It’s been a while since I did an astronomy post, so I thought it would be fun to talk about star names. If you only know a few, they’re most likely big ones like Polaris and Sirius. That’s a good start, but there are hundreds of names floating around up there, and some of them are really interesting.
To start with, all stars that are part of recognized constellations have a label, the Bayer designation, that ranks them by relative brightness within their constellation or asterism. These use the Greek alphabet, so the brightest star in the constellation Andromeda is Alpha Andromedae, then Beta and so on. Most of these stars don’t have names of their own, or at least not ones that have made it into modern, internationally recognized lists. The brighter a star is, the better its chances of being on the International Astronomical Union‘s exclusive list of about 240 properly named stars.
Most of these names come from Arabic, Latin, or Greek, a testament to the cultures whose astronomical observations had the greatest impact on Western knowledge. You can often tell the origin of these names pretty easily—there are a lot of names that begin with the Arabic definite article “al,” for instance. Obviously, these stars may have had names in many cultures, but for universal identification we’ve settled on one name (in a few cases, a well-known secondary name is also listed).
Some star names are completely sensible and logical. Take Polaris, for example, named after it had already taken on its current role as the star closest to the North Pole. Orion’s bright star Rigel’s name means “foot,” and guess where it is in the constellation. Logical names don’t have to be boring, though—Orion also boasts the brilliant Betelgeuse, which translates delightfully as “armpit of Orion.”
Other names make a certain amount of sense, like Algol, which has changed from the original name Ra’s al-Ghul (“head of the demon” in Arabic, and yes, this guy too). Algol is in the constellation Perseus, the hero of Greek myth who decapitated the gorgon Medusa, so it’s reasonable for him to be toting her head around the sky, and really fun that the star name reflects this. (It’s safe to look at, thankfully.) The translation has passed into English as a colloquial name for Algol, and the Demon Star has a bloody reputation in multiple cultures.
Some names fit thematically with their constellation, but result in somewhat humorous mental images. Aquila, the Eagle, contains the following stars:
Altair, “flying one”
Tarazed, “plundering falcon”
Al Thalimain, “the two ostriches” (double star)
while Cygnus, the Swan, has Deneb (“tail of the hen”), Sadr (“breast”), Gienah (“wing”), and Ruchba (“hen’s knee”). Given the success of stuffing multiple birds into existing constellations, I’m now thinking of proposing my own, the Turducken.
A few stars are big enough deals to have names unrelated to their constellations. A good example is Sirius, which is in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog), but whose name means “scorching” rather than the more prosaic “dog collar”. Likewise, Scorpio has the star Antares (“rival of Ares/Mars”), named for its redness and brightness.
As you can tell from these few examples, there’s a rich history behind a lot of the star names we use today, and knowing it is part of the fun of identifying stars and constellations in our night sky. It’ll also help you enjoy astronomical references you might have missed in other contexts, such as pretty much the entire Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. (Sirius, Regulus, Bellatrix, Alphard, Arcturus, Pollux…getting into constellations, we have Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Orion, Cygnus, Draco, and Scorpius. I guess star names are appropriate when you spend all your time looking down on everyone else.)
For the mythology behind constellations (material for plenty of posts in itself!), you’ll want to check out a broad variety of traditions, but here’s a resource to get you started on Greek/Roman myths, and one that includes a few non-Greek constellation myths. This one has more American Indian stories, plus a (dated) listing of archeoastronomy resources. Check out Indian nakshatras (apologies for linking to an astrology site, but I couldn’t find mythology without astrology in this case). Lastly, read some Chinese constellation– and star-related myths and see the constellations superimposed over the Greek ones!