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. [JA]

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