Thursday, May 3, 2012

Arabic star names in Ursa Major

Ursa Major's stars. Book plate by Sydney Hall (1842 – 1922)
The Latin name of the constellation Ursa Major means the Great Bear. However, there is a rather sad Arabic tradition according to which the constellation of the Big Dipper is actually a funeral procession in which the four stars of the dipper form the bier, kubra, and the three stars of the handle are mourners following the coffin banat na'ash al kubra. The nightly slow and solemn movement of the constellation around the pole may have contributed to this association. (ref)

Despite of the tradition of funeral procession five of the Arabic names refer to locations on the body of the Greater Bear. (The Smaller Bear is Ursa Minor with Polaris). Only the names of the two stars at the end of the bear's tail refer to the funeral procession.

Ursa Major constellation

1. Dubhe
The back of the Greater Bear ظهر الدب الاكبر‎ żahr ad-dubb al-akbar

2. Merak
The loins المراق al-maraqq

3. Phecda
The tight of the Bear e فخذ الدب "fakhð ad-dubb

4. Megrez
The base (of the tail) المغرز‎ al-maghriz

5. Alioth
Fat tail of a sheep آليات alyat

6. Mizar and Alcor
Waistband or girdle مئزر mīzar
Alcor of uncertain origin has the Arabic name سها suha "the neglected one"

Mizar and Alcor, Horse and Rider
Photo: ESO Online Digitized Sky Survey
The Arabs in the desert regarded it as a test of penetrating vision; and they were accustomed to oppose suhel to suha (Canopus to Alcor) as occupying respectively the highest and lowest posts in the celestial hierarchy.  So that

vidit alcor at non lunam plenam

(Latin for "he saw Alcor, but not the full moon")  came to be a proverbial description of one keenly alive to trifles, but dull of apprehension for broad facts.

al sahja was the rhythmical form of the usual Suha; and it appears as al khawwar, the Faint One, in an interesting list of Arabic star-names, published in Popular Astronomy for January, 1895, by Professor Robert H. West, of the Syrian Protestant College at Beirut.

The 14th century Arabian lexicographer Al Firuzabadi called it Our Riddle, and Al Sadak, the Test,—correctly Saidak, True; while the 13th century Persian astronomical writer Al Kazwini said that "people tested their eyesight by this star."

Humboldt wrote of it as being seen with difficulty, and Arago similarly alluded to it; but some now consider it brighter than formerly and no longer the difficult object that it was, even in the clear sky of the Desert; or as having increased in angular distance from Mizar.

7. Alkaid
Leader of the Daughters of the Bier قائد بنات نعش qā'id bināt naʿsh
The well-known Arabic word al qaida is from another root with basic meaning "to sit". (ref)

Detailed information about star names can be found in the excellent Constellations of words - stars.

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