Arabic Star Names: A Treasure of Knowledge Shared by the World

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Many of the prominent stars known today are of Arabic origin as they bear names given to them during the golden age of Islamic astronomy. A major contribution in this field is that of al-Sufi (10th century). Presenting shortly the historical context of the old nomenclature of Arabic star names, the article contains also a list of 165 stars known by Arabic names.

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The origin of star names

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Figure 1: The constellation Centaurus
from al-Sufi's book. (Source).

Regardless of origin, almost all star names belong to old traditions. They are a part of the collective cultural heritage of humanity. Modern astronomers study many stars too faint to see without a telescope, and these are so numerous they are known only by catalogue numbers and coordinates. As a result, official star names are essentially limited to the old names, and typically only bright stars have names.

The majority of stars names are related to their constellation, e.g., the star Deneb means "tail" and labels that part of Cygnus the Swan. Others describe the star itself, such as Sirius, which translates literally as "scorching," apt enough for the brightest star in the sky. Quite a lot of prominent stars bear Arabic names, in which al corresponds to the article "the" and often appears in front, e.g., Algol, "The Ghoul." Its inclusion has become somewhat arbitrary over time. Hence, several star names of Arabic origin are given elsewhere with or without the al- prefix. Most other names of stars inherited from the past have Greek, Latin or Chinese labels.

History of Arabic Star Names

Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer who lived and worked around 100-178 CE in Alexandria, Egypt, collected ancient Greek descriptions of 1,022 stars in his famous book The Great System of Astronomy, popularised under its shortened Arabic title, the Almagest. Ptolemy's catalogue of stars arranged into 48 constellations, with estimates of their brightness, based largely on the observations of the Greek earlier astronomers, such as Hipparchus.

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Figure 2: The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi's Book of the Fixed Stars. In this version, Orion's shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress. (Source).

Ptolemy's book was translated twice into Arabic in the 9th century and became famous. Many of the Arabic-language star descriptions in the Almagest came to be used widely as names for stars. The leading expert on star names in Islamic astronomy, the German historian Paul Kunitzsch, has identified two traditions of star names in Muslim heritage. The first is the traditional star folklore of the Muslim peoples which he has named "indigenous-Arabic", the second being the scientific Islamic Arabic tradition, which he designates "scientific-Arabic".

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Figure 3: Depiction of star patterns for the Celestial Twins of the constellation Gemini in al-Sufi's catalogue of stars. (Source).

When the Arabic texts were translated into Latin beginning from the 12th century, the Arabic tradition of star names was passed down to the Latin world. However, this happened often in a highly corrupted form that either changed the meaning, or in extreme cases gave birth to words with no meaning at all. Other names were mistakenly transferred from one star to another, so that a name might even refer to a different constellation (Greek or Arabic) rather than to the one of the star's actual residence.

Nevertheless, even with these shortcomings, the majority of star names adopted since the Renaissance are Arabic in origin. In 1603, German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572-1625) instituted a system of assigning Greek letters to stars (Bayer designation), consisting of a lowercase Greek letter followed by the genitive name of the constellation. The letters are usually assigned to the stars in the order of their brightness within a given constellation. For instance, the brightest star in a constellation "Alpha" was rendered as "the second Beta," and so on. To the Greek letter name is appended the Latin possessive form of the constellation name. Thus the brightest star in Lyra, Vega (an Arabic proper name), becomes Alpha of Lyra or Alpha Lyrae (where "Lyrae" means "of Lyra").

Al-Sufi's Book of the Fixed Stars

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Figure 4: Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru'l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 25b-26a. Figure of Cassiopeia, dhât al-kursî (the seated one). The constellation, composed of 13 stars, represents the figure of a woman seated on a cushioned chair. The largest of the stars, in the cushion upon which one of Cassiopeia's elbows rests, is called al-kaff al-khadib (written al-hadîb), maning "the hand of the dyed one".

One of those who left an indelib`le influence on the Arabic observation and study of stars is the astronomer Abu al-Husayn ‘Abd Al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986), known also by his Latinized name of Azophi, who systematically revised Ptolemy's catalogue of stars. Al-Sufi produced a revised and updated version of Ptolemy's Almagest in a major book called Kitab suwar al-kawakib (The Book of Fixed Stars), completed around 964 CE. Built on the basis of the Greek astronomical heritage, the work of al- Sufi contained a listing of the Arabs' own star names, magnitudes determined by al-Sufi himself, and two drawings of each constellation, one as it is seen in the sky and one reversed right to left as it would appear on a celestial globe. The oldest surviving copy was produced by his son around 1010 CE and is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Marsh 144).

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Figure 5: Depiction of star patterns for the Celestial Twins (Jawza) of the constellation Gemini in Nasir al-Din al-Tusi's Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru'l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 51b.

According to Paul Kunitzsch, the German authority on Arabic star names, local tradition of the peoples of Islamic lands in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Middle East had their own names for various bright stars such as Aldebaran, and they commonly regarded single stars as representing animals or people. For example, the stars we know as Alpha and Beta Ophiuchi were regarded by them as a shepherd and his dog, while neighbouring stars made up the outlines of a field with sheep. Some of the Arabic names were already so many centuries old that their meanings were lost even to al-Sufi and his contemporaries, and they remain unknown today. Other star names used by al-Sufi and his compatriots were direct translations of Ptolemy's descriptions. For example, the star name Fomalhaut comes from the Arabic meaning "mouth of the southern fish", which is where Ptolemy had described it in the Almagest.

Al-Sufi did his own brightness and magnitude estimates which frequently deviated from those in Ptolemy's work. He identified the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible from Yemen, though not from Isfahan in the centre of Iran where he worked; it was not seen by Europeans until Magellan's voyage in the 16th century. He also did the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy, which he described as a "small cloud". He observed that the ecliptic plane is inclined with respect to the celestial equator and more accurately calculated the length of the tropical year. He observed and described the stars, their positions, their magnitudes and their colour, setting out his results constellation by constellation. His famous Book of Fixed Stars was translated into Latin and had a major influence in Europe since the 13th century, both by its textual descriptions and pictures.

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Figure 6: Depiction of star patterns fort he Pegasus (al-Faras al-a'zam) constellations from Nasir al-Din al-Tusi's Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru'l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 37a.

List of star names having Arabic origin

In the following, we present a list of Arabic Star Names. This list does not contain all documented star names in the Arabic nomenclature. Note also that some stars may have more than one Arabic name (such as: Gamma Gem, Eta UMa, Beta Cet, Lambda Ori, Alpha Psc, Beta Ori ), and that some star names may be composites of Arabic and Latin words (such as: Alula Australis (Xi UMa). Some of the above names are still used in the sky atlases, while others are rarely used, and others disappeared from astronomical atlases.

No. Proper Name Arabic Name Meaning Star
01 Acamar Akhir an-Nahr End of the river Theta Eri
02 Achernar Akhir an-Nahr End of the river Alpha Eri
03 Acrab Al-'Aqrab The scorpion Beta Sco
04 Acubens Az-Zubana The claw Alpha Cnc
05 Adhafera Ad-Dafirah The curl Zeta Leo
06 Adhara Al-'Adhara The maidens Epsilon CMa
07 Ain 'Ain "Eye" of the Bull Epsilon Tau
08 Albali Al-Bali' The swallower Epsilon Aqr
09 Alchibah Al-Khiba' The tent Alpha Crv
10 Aldebaran Ad-Dabaran "Follower" of the Pleiades Alpha Tau
11 Alderamin Adh-Dhira' al-Yamin ? The right forearm ? Alpha Cep
12 Alfirk Al-Firq The flock Beta Cep
13 Algedi Al-Jady The goat Alpha Cap
14 Algenib Al-Janb The flank Gamma Peg
15 Algieba Al-Jabhah "The forehead" of the lion Gamma Leo
16 Algebar Al-Jabbar The giant Beta Ori
17 Algol Al-Ghul The ghoul Beta Per
18 Algorab Al-Ghurab The raven Delta Crv
19 Alhena Al-Han'ah The brand-mark Gamma Gem
20 Alioth Al-Jawn The black horse Epsilon UMa
21 Alkaid Al-Qa'id "Leader" of the mourning maidens Eta UMa
22 Alkes Al-Ka's The cup Alpha Crt
23 Almak 'Anaq al-Ard Earth-kid Gamma And
24 Almeisan Al-Maisan The shining one Gamma Gem
25 Alnair An-Nayyir The bright one Alpha Gru
26 Alnair An-Nayyir The bright one Zeta Cen
27 Alnilam An-Nidham The string of pearls Epsilon Ori
28 Alnitak An-Nitaq The belt Zeta Ori
29 Alphard Al-Fard The solitary one Alpha Hya
30 Alphecca Al-Fakkah "The broken" ring of stars Alpha CrB
31 Alpheratz Surrat al-Faras Navel of the steed Alpha And
32 Alsafi Al-Athafi "The tripods" for cooking on Sigma Dra
33 Alsuhail Suhail Un-translated Lambda Vel
34 Altair At-Ta'ir "The flying" eagle Alpha Aql
35 Altais At-Tinnin The great serpent Delta Dra
36 Alterf At-Tarf "The glance" of the lion Lambda Leo
37 Aludra Al-'Udhrah The maidenhead Eta CMa
38 Alula Australis Al-Qafzah al-Ula The southern one of "the first leap" Xi UMa
39 Alula Borealis Al-Qafzah al-Ula The northern one of "the first leap" Nu UMa
40 Alya Al-Alyah The fatty tail of a sheep Theta Ser
41 Angetenar 'Arjat an-Nahr Curve of the river Tau2 Eri
42 Ankaa Al-'Anka' Phoenix Alpha Phe
43 Arkab Al-'Urqub The heel-tendon Beta Sgr
44 Arneb Al-Arnab The hare Alpha Lep
45 Arrakis Ar-Raqis The dancer Mu Dra
46 Atik Al-'Atiq "The shoulder" of the Pleiades Omicron Per
47 Auva Al-'Awwa' The barker Delta Vir
48 Azha Al-Udhi The hatching-place Eta Eri
49 Baham Al-Biham The livestock Theta Peg
50 Baten Kaitos Batn Qaytus Belly of Cetus Zeta Cet
51 Beid Al-Baid The eggs Omicron1 Eri
52 Benetnash Banat Na'sh Daughters of the bier Eta UMa
53 Betelgeuse Yad al-Jauza' Hand of Orion Alpha Ori
54 Botein Al-Butain The little belly Delta Ari
55 Caph Al-Kaff "The palm" of the Pleiades Beta Cas
56 Celbalrai Kalb ar-Ra'i The shepherd's dog Beta Oph
57 Chort Al-Kharat The rib Theta Leo
58 Cursa Al-Kursi The chair Beta Eri
59 Dabih Sa'd adh-dhabih The lucky star of "the slaughterer" Beta Cap
60 Deneb Dhanab ad-Dajajah Tail of the hen Alpha Cyg
61 Deneb Dhanab ad-Dulfin Tail of the Dolphin Epsilon Del
62 Deneb Algedi Dhanab al-Jady Tail of the goat Delta Cap
63 Deneb Kaitos Dhanab Qaytus Tail of Cetus Beta Cet
64 Denebola Dhanab al-Asad Tail of the lion Beta Leo
65 Diphda Ad-Difdi' The frog Beta Cet
67 Dschubba Al-Jabhah "The forehead" of the scorpion Delta Sco
68 Dubhe Ad-Dubb The bear Alpha UMa
69 Dziban Adh-Dhi'ban The two wolves Psi Dra
70 Edasich Adh-Dhikh The hyena Iota Dra
71 El Nath An-Nath The butting Beta Tau
72 Eltanin At-Tinnin The great serpent Gamma Dra
73 Enif Al-Anf The nose Epsilon Peg
74 Errai Ar-Ra'i The shepherd Gamma Cep
75 Fomalhaut Fam al-Hut Mouth of the fish Alpha PsA
76 Furud Al-Furud "Individual" stars Zeta CMa
77 Gienah Al-Janah The wing Gamma Crv
78 Gienah Al-Janah The wing Epsilon Cyg
79 Gomeisa Al-Ghumaisa' The bleary-eyed one Beta CMi
80 Hadar Hadar Un-translated Beta Cen
81 Hamal Al-Hamal The ram Alpha Ari
82 Heka Al-Haq'ah The white spot Lambda Ori
83 Homam Sa'd al-humam The lucky star of "the high-minded man" Zeta Peg
84 Izar Al-Izar The loin-cloth Epsilon Boo
85 Jabbah Al-Jabhah "The forehead" of the scorpion Nu Sco
86 Kaffaljidhma Al-Kaff al-Jadhma' The cut-short hand Gamma Cet
87 Kaus Australis Al-Qaus The southern one of "the bow" Epsilon Sgr
88 Kaus Borealis Al-Qaus The northern one of "the bow" Lambda Sgr
89 Kaus Media Al-Qaus The middle one of "the bow" Delta Sgr
90 Keid Al-Qaid The broken egg-shells Omicron2 Eri
91 Kitalpha Qit'at al-Faras Part of the horse Alpha Equ
92 Kokab Al-Kaukab The star Beta UMi
93 Kurhah Al-Qurhah "The blaze" on a horse's brow Xi Cep
94 Lesath Al-Las'ah The sting Upsilon Sco
95 Maasym Al-Mi'sam The wrist Lambda Her
96 Maaz Al-Ma'z The he-goat Epsilon Aur
97 Marfik Al-Mirfaq The elbow Lambda Oph
98 Markab Mankib al-Faras "The shoulder" of the horse Alpha Peg
99 Matar Sa'd Matar The lucky star of "the rain" Eta Peg
100 Mebsuta Al-Mabsutah "The outstretched" paw Epsilon Gem
101 Megrez Al-Maghriz "The insertion-point" of the Bear's tail Delta UMa
102 Meissa Al-Maisan The shining one Lambda Ori
103 Mekbuda Al-Maqbudah "The pulled-in" paw Zeta Gem
104 Menkalinan Mankib Dhi-al-'Inan Shoulder of the rein-holder Beta Aur
105 Menkar Al-Minkhar The nostril Alpha Cet
106 Menkib Al-Mankib "The shoulder" of the Pleiades Xi Per
107 Merak Al-Maraqq The loins Beta UMa
108 Mintaka Al-Mintaqah The belt Delta Ori
109 Mirak Al-Mi'zar The loin-cloth Beta And
110 Mirfak Al-Mirfaq "The elbow" of the Pleiades Alpha Per
111 Mizar Al-Maraqq The loins Zeta UMa
112 Mothallah Al-Muthallath The triangle Alpha Tri
113 Muphrid Al-Mufrid The solitary one Eta Boo
114 Murzim Al-Murzim The roarer Beta CMa
115 Nashira Sa'd Nashirah The lucky star of Nashirah (un-translated) Gamma Cap
116 Nekkar Al-Baqqar The cattleman Beta Boo
117 Nasl An-Nasl The arrowhead Gamma Sgr
118 Nihal An-Nihal The camels quenching their thirst Beta Lep
119 Nusakan An-Nasaqan The two series Beta CrB
120 Okda Al-'Uqdah The knot Alpha Psc
121 Phact Al-Fakhitah The dove Alpha Col
123 Phad Al-Fakhidh The thigh Gamma UMa
124 Pherkad Al-Farqad The calf Gamma UMi
125 Rasalased Ra's al-Asad Head of the lion Mu Leo
126 Rasalgethi Ra's al-Jathi Head of the kneeling one Alpha Her
127 Rasalhague Ra's al-Hawwa' Head of the snake-man Alpha Oph
128 Rastaban Ra's ath-Thu'ban Head of the snake Beta Dra
129 Rigel Ar-Rijl The foot Beta Ori
130 Rigilkent Rijl Qanturus Foot of the centaur Alpha Cen
131 Risha Ar-Risha' The rope Alpha Psc
132 Rukbah Ar-Rukbah The knee Delta Cas
133 Rukbat Ar-Rukbah The knee Alpha Sgr
134 Sabik As-Sabiq The preceding Eta Oph
135 Sadachbia Sa'd al-Akhbiyah Lucky star of the tents Gamma Aqr
136 Sadalbari Sa'd al-Bari' Lucky star of the excellent one Mu Peg
137 Sadalmelik Sa'd al-Malik Lucky star of the king Alpha Aqr
138 Sadalsuud Sa'd as-Su'ud Luck of lucks Beta Aqr
139 Sadr As-Sadr The breast Gamma Cyg
140 Saiph As-Saif The sword Kappa Ori
141 Scheat As-Saq The leg Beta Peg
142 Shaula Ash-Shaulah The raised tail of the scorpion Lambda Sco
143 Shedir As-Sadr The breast Alpha Cas
144 Sheratan Ash-Sharatan The two signs Beta Ari
145 Sirrah Surrat al-Faras Navel of the steed Alpha And
146 Skat As-Saq The leg Delta Aqr
147 Sulafat As-Sulahfah The tortoise Gamma Lyr
148 Tania Australis Ath-Thaniyah The southern one of "the second" leap Mu UMa
149 Tania Borealis Ath-Thaniyah The northern one of "the second" leap Lambda UMa
150 Talitha Australis Ath-Thalithah The southern one of "the third" leap Kappa UMa
151 Talitha Borealis Ath-Thalithah The northern one of "the third" leap Iota UMa
152 Tarf At-Tarf "The glance" of the lion Beta Cnc
153 Thuban Ath-Thu'ban The snake Alpha Dra
154 Unukalhai 'Unuq al-Hayyah Neck of the snake Alpha Ser
155 Vega Al-Waqi' "The stooping" eagle Alpha Lyr
156 Wasat Wasat as-Sama' "Middle" of the sky Delta Gem
157 Wazn Al-Wazn The weight Beta Col
158 Wezen Al-Wazn The weight Delta CMa
159 Yed Prior Al-Yad The preceding one of "the hand" Delta Oph
160 Yed Posterior Al-Yad The succeeding one of "the hand" Epsilon Oph
161 Zaniah Az-Zawiyah The angle Epsilon Vir
162 Zaurac Az-Zawraq The boat Gamma Eri
163 Zavijava Zawiyat al-'Awwa' Angle of the barker Beta Vir
164 Zubenelgenubi Az-Zuban al-Janubi The southern claw Alpha Lib
165 Zubeneshamali Az-Zuban ash-Shamali The northern claw Beta Lib

Annotated Resources:

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