Saturday, May 31, 2008

Star and Constellation Names

Two fairly recent works by Dante L. Ambrosio of the University of the Philippines and Meredith Osmond of The Australian National University have compiled many astronomical terms in Austronesian and Philippine languages for stars and constellations. Osmond has reconstructed a number of these terms in upstream language groupings.

Here is a partial listing of the terminology.

Words for Stars and Constellations

(PMP = Proto-Malayo-Polynesian; POc = Proto-Oceanic; Mic = Micronesian; Pn = Polynesian; Ph= Philippine)

Venus, Morning Star, Evening Star

PMP *mantalaq -- 'the morning/evening star, Venus' (Austronesian Comparative Dictionary (ACD))

PMP *(t)ala(q) -- 'star' (Dempwolff)

Big Bird -- constellation that includes Betelgeuse, Canopus, Procyon, Rigel and Sirius

PMP *manuk -- 'bird'

POc *manuk -- 'bird, Bird constellation'


Mic: Mortlockese, Carolinian man -- 'Sirius'

Mic: Satawalese man -- 'constellation incl. Sirius'

Adm: Ninigo mānifono ‘Sirius’ (fono ‘head’)

Mic: Kiribati pwāpwā-ni-man ‘Sirius’ (pwāpwā ‘chest’)

Mic: Puluwatese yinekin-mān ‘Sirius’ (yinek ‘body, trunk’)

Pn: Tahitian taurua-faupapa ‘Sirius’

Pn: Maori takurua ‘Sirius; winter’ (Åkerblom 1968:19)

Pn: Marquesan takuua ‘Sirius; July’

Pn: Hawaiian kaulua ‘Sirius; June-July or February-March’

Ph: Palawan Binawagan magakas 'Sirius'


PMP *buluq -- 'a constellation, Pleiades' (ACD)

POc *bulu(q) -- 'a constellation, Pleiades' (Osmond, ACD *puluq)

Southern Cross

Proto-East-Oceanic *bubu -- 'Southern Cross; triggerfish'

SES: Sa’a ape ‘Southern Cross’

Fij: Bauan kalokalo-ni-ðeva ‘Southern Cross’

Pn: Anutan te kupeŋa ‘The Net: Southern Cross’

Pn: Tikopia te kau kupeŋa ‘pole-net handle’

Pn: Rennellese kau-kupeŋa ‘Southern Cross; net handle, net frame’

Pn: K’marangi tina ti raŋi ‘Southern Cross’

Pn: Tikopia te uru a taŋata ‘Southern Cross’
rakau tapu ‘Southern Cross’ (Lewis 1994:407)

Pn: Hawaiian hōkū-kea ‘Southern Cross’

Ph: Sama bunta 'Southern Cross'

Ph: Tagalog camalyng 'Southern Cross'

Ph: Spanish-Tagalog Krus na Bituin 'Southern Cross' ('cross of stars')

Ph: Bikol paglong 'Southern Cross'

Ph: Ilokano sunay 'Southern Cross'

Ph: Ivatan-Spanish trismariiya 'Southern Cross' ('three Marias')

The Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri)

SES: Sa’a ro mwane ‘Pointers (to Southern Cross)’

Pn: Samoan lua taŋata ‘Pointers: Alpha and Beta Centauri’ (Åkerblom 1968:27)

Pn: Tikopia rua taŋata ‘Southern Cross’ (Lewis 1994:407)

Pn: Tokelauan na taŋata ‘two stars used for voyages from Tokelau to Samoa’ (MacGregor 1937:89)

Pn: Anutan rua taŋata ‘constellation of two bright stars near the Southern Cross. Centaurus, also known as te kau o te kupeŋa ‘handle of fishing net’’

Ph: Sama, Jama Mapun anak-datu at sahapang 'alpha and beta Centauri'

Ph: Tagalog timbangan 'alpha and beta Centauri'


Proto-Chukese *fitū mwakut ‘Polaris’ (lit. ‘star not moving’)

Mic: Puluwatese fūhQ mwakət ‘Polaris’

Mic: Satawalese fuese magut ‘Polaris’

Mic: Carolinian fise mwç xut ‘Polaris’

Mic: Woleaian werewereri iyefaŋi ‘Polaris’

Pn: Tahitian ana-nia ‘Polaris’ (Lewis 1994:403)

Pn: Hawaiian hōkū-paa ‘Polaris or North Star’

Ph: Sanskrit-Maguindanao bituin utala 'Polaris' ('north star')

Ph: Sanskrit-Sama mamahi uttara 'Polaris' ('north star')

Ph: Jama Mapun sibilut 'Polaris'


Mic: Mortlockese meilap ‘the constellation Aquila’

Mic: Marshallese mQ clεp ‘constellation Aquila, Altair’ (lit. ‘big eye’)

Ph: Maranao dalomampao 'Aquila'

Ph: Manobo lepu 'Aquila'

Ph: Sama paliyama 'Aquila'

Ph: Palawan sagab 'Aquila'

Ph: Teduray singkad 'Aquila'

Ph: Jama Mapun tanggong 'Aquila'

Scorpio, Antares

Proto-Mic *(d,z)umuri ‘Antares’

Proto-Central-East-Pn *refua ‘a star name, Antares?’ (Biggs & Clark 1993)

Proto-North-Pn *mele-mele ‘Venus or Antares’

Ph: Sama mamahi pagi

Ph: Jama Mapun niyuniyu

Ph: Palawan njug + wasaj

Ph: Sama Dea salokah

Ph: Ibaloi tachong


PMic *tapia ‘Bowl constellation, approximately Delphinus’

Ph: Maranaw anak o karani 'Delphinus'

Ph: Manobo buu 'Delphinus'

Ph: Teduray kenogon 'Delphinus'

Ph: Kankanaey sipat 'Delphinus'

Ph: Palawan tarung 'Delphinus'

Zenith and Zenith Stars

Robert Blust reconstructed the West Malayo-Polynesian form *uRtuh ‘zenith; noon, mid-day' (ACD), which Osmond states refers specifically to the Sun.

However, there are instances when reflexes of *URtuh can refer to stars or other celestial bodies. Among the Mangyan of the Philippines, for example, udto uloy can refer to any celestial body in or near the zenith. In many central Philippine languages, ugto or udto can have general meanings like meridian, mid-heaven, culmination, crest, etc.

Previously, I have written that the Chinese and Indian calendars were based on Spica as a zenith star rather than a vernal equinox marker although there is some linkage also with the spring season. Both calendars begin when with the Full Moon is conjunct or nearest to Spica. The latter star, thus, is also used to determine the division of the zodiac in both cultures.

Now, the differences between the two systems is that the Chinese calendar is tropical while the Indian one is sidereal. The Chinese version has the original year starting when the Full Moon conjoined Spica 45 days before the vernal equinox. There is some indication of this also in the Indian system as the six seasons of the Indian calendar start with Sisira, the cool season, when the Sun enters Aquarius, which was about 60 days before the vernal equinox at one time.

While neither culture mentions anything specifically about the Full Moon in the zenith, there are some indications of this in the names of the star or related constellations, and the related iconography.

Spica is known as Kio in Chinese, which means "horn" referring here to the horn of the Spring Dragon, but also possibly indicating the highest point in the sky. The Western term "spica" refers to a "spike" of grain said to be held up by the woman in the constellation Virgo. Here are some other words for Spica in various languages:

Spar "point" Persian
Sparegha "point" Avestan
Shaghar "point" Sogdian
Akshafarn "point" Khorasmian
Al-Simak "the prop, also al-simak al-a'zal 'the unarmed prop'" Arabic

Chrysococcas called Spica 'the little lance-bearer.' Such names in the West probably ultimately derive from the imagery of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar who in some artifacts is shown holding up an ear of grain, a lance, a whip, a fleur de lys-like device or similar object.

Ishtar is known as the Queen or Lady of Heaven, and also as the "Divinity of the Zenith" (Prayer of the Heart to Istar). The goddess is closely related with the zenith, and the word for the latter in Assyrian is ziqpu meaning literally "sharp point." W.F. Albright and others also interpreted the Babylonian "Nebiru" or "Nibiru" with the zenith as it is described as the 'middle of Heaven.'

Now, in the Malayo-Polynesian culture, zenith stars had practical uses linked with navigation and thus Spica would be considered a zenith star for any location only for a certain period. The declination of Spica and other stars changes because of the movement of the Earth's axis. Although neither Osmond or Ambrosio mention Spica, it is found in regional astronomies. For example, in Tahiti it was one of the pillar stars and was known as Ana-rota. It was called Mataroa in Kiribati, Aap in Truk, Paulauru in the Carolines and Da in the Marshall Islands.

In the Austronesian region, the conjunction of the Moon with specific stars is often used in electional astrology. The conjunction of the Full Moon with specific times in the tropical year is also used to detemine the new year, most notably in connection with the well-known swarming of the Palolo sea worms.

Among the Kodi of Sumba in Indonesia, the year indeed is determined by the Zenith Moon, when the Full Moon conjoins or passes nearest to the local zenith. About seven days after this time, the Palolo worms emerge (Janet Hoskins 1993: 65, 72, 353, 358).

Now, the Moon would mainly transit the zenith in tropical areas, but the Moon has different declination limits than the Sun. Thus, the Moon can transit the zeniths at latitudes up to 28.5° N or S. The period when the Full Moon would conjoin with Spica about 45 days before the vernal equinox, as in the Chinese calendar, corresponds to the late 4th millennium BCE.

The following astronomical charts were created with Chris Marriot's SkyMap showing the Full Moon of 3102 BCE from the location of Mt. Pinatubo (click on images for full-size views).

Full Moon at sunset, Mar. 4, 3102 BCE, 44 days before Vernal Equinox (Apr. 16)

Click on image for full size.

Moon and Spica transit zenith at midnight, Mar. 4, 3102 BCE (Location: Mt. Pinatubo)

Moon and Spica in close conjuction, 9:03 am, Mar. 4, 3102 BCE, below horizon at Mt. Pinatubo

Orion's Belt at sunset, Mar. 4, 3102 BCE about 45 degrees above western horizon

Orion's Belt is an important season marker in the Malayo-Polynesian region to this day.

Words for Orion's Belt in the Philippines

atlung Maria, Spanish-Kapampangan ('three Marias')
balatic Magahat, Bilaan
balatik Bagobo, Tagalog, Maguindanao, Bikol
bayatik Mandaya
balbalays Mayawyaw Ifugao
batik Jama Mapun, Sama
belatik Manobo
binabbais Kankanaey
binawagan magsasawad Palawan
bodays Ibaloi
farrais khinaang Fontok
gaganayan Ilokano/Igorot
gendaw belatik Subanen
lubang Bikol
magbangal Bukidnon
mbangal Maranao
seretar Teduray
tatlong Maria Spanish-Tagalog ('three Marias')
trismariiya Itbayaten ('three Marias')

Paul Kekai Manansala


Ambrosio, Dante L. Sandaidigan at Kalangitan, University of the Philippines-Diliman, 2006.

Brown, Robert. "Remarks on the Zodiacal Virgo," The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal vol. IX, 1886, 441-489.

Hoskins, Janet. The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History, and Exchange, University of California Press, 1997.

Manansala, Paul Kekai. Sailing the Black Current: Secret History of Ancient Philippine Argonauts in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Beyond, Booksurge Publishing, 2007.

Osmond, Meredith. Navigation and Heavens, ANU E Press, 2007.

Postma, Antoon. "The Concept of Time among the Mangyans," Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (1985), 231-240.

Reiner, Erica, David Pingree, David Edwin Pingree. Babylonian Planetary Omens, Brill, 1998, 223, 240-1.