
The Fatty Tail of the Lamb (alyat al-hamal, ألية الحمل)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).

Ancient Fish in the Stellar Sea

Feature image by Alexander Vasenin CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks ago, the dawn setting of the Well Bucket heralded the onset of the heavy marking rains of autumn. This began the new year in both of the calendars we are following. This week, the rain star calendar has no activity, but the calendar of lunar stations continues with an asterism that dates to Babylonian times (1st-2nd millennia BCE).

If you’ve read the Well Bucket post in this Arab star calendar blog, you know that a Well Rope (al-risha’) connects to the Well Bucket. The bright star that marks the Well Rope also represents the belly or heart of the Great Fish (al-hut or as-samaka al-‘azima), one of several that roam the starry seas.

حتى إذا ما الحوت في حوض من الدلو كرع

…until the time when the Great Fish
put its mouth into a watering trough
by the Well Bucket and drank… Muhammad bin Yazid al-Husna,
7th/8th century C.E.

The preceding line of poetry connects the Great Fish (al-hut) with the celestial complex of the Well Bucket. Many ancient wells had watering troughs built next to them in order to collect the drawn water for the herded animals like camels, sheep or goats. In the calendar of the lunar stations, the setting of the Great Fish marked the time when the water levels in the wells stopped sinking. The ongoing heavy rains of autumn replenished water in the well and added fresh water to the trough, so there was plenty to drink. The Great Fish lies right next to the Well Bucket, so perhaps it too is getting refreshed with the collected waters of autumn.

الحوت

How to observe the Great Fish

The Great Fish (al-hut or as-samaka al-'azima) and the Smaller Fish (as-samaka as-sughra) as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-October.

The Great Fish (al-hut or as-samaka al-‘azima) and the Smaller Fish (as-samaka as-sughra) as they appear in the west about 45 minutes before sunrise in mid-October. Sky simulations made with Stellarium.

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). As with the Well Bucket, the one bright star of the Great Fish will start to disappear 45-30 minutes before your local sunrise (times available at timeanddate.com). However, the fainter stars of the Great Fish will require you to be ready to observe about 75 minutes before sunrise. This week, there is no moon in the morning, so these faint stars should be visible unless you are observing from a location with heavy light pollution.

To spot the Great Fish, look to the western horizon. There, you will see one or two of the four Well Bucket stars from my last post. The primary star of the Great Fish lies above the uppermost Crossbar star, but some distance from it. Observing from Tucson this week, only the uppermost star of the Well Bucket was visible at 45 minutes before sunrise, so do be sure to allow yourself enough time to find your Well Bucket landmarks before they sink below the horizon.

بطن الحوت

The Belly of the Great Fish as a lunar station

For a brief description of the lunar stations, please see the Celestial Complexes section on the About page.

The Great Fish as observed from Tucson, Arizona, at 5:45am (45minutes before sunrise) on Oct 15, 2015. The first bright star above the trees is the last star of the Well Bucket.

The Great Fish as observed from Tucson, Arizona, at 5:45am (45minutes before sunrise) on Oct 15, 2015. The first bright star above the trees is the last star of the Well Bucket.

The bright star that we have just located is the Belly of the Fish (batn al-hut or batn as-samaka). It was also called the Heart of the Fish (qalb al-hut), likely on account of its red-orange color. Sometimes it is simply called al-hut, so al-hut can refer to either the whole asterism of the Great Fish or just the single bright star that represents its Belly or Heart. We’ll see this pattern with other star names, too.

The Belly of the Fish is the only part of the Great Fish that is visible through the growing light of dawn. Therefore, the Belly is the part of the asterism that is most able to function as part of a morning star calendar. Within the celestial complex of the lunar stations, the Great Fish (and its Belly) is always mentioned using the terms al-hut or batn al-hut and never as-samaka al-‘azima or batn as-samaka. In the account of Qutrub (died 821 CE), the Great Fish is listed as the second lunar station, but Ibn Qutayba (died 889) and those following him list it as the 28th and final lunar station. (For more details on the reasons for this change, see my previous blog post.) Later authors tend to list batn al-hut specifically as the lunar station, perhaps because by that time the name al-hut had been transferred to a Greek constellation (see “Three Greek fish” below).

السمكة العظيمة

The Great Babylonian Fish

Material in this post regarding Mesopotamian astronomy comes from a two-part article by John H. Rogers entitled “Origins of the ancient constellations” and published in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Volume 108 (1998), Issues 1 and 2.

The Great Fish (as-samaka al-'azima) as it hour after sunset in mid-October.

The Great Fish (as-samaka al-‘azima) as it appears in the east under dark skies about 1 hour after sunset in mid-October.

It is not known when the Fish came to be recognized in Babylon. We do know that its presence in the sky helped shape the zodiacal constellation that we know today as Pisces, whose two fish were originally much larger than the Greeks drew them. Babylonian star calendars for farming typically focused on the rising of stars before dawn, rather than their setting. The rising orientation provides an upright view of the Great Fish, so I will present the asterism as you will see it rising in the east during the evening hours this week.

Starting at the Belly of the Fish, which is part of the underside of the Fish, follow a line of two more stars up and to the left a bit until you see a small fuzzy cloud in the sky. Today, we know this cloud to be an entire galaxy that we call the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). It is much like our own Milky Way but almost twice as large. This fuzzy patch in the sky marks the mouth of the Great Fish.

From the Andromeda Galaxy, now follow a chain of stars to the right and slowly curving downward. A row of three stars that lie between the Belly of the Fish and the Well Bucket will be the brighter ones in this chain. Continue through them downward until the chain curves to the left and starts heading back up the sky toward the Belly of the Fish. You will need a relatively dark sky to trace the full outline.

The Andromeda Galaxy (at the mouth of the Great Fish) as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in its largest image ever assembled.

The Andromeda Galaxy (at the mouth of the Great Fish) as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B. F. Williams, L. C. Johnson (U. Washington), PHAT team, R. Gendler

السمكة الصغرى

The Smaller Fish

The Smaller Fish (as-samaka as-sughra) as it appears in the east under dark skies about 1 hour after sunset in mid-October.

The Smaller Fish (as-samaka as-sughra) as it appears in the east under dark skies about 1 hour after sunset in mid-October.

The Smaller Fish was mentioned in Arabic writings of the 9th century CE, but unlike the Great Fish, it does not appear to be of Babylonian origin. However, like the Great Fish, the Smaller Fish has a bright star in the location of its belly, but in this case it is not named as such in the literature. If you trace a curved line from the Well Bucket through the Belly of the (Great) Fish to an equal distance beyond it, you will arrive at a bright star that is in the position of the belly of the Smaller Fish. From this star, trace a chain of stars that first goes toward the Belly of the (Great) Fish and then curves to the left in the sky. This chain ends at another fuzzy patch in the sky that happens to be two dense star clusters located very close to each other, the Double Cluster of the modern constellation Perseus. This cloudy patch represents the tail of the Smaller Fish. From here, follow a trail of fainter stars back down to the “belly” of the Smaller Fish. Thus, as you look at the sky this evening, the Smaller Fish faces right, and the Great Fish faces left.

الحوت الجنوبي والسمكتين

Three Greek fish

In order to understand what happened to our Two Fish in the sky once Greek astronomy was translated into Arabic, we first need to go back to ancient Mesopotamia. During the early 3rd millennium BCE, the civilization of Sumer regarded the modern Greek constellation of Aquarius as a representation of their god Ea, who poured two streams of water from a pitcher. (Sound familiar?)

One of Ea’s streams went southward to a bright star that has represented a fish since Sumerian times. This star, together with an oblong circle of stars around it, were adopted by the Greeks two millennia later as the constellation Pisces Austrinus, the Southern Fish. This fish was translated into Arabic directly as the Southern Great Fish (al-hut al-janubi). The bright star that has marked this constellation for 5000 years is known to us today as Fomalhaut, which is a Latinized transliteration of fam al-hut, “the Mouth of the Fish.”

The other Mesopotamian stream that was poured from Ea’s pitcher went eastward among the stars, in the direction of the Arab Great Fish. As mentioned above, we don’t know when this Great Fish first graced the skies of Mesopotamia. However, at some point later, this asterism was joined to another asterism that had been regarded by the Babylonians as a Swallow. Joined by two long cords tied together, they became the Babylonian zodiacal constellation of the Two Fish, but this was not quite Pisces as the Greeks drew it.

The Greek fish as they appear in the west and south about an hour after sunset in mid-October.

The Greek fish among the Arabs, as they appear in the west and south about an hour after sunset in mid-October.

In creating Pisces, the Greeks reduced the size of both the Great Fish (known by the Babylonians as the Northern Fish) and the Western Fish (formerly the Swallow) to make room for the Greek constellations of Andromeda and Pegasus, respectively. These two fish of Pisces were translated into Arabic as the Northern Fish (as-samaka ash-shamaliya) and the Front Fish, respectively (as-samaka al-mutaqadima). Although the constellation as a whole was referred to literally as the Two Fish (as-samakatan), it also was known as al-hut. Once again, the name for an existing pre-Greek asterism was repurposed for an adopted Greek constellation, and the original asterism disappeared from public awareness.

Now, when you look up at the constellation Andromeda, remember that long ago much of that constellation was caught up in a giant fish tale that lasted for thousands of years.

 What’s next?

Next time, we’ll look at the asterism that forever changed the Arab calendars.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! On which day did the Belly of the Fish set for you in the galas of the morning? Were you able to make out the outline of the Great Fish? How about the Smaller Fish?

Please leave a comment below, and be sure to include your city and state/country so we can see how the setting times vary by location.


 Star Catalog Entries for this Celestial Complex

The Two Fish Complex (as-samakatan, السمكتان)
The Great Fish (al-hut, الحوت) and its Belly (batn al-hut, بطن الحوت)
The Great Fish (as-samaka al-‘azima, السمكة العظيمة) and its Belly (batn as-samaka, بطن السمكة)
The Smaller Fish (as-samaka as-sughra, السمكة الصغرى)

Click here to go to the full star catalog (a work in progress).