Non-Greek Constellations

Ok, so we all know about the Greek constellations that have come to dominate our skies. Did other cultures invent similar ways to map their skies? Any non-Greek European, Asian, African, or Native American constellations out there? I know the Chinese had a system of constellations, but I’m a little hazy as to what it was.

Well, the Hobbits referred to the Big Dipper as The Plough, but I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for here…

The Egyptians had a different set of constellations from the ones we use today. Unfortunately, it’s hard to figure out what stars the constellations contained, because their star charts (at least the ones we have found) were made for religious purposes, to show the order of the heavens, rather than to make a map of the sky that shows exactly where the stars are located. The constellation of Osiris is fairly obviously Orion, though, and the star Sirius was called Isis.

I don’t know much about the Chinese constellations, but my general impression is that they grouped the stars together into larger constellations than the western constellations. For example, Orion (one of the larger western constellations) is just part of the White Tiger. They split the zodiac into 28 parts, though. Here’s a reference:

Different Native American tribes had different names for the constellations, each incorporating their own strories and the plants and animals important to their culture.

When Europeans began traveling in the Southern Hemisphere, they created their own constellations and pretty much ignored the constellations created by the native peoples.

Oh, it’s crazy-cool!

They connect the stars in a different way than the Greeks did, not-surprisingly. This site’s links show you the Chinese constellations superimposed over the Greek ones.

Many of the constellations in the southern hemispere were not named by the Greeks, as they never had the opportunity to see them. Hence we have constellations such as Antlia (the Air Pump), Horologium (the Clock) and Microscopium (the Microscope) that did not exist before the mid 1700’s.

The Pleiades are known as Subaru in Japan.

Wait a moment— how much of “Greek” astronomy actually derived from Babylonian astronomy? How many of the constellations we know by Greek names were first identified by Babylonian astronomers?

Another question: Is it true that there is not a single constellation anywhere named for a plant?

OK, so what does Subaru actually mean in Japanese? Can you translate it for us?

In Hungarian, the Pleiades are called Fiastyúk, meaning literally ‘The Hen and Her Young’.

In Turkish, the Pleiades are called Ülker, meaning literally ‘an ambush carried out by an army broken into a group of detachments posted in various places’, according to the 11th-century Turkish lexicographer Mahmud of Kashgar. Cite: An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Turkish by Sir Gerard Clauson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 143. Sir Gerard remarks: “an army made up of (a group of) detachments’, a good simile for a group of stars.”

The Arabic name for the Pleiades is Thurayyâ, which comes from the triliteral root th-r-y meaning both ‘soil’ and ‘wealth’. Probably the annual appearance of the Pleiades was used to predict rains, which allowed crops to grow from the soil and thus bring prosperity.

The Persian name for the Pleiades is Parvin, literally meaning ‘Bunch of Grapes’ (it does look like a bunch of grapes, doesn’t it?); alternate form Parviz, meaning ‘victorious, fortunate, happy’.

The Sanskrit name for the Pleiades is KRttikâ, coming from a root meaning ‘to cut’; the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary says “this constellation, containing six stars, is sometimes represented as a flame or as a kind of razor or knife.” The KRttikâs in mythology were six goddesses who nursed the god of war Karttikeya when he was a baby. They offered him their breasts all at once, so he grew six faces allowing him to suckle from them at the same time. Thus his epithet Shanmukha, the ‘Six-Faced’.

In Tamil, the name for the Pleiades is Arumîn, which simply means literally ‘The Six Stars’.

JM: Wait a moment— how much of “Greek” astronomy actually derived from Babylonian astronomy? How many of the constellations we know by Greek names were first identified by Babylonian astronomers?

A lot. For example, the twelve ecliptic constellations (the “signs of the zodiac”) originated in Babylonian astronomy and were subsequently taken over by the Greeks (with some name changes possibly reflecting existing Greek asterisms*—Aries the Ram was called by the Babylonians the “Hired Man”, and Virgo was the “Furrow”). IIRC there are Mesopotamian clay tablets from as early as the second millennium BCE with crude schematic star charts or asterisms pictured on them (the so-called “astrolabe” texts, nothing to do with the later observational instrument(s) known as astrolabes).

Oodles of good information on this can be found in Hermann Hunger’s and David Pingree’s book Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia, and I found some material online about the Mesopotamian origin of the Greek zodiac.

Most of pre-modern Eurasian mathematical astronomy (except the Chinese system, I think) uses at least some of the asterisms from the Mesopotamian/Greek tradition, but other cultures also incorporated asterisms of their own; for example, the Indian “nakshatras” or 27–28 constellations in the celestial path of the moon seem to be indigenous (Krttika is one of them, btw. Nice to see Monier-Williams getting a plug in an SD thread! :)).

  • “Asterism” is the technical term for a designated group of stars forming a visual image, whether or not it’s one of the “constellations” officially recognized by modern astronomy. I like that I footnoted “asterism” using an asterisk. :slight_smile:

I don’t know the literal translation. According to Richard Carlyon’s Guide to the Gods, the Subaru (a proper name, I presume) were six sisters in Japanese myth. In Greek myth, the Pleides were seven sisters (In the intervening millennia, one of the stars has disappeared from view). My best guess at a literal translation would be “six sisters.”

Yes, but that’s because Tolkien was British and the Big Dipper is also known as “The Plough” in the UK.

Indian astronomy is unfamiliar in its organization, complex, and hard for the uninitiated like me to follow (and don’t even get me started on jyotish). What I have been able to gather is that the 28 nakshatras are identified by their position when opposite to the moon, or something like that. A nakshatra is in effect when the moon is 180 degrees from it, IIUC. The 28 “mansions of the moon” (manâzil) in Arabic astronomy are a comparable concept, but whether they are identified according to the moon passing through them or in opposition to them, I don’t know. Kimstu, can you give a basic introduction to Indian astronomy, at least some idea of how it works? That wouldn’t be too off-topic for this thread, would it? Also, thanks for confirming that Greek astronomy owes a lot to the Babylonians. We get such a Eurocentric education, we often are not aware how much of Greek civilization was built upon input from Egypt and the Middle East. (See The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age by Walter Burkert.)

MikeS, IANB, but I have heard that in Britain the Big Dipper/Ursa Major is called “Charles’s Wain.” (wain=wagon.) Who is this “Charles” who has a wain in the sky? Didn’t it belong to Woden or some Germanic god like that, among the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons?

Hadn’t heard that etymology before, but a quick jaunt over to the Wikipedia turned up this:

According to the dictionary it comes from carles wægn or churl’s wain.

Churl = A medieval English peasant.
Carle = A rude, rustic man; a churl.
Wain a wagon

JM: *Kimstu, can you give a basic introduction to Indian astronomy, at least some idea of how it works? *

Alright, but I warn you, it’s gonna hurt a little. (Oddly, I came here to procrastinate from what I ought to be doing right now, namely finishing a book chapter on the history of Indian mathematics. I guess there’s no escape. :))

The Sanskrit tradition of jyotisa included all forms of computation for astronomy, calendrics and time-keeping, astrology and astral divination in general. Information about any of these practices on the Indian subcontinent before about the mid- to late first millennium BCE is extremely scant, since all the sources we have are some passing references to astronomical events and timekeeping cycles in religious texts. But we can draw from them the following general inferences:

  • The chief raison d’etre for jyotisa was considered to be keeping track of time and the calendar for the sake of correct performance of religious rituals, especially those that had to be performed at solstices or equinoxes and at full or new moons.

  • The set of asterisms first codified as markers for keeping track of the position of the moon or sun seem to have been the naksatras, constellations in the path of the moon.

  • Various period relations (none very precise) were used to keep track mathematically of synchronizing the cycles of moon and sun.

Astronomical practice seems to have become more heavily mathematized in the mid- to late first millennium BCE, likely in part because of some contact with Mesopotamian mathematical astronomy via the Achaemenid empire. There are computational schemes to keep track of things like the length of daylight at different times of year and so forth. The five “star-planets” (Mercury–Saturn) also are attested as objects of astronomical interest (e.g., by rules for predicting their synodic phenomena) about this time. Astral divination (omens from celestial events) also appears, again probably with some influence from the flourishing Mesopotamian celestial-omen tradition.

As with Babylonian astronomy, though, there’s no evidence of interest in geometrizing the system with concepts like orbits or spheres or what-not. The periodicity of celestial phenomena is mathematized but their spatial structure isn’t.

In the early first millennium CE, there’s a lot of influence from Greek sources via the Roman Empire. Many of the concepts and techniques of pre- and para-Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy get assimilated into Sanskrit, including:

  • some geometric models involving concepts like eccentrics and epicycles
  • spherical earth and heaven
  • systems of reference circles such as the equator and ecliptic, with the Graeco-Babylonian zodiac
    -trigonometry of chords, etc. etc.

This was also the time when horoscopic astrology per se got its foothold—the system of divination based on detailed astronomical configurations that evolved into the incredibly complex and ubiquitous astrological system(s) called “jyotish” by Indians today. Oh, and they also adopted the seven-day week from Greek astrology.

By the mid- to late first millennium CE, Indian astronomy was systematized and mathematized to about the same extent as Ptolemaic astronomy, and calculated the same sort of things using similar basic models: calendrics and timekeeping, spherical geography, predicting eclipses, conjunctions, and other ominous events, as well as computing positions for any known celestial object (seven planets and fixed stars) for any given time.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not trying to reduce Indian astronomy to a mere ripoff of Mesopotamian or Greek astronomy. Indians had lots of their own ideas in the development of their mathematical astronomy (e.g., the decimal place-value numeral system, the trigonometric sine and its relatives, Aryabhata’s fifth-century hypothesis of the earth’s rotation (though that never really caught on with later astronomers), solution of indeterminate equations for computing period relations, and so on and so forth). But many of the fundamental concepts that they used do seem to have been adopted from first Babylonian and then Greek traditions, and those systems are much more familiar to most Westerners interested in history of astronomy, so it’s very helpful to use them as a basis for comparison.

So far so mostly good? Indian astronomy gets its reputation for fiendishly complex incomprehensibility largely from the involved nature of the calendar. Whereas most other post-Babylonian civilizations eventually tanked on the effort to keep lunar and solar cycles synchronized in their calendars (the Romans and Persians dropped the lunar month and just kept track of the solar year, the Muslims vice versa), the Indians just never gave up on maintaining a true luni-solar system, with occasional intercalated or “leap” units to keep actual lunar (synodic) months aligned with actual solar seasons. (Neither did the Jews, but AFAIK their computus stayed a lot simpler.)

So there are a hellacious lot of different time-units in Indian astronomy. The name of the traditional Indian calendar, the pancanga, means “five-limbed”, and refers to its tabulating no fewer than five separate simultaneous cycles of time-units:

  • the civil weekday and its place in the solar year, which we consider quite enough to constitute a calendar all by itself;
  • the tithi or “lunar day”, one-thirtieth of a synodic month (probably based on a similar Babylonian unit), during which the difference between the solar and lunar longitudes increases by twelve degrees;
  • the karana or half-tithi (one of which inspired my username :));
  • your friend the naksatra, now formalized into 1/27th of a lunar period or 13 1/3 degrees of lunar longitude;
  • the yoga, a sort of “anti-tithi”, the time interval required for the sun and moon’s combined longitudes to increase by twelve degrees. (Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.)

Oh, and in case you’re not confused enough, it’s only fair to mention that there are many people who insist that the above sketch of historical development is all bullshit. They use astrochronological arguments (i.e., dating texts according to datable astronomical events that seem to be mentioned in them, such as Babylonian or Chinese eclipse observation records or the alleged appearance of the Star of Bethlehem in the Bible) to claim that the Indian astronomical tradition is at least several thousand years old and therefore not significantly influenced by “later” systems like those of the Babylonians or Greeks. (Some of them sometimes refer to people like me and my colleagues who don’t agree with them as “Eurocentric” or “neocolonialist” or something like that. We sometimes refer to them as “nuts”.) I don’t buy their arguments, but they are undeniably right in noting that our reconstructions of early Indian astronomy are composed mostly of plausible speculation rooted in a few scraps of text, so we will most likely never be able to refute them conclusively from hard evidence. If you would like to know more about their views, you can find out more than you ever bargained for by googling “Vedic astronomy”.

Hope that helps. But I won’t count on it. :slight_smile:

Thanks a bunch for the thoughtful explanation, Kimstu! That helps me begin to get a grasp on it. Now I see that the subject is far more maddeningly complicated than I had imagined. :smack:

I know what you mean about the Hindu fundamentalists interfering with science: they use the same attitude to screw around with archaeology, prehistory, history, linguistics, and ethnography according to their preconceived ideologically-driven agenda. Americans exasperated with Bush’s “faith-based” policy on science can sympathize.