14 September 2020

Razor’s Edge Precision in Transmision

We are so used to having international standard measures, printing machinery, and recording devices, that we lose sight of how many practical complications did arise when they did not exist. If you have a navigation instrument, which makes the difference between landfall and shipwreck, or the recipe for a medicine, which becomes deadly poison in an overdose, how do you ensure a fail-safe transmission of the necessary knowledge? The answer is simple: you only rely on direct transmission, “by word of mouth,” viva voce. Learning by the eye and by the hand has no substitute in practical arts. Nonetheless, those who know are driven to write ever-imperfect, intrinsecally flawed, or simply hopeful and well-meaning instructions for later generations.

In the context of Indian Ocean navigation, as mentioned last week, we know that it was not simply about an instrument or a set of instruments, but that a sophisticated system of combined and counterchecked observations came into play with the methods transmitted from pilot to pilot—also, symbolically, “from father to son,” as we had found earlier in Ibn Mājid. Last week we found in the Fawā’id a passing detail on the accurate usage of the altitude measuring instrument, the khashbah or “piece of wood” called kamāl in some specialised literature.
“When positioning the wood to make your measure, there must be a thread’s width between the wood and the star you are measuring, and also a thread, fine as a knife’s edge, between the wood and the horizon.”
Immediately after that, Ibn Majid dedicates a few lines to explaining the “intellectual” (‘aqlī) nature of early nautical science, which comes from “the time of the prophets.” The astrolabe comes up as a token of those times, and its invention is attributed to Lāb, son of Idrīs, the archaic and enigmatic prophet, originator of the crafts and identified with Enoch and with Hermes Trismegistus. Ibn Mājid dares not criticise this prophetic knowledge, but the import of his text is clear, and partly explicit: a person needs to have arrived safely ashore many times, and to have faced disaster, before engaging in any pompous discourse about nautical matters. Caveat nauta!

07 September 2020

The Lion’s Sneeze (al-Nathrah)

The eighth lunar mansion, according to Ibn Mājid’s count, is yet another one of the parts of the ancient Arab constellation called the Lion, al-Asad. This Lion was so big that it provided material for about eight lunar mansions. It has been dissected and studied in detail by our colleagues at Two Deserts: One Sky, who call it a megaconstellation which “roared from January to May.”

The mansion we are reading about now, al-Nathrah is formed by stars so dimly visible, that they were compared to the droplets of a sneeze. They include, notably, what we call the Beehive Cluster (aka Praesepe, or M44), located at the heart of our constellation of Cancer. M44 was noted in European astronomy since Late Antiquity as nebulosa in pectore Cancri, “a misty thing on the chest of the Crab,” until Galileo resolved it and described it in his Nuncius Sidereus as as cluster of “more than forty small stars.” In China it has long had associations with ghosts and the underworld.
M44, by Dogwood Ridge Observatory
This is yet another example of how stars of lesser visibility can be used for navigation thanks to a sophisticated system of correlations and counterchecks. The nautical practice involves assiduously checking the celestial angles and the culmination points of certain stars, and it is extremely similar to the astrological use of paranatellonta (“the ones rising in combination,“ from παρανατέλλω). It required great experience and knowledge, and in turn it endowed the pilots with a remarkable degree of accuracy. This is why Ibn Mājid decries the vagueness of those pilots who said, “oh, it is just a trifle of an eighth of a finger’s difference!“ When a difference of an eighth of a (nautical) “finger” means a difference of twenty miles in your landfall, it can mean a difference between life and a shipwreck! [JA]

27 July 2020

The Forelegs of the Lion

In ancient Arabian tradition, the constellation of the lion (al-Asad) was depicted in the night sky with two forelegs, al-Dhirā‘ān. It was greater than the zodiac lion familiar to the modern observer, for one of its legs was placed on Gemini (α and β, Castor and Pollux) and the other was on Canis Minor (Procyon and Gomeisa). Taken together—Ibn Mājid tells us—these four stars form the seventh lunar mansion: al-Dhirā‘ān



Where navigation is concerned, the knowledge of a lunar mansion also entails the knowledge of possible combinations between its elements and other stars or asterisms. This is so because the alignment between certain stars could indicate not only a specific course or time, but also—and perhaps most importantly—the altitude of the polar star and, thus, the latitude.

Beginning to read Ibn Mājid’s introduction to al-Dhirā‘ān, we readers are immediately apprised of its connection with the Two Vultures (Vega and Altair). Each Leg of the lion is said to rise nearly at the same place where each Vulture rises, but they are located on opposite sides of the sky. This way, by the time Vega is rising on one end, the lion’s leg in Gemini is setting on the other. Eventually, both asterisms are seen leveled just above the horizon—a signal to every pilot (mu‘allim, “the one who knows”) indicating that the polar star is then at its minimum height. [IB]

19 July 2020

Shapes and Letters in the Sky

The sixth lunar station brought with it a mention of an early classic by the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (d.986), the Book on the Shapes of Stars (Kitāb suwar al-kawākib), a harmonization between Ptolemaic and Arab lore, adding to the Greek heritage, and describing in detail forty-eight asterisms. The word sūrah (sing. of suwar) is commonly used to refer to a constellation: a shape, an image in the sky. It is also one of the common words used to translate the Platonic forms or ideas, the suwar aflātūniyyah. There is in this shared term more than a hint at the fundamental cognitive status of those shapes in the sky: it is a visual/aesthetic equivalent of their having a name by which we know them.



In late antiquity, constellations were also called stoicheia, the Greek word which meant at once “letters” and “elements”, and thus the zodiac was, accordingly, a circle of twelve celestial letters. In the picture above we can see Taurus in an illustration of al-Sufi’s work. The shape of the Bull may not be there when we look at the night sky, but the stars are articulated in a particular way to make it visible, to realise it. In the picture below, a sample from digital font design, we can see how letters are articulated along and around “control points”, to reveal the shapes we are intimately familiar with.


Iconology of the sky, whereby asterisms are readable as letters, conveyors of logos; and iconography of the alphabet, whereby letters are contemplated as images, objects of beauty. Inseparable mysteries of mimesis and language, of representation and meaning, and at the heart of both, the essence of craft (ars) and every technique: articulation—that oh-so-simple joining of the dots. [JA]

13 July 2020

The Ancient Giant

Going through the fifth lunar station, al-Haq‘ah, we are once again reminded of the baffling historical complexity of the division of the sky, and brought back to more conceptual issues. The name of the station itself means a hair whorl, one among the eighteen types classified by Arabic lexicographers to speak of horses, and it is, apparently, of not much consequence. But then Ibn Majid himself half equates it with “The Giant” (al-Jabbār, Orion), treading in general a blurry line of identification of constellations or asterisms in this area of the sky, between our Gemini and Orion.

As Michelle Adams has explained in her fascinating blog, the customary Arabic name for Gemini, al-Jawzā’, is already witness to a very ancient history of astronomical lore, going back perhaps tens of thousands of years ago. 



Our astronomy is the shreds remaining from an awe-inspiring variety of “takes” on the night skies around the world. Our crucial epistemic need for setting stellar boundaries and naming the stars, as commented here recently, is merely our new attempt at “knowing” those haunting bright objects by which we guide our ways, and it is based on layer upon layer of half-forgotten lore.


Ibn Majid explains that this asterism was worshipped fī qadīm al-zamān, “from ancient times”, a phrase used in Arabic to introduce the no-time of children’s stories: kān yā mā kān fī qadīm al-zamān… “Once upon a time in a past beyond reckoning…”, and perhaps this is as unsurprising as it should be. For in the basic stargazing which underlies the building of astronomy we have such humbling examples, every time, on every corner of heaven, of how the origins of science hark back to a dim horizon, a twilight, the ever-gushing common spring of mythos and episteme.  

29 June 2020

Names of Knowing

Wrapping up the chapter on the Pleiades, speaking of their fame and importance, Ibn Mājid reports a remarkable couple of verses which he calls “the best I have ever heard on this matter”:
We are the Pleiades and Orion, we are Arcturus, and Spica and Betelgeuse,
While you are the contemptible stars, seen in the sky and yet unknown.
It is certainy striking that some of the brightest stars in the sky speak and boast about their status, but let us focus instead on the underlying epistemological subtlety.

What appears to make the lesser stars unknown, and perhaps even unknowable (lā tu‘lam), is their lack of name; the Pleiades and the others boast because they have proper names. In fact, even today most stars do not have proper names, and are simply called by a Greek letter and their constellation, e.g. Alpha Centauri. We can ask ourselves, what difference does it make in the way we know them?

In our times, the greatest example of a nomenclature enabling knowledge is perhaps Linnaeus’ binomial system, which in a way was a systematic and comprehensive baptismal rite, in the footsteps of Adam who named things in Paradise: it is just a human trait, and this is why some have spoken of man as homo nominator. Linnaeus himself quoted a remarkable legal maxim:
Nomina si nescis perit cognitio rerum.
If you ignore the names, the knowledge of things perishes.

The Animal Kingdom, 
from Linnaeus’ 1735 Systema Naturae.

Arabic ‘ilm (as in tu‘lam above), Greek episteme, Latin cognitio—names of knowledge; names of a knowledge that depends on names. But as craftsmen and mystics show through the ages, there is another “tacit” knowledge, the trade secrets closer to taste, saber, sapere, dhawq, and more related to the senses and movement in general: an embodied skill proper to art and ecstasy, like Greek gnosis and Arabic ma‘rifa. To a certain extent, the two can thrive without each other, but the burning longing is always there, among scientists, technicians, artists and mystics, for the realization of knowledge, when understanding is embodied and the secrets are illuminated. [JA]

22 June 2020

The Perilous Strait: al-Dayqah

Last week we came to touch on a subtle point of astrological theory: the transition between signs of contrasting qualities. The Pleiades, as readers of this blog now know, are beneficial par excellence, just as the following mansion, Aldebaran, is well known as an unlucky place. The question naturally arises: How does the transition between these antithetic stations play out?

There is an intervening area (furjah) between the two which is called al-Dayqah, “the narrows”, “the constriction”, for “whoever does anything when the moon is in this area, his actions will be constricted (dāqa).”

There are many examples in world mythology and scripture of similar precarious intermediary states, of the fragility of an interregnum, like the Symplegades for the Argonauts, and in particular the strait and risky transitions of birth and death, the intermediary human states par excellence, famously called bardo in the Tibetan tradition. In Islamic tradition there is a recurrent avoidance of what is called the furaju shaytān, the “gaps of the devil” which are the empty spaces between the ranks of people praying at mosques, which must always be filled, i.e. no perilous empty spaces must remain.



Trying to understand the negative character of this narrow band of heaven (for why should it be negative, and not simply neutral instead?), to make sense of this quality, I wonder if we might use as a ready comparison, even if painful, the predicament faced by most of the world at this very moment. As we try to navigate our liminal period between the end of a pandemic wave and an uncertain immediate future, we may ask: at what point in the cycle of joy and sorrow are we? Is this the perilous prelude of a new birth? In any case, and from a pilot’s point of view, the right attitude is the same Ibn Majid recommends: observe the heavens carefully and all the signs around you, watch over your cargo and your passengers, and sail ahead with caution… [JA]

15 June 2020

Saudosas Plêiades

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?”, God asks of Job in order to put him in his place. The Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, or the Jaguar, the Cabrillas, or many of the other names they are known by, are a constant in human culture from the earliest times. They guided Odysseus through the seas, and were mentioned by Hesiod; they were used for the orientation of sacred buildings from Teotihuacan to the Callanish Stones in the Outer Hebrides; and they were known and cherished, sometimes as the mythic heavenly original home, among New Zealand Maoris and Australian aborigines, in Micronesia, among the Colombian Kogi, the Mayan and all over the Andes.


With such a trajectory, it is little wonder they have not only been the staple of astronomical lore and all its applications, but also of literature, as a testimony to the human need to look at the stars and to relate them to human life and its joys and miseries. If any asterism is witness to the deep-seated love of the stars in humankind, it must be the Seven Sisters. Sappho evoked them from her night loneliness, and this week Ibn Majid regaled us with several examples from the Arabian lands, for there, too, the Pleiades favoured love and abundance.
“They are like a flag and like a bridle and, because of their faint glimmer, they are like the wind passing through, and like unto the trembling earrings of a young woman torn by the pain of separation… and they glitter like a cup passing round a fire from hand to hand.”
Stars of saudade—the untranslatable Portuguese term for a nostalgia that does not belong to the past, because it is out of time, right in the middle of the heart. [JA]