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]