Name a star for your significant other, and give the romantic gift of the night sky.
Name a star after your significant other – it’s a romantic gesture… And, just in time for February 14th, Valentine’s Day! Purchase your star name by clicking here.
In many ways, the lore of star names is part of our collective cultural heritage. It accounts as well for our fascination with names for stars.
The practice of naming stars has existed since ancient times. Ancient Egyptians from as far back as 2200 BC had already designated individual stars with names. This was practical as they charted them for time-keeping and calendrical purposes.
Did you know that Thuban was the name for the ancient Egyptians’ pole star? Our pole star today is Polaris, the North Star. But during the time of the ancient Egyptians, their night sky was unlike ours, so their pole star was a different one from ours today.
Another ancient Egyptian star name we know of today is Sopdet. Sopdet was the ancient Egyptians’ name for the brightest star in the sky. Today we know this star as Sirius, the Dog Star. Sopdet was important to the ancient Egyptians because its arrival in the night sky signaled the start of a new year.
The ancient Egyptians were not the only ones to name the stars. Oracle bones from the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty (1558 – 1046 BC) have inscriptions upon them of Chinese star names.
Similarly, ancient Mesopotamians recorded names for stars in their clay tablets as early as 1700 BC. Historians have reported that star names were mentioned in the Mesopotamian Prayer to the Gods of the Night (also called Prayer for a Haruspicy at Night), wherein these named stars were invoked to bear witness and aegis on the Mesopotamian divination ceremony being performed.
By the time the ancient Greeks rose to prominence, star catalogs came into vogue in the ancient world. A star catalog is an astronomical tool that lists all the names of stars known via catalog numbers. A star catalog can have additional information like star positions and descriptions, too.
The mathematician Eudoxus (408 – 355 BC) is said to have recorded the names of stars, their positions, and their formations – particularly when he composed a treatise that documented the full set of classical constellations in 370 BC. Then later in the 3rd century BC, the astronomer Timocharis of Alexandria (320 – 260 BC), with his colleague Aristillus, created the Western world’s first star catalog. Their work inspired Greek polymath Hipparchus (190 – 120 BC) to create a more comprehensive star catalog that was, in turn, expanded by Ptolemy (100 – 170 AD) in his Almagest.
Meanwhile, in the Far East, China’s equivalent to Ptolemy was Chen Zhuo (220 – 280 AD) who collated Chinese astronomical observations from the work of three previous authorities: Shi Shen, Gan De, and Wuxian (or Wu Xian). She Shen and Gan De date from around 300 BC, while Wuxian’s dates are harder to pinpoint. Then, around 440 AD, Chinese astronomer Qian Lezhi created a type of globe or planisphere that depicted stars by Shi Shen in red, Gan De in black, and Wuxian in white.
Another advancement from China is that the Chinese were the first in the world to create paper star charts! The oldest star chart on paper is the Dunhuang chart, which dates from the mid to late 7th century AD.
The combined efforts of Shi Shen, Gan De, Wuxian, Chen Zhuo, and Qian Lezhi helped create the Chinese astronomical system that spread to Japan and Korea. The system remained in use in all three countries until the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, like Adam Schall von Bell, in the early 17th century.
As for how stars were named in Antiquity, many of the brighter stars were given names based on history, legend, and mythology. Let’s take the example of the star we know today as Altair. The ancient Chinese gave it two designations: “the second star in the Drum at the River” and “Niulang, the cowherder who fell in love with the Jade Emperor’s daughter in the Qi Xi love story.”
The stars visible to our naked eyes can have many different names – based on the ones handed down from past generations and from varied cultures across the globe. Consider the constellation Lyra’s brightest star, Vega – it is known to have over 39 names!
The “common name” of a star stems mainly from Greek or Latin. But there are some that are Arabic in origin because of the great many that were named by Arabian astronomers during Europe’s Dark Ages. One of the more prominent who named stars was Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903 – 986 AD), or known in the West as Azophi. Azophi published his famous work, Book of Fixed Stars, in 964.
While Europe was plunged in a learning setback, or Dark Ages, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire (likewise called the Byzantine Empire) flourished and gave rise to extensive learning by the Arabs. Many of the great works from the Greco-Roman worlds – even oeuvres housed at the Great Library in Alexandria – were not hidden nor lost to the Arabs. Instead, the Arabs worked on translating and expanding Greco-Roman works, often contributing several corrections.
Thus, from the 11th – 13th centuries, when Western Europe emerged from the Dark Ages and segued into the Renaissance, Arabic texts were translated back into Latin. This consequently allowed for the rediscovery of ancient texts and their respective re-absorption and transmission back into Western European culture. Shown here is a star chart by German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Dürer’s celestial hemispheres were published in 1515 and were Europe’s first printed star charts. Prior to the printing press all star charts were individually drawn and, as a result, restricted to only single copies. The printing press changed all of that.
Here are some instances of Latinized versions of Arabic star names: Aldebaran is from al-dabaran (‘the follower’). Algol is from al-ghul (‘the ghoul’). Altair is from al-ta’ir (‘the flying eagle’). And, Rigel is from al’rijl (‘the foot [of Orion]’).
As an aside, the story of Aldebaran brings to the forefront the tale of its constellation, Taurus the Bull. Historians cite Taurus the Bull as one of the oldest constellations known. Researchers contend that Taurus the Bull was already identified during the transitionary time period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age – even going so far as proposing that the constellation was represented in a cave painting from 15,000 BC.
By the Bronze Age, Taurus the Bull was already widely recognized by ancient Mesopotamians in Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon. A star catalog from ancient Babylon even named it “The Bull of Heaven.” Plus, the Epic of Gilgamesh has the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar sending Taurus to eliminate Gilgamesh. And, for the ancient Egyptians, Taurus was closely associated with the renewal of spring, particularly since Taurus’ entrance into the night sky marked the spring equinox. Indeed, both the ancient Egyptian and ancient Hebrew alphabets honored the constellation Taurus by representing it in the first letter of their respective alphabets.
Now, let’s return to our timeline on stars… In 1603 Johann Bayer devised his Uranometria star catalog, which is the earliest star-naming system in the modern Western world. He used constellations as the basis of his system, then distinguished stars within a constellation by labeling them with Greek letters in their order of apparent brightness. The brightest in a constellation was therefore named alpha, second became beta, and so forth. Hence for the constellation Leo the Lion, its brightest star Regulus was known via the Bayer system as Alpha Leonis.
The next system of naming stars was devised by British astronomer John Flamsteed. He was the founder of the Greenwich Observatory, and the first astronomer royal of England.
Interestingly enough, John Flamsteed, during his years as an undergraduate in Cambridge University, had attended some of Isaac Newton’s lectures. When Flamsteed became astronomer royal, Isaac Newton was president of the Royal Society. Flamsteed’s work at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich led to revolutionary new findings on comets, which Edmund Halley then used to identify Halley’s Comet.
Flamsteed was working on a star catalog that he was holding on to because he felt the need to double-check all the details to avoid errors. Isaac Newton grew weary at the delay, so in 1712, Newton (with the help of Halley, who edited the work) published Flamsteed’s star catalog behind Flamsteed’s back. Flamsteed was furious at the betrayal by Newton and Halley.
Flamsteed sought to buy out as many of the copies of Historia Coelestis Britannica as he could, which he then burned publicly at the Royal Observatory. Flamsteed next devoted the remainder of his life to completing another star catalog, Atlas Coelestis, which was then published in 1719. Flamsteed’s star catalog listed more stellar objects than previously done – and his system for documenting their positions was also more accurate.
From the 16th century and on through to the 20th century, advancements were made with telescope technology. That meant more stars became visible – too many in fact to be given proper names. In the past, the brightest stars were named traditionally with historical names or even after various scientists. But a more contemporary system had to be devised. In 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was established to regulate the nomenclature of objects found in outer space. Since then, it has become the official governing body that is sole arbiter of naming all stellar, planetary, satellite, and celestial bodies.
Moreover, the United Nations created the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in December 1958. The Committee began with 18 original members and has grown to today’s 83 members. The UN Office for Outer Space provides the Secretariat services for the Committee. The UN’s concerns about outer space have prompted the issuance of the UN Treaties and Principles on Outer Space. These space laws and treaties explicitly state that all celestial bodies in our solar system and in outer space are for the common heritage of all mankind. Accordingly, ownership of any outer space “real estate” is prohibited.
Still, there are some businesses out there that “sell” rights to name stars – but only for recreational purposes and entertainment value. These “named” stars (for a nominal fee to various competing commercial enterprises) are not officially recognized by the IAU (nor by any other official astronomical authority) and thereby have no formal validity. Nonetheless, some folks enjoy the “romantic” thought behind gifting someone a star with their name on it.
If you, too, want to “name” a star in your honor or that of a loved one, click here to make a purchase.
Besides, we all remember that romantic film scene when actor Shane West’s character shared with Mandy Moore that he had purchased her a star, as seen here:
Sources for photographs:
1.Featured image of couple under the night sky, from Getty Images.
2.Couple holding hands under the starry night sky, from Play Buzz at playbuzz.com
3.Couple kissing under the stars, from Getty Images.
4.Stargazing couple seated on hammock, from Tumblr
5.Ancient Egyptian star chart, from Wikipedia at wikipedia.org
6.Thuban versus Polaris as pole stars, from Clark Planetarium at clarkplanetarium.org
7.Ancient Egyptian bas-relief of astronomical sky from the New Kingdom circa 50 BC at the Louvre Museum, from Pinterest
8.Shang Dynasty oracle bones, from British Library at britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk
9.Astronomical procedure text for the moon in late Babylonian cuneiform table, from British Museum at britishmuseum.org
10.Star catalog illustration of the constellation Perseus, from Wikipedia at wikipedia.org
11.Classic statue carrying celestial globe with constellations in bas-relief, from Astronomy Magazine at astronomy.com
12.Artist’s rendition of ancient Chinese astronomy, from Central Astronomy Class – PB Works at centralastronomyclass.pbworks.com/w/file/15400747/350px-Chinese_astronomer_1675.jpg
13.The Dunhuang chart, from Wikipedia at wikipedia.org
14.Artist’s rendition of Chinese astronomers, from Astronomy Today at astronomytoday.com
15.Dunhuang star map, from the University of Maine, Farmington at umf.maine.edu
16.Illustrative celestial map showing the constellation Lyra in which the star Vega is found, from Germanic Mythology at germanicmythology.com
17.The Big Dipper in Ursa Major depicted in the Book of Fixed Stars by Arab astronomer Azophi, from Wikipedia at wikipedia.org
18.Boethius’ Commentaries on Cicero’s Topics & Other Astronomical Treatises, c.1000-25, from World Digital Library at wdl.org/en/item/14701/#q=cosmology&qla=en
19.Dürer hemisphere 1515, from Star Tales at ianridpath.com/startales/durer.htm
20.Taurus the Bull, from Wikipedia at wikipedia.org
21.Taurus the Bull in detail, from the University of Oklahoma’s Homer L. Dodge Dept of Physics and Astronomy at nhn.ou.edu
22.Taurus the Bull in Egyptian hieroglyphs leads to the first letter in the alphabet, from The Evolution of Characters at aleph2at.free.fr
23.Johann Bayer’s Leo the Lion in Uranometria, from Getty Images.
24.John Flamsteed, from the Derby Astronomical Society at derbyastronomy.org
25.Royal Observatory in Greenwich during Flamsteed’s lifetime, from The Royal Observatory Greenwich at royalobservatorygreenwich.org
26.Isaac Newton, from Open Culture at openculture.com
27.Edmund Halley from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at gsfc.nasa.gov
28.Orion and Taurus with Telescope of Herschel and Harp of George – the new constellations were in honor of William Herschel – John Flamsteed (Atlas celeste, “Troisieme edition,” [Lalande edition] Paris, 1795), from Linda Hall Library at lindahall.org
29.International Astronomical Union (IAU) promotion to name ExoWorlds, from IAU Facebook photos at facebook.com/InternationalAstronomicalUnion/photos
30.United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space created in December 1958, from the UN Office for Outer Space Facebook photos at facebook.com/UNOOSA/photos
31.Couple under the stars, from Robert Paetz and Felicia Wong at freeonlinenews.org
32.Film clip of Shane West’s character informing Mandy Moore that he had named a star after her, from YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=XVzW0l_QFBU
33.Couple under the night sky, from Getty Images.
34.Stargazing group on country fence, from Getty Images.