Ancient cultures borrow from titles to 86 suns

A star map painting by Bill Yidumduma Harney, senior elder of the Wardaman people, with the Milky way, the moon and the ancestor spirits. The International Astronomical Union has unveiled new official names for 86 stars in the sky.

(Bill Yidumduma Harney)

Tahitian myth, the South African nicknames, and the ancient Chinese and Hindu titles for the lunar mansions are among the inspiration for the new names of 86 star in the Earth night sky, astronomers said.

Modern star catalogs to identify billions of stars by the names that are strings of letters and numbers that each star position or order. However, more informal and memorable names for the brightest and best known stars are often approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the world’s largest professional astronomical society.

Traditionally, most of the formal adoption of the stars are the names of arab, Greek, or Latin origin. For example, the Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky, was named after the navigator of the fleet of King Menelaus in the Trojan War from Greek myth, while Betelgeuse, the ninth brightest star in the night sky, comes from the Arabic “yad al-jauzā,” meaning “the hand of the giant,” the giant Orion, the constellation in which Betelgeuse belongs to. [The Brightest Star in the Night Sky]

Now the IAU the working group on Star Names has approved 86 new names of the stars from other cultures around the world. These are Aboriginal, Australian, Chinese, Coptic, Hindu, Mayan, Polynesian, and South African names. (For the full list of the new star names, visit the IAU website here.)

More Of

  • Canopus, the second brightest star

  • Betelgeuse

  • The Brightest Star in the Night Sky

  • The application of the naming of the stars

“The group of Stars Names provides a way for these old cultural star names are woven into the tapestry of the modern star catalogs and atlases, and skywatchers to new and unknown stories in the heaven of their fellow beings from other parts of the world, talking to them over the centuries,” said Eric Mamajek, chairman and organizer of the working group.

“The application of the naming of the stars ranged from representing mythological figures and animals, in order to [identify] important stars useful for the timing of the harvest, to navigate in the immense Pacific Ocean, to the provision of pilots and astronauts names for clear navigation-stars during the 20th century,” said Mamajek

For example, the names Xamidimura and Pipirima, approved for the star systems Mu-1 and Mu 2 Scorpii, in the constellation Scorpio. Xamidimura refers to the “xami di mura,” or “the eyes of the lion”, a nickname for the Mu-1 Scorpii system under the Khoikhoi people of South Africa. Pipirima refers to the legendary twins of the Tahitian myth: a boy and a girl who ran away from their parents and were the stars in the sky. (Atlases usually use Greek letters, such as “mu” or “zeta” for the stars in each constellation with the letters assigned on the basis of the stars’ approximate order of brightness.) [How the Constellations Got Their Names]

The new star names are 11 Chinese star names, with three of those coming from “lunar mansions,” vertical strips of the sky that astronomers used to the nightly progress of the moon, a bit like the zodiac. The new names are also two of the ancient Hindu lunar mansions: Revati and Bharani, for the stars designated Zeta Piscium, and 41 Arietis, respectively.

Four new star names which were drawn from the Aboriginal Australians are a few of the oldest star names on the new list, as Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world, going back more than 65,000 years. The name Unurgunite for Sigma Canis Majoris comes from a parental figure among the Boorong that fought against the moon, while the names Larawag, Ginan and Wurren for the star designated Epsilon Scorpii, Epsilon Crucis and Zeta Phoenicis, respectively, come from the Wardaman people.

“For the Wardaman people of Australia, a number of the names are part of their song lines, oral mythologies of creation passed down from generation to generation,” Mamajek said.

The brightest star with a new name, is now called Alsephina, assigned to the star designated Delta Velorum. The name comes from the Arabic name “al-safinah,” the meaning of “the ship”, and refers to the ancient Greek constellation of Argo Navis, the ship of the Argonauts. Many stars have names with Greek origin that were translated into Arabic and then into Latin in the middle Ages or the Renaissance.

To the nearest star, the sun, the IAU the working group on Star Names recognized the name Barnard’s Star, which is in common use for a century. The name refers to a red dwarf star discovered by the astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard in 1916, which is only 6 light-years away from the sun, just a bit further away than the sun’s closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, located just 4.2 light-years from Earth.

One of the reasons of the IAU formally catalogs names is to avoid the confusion that has arisen over the centuries different cultures and astronomers have their own names to the stars. Until recently, some of the most famous stars in the sky, there was no official spelling, or even multiple names, and identical names were sometimes used for completely different stars. For example, there were 30 names for the stars in generally known as Fomalhaut, including Fom al hut al-jenubi, Fomahandt, Fomahant, Fomal’gaut, Fomal’khaut, Fomalhani, Fomalhut, Formalhaut, Fumahant, Fumahaut and Fumalhaut.

In another example, two bright star Epsilon Cygni, in the northern constellation of Cygnus, and Gamma Corvi in the southern constellation of Corvus — both have been known for centuries as Gienah, from the Arabic “al janah,” meaning “wing”. To reduce confusion, the name Gienah was retained as the name for the star Gamma Corvi, and Aljanah was approved for Epsilon Cygni, in accordance with the original name.

Gamma Corvi won the name Gienah because “by a narrow margin, the name used is slightly more common for Gamma Corvi the last few decades in comparison with [the] use for Epsilon Cygni in some authoritative catalogues and astronomical work,” Mamajek said. [The Nearest Stars to Earth (Infographic)]

The IAU the working group on Star Names is a group of IAU members from all over the world, which stars names of stars in catalogues, sky atlases, and other sources. The group votes on what names stars must get, “and sometimes names do not get approved,” Mamajek said. “There are a number of bright stars at this time no IAU names approved by the working group on Star Names, and I can say that already reflect some of the cases where the names were not approved, despite their use in some of the astronomical literature in recent decades.”

The IAU announced 86 of the new names on Dec. 11. More names of native American, African, and Australian cultural traditions are likely to be “will be included in the IAU catalog over the next year or so,” Mamajek said.

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