Arabic Star Names أسماء تشكيلات نجوم السماء بالعربية

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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”).

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