10 May 2021

If You Are Patient…

Speaking of celestial rhumbs, Ibn Mājid is constantly going back to fine points of astronomical observations, how one star is “fettered” to another and how each one pertains to a rich interplay of positions. “Look at it when it is rising, then what is at the zenith and four fingers to the north at the same level. Then look at it when it is culminating, and check what is level with it and what is setting and rising at the same time…” and so on and so forth to a point of baffling complexity. It was the business of the pilots, who watched through the night and recognised the different configurations, as is encapsulated in the following advice:

If you persevere from its rising to its setting, from the beginning to the end of the night, you will see how all the configurations of its altitude measurements take shape through the sky.

Shapes seen in the sky by more than thirty different civilizations.
Design by Eleanor Lutz.

We had had occasion to comment on this “figurative” view of the stars, including its artisanal aspects and some of its more abstract associations. What is peculiar here is the emphasis on the prolonged observation to get “the full picture”, the direct relation between the tenacity of the practitioner and the access to the whole of the material, as it where.

In a few words we get a vivid and timeless picture of the Indian Ocean pilot’s discipline: watching through the night, patiently, registering the manyfold complexity that made wayfinding possible. I wonder to what extent this applies to the proficiency in other arts and techniques: the relentless attention, watching while everyone else sleeps, absorbing those guiding, principial forms—in the end, this is as good an image as it gets of what “in-formation“ used to mean; not just being exposed to data, but imbibing knowledge through the night with diligent eyes, to find a way. [JA]

19 April 2021

Black and White Waters at Sea

One of the abiding question marks as we study the Indian Ocean nautical texts is that practically all their wayfinding lore, all their sophisticated, awe-inspiring system of astronavigation depends on darkness—specifically on the absence of daylight. No wonder that one of the recurrent pieces of advice of Ibn Mājid to aspiring pilots is that “they shall sleep very little at night.” It is as if the astronomical skill of the pilots required them to live by night, because it was by night, in darkness, that they found their guidance and their certainty. One wonders at some reports in European nautical literature, about pilots who habitually slept by day to be awake at night.

Drawing clarity from darkness and coming to life in the dead of night are motives of inversion which are common to other nocturnal professions; they speak of an inversion of normality related to a special kind of knowledge. Noblesse oblige, in the case of the pilots, meant that they could no longer live like ordinary sailors.

Another remarkable inversion of values at sea is the appreciation of black waters mentioned in the Fawā’id. Black waters do not mean stormy weather or anything ominous, but are foam-less waters, while white waters are choppy waters, when it is windy and small peaks of foam take shape on the surface of the sea. Black smooth water means stability, calm winds, and above all, an even ride for the observation of the sky and for better calibrated measures.

In what is a typical experience of reversal (taqallub) as one advances through the degrees of knowledge, down the rabbit-hole, or through the looking-glass, or coming out of the cave of ordinary life, the Arab pilots (the ma‘ālimah, “those who know and teach”), seem to have led lives of subtly shifted values. The night and dark which inspire fear and misgivings to ordinary mortals, and which give shelter to crime and transgression, was their element and was for them a time of discernment and attainment. [JA]

30 March 2021

Canopus: Gentle Celestial Key

Known in Arabic as Suhayl, Canopus is the second-brightest star in the night sky, second only to Sirius, and it has a cultural importance which it would be hard to exaggerate. In Islamic civilisation in particular, it is notable because the major axis of the Kaaba is aligned with its rising point.

As we read on through the nautical rhumbs, Suhayl has a prominent place, forming part of a diametrical pair which is closest to the poles. Suhayl would be practically a South Pole indicator, while its complementary opposites (al-Na‘sh, the Plough) would be North Pole indicators. Ibn Mājid explains: “Young and old among the people of the desert and the people of the sea, everyone knows Suhayl by sight.” And he adds: “Nothing is better than Suhayl to take altitude measures among what has been set in motion by the Turner of the Spheres (Tornator Caelorum, al-Dawwār). Southern peoples use it to unlock the routes to all of India and Arabia.”

It is remarkable that the name Suhayl, a star of such mighty practical importance, should mean literally “the little easy-going one”. As a diminutive of sahl, it has a range of related meanings, all familiar names of gentleness. As we had seen with the Pleiades (Thurayyā, Soraya, Zorayda?), Suhayl has also the discreet yet pervasive distinction of being used as a personal given name; it is a common male name not only in Arabic, but in Urdu, Persian and Turkish as well.

This archaic, indeed pre-Islamic, custom of using star names for children makes you wonder about similar practices across cultures. Apart from Spanish Sol and Luna, Sun and Moon, which are used as girls’ names (in Arabic, Shams is for men while Qamar is for women), I can only recall literary characters like Lyra Belacqua (His Dark Materials) and Sirius Black and his family of Harry Potter’s characters. I wonder if our readers can tell us about other people named after celestial bodies? Not sure Arthur would count… Any Betelgeuses or Achernars you are acquainted with!? [JA]

16 March 2021

The Greeting Stars

When speaking of “stellar navigation”, “celestial navigation”, or “astronavigation”, the implicit understanding is that of a sophisticated observational system. Long nights, repetitive activities, meticulous recording and so on. But Ibn Majid tries to shows us a different aspect of the relation between the pilot and the stars when he says: “It would be fair to use the following image to speak about me,

The radiance of the stars became so fond of me
That they would ask about me whenever I went out of sight.
When arriving they would say hello to me,
And when departing they would wave goodbye.”

Can we derive any lesson from such a poetic utterance, to further our understanding of early modern technoscience? Perhaps only this, which we had already touched upon when discussing embodied knowledge: the relation between the expert “artist” (harking back to the technical sense of Latin ars) is multilayered and multifaceted, and hard to fathom. It seems clear enough, in any case, that unwavering attention to an object of knowledge, even something as inconceivably distant and alien as the stars—they who know neither joy nor pain of birth and death—brings about an epistemological shift. The cold object is no longer that cold, the relation not so distant… suddenly, one day, that distant star may wink at you.

This is not quite unrelated to the observer effect in physics, playing out in subtle overtones which were accounted for in medieval science but are fundamentally dismissed nowadays. Somewhere between the detached and practical stargazing, and the loving company of the celestial bodies, a different kind of “objectivity” arises. The cosmos is no longer altogether distinct from the observer, but a “wondrous cosmos” in which “all observers, from the farmer to the astronomer to the monk, had something to learn from watching the sky.” [JA]

09 March 2021

Signs on the Horizons

One of the best known Qur’anic verses related to navigation is 41:35, “We shall show them Our signs upon the horizons and within themselves, until it be clear to them that He is the Real” (the change of grammatical person: “Our signs"/“He is”, is a typical Qur’anic figure, as if emphasizing that the “person” is always the One and Only).

As we have seen in recent posts, and as is made obvious in the design of the wind rose, the nautical rhumbs establish a direct relation between the central subject, i.e. the pilot or the vessel itself, and the peripheral object deployed in 360 degrees of possibility, divided in a conventional number of directions, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64. Seen on the two-dimensional pattern, as seen from a stationary position, the horizon is the utmost limit, the non plus ultra. The natural state of the landlubber is this beyond-less confinement, where the signs on the horizon are informative, recreational, interesting, even fascinating.

But there are the travellers, those who move on. And there are the astronomers, the true astrologers who have intimate knowledge of the movement of the cosmos, of the law of movement, whereby mighty lights rise from the horizon, run their course, and set, inexorably.

For such pilots and knowers of the spheres, the signs are an existential reality, a living knowledge: “beyond” and “self” merged, the horizons are not a limit, but a stage of the journey—onward they sail, guided without error by the stars whose love is in their heart. For them, in their journey Home, the horizons from within themselves reverberate encircling one another, circle upon circle upon circle… [JA]

22 February 2021

Nautical Melothesia

Melothesia is not a word you encounter every day at the supermarket, and yet it names an idea that never ceased to accompany civilization until the advent of our modernity. Straight from the Greek μελοθεσία, the “assignment of parts” or the “apportioning of limbs”, it refers to the vital correspondence between the parts of the human body and the divisions of the sky; it is the immemorial macrocosm-microcosm doctrine, and one of the applications of the Emerald Tablet’s famous opening sentence: “As above, so below.” There are famous images about it across cultures, most known to us as one or other kind of “Zodiac Man” image, the homo signorum.

Melothesia was not limited to correspondence of the body with the duodecimal solar zodiac signs. There was also a nakshatra-purusha in Indian tradition, the “Lunar Stations Man”, i.e. based on the lunar zodiac division of 27/28 divisions; and other cultures had analogous correspondences based on different divisions.

Melothesia was generally associated with medicine, martial arts, music… but in early modern Arab navigation we also have a fascinating analogue and a true nautical melothesia based on the division of the horizon in 32 rhumbs. The basic practice, details of which we will be reading about during the coming weeks, is that the ship, instead of the body, is virtually divided in 32 “directions” projected from the compass card, as if the wind rose were projected around the ship’s deck. For example, if we assign the north to the bow, then the stern will correspond to the south. This way, the parts of the vessel are mapped onto the directions, and by focusing on a part of the vessel, a certain destination will be reached.

This strictly practical application of the immemorial macrocosm-microcosm doctrine illustrates the better-known astrological and alchemical doctrines making them more concretely understandable. In fact, it seems to echo the astrological adage: “character is destiny,” which then, put in navigation terms, might be: “The disposition of your rhumbs will determine your destination.” Destiny–Destination, perhaps just one among many pairs of crucial terms of ancient cosmologies which are illuminated by an unbiased study of medieval technoscience. [JA]

15 February 2021

The Ever-Unseen Scientific Certainty

We had had occasion, with one of the lunar mansions, to discuss the paradoxical importance of weaker stars and asterisms. Now, last week our reading had to do with the importance of the two poles (qutbayn) and their related stars: Polaris (al-Jāh) in the first place, but mentioning also Errai (γ Cephei) and, near the South Pole, the Magellanic Clouds. Ibn Mājid gives several ways of ascertaining the location of the poles using combinations of pointers, and then he observes,

The Pole is not with a given star, but it is a black space between east and west, which is ascertained with the astrolabe and the lodestone.

He goes on about this idea, and somewhere else in the text he says the Pole “is not clothed” or “wrapped” with any star. This fact is of course at the basis of the crucial technical concept of Polar Star calibration (bāshī), which was so important in Indian Ocean nautical sources; the need to know exactly the relation between Polaris and the Pole at any given time.

It is almost a truism to speak of the immobility of the centre of motion, like a wheel hub—it is after all the Aristotelian motor immobilis—and it is a given of any axis of movement. But this immobility does not require the invisibility of the axis, that it be somehow “imperceptible”, only within grasp of the mind’s eye, through reasoning and contemplation. This is exactly like the nature of all the celestial circles in an armillary sphere. It might be tempting to call them “figments of the imagination”, when in reality they are truths recognized by the imaginative faculty.

How many certain routes traced, and how many bright and prominent events accurately anticipated, all on the basis of these invisible polar certainties! Beyond simplistic stereotypes of “science vs intuition”, and beyond the media-fed storyline of science as the summit of exactitude, it is strikingly obvious here, as in other similar instances, that science has always been not only at ease with uncertainty and with opaqueness, but rooted in it. The scientist, like a sailor in the night, is at home with indetermination, again and again. Good to remember in these uncharted times, and quite in line with Hesse’s verse,

Wahrlich, keiner ist weise,
Der nicht das Dunkel kennt.

“Truly, no one is wise
Who does not know darkness.”
[JA]

09 February 2021

Us vs. Them: Early Modern Nautical Othering

Reading through the initial pages of chapter 4 of the Fawā’id, we came last week across a remarkable passage on Mediterranean/European vs. Indian Ocean/Arabic nautical techniques. The Westerners are in fact called here by Ibn Mājid “the people of the Egyptian abodes”:

…they have the compass, and in it they have lines, and marks for miles, and their rhumbs are only sixteen… We use thirty-two rhumbs… and they are incapable of understanding our level of attainment, whereas we do reach as far as their knowledge goes and we can sail their ships, for the Indian Ocean is connected to the Atlantic Ocean (al-Bahr al-Muhīt), and it has a knowledge recorded in writings and stellar altitude measures…

Leaving aside other technical details for a future occasion, let us focus on these final lines, where we find one striking assertion and one subtly insightful statement.

The first one is striking if we consider that Ibn Mājid is writing this probably in the 1490s, just as the Portuguese started rounding the Cape (Bartolomeu Dias, 1488), and yet he takes as a given the connection of the two oceans. This is no novelty if we remember that al-Birūnī (11th century), already spoke clearly of this connection with al-Bahr al-Muhīt. Literally the Circumambient, or All-Encompassing Sea, this was the most frequent Arabic name for the Atlantic—while still carrying echoes of the archaic notion of a Universal Surrounding body of water, what the Greeks called Okeanos. We wonder anyway, had Ibn Mājid also had news of the Dias expedition?

The second statement is this idea that there was a written body of Indian Ocean nautical science, and that it was this, combined with a certain knowledge of astronavigation, which gave Arab sailors the edge over those “Egyptians”. We have by now got used to Ibn Mājid boasting about his own writings, but here it does certainly sound as if he is referring also to a traditional, well known, nautical corpus. Of these possibly lost writings we have, alas, only the faintest traces left in medieval Arabic literature… what a sunken Atlantis of maritime treasures! [JA]