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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/The Meaning of Pictured Spheres

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 36‎ | March 1890


WHEN we take up a treatise on astronomy and come to the description of the constellations, we meet an amazing system of nomenclature. The celestial sphere is represented as covered with fictitious figures of all sorts of personages and objects, to which the stars are referred. There are heroes, like Hercules and Perseus; women, like Andromeda, Cassiopeia, and the Virgin; a giant, Orion; simple workingmen, such as a charioteer and a herdsman; a considerable number of animals, including two bears, a lion, a bull, a serpent, a crab, and a scorpion; monsters, like the dragon and the Capricorn; and various inanimate objects, from a crown and a harp to a river. No other science offers so singular a system of nomenclature, so far outside of scientific conceptions. In botany, zoölogy, and topography, objects have distinctive names. We are universally accustomed to apply to the things we speak of designations that belong to them; but a system by itself, a figurative nomenclature, is applied to the groups of stars. This is a unique exception in the sciences. It is furthermore remarkable in this exception that it has held with all peoples who have made or begun a description of the sky. While the work may have been executed in isolation and in ignorance of the way followed by other nations, and the figures employed may be distinct, original, and inspired by the character of the people, the system of figuration has been the same.

There must evidently exist a cause of a general nature which has directed the thought of man in this always identical direction. There must be some feature in the aspect of the constellations different from those of other collections of natural objects and conditions which provoke a distinct work of the intelligence. This feature and these conditions we are concerned to find. It would have been no more strange to apply a figurative nomenclature to topographical groups than to the stars. Persons who first arrive in previously uninhabited countries are obliged to give names to the landmarks of the region which they will occupy; they have to distinguish the rivers and their affluents, the mountains and rocks. A chain of mountains might, perhaps, be more justly compared to a dragon than the file of stars that bears that name. The first mountain of the range might be the head of the monster, the second the neck, and the last the tail, while the lesser chains might be called the flippers or feet. This possibility is not to be rejected, for traces of a similar application are to be found in Formosa. The Chinese have, according to Ritter, put upon some of the Ta-Shan Mountains, which compose the nucleus of that island, the forms of men and figures of gods. But this is an isolated case.

When we pass to uranography, the figurative system becomes generally applied. It is well understood that the Greeks borrowed from the Chaldeans the general idea if not the details of their astronomy; and we accept their pictured sphere. Other peoples of antiquity likewise had their figured spheres, formed on the same principle—only the stars were differently grouped by each people according to its fancy, and the symbols chosen were different. Nothing better proves the independence of these constructions than this, but nothing also is more suited to exhibit what there is remarkable in this community of systems.

The Egyptians had a pictured sphere in very ancient times. Signs of it may be seen in the tomb of Seti I, at Biban-el-Moluk, and considerable developments of it in the calendar sculptured on the ceiling of the tomb of Ramses IV, at Medinet Abou. There are on this monument, which is of the thirteenth century b.c, a series of constellations designated by imaginary figures. Among them are a river, an arrow, and a lion which differs from that of our classical sphere. There are a hippopotamus and a lute-bearer; with a great asterism extending over nearly a quarter of the circumference of the sky, called the god Nacht, or the Conqueror, carrying a set of arms and ascending a stepping-stone. Another personage, Mena, is surrounded by servants. Egypt, therefore, in its uranography most distinctly followed the system of a pictured nomenclature.

The Aryans of India did the same thing in another independent manner. We find, among other things on their sphere, which was completed in the ninth century before the Christian era, a stork, two swine, a large tree with a dog in it, an Ethiopian with a giant's features, and a woman covered with a cloak. The Chinese adopted the system of small groups, and consequently considerably multiplied the number of denominations, so that their sphere bears more than three hundred names—names of personages and objects—forming in fact a figurative system. Here are the celestial pivot, precious stones, a bushel-measure, a woman embroidering, the sovereigns of the sky, and a number of the dignitaries of the Celestial Empire. The Arabs, previous to the time of Mohammed, also had a figured nomenclature, with a camel, a jackal, a sheep, an ostrich, and a dog; among inanimate objects, a tent, a crib, a pot, a plate, a cubit, and a well-bucket. The Great Bear was a coffin, followed by the three stars in the tail as three mourners. While the groups were independent and the figures unlike, the system of figuration still prevailed.

These peoples all had complete uranographies, covering every part of the sphere that they could perceive above their horizon. Others, of a less advanced civilization, only named the more conspicuous groups of stars. They merely made a start. Yet the problem presented itself everywhere under the same aspect, for the solution was much of the same kind. Thus, the Scandinavians had a dog, a chariot, a cross, and a spindle in the sky. The Eskimos put seal-hunters there. The Makah Indians of the strait of San Juan de Fuca, living on the sea-coast, chose figures of fishes and cetaceans. The Aztecs and Mayas saw animals there, including a scorpion, which does not correspond with our constellation Scorpio. The Peruvians designated a jaguar, a cross-bearer, and a sheep suckling her lamb. The Puelches of Patagonia set ostrich-feathers in the Magellanic clouds. The Oceanian peoples applied figures to the constellations that impressed them.

These facts will lead the reader to ask if the resemblance presented by the configurations of some of the stars with familiar objects has not provoked comparisons of which the pictured sphere is a result. Thus, the constellation Gemini is composed of two lines of stars, each beginning with one of the first magnitude. There is a striking duality in this, which has seemed to suggest the same representative idea in many quarters. But the Accadians, who gave us the constellation of the Twins, did not figure it as we do, nor as the Tahitians do. Instead of arranging the brothers side by side, they opposed them foot to foot.

The small number of similitudes that we meet in the spheres of peoples distant from one another have an important significance. The Pleiades were nearly everywhere the first group that was remarked and named. The agglomeration of stars in it was of a nature to provoke the same kind of impressions. Yet different peoples attached different figures to it. The ancient Egyptians were struck by the idea of number, and, running into a prodigious exaggeration, called it by a name that signified thousands. In India they saw a hen and chickens in the group. This name spread thence to western Asia and then to Europe, and is still common. The similitudes were different in the New World. The Eskimos called the group the "bound together"; in a great part of North America the thought is of a dance—with the Iroquois, of men and women; with the Chokitapias, or Blackfeet, a sacred dance around the sacred seed. We may pertinently recollect that in classic antiquity Hyginus said that the Pleiades were so disposed as to seem to be dancing around.

The second stellar object that impressed primitive peoples is the milky way, which naturally suggests the idea of a road and a river. It is called the celestial river in China. To the ancient poets it was the stream of milk which Alemene spilled when nursing Hercules. To the philosophers it was the highway of souls, and had two gates, at the two places where it intersects the zodiac. The souls entered the world by the gate of the Twins (which corresponds with the sign Cancer), and left it to return to the gods by the gate of Sagittarius (sign of Capricorn). It is a little remarkable that some of the American nations also called the milky way the highway of souls;[1] but it does not appear so singular upon reflection. The milky way certainly resembles a road in its shape. Let us now recollect that a large number of people consign the souls of their ancestors to the sky; hence the idea might easily have occurred frequently. There has also been a fortuitous and unconscious agreement among nations to give the name of the Bear to the most brilliant constellation in the neighborhood of the north pole. The primitive Sanskrit name of this constellation, according to Prof. Max Muller, meant "chariot," and this was the original image, which survives among some of our people to the present. But as the same word, rihsha, also designates a bear, there has sometimes been confusion, and the image of a bear was placed by the Greeks on the classic sphere. A bear was also represented by the principal North American Indian nations in the quadrilateral of this constellation. Only, these nations, who were familiar with the bear, did not include in the same constellation the three stars of what we call the tail, because the bear has only a very short tail, and this inclusion would have made it monstrous; so they fancied them three hunters pursuing the bear.

Now, is there anything extraordinary in the coincidence of like similitudes in the Old and New Worlds? "We do not think there is. The bear is a polar animal. The constellation is large, and demands a large symbol. Facts prove this, for the constellation was a reindeer with the Eskimos, an elk with the Indians of Puget Sound, and an elephant with the Hindoos. The fortuitous coincidence of names in two different centers does not, therefore, seem hard to explain. It only implies that there is a resemblance with the adopted image in the aspect of the constellation. We should also consider that, within the limits of a certain compass of ideas, the number of objects to which it is possible to recur is restricted, and two peoples may be led by chance to select the same symbol for the same group of stars. This is visibly the case with the constellation Cancer, which is represented in Japan by another crustacean, the many-fingered limulus.

I shall not insist upon the coincidence which La Condamine thought he had found, respecting the constellation Taurus, among some of the Indians of the Amazon. It is now understood that the term by which these Indians designated the Hyades did not mean a bull's jaw, but a tapir's. The examples of identity or of seeming identity in the images are therefore reduced to a small number of comparisons. They are exceptional cases, in which the aspect of the asterism may have had something to do with the suggestion of similar images. Aside from this there is nothing in common: the figures set in the sky upon the constellations were peculiar to each people; they were arbitrary creations, and that proves that the outlines formed by the stars did not directly suggest either personages or animals by which the imagination was struck. Apart from a few geometrical figures—a quadrilateral, a triangle, or a cross—the configurations of the stars presented no relations with the objects selected to designate them. We are dealing, then, with a fanciful creation by each people, in which each one exhibited the peculiar tendencies of its imagination and genius.

This circumstance renders the nomenclature in question still more remarkable, since there is nothing or hardly anything in the aspect of the celestial tableau to provoke the construction of it. We return to the question with which we started: By what cause has a nomenclature so strange, unique in its kind, possessed, in a seemingly inevitable way, all the peoples who have looked into the sky? For we might predict, from the generality of the method, that if some new people, having everything to begin again, should start to construct its system of knowledge, it would again make a pictured sphere for the stars. I will not pretend to answer a question of scientific archæology that has not been sounded, not even outlined, till now. If I suggest a solution, it is simply as an essay and hint, leaving it to professional students of folk-lore to enlighten us more fully. It sometimes seems to me that we might draw some indications of a comparison between the manner in which places in hitherto uninhabited countries are named and the nomenclature of the stars.

When immigrants arrive in countries without inhabitants and unmapped, the first names given to the natural landmarks—the rivers, hills, clumps of trees, and rocks—are descriptive ones. These names often survive after the first arrivals have been dispersed and replaced by other peoples; and we know how ethnographers find, in geographical appellations, the track, the limits, and the language of the ancient inhabitants of a country. In such primary nomenclature, they say, for instance, the blue water, the green mountain, the brown rock, the cedar wood, the steep cliff, etc. It was the natural course, which has been followed everywhere. Why has the human mind taken a wholly different course for the sky? Was it not because the multiplicity of objects and their great resemblance had exhausted the series of descriptive terms? Multiplicity often confuses the judgment; for it is known that the view of the sky conveys the impression of a larger number of stars than are really seen there. We instinctively halt before the seemingly impossible task of finding distinctive epithets for so many stars and asterisms; for, after a few such qualifications as blazing, sparkling, pale, trembling, etc.—perhaps there are twenty of them in all—we find that words fail.

We suggest this explanation tentatively, without attaching particular importance to it. But we invite the serious attention of archaeologists, and psychologists as well, to the singular phenomenon in mental evolution which the case of the pictured spheres discloses. It derives interest from its unique character as a nomenclature, and from its being reproduced, without exception, in all the centers of evolution. There is evidently something in the constant return of this process that comes from the very laws of our nature.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ciel et Terre.


  1. J. F. Labitau, "Mœurs des sauvages Amériquains," 4to, 1724, vol. i, p. 406.