Danielle AdamsDec 18, 2018

Whose stars? Our heritage of Arabian astronomy

Most accounts of the history of astronomy present a linear development from Greek polymaths to Muslim scholars and then enlightened Europeans. This is not one of them.

The modern night sky is messy, awash with the remnants of cultural interactions that span millennia. Greco-Mesopotamian constellation figures bear Latin names. Their brightest stars are designated with letters of the Greek alphabet, yet most of them bear proper names that derive from Arabic. Even so, many of these star names are Arabic descriptions of Greek constellation figures, not Arabian ones. 

Whose stars are these? Much like a Photoshop image whose many layers have been combined, the multicultural textures of the sky have been flattened by the very process of cataloging its stars. This is useful when an international community of scholars needs to ensure they are speaking the same language, but as a result it tosses away alternative views of the sky, much like the hidden layers of a flattened Photoshop image.

As UNESCO’s December 18 World Arabic Language Day approaches, let’s reconstruct a couple of these flattened images of the Arabian sky, uncovering their messy textures, and in the process learn a bit about how one cultural naming system won out over another. 

Ath-Thuraya - the star par excellence

Step outside tonight, a couple hours after sunset, and look to the east. There, in one of the densest regions of the sky, you may recognize the brilliant red star that is known today as Aldebaran (alpha Tauri). Attested since pre-Islamic times (before 610 CE), the Arabic name of this star (ad-dabaran) literally means “the Follower.” It was so named because it follows on the heels of the most renowned object in the Arabian night sky: the brilliant star cluster called ath-Thuraya, known today as the Pleiades. This star cluster was so highly celebrated that it was often simply called the Star (an-najm).

The eastern sky tonight
The eastern sky tonight The mid-December 2018 sky about 30 minutes after midnight, looking east.Image: Danielle Adams

Arabia at this time was not homogenous in culture or language, so the name of the Follower (ad-dabaran) was also expressed as the Follower of the Star (tali an-najm or tabi’ an-najm). Sometimes this star was called the Urger of the Star (hadi an-najm), as if it were driving ath-Thuraya on ahead of it. The Umayyad poet Dhu r-Rumma (d. 735 CE) beautifully depicts the sky scene with great imagination:

I arrived haphazardly when ath-Thuraya, high overhead, was like an aquatic bird soaring,

Its rear parts—the Follower—flying in her tracks, yet neither falling behind nor overtaking her,

With twenty small stars as if they—and he in the sky if he could speak—

Were camels that he led riding widespread, riding camels that were about to scatter away from him,

Both connected and dispersed, and One Urging drives them to the water from the heart of the spacious desert on their first night of travel.

As for the Star itself, the name ath-Thuraya is a long-used proper name whose meaning is connected to the notion of abundance, and possibly also moisture. An approximate translation for this diminutive noun could be “the Little Abundant One.”

The setting of ath-Thuraya in the west just as the light of dawn overtook it (a specific time of morning called ghalas) occurred during the Arabian rainy season called al-wasmi. These were the heavy rains of autumn that literally “marked” (wasama) the desert with green foliage. Setting about a week after ath-Thuraya, the Follower also brought heavy rains, earning it another nickname: the Stirrer-Up of Rain (al-mijdah). 

The Hands of ath-Thuraya
The Hands of ath-Thuraya The Hands of ath-Thuraya, shown as they are setting in the west before sunrise.Image: Danielle Adams

Despite its Arabian fame, the name ath-Thuraya survives in no modern star name. However, this star cluster was anthropomorphized as a female figure with two expansive arms, and from these arms come the internationally recognized star names of Ceph, Mirfak, Menkib and Kaffaljidhma. The shorter arm was called the Amputated Hand (al-kaf al-jadhma) because it is the shorter one and lacks a proper hand. This is represented by a chain of stars that extends from ath-Thuraya to the star Kaffaljidhma in the Greek constellation of Cetus. 

The other arm was called the Henna-Dyed Hand (al-kaf al-khadib) because one of its end stars is orange like the color of henna after it has dried. This arm extends through the dense starfields of the Milky Way, from ath-Thuraya through much of modern-day Perseus and Cassiopeia. The Henna-Dyed Hand was well-articulated with numerous named stars, some of which survive as modern star names like Ceph (”hand”, from kaf), Mirfak (“elbow”, from al-mirfaq) and Menkib (“shoulder”, from al-mankib). In addition to these were other named points that included the Shoulder Blade (al-‘atiq), the Upper Arm (al-‘adud), the Forearm (al-dhira’) and the Tip (ibrat al-mirfaq) and Pit (al-ma’bid) of the Elbow. Between the Forearm and the Hand itself is a fuzzy patch of sky that was interpreted to be the Tattoo on the Wrist (washm al-mi’sam) of ath-Thuraya. Binoculars reveal this nebulosity to be the famed Double Cluster of Perseus (NGC 869 and NGC 884). 

The Two Hands of ath-Thuraya were attested in poetry by the time of the poet Dhu r-Rumma (d. 735 CE); their many parts may have been in use at that time as well, but this was surely the case by the time of the philologist Ibn Qutayba (d. 889 CE).

The story of al-Jawza’ and Suhayl

If you ask most Arabs today about al-Jawza’, they will point you to the Greek zodiacal figure of Gemini. Yet, long ago, the Arabian figure of al-Jawza’ largely correlated with the stars of Orion, and in the beginning the figure likely included just the three brilliant stars that mark the modern-day Belt of Orion.

Like ath-Thuraya, al-Jawza’ is a long-used proper name, and its Arabic root conveys the sense of being in the middle of something else. It is likely that the name was applied on account of the visual appearance of a nearly perfect line of three stars spaced equidistantly, which together were located between two other pairs of bright stars that in time came to represent the hands and feet of al-Jawza’. Indeed, it may have been that just the central star of the three was the first to bear the name al-Jawza’. A similar but less bright line of three stars is found in the handle of our modern Big Dipper, the central star of which Ibn Qutayba also identified as al-Jawza’. 

An old Arabian legend tells the story of the woman al-Jawza’, who had been promised to a man named Suhayl. This man lived across the river with his two sisters, known together as the Two Shi’ra Sisters (ash-shi’rayan). When the wedding night came, something dreadful happened, and by morning al-Jawza’ was dead. Fearing for his life, Suhayl fled far to the south. One of his sisters crossed the river to be closer to him, and so she was called the Shi’ra Who Crossed Over (ash-shi’ra al-‘abur). His other sister stayed at home and cried her eyes out, so she was called the Little Bleary-Eyed Shi’ra (ash-shi’ra al-ghumaysa’). 

Like al-Jawza’, the characters in this story correlate with stars in the night sky. Suhayl, who fled far to the south, is represented by the star known by modern astronomy as Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky. The Shi’ra Who Crossed Over is the brightest star in the sky, known today as Sirius, and her sister, the Little Bleary-Eyed Shi’ra, is the somewhat less bright star Procyon, whose light is dimmer because her eyes are filled with pus from crying so much. 

The Two Shi’ra Sisters
The Two Shi’ra Sisters The mid-December 2018 sky about 30 minutes after midnight, looking south.Image: Danielle Adams

Incredibly, the star Sirius really did cross over the river, the Milky Way as seen from Earth. Sirius is so bright in part because it lies very close to the Earth, just 8.6 light years away. This nearness to Earth means that Sirius moves very slowly against the background of the stars that lie much further away. Today, Sirius lies on the west bank of the Milky Way “river”, but it lay on the east bank some 50,000 years ago. This does not necessitate that the legend is 50,000 years old; the Shi’ra Who Crossed Over could simply have been imagined to have crossed the river at any point in the past. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable correlation. 

You can see this same sky scene this December if you happen to live at a latitude below +35 degrees N and can stay up until about midnight. Dhu r-Rumma also describes the brilliant stars in this region as strings of pearls:

When Suhayl shone like a blazing fire, alone like the banished wild bull,

And al-Jawza’ glistened like necklaces,

And the Star, having begun its descent after culmination, joined with al-Jawza’ ascending,

As if, from a view extended through the horizon, they were strings of pearls.

Over time, the figure of al-Jawza’ was extended to include Two Hands (yada al-jawza’), Two Feet (rijla al-jawza’) and a Head (ra’s al-jawza’) with Flowing Locks of Hair (adh-dhawa’ib). Al-Jawza’ also acquired some possessions, including a large Bow (qaws al-jawza’) and two footstools, the Front Footstool (al-kursi al-muqadam) and the Rear Footstool (al-kursi al-muakhar). Far away from these parts, a triangle of bright stars with a reddish one in the middle came to represent the Maidenhead of al-Jawza’ (‘udhrat al-jawza’), an old name that was attested as far back as the poetry of Muhalhil (d. 531 CE). 

Al-Jawza' Al-Jawza', shown as it is setting in the west before sunrise.Image: Danielle Adams

Like ath-Thuraya, the name al-Jawza’ does not survive on its own in modern astronomy, but many of the elements of its extended figure do. The three central stars were collectively known as the String of Pearls (an-nazm or an-nizam), the Belt of al-Jawza’ (nitaq al-jawza’) or the Jeweled Belt of al-Jawza’ (mintaqat al-jawza’). Because modern astronomy does not normally assign the same name to multiple stars, each of these names has been attached to one of these three stars as Mintaka, Alnilam and Al-Nitak. One of the feet of al-Jawza’ today bears the name Rigel, a transliteration of the Arabic rijl, meaning “foot”. Above the String of Pearls, one of the Two Hands is a brilliant red giant star that is called Betelgeuse. Originally, this name was yad al-jawza’, the Hand of al-Jawza’. 

After Greek astronomical texts were translated into Arabic, beginning in the late 8th century CE, the name al-Jawza’ was transferred to the Greek constellation Gemini, because being in the middle of something necessarily requires a something on either side, which fit the figure of Gemini as the figure of two twins. The Greek constellation Orion was brought into Arabic as the Giant (al-jabar). Although Orion’s bow is on the opposite side of the figure compared to the larger Bow of al-Jawza’, the head, hands and feet correlated well, so those star names were reused within the context of Orion. Having been displaced by the Greek Giant and her name given to the Greek Twins, the female Arabian figure of al-Jawza’ eventually disappeared from the sky altogether.

Many of the star names we have looked at in this article are exceptionally old. The Star (an-najm) and her Follower (ad-dabaran), al-Jawza’, Suhayl and the Two Shi’ra Sisters (ash-shi’rayan) all appear in the pre-Islamic poetry of Muhalhil, who died in 531 CE, nearly a hundred years before the development of Islam. They have been the cornerstones of Arabian star lore for many hundreds of years, enriching poetry and serving as beacons in the night for those navigating the desert seas. Some have endured until today; others have been displaced by Greek images of the night sky. 

On the evening of this year’s UNESCO World Arabic Language Day (December 18), I urge you to take a moment to look up and wonder at these images of the night sky that were forged in the deserts of Arabia some 1500 years ago.

For more Arabian star stories, please visit Danielle’s NASA Space Grant website. The information in this blog post comes from her original doctoral research in the Arabic sources, much of which was generously funded by a NASA Space Grant in 2015-2017.

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