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Astronomy — Meanings of forty star names

This information comes from an article by C. H. Cleminshaw, published in 1948 in the journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

The commonly-used names of the brightest stars have been handed down from early times, being of Arabic, Greek, and Latin origin. The ancients generally designated stars by their positions in the constellation figures.  Several hundred stars have been given special names, but less that on hundred are in common use today.

  • Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri) is from the Arabic for ‘the follower’, since it is just east of the Pleiades and follows them in the daily westward turning of the sky.
  • Algol (Beta Persei) is from the Arabic meaning ‘demon’s head’, marking the head of Medusa which was cut off by Perseus.  Algol is a famous eclipsing double star, which changes in brightness in a period of about three days.
  • Alkaid (Eta Ursae Majoris) is from the Arabic meaning ‘chief of the mourners’, as the Arabs viewed this constellation as a coffin.
  • Alnilam (Epislon Orionis) is from the Arabic meaning ‘string of pearls’, being set in Orion’s belt.
  • Alphecca (Alpha Coronae Borealis) is from the Arabic meaning ‘the bright one of the dish’, since in early Arabia this constellation was thought of as a dish.  The Persians called it the ‘broken platter’ since the circle of stars is incomplete.  In Latin this star is called ‘Gemma’, meaning bud.
  • Alpheratz (Alpha Andromedae) is from the Arabic meaning ‘the Horse’, since it was formerly associated with Pegasus.
  • Altair (Alpha Aquilae) means ‘the flying eagle and is from a part of the Arabic name for Aquila, the Eagle.
  • Antares (Alpha Scorpii) is from the Greek for ‘rival’ and ‘Aries’, the Greek god of war.  Its red color reminded the ancients of the red planet, Mars.
  • Arcturus (Alpha Bootis) is from the Greek for ‘bear’ and ‘guard or keeper’.  Bootes is the Bear-keeper or Bear-driver.
  • Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) is from the Arabic meaning ‘armpit of the central one).  It is located in the right shoulder of Orion.
  • Canopus (Alpha Carinae) is derived from the name of the pilot of the fleet of Menelaus, who stopped in Egypt on his return from destroying Troy.  Canopus is the second brightest star and is used as a guide star for unmanned spacecraft.
  • Capella (Alpha Aurigae) is from the Latin and means ‘little she-goat’.  It marks the goat that Auriga is holding.
  • Caph (Beta Cassiopeiae) is from the Arabic and means ‘large hand stained with henna).  This star supposedly marked the fingertips of the hand.
  • Castor (Alpha Geminorum) in Greek mythology was the twin brother of Pollux.  Ancient Romans used to swear oaths by Gemini and Castor, hence ‘by-jiminy’.
  • Cor Caroli (Alpha Canum Venaticorum) is Latin for ‘heart of the martyred King Charles.  This star is named in honor of Charles I of England, who was executed in 1649.
  • Deneb (Alpha Cygni) is from the Arabic for ‘tail’, marking the tail of Cygnus, the Swan.
  • Deneb Kaitos (Beta Ceti) is from the Arabic for ‘tail’ and ‘whale’, marking the tail of Cetus, the sea monster.
  • Denebola (Beta Leonis) is Arabic for ‘tail of the lion’.
  • Dnoces (Iota Ursae Majoris) is the word ‘second’ spelled backwards and is named in honor of Edward H. White, the second, who is one of the three astronauts who died in a spacecraft fire in 1967.
  • El Nath (Beta Tauri) is from the Arabic for ‘the butting one’, marking the tip of the northern horn of Taurus, the Bull.
  • Fomalhaut (Alpha Piscis Austrini) is from the Arabic for ‘mouth of the fish’, situated in the mouth of the Southern Fish.
  • Kaus Australis (Epsilon Sagittarii) is from the Arabic for ‘bow’ and ‘southern’, marking the southern part of the bow of Sagittarius, the Archer.
  • Marfak (Alpha Persei) is from the Arabic and means ‘elbow’.
  • Markab (Alpha Pegasi) in Arabic means a ‘saddle, ship, or something ridden upon’.  It markes the southeastern corner of the Square of Pegasus, the winged horse.
  • Mira (Omicron Ceti) is the Latin word for ‘wonderful’, thus named because of its wonderful changes in coloration.  At its brightest if can be seen naked-eye.
  • Navi (Gamma Cassiopeiae) is ‘Ivan’ spelled backwards and honors an astronaut killed in the Apollo spacecraft fire, Ivan Grissom.
  • Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris) is from the Latin, meaning ‘north star’.
  • Pollux (Beta Geminorum) in Greek mythology was the twin brother of Castor.  These stars mark the heads of Gemini, the Twins.
  • Procyon (Alpha Canis Minoris) is from the Greek meaning ‘before the dog’.  This star rises just before the dog star, Sirius.
  • Rasalhague (Alpha Ophiuchi) is from the Arabic meaning ‘head of the serpent charmer’.
  • Regor (Gamma Velorum) is Roger spelled backwards and honors Roger Chaffee, an astronaut killed in the Apollo fire.
  • Regulus (Alpha Leonis) is a Latin word meaning ‘petty king or prince’.  It is the diminutive of ‘rex’, or ‘king’.  This star was thought to have ruled the heavens.
  • Rigel (Beta Orionis) means ‘foot’ in Arabic, marking the left foot or Orion.
  • Shaula (Lambda Scorpii) is Arabic for ‘sting’, marking the stinger of Scorpius.  ‘Mushaula’ means ‘raised’, and might refer to the raised position of the stinger.
  • Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is from the Greek, meaning ‘sparkling’ or ‘scorching’.  Sirius is known as the Dog Star, and the ancient Greeks believed this star had something to do with the hot days of summer, hence the term ‘dog days of summer’.
  • Spica (Alpha Virginis) is Latin for an ear of corn or wheat.  The star marks the spike of grain that Virgo holds.
  • Vega (Alpha Lyrae) is Arabic for ‘falling’, or ‘falling vulture’.  This bird was once associated with Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle.  It was once thought that a vulture held a lyre in its beak.
  • Zubenelgenubi (Alpha Librae) is Arabic for ‘the southern claw’, since Libra once marked the claws of Scorpius.
  • Zubenelhakrabi (Gamma Librae) is Arabic for ‘the scorpion’s claws’.
  • Zubeneschamali (Beta Librae) is Arabic for ‘northern claw’.

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