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.