I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly to Be Fearful of the Night
October 10, 2016 12:06 AM   Subscribe

Chinese, Ancient Greek, and modern Western skies, swappable

Arabic Star Names with modern constellations

Indian Constellations overlaid with Western

Mayan Constellations overlaid with Western

Navajo Constellations
-- their stories

Norse Constellations

Various southern African peoples' constellations and stories.

The Great Rift in the Milky Way is more visible in the Southern Hemisphere, so some Southern Hemisphere peoples preferred to identify dark spots in the Milky Way, including the Incans and Australian Aboriginal Peoples.

Ancient Charts: Nebra Sky Disc (ca. 1600 BCE) -- Dendera Zodiac (ca. 50 BCE) -- Dunhuang Star Atlas (ca. 600-900 CE) -- Book of Fixed Stars (964 CE)
posted by Eyebrows McGee (13 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating - many thanks for the links Eyebrows McGee. I think everyone ought to have their own personal interpretations of the constellations. Among all the Chinese star-names, I found myself curious about the one labelled ‘nipple’. I think that’s Mu Serpentis, the wikipedia article for which states ‘In Chinese astronomy, Mu Serpentis is called 天乳, Pinyin: Tiānrǔ, meaning Celestial Milk’ which led me to wonder about the quality of the translations in that star-map: I hope astronomically-inclined MeFites conversant in Chinese can provide more insight, as I’m not about to try googling “Chinese star nipple” while at work.
posted by misteraitch at 2:19 AM on October 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

misteraitch, that second Chinese character can mean "nipple" or "milk". I wasn't able to confirm whether it was supposed to mean one or the other in this context, though at a quick glance none of the translations I saw seemed particularly off.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:49 AM on October 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

In Old Chinese 乳rǔ meant 'breast, nipple', and thence 'milk' and 'suckle'. Modern Mandarin is less tolerant of such ambiguity and separates out 乳房 rǔfáng 'breast' and 乳头 rǔtóu 'nipple'; 'milk' now uses a different word 奶 năi.

This page (from a medieval text) refers to the star: "The single star at its mouth is called Tian Ru (“Celestial Milk”) which governs dew." There's a reference in Joseph Needham which translates it as “celestial milk, or nurse”, though he identifies it as ω Serpentis (admittedly quite near μ). The source for the map in the OP is this book which more fully explains it as “the celestial nipple; a breast producing milk”. All of which suggests that "celestial milk" is a fairly arbitrary translation.
posted by zompist at 3:34 AM on October 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Thanks J.K. Seazer & zompist for the info. I’m impressed that there’s a Chinese asterism labelled ‘Administrative Center’: I feel like I should henceforth name sections of the night sky things like ‘marketing department’ and ‘regional distribution depot’. Also that bodily functions other than lactation are represented, with the ‘Manure Pit’ and ‘Toilet’, the latter seemingly corresponding to the body of Lepus the hare, in which, moreover (again according to Wikipedia), ‘Four stars of this constellation (α, β, γ, δ Lep) form a quadrilateral and are known as ‘Arsh al-Jawzā', "the Throne of Jawzā'" or Kursiyy al-Jawzā' al-Mu'akhkhar, "the Hindmost Chair of Jawzā'" and al-Nihāl, "the Camels Quenching Their Thirst" in Arabic.’
posted by misteraitch at 3:59 AM on October 10, 2016 [10 favorites]

The sun, moon, and stars are never in disguise.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 4:45 AM on October 10, 2016

Interesting that Orion (with the exception of his belt) isn't even a grouping in the Chinese Sky. As a constellation it is so dominating in the northern winter sky; very easy to point out to new sky watchers. However I wonder if part of that is the light pollution; Orion doesn't stick out so much if you can see more stars.
posted by Mitheral at 4:58 AM on October 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nice post, Eyebrows McGee!
posted by carter at 5:00 AM on October 10, 2016

The poem that the post title is from. Thank you very much for introducing me to it.
posted by evilmomlady at 5:06 AM on October 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

I’m impressed that there’s a Chinese asterism labelled ‘Administrative Center’: I feel like I should henceforth name sections of the night sky things like ‘marketing department’ and ‘regional distribution depot’.

"What's that one over there by Sirius Tau?"
"Well, officially it's called The Marketing Division, but most people call it Mindless Jerks Who'll Be First Against The Wall When The Revolution Comes."
posted by tobascodagama at 12:34 PM on October 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

"The poem that the post title is from. Thank you very much for introducing me to it."

One of my very favorites. Most books that collect it reproduce the first four stanzas, which is a quite sufficient little poem.

Also, someone should do an FPP just on the Nebra Sky Disc and its discovery, that shit is cray.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 PM on October 10, 2016

a Chinese asterism labelled ‘Administrative Center’

OK, I had to look this one up. It's part of Ursa Major, which the Chinese saw as a big city, so the name would kind of fit... only here I really wonder at the translation. It's 文昌 Wénchāng, which is culture/literature/words + prosperity/abundance. Over here it's translated "Literary Fulfillment", which makes much more sense. It's also the name of a city, which complicates Googling.

(Interesting how what sounds wordy and grandiose in translation is generally a short phrase in Chinese. Latinate vocabulary is multisyllabic and weighty; Old Chinese is allusive and pithy.)
posted by zompist at 9:20 PM on October 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Fascinating, thanks!

Very curious that there is such a large divergence of what was picked out as 'constellations' between ancient Chinese and Greek astronomers.

The only constellation that uses essentially the same stars is The Big Warrior and The Hunter (Orion).

Also interesting that the ancient Chinese saw geographical features in the night sky (which jives with the idea of a Celestial Bureaucracy/heaven) whereas more Westerly astronomers saw Little Bear/Ursa Minor.
posted by porpoise at 3:25 PM on October 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

The shadow constellations are so cool.
posted by lucidium at 8:05 AM on October 14, 2016

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