Knowing the Stars by Name

Illustration (painting) by Sadia Tariq, circa 2021

by Mary Hrovat at 3 Quarks Daily: In the shapeless but often suggestive scatter of stars across a dark night sky, humans have picked out patterns and woven countless tales around them, giving the brighter stars names for their place in these stories. The star names we use today can be fascinating but also baffling—which is not surprising, considering that they’ve evolved over centuries in various languages.

Most of the traditional star names known to Western science have Arabic, Greek, or Latin roots. Some of these names have fairly straightforward meanings, although the connections are not always obvious. Orange-red Antares, for example, is named for its resemblance to Mars (the name can be translated as rival of Mars). Regulus means little king; the star has long been associated with royalty, and it’s in the constellation Leo, the lion (king of the beasts). Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo (the maiden); its name is derived from a Latin term for an ear of wheat, because of the constellation’s identification with a Greco-Roman goddess of agriculture. It has been identified with many other female deities over time.

There’s also a star in Virgo named Vindemiatrix, which translates from the Latin as grape gatherer, because in classical times, when it was named, the Sun was in Virgo during the grape harvest. A star in Lyra (the lyre) is named Sulaphat, which is derived from an Arabic word for tortoise. It puzzled me to learn this; the reason is that lyres were often made from tortoise shells. The name of Arcturus, in the constellation Boötes (the herdsman), is derived from a Greek term meaning guardian of the bear, for several possible reasons involving myths about bears.

Many of the star names derived from Arabic represent the star’s location within a constellation. The star indicating the tail of Leo is named Denebola, and that representing the tail of Cygnus (the swan) is Deneb. Achernar, in the constellation Eridanus (the river) is named for its position at the river’s end. Cancer (the crab) has a star called Acubens, which is derived from the Arabic word for claws.

Humans have sorted the stars into many groupings over the millennia, and the human-named night sky is a vast palimpsest full of odd remnants of old constellations and asterisms. For example, Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi (the northern and southern claws, respectively), along with Zubenelakrab, the scorpion’s claw, appear in the the constellation Libra (the scales). The names date back to a time when the stars were considered to be part of the neighboring constellation of Scorpius. Auriga is said to represent a charioteer, but it has long been associated with goatherds as well, and its brightest star is named Capella, which translates as little she-goat. The Pleiades, a star cluster in the constellation Taurus containing hundreds of stars, is named for a group of seven sisters in Greek mythology, although only six of the stars are visible to the naked eye.

Everything I’ve said above could probably be said in much finer detail, or an alternative explanation or derivation might be given. The history of star and constellation nomenclature is complex.

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