Arabic Origins of Modern Western Star Names

When an Arabic speaking person starts to get interested in Astronomy, he will immediately notice that many stars have Arabic sounding names.

For example, the other day, I was in the backyard with a 20 year old relative. I was

The reason for this is historic, and has to do with how the knowledge of sky with its constellations, and stars moved from one civilization to the next. First, Ancient Egypt to Babylon, then to the Greeks, then translated into Arabic during the Islamic golden age, and from there to Europe via Latin by yet more translation.

Each civilization added its own observations, and corrected the positions of stars as the Earth's axial precession cause the position of the stars to shift in the sky.

But what happened is more interesting than just mere straight forward translation. Often, there were errors introduced that make for interesting discussions today.

Constellation Name As Star Names

And example is how many star names are actually constellation names.

For example, عقرب (Aqrab) is the name of the scorpion. But when it made its way from the Middle East to Europe, it became the name of a star in that constallation: Acrab.

This is a recurring theme in many constellations.

Alpha Sagittae, is Sham (mistranslated from: سهم sahm) which means arrow, the name of the constellation: Sagitta.

Dubhe دب means Bear, Ursa Major.

Alpha Coronae Borealis is known as Alphecca, which is a shortening of نير الفكة nayyir Al Fekka, meaning: The brightest of Al Fekka.

Another interesting mistranslation is how the same name applies to more than one star. For example, also in Scorpio, Dschubba and Nu Scorpi (Jabbah, or Jabhat are both translated from "the forehead of the scorpion".

Another forehead, is Gamma Leonis, called Algieba and is "The forehead" of the lion.

Duplicated Name Variants

Another recurring theme is having the same name, with or without variations for different stars.

Sometimes this is within the same constellation.

For example, Alnitak النطاق in Orion's belt means Belt or Girdle. But so is Mintaka منطقة meaning the same thing.

In other cases, it is across constellations.

An example, is Alnair النير which means "The Brightest [of ...]", which got chopped off (just like Western languages do with Abu and Abdul) and applied as a proper name. This is the case with both Zeta Centauri and Alpha Gruis.

The same goes for Ruchbah (Delta Cassiopeiae) ركبة (knee) in Cassiopeia , and Rukbat (Alpha Sagittari) in Sagittarius. Both mean: knee.

And also Sadr (Gamma Cygni) in Cygnus, and Shedir (Alpha Casssiopeiae) in Cassiopeia, both meaning صدر breast.

We also have at least two elbows, one is Mirfak and another is Marfik (or Marsik). Both come from Arabic مرفق with some corruption for the latter.

The name Zubana زبانى which means 'claw', found its way to many stars. Starting with Acubens (Alpha Cancri), and to Zuben al-Akrab claw of the scorpion, in Libra, when it was still part of the constellation Scorpio, as well as Zubeneschamali (Beta Librae, northern claw), and Zubenelgenubi (Alpha Librae, southern claw).

There is also an abundance of tails. Deneb is the tail of the hen (Cygnus the swan in Western constellations), while Epsilon and Zeta in Aquila are known as Deneb Al-Okab, ذنب العقاب tail of the Eagle. Also, Delta Capricorni is Deneb Algedi (ذنب الجدي tail of the ram). And there is Deneb Kaitos, tail of Cetus, where Cetus was literally translating from Greek to Arabic. There is also Denebola which is a shortened, corrupted version of ذنب الليث Dhanab Al Laith, Tail of the Lion.

Plurals As Singulars

The star Adhara means 'maidens' or 'virgins', but as with Abu/Abdul, the other words in the clause was dropped, giving a plural as a singular proper name.

Another star in the same constellation has another variant that is singular: Aludra meaning 'The Virgin'.

Numbered Names

In some cases, there were numbers made into names.

For example, Alula, Tania and Talitha mean First الاولى, Second ثانية and Third ثالثة respectively.

Unintended Opposite Meaning

One funny case, is the star Eta Vir in Virgo. It was translated as Zaniah, زانية which in Arabic means 'adulteress' (contrast that with Virgin!). This is a corruption of Az-Zawiyah, الزاوية, which means 'the angle'.

Betelgeuse And Reading Errors

Betelgeuse's name is almost always said to be derived from إبط الجوزاء (Ebet Al-Jawza', 'Armpit of Orion'). But the simple truth was found by Professor Paul Kunitzsch, and that the origin is from يد الجوزاء Yad Al-Jawza', 'Hand of Orion', as it is clearly marked in this manuscript), and the copyist mistook the letter ي Y for ب B (one having two dots below, and the other one dot below), and the error stuck till today. Perhaps we should start calling it Yedelgeuse instead?

Sheep and Cows

When you check any reference on the observational history, the book Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning, by Richard Allen is always quoted, and is mostly wrong. One example is the correct assertion that Al-Sufi was the first one to mention the Magellanic Clouds. However, Allen says that they are named Al-Bakr, and that means 'Sheep'. The correct quotation is as follows: "others have claimed that beneath Canopus there are two stars known as the 'feet of Canopus' , and beneath those, there are bright white stars that cannot be seen in Iraq nor in Najd (north east of Arabia), and that the inhabitants of Tihama (south west of Arabia) call them al-Baqar [cows], and Ptolemy did not mention any of this so we [Al-Sufi] does not know if this is true or false." See this page from a manuscript written and illustrated by Al-Sufi's own son.

A Constellation Born Out of Mis-Translation

But the most interesting is the multiple mistranslation that led to a new constellation to be created. Canis Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. They were a part of Bootes, the shepherd, being his staff. It got translated literally as: The Staff With a Hook العصا ذات الكلاب, from Greek into Arabic. When it came to Europeans turn to translate, they mistook the "hook" for "dogs", because in Arabic short vowels are not written. Later, it was made into its own constellation that did not exist during Greek or Arab times. All due to mistranslation!

Further Reading

Contents: 

Tags: