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]

08 June 2020

Lunar Mansions Across Civilizations

This week, by popular demand, we are expanding on last week’s cryptic and passing mention of the Indian and Chinese systems of lunar mansions. It is actually quite a remarkable fact in the history of science that this division of the ecliptic based on the sidereal month (not the synodic month of 29.5 days, but the time it takes the moon to orbit once around the earth with respect to the stars, i.e. 27.3 days) was and remained always relatively foreign to the highly syncretic Western astronomical system.

The 28 “mansions”, “way stations”, or “inns” were from very ancient times an integral part of Indian, Chinese, and Arab cultures (where they were called respectively nakshatra, xiu, and manzil) with a plethora of correspondences and an interrelated history that are yet to be fully probed and clarified.

What makes them urgently interesting for so many disciplines is that in the course of time they became essential to countless aspects of their related cultures, including, in our particular field of study, the art of navigation. They were crucial in timekeeping, astrology, magic, geomancy, agriculture, even to the point that personal names derived from the nakshatras are still common in India. In Arabic, their being 28 in number (sometimes in India 27 were counted) made them match the number of the letters of the alphabet, which gave rise to an “alphastronomical” view of the heavens.

Technically, this circle of twenty-eight asterisms includes variable numbers of more or less notable stars grouped around and along the ecliptic. They frequently overlap with stars of our solar zodiac, and quite often the yogataras or “determinative” stars of a given station are well-known in our astronomical tradition, like Aldebaran or Antares. They were often used in pairs of opposite ascending and descending asterisms (Arabic anwa’), which would be memorized and recited by sailors even until recent years, thus ensuring and furthering their practical usefulness, and they corresponded to a rich mythology.


The supernatural figures associated with the 28 xiu in the Jade Box Scriptures
(see Exploring Ancient Skies, 2005).

The great antiquity of the system seems established by comparing precessional changes with the fact that the original series started with Krittika, the Pleiades—it must have developed around 2400 BC. And so, this week, as we start reading Ibn Majid on “the most auspicious” of them all, the mansion of the Pleiades (Arabic al-Thurayya, whence the familiar name Soraya), we will not only be dealing with 15th century Arab nautical astronomy, but touching directly on a very ancient and far-reaching doctrine. [JA]

31 May 2020

The Strong Place of the Weak

This week’s reading brought us to the second lunar mansion, al-Butayn, an inconspicuous group of stars towards the end of Aries. The name is a diminutive, “the little belly”, in the familiar vocalic pattern of many Arabic diminutives and terms of endearment, especially feminines like Zubayda, Sumaya, Ruqaya, and others. It is so unremarkable that Ibn Mājid explains it is hardly useful for navigation, but that it has nonetheless a referential value, and that it was made a mansion in the sky out of necessity, not for orientation—that “it is useful through its name in the count of the mansions; not because of its observation” (yuntafa‘u bi-ismihi fī al-‘adad wa-lā bi-ru’yatihi).

It is easy, and perhaps even appropriate, to dismiss al-Butayn quickly. Its barely visible stars of fifth magnitude surely do not warrant much coverage, and in fact the section devoted to them is the shortest of all the mansions. But we should still pause and make sure we do not overlook their role and their importance.

The circle of heaven is divided in roughly equal parts according to the regularity of its movement and the “mathematical” (i.e. “dialogically intelligible”) need of human observers; there can be no gaps in the count. Regardless of whether you divide the ecliptic in 12, 24 or 28, you cannot have a gap. And we need to name each part in order to understand, comprehend, and employ them; they cannot remain nameless. Al-Butayn is, accordingly and strictly speaking, just as necessary as the other mansions, in spite of its relative obscurity. It may not be bright and eye-catching, but with its name and its position it is a part of heaven—an indispensable element in the circular alphabet of the signs.

Its specific function and its power lie precisely in its subdued qualities, and in this case the sister traditions of India and China are highly instructive: the corresponding Indian nakshatra (Bharani) and Chinese xiù (Tian Yin,“the Heavenly Yin”) relate unequivocally to a restrained intimate aspect of femininity, to the womb—the fragile yet indispensable night of our origins.

As always and everywhere, ignoring the influence of al-Butayn and its gently determining influence might have imperiled our projects, bringing far reaching and catastrophic consequences. Let it be hereby acknowledged as it deserves, and our future readings be preserved! [JA]

24 May 2020

The Spherical Wisdom of the Turner

As we plough on, degree by degree, through the details of the lunar mansions, which means coming to terms with the subtleties related to the intersection of synodic and tropical moon cycles, Ibn Mājid throws us yet another unexpected glimpse into a comprehensive cosmological vision underpinning the science of navigation—as every other medieval artisanship: “Understand this wisdom, only comparable to what is effected by the one who makes the spheres turn” (dawwār al-adwār).

All the rotating precision which makes orientation possible is thus devolved to its ultimate cause, the prime mover who, like a turner or a potter (a traditional Biblical image), keeps giving shape to the universe through the motion of a cosmic lathe—or revolving in his divine mind the archetypal ideas.


Astronomicum Caesareum, 16th century

It is little wonder that the ups and downs of sublunary existence are under the sway of a wheel, Fortune’s, which at times is like a tornado, and at times an immovable mover like the Ka‘bah (one of whose epithets is, precisely, dawwār). Same idea in India with the King of the World, the chakravartin, “through whom the wheel is moving” or “he who controls by means of a wheel.”

The Arabic divine name of al-Dawwār is quite uncommon in Islamic sources, but it’s all about the tornator—tornado and turner at once—qui tornavit coelum et terram, et sphaerica solis et lunae cunctarumque corpora stellarum torno suo, “who with his lathe turns heaven and earth, and the sphaeric bodies of sun, moon and all other stars”—or more concisely and familiarly: amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle. [JA]

17 May 2020

Do You Have What it Takes?

What does it take to be an Arab pilot in the fifteenth century? According to Ibn Mājid’s second Fā’idah, a great deal. It is not enough to master the astronomical and geographical knowledge needed to plan and to make a voyage in the Indian Ocean. Before all that, a pilot should be a person of great character. Learned and accepted among the people, he “should know patience from slowness, distinguish between haste and movement… moderate the words in his speech; be just, righteous and harming no one.” Otherwise —if he fails to meet such values— he is not a pilot in principle.

Such praise for a good character is not an innovation of Ibn Mājid. In Arabic literature on navigation, it is sometimes found linked to the pilots’ responsibility for maintaining a safe voyage. Writing in the tenth century, Buzurg ibn Shahriyār tells the story of a great oceanic storm and how the pilots were even then bound by oaths to preserve the well-being of his ship: “we pilots live with its peace and die with its ruin.”


Man overboard!
British Library Ms. IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Following the second Fā’idah, the secret to meet such responsibilities is the combination of two factors: mastery of technical knowledge and possession of a great character. Holding such a combination, a pilot would be prepared to face the challenges posed by oceanic voyages. Thus —Ibn Mājid suddenly concludes—, if one is in possession of a great character, then he should begin to learn the twenty-eight Mansions of the Moon (manāzil). And so, we move to the third Fā’idah! [IB]

10 May 2020

The Magic Circle

Being didactic is a notable trait of Ibn Mājid’s style. These are not cold, detached manuals. Instead, you find throughout his works series of imperatives exhorting the “seeker”, the “questioner”: “understand and know, strive and realize your knowledge,” because “the cases and causes of the sea are many.”

Now, the first thing on the list is “the actual knowledge” of “the magic circle of the rhumbs and mansions (mandal al-akhnān wa-al-manāzil).”

When Ibn Mājid elaborates on the details of the relation between the thirty-two rhumbs and the twenty-eight lunar mansions, on how to lay them upon the circle of the compass in order to plot your course, the immediate and unexpected analogy is that of the Far Eastern luopan, the geomantic compass (or Feng Shui compass), an outright “magic circle” where a central magnetic needle is surrounded by the concentric sequences of signs in spheres of knowledge. “Ponder and ask for advice, and wake the night and be resolute.” Every time, the pilot is virtually at the centre of the universe to perform his task. [JA]