Monday, June 02, 2008

More on Spica

Continuing from the last post on star and constellation names, in addition to the use of Spica at an ancient epoch in connection with a determining latitude, it has also been suggested earlier that the prime meridian was associated with the star.

Assyrian period image from Nineveh of Ishtar (Robert Brown 1886:459) holding up a fleur-de-lys or ear of grain, a prototype of the symbolism for the constellation Virgo and its brightest star Spica ('spike' of grain).

According to certain Indian and Muslim (al-Balkhi) schools of astronomy, the eastern city of Yamakoti marked the prime meridian.

Yamakoti, Lanka or Ujjain, Romakapura and Siddhapura were placed in order from East to West at quadrants from each other by Indian astronomers supposedly forming a circle around the earth, with Siddhapura in the Western Hemisphere. However, it is clear that these four points instead only delineate the known world, or about half the globe at the time, as the Muslim writer Al-Biruni notes:

How the Hindus came to suppose the existence of Siddhapura I do not know, for they believe, like ourselves, that behind the inhabited half-circle there is nothing but unnavigable seas.

Earlier in this blog, we noted that Romakapura ('Romaka City') was associated with the astronomy of Ptolemy and other Alexandrian astronomers and therefore Romaka is likely Alexandria rather than Rome (as suggested by some scholars). The city of Ujjain, famed for its astronomical observatory, was located at about 75.5° East longitude in India. Therefore, Romakapura and Ujjain were located about 45 degrees or three hours from each other.

Now, Siddhapura, the city of the Siddhas, or perfected ones, appears related to the Fortunate Isles of Ptolemy, used by the latter as the prime meridian. The Fortunate Isles were the blessed islands, the paradise of the heroes in Western mythology. It seems here that the Siddhas would correspond in Indian terms to the Greek Heros. Now, Ptolemy's Fortunate Isles are generally associated with the area around the Canary Islands or roughly around 15° West longitude and thus about three hours West of Alexandria.

Yamakoti, a city famed for its gold, is easily linked with Suvarnadvipa, the "Gold Island" and would be placed then for consistency three hours to the East of Ujjain. Here is a map of our suggested locations for these Indian meridians.

Click on image for full-size view

Ptolemy's map of the world was derived from that of Marinus, a geographer who lived at the port city of Tyre in Lebanon. Marinus claimed to have gleaned his information from travelers like Diogenes, an Indian who ventured to Rhapta on the African coast, and Alexander, a Macedonian who obtained information on the sea voyage from the the Golden Chersonese (Malaya Peninsula) to Cattigara, the furthest port to the East in Greek geography.

Cattigara was said to be a great emporium of the Sinae. While it is tempting to connect the Sinae with the placename "Chin" and similar latter cognates for China, Marinus and Ptolemy use the terms Thinae and Seres to describe most of what constituted China at the time. As the countries of the Sinae were said to cover the area along the sea (Gulf of Sinae) southeast of India extra Gangem, it would describe the extreme southeast of modern Southeast Asia.

The emporium was placed by Marinus as a few days sailing to the southeast of Zaba, although Ptolemy thinks it was many days from Zaba. The latter market city is normally linked with the kingdom of Champa, although some think it may have been on the east coast of the Malaya Peninsula. Historically though, Champa may have been founded later than Marinus time in the early part of the 2nd century, but the datings here are murky. The country of Linyi, the Chinese name for the latter kingdom of Champa, arises in about 192 CE, but there are indications of earlier antecedents south of the Chinese sphere of influence.

Marinus' Grid System and the Chinese

Marinus of Tyre was the first person in the West to use a grid system marking latitudes and longitudes. However, he was preceded in China where geographers had used such a system since the Qin Dynasty, with particular developments during the Han Dynasty.

Joseph Needham notes that while the grid system in the West was an interrupted development, it continued to be used by the Chinese throughout their history into modern times.

One of Marinus most important informants was a Syrian known as Maes Titianus, who was said to have conducted trade in silk with the Seres (Chinese). It appears that Marinus may have learned about the Chinese grid system from Maes Titianus or possibly from Alexander the Macedonian.

Zou Yan (250 BCE) divided the earth into nine continents through which the Sun passed on its daily rotation. A massive district known as the Red District with China located in the southeast corner appears to describe something similar to the inhabited world of Marinus and that of the ancient Indian astronomers. This district is described as 28,000 li from East to West and 26,000 li from North to South. During this period it is thought that the li represented about a third of a mile, so the dimensions would be about 9,333 miles by 8,666 miles. Zou Yan, though, somewhat like the Hindu astronomers in relation to the mythical circular continents around Meru, apparently inflates the size of the rest of the world in order to conform to traditional cosmology.

The Red District was divided into a three by three "magic square," of nine squares, with each of these nine squares again divided into into another magic square of nine squares. So that from East to West, the district was divided into nine divisions or hours.

Of course, if we accept my identification of Yamakoti and the other three Indian astronomical cities, the total distance between them is in fact nine hours consisting of 135 degrees.

Marinus, however, made the distance from the Fortunate Isles to Cattigara into 15 hours of 225 degrees, while Ptolemy suggested instead 12 hours of 180 degrees. It should be noted that the remaining "uninhabited" area of the world according to Marinus estimate was in fact nine hours of 135 degrees, so maybe there was some miscommunication along the way.

Now getting to the connection of geography with the star Spica, the Huananzi (2nd century BCE) divides the sky into nine fields. For the Daoists, the nine divisions of Heaven corresponded to the nine divisions of Earth. Zou Yan describes the Sun traveling across the nine continents in a day just as it transversed the ecliptic through the year.

The first field of Heaven is led by the asterism Kio, containing the star Spica. The first part of the world, the beginning of the East in Chinese thought, is the region of the Fusang Tree.

The Sun rises in Yanggu (Bright Valley),
Bathes in the Xian Pool,
And rests in the Fusang Tree.
This is called the Dawn Light.
Ascending the Fusang, it commences its journey...
...the Sun travels over the nine continents, and seven resting places.

-- Huananzi: "The Treatise on the Patterns of Heaven"

So, it would appear that Fusang, the beginning of the East for the Chinese, was the limit of the East, or Cattigara, of the Greeks. For certain Indian and Muslim schools of astronomy, Yamakoti also served as the starting point.

Marinus estimated the distance between the Fortunate Isles and Cattigara at 11,250 miles while Ptolemy gave the distance as 9,000 miles as both thought the degree equaled 50 miles at the equator. Again Zou Yan's estimate is about 9,333 miles depending on the exact equation of the li, while the actual distance using our identification of these locations is 8,100 miles.

Ptolemy locates Cattigara at 177° East and 8° 25' South, but his coordinates in this region are overextended in both the eastern and southern directions. Later, during medieval times and the early part of the Renaissance, European maps followed this tradition placing mainland Southeast Asia south of the equator and the coast of China near or beyond 180° East longitude.

When Magellan neared the islands of what is now known as the Philippines he was steering for Cattigara according to shipmate Pigafetta, apparently recognizing Ptolemy's errors in longitude and latitude.

In conclusion, the star Spica was placed at the beginning of the nine fields of Heaven just as the Fusang region was at the head of the nine continents, in the font of the East. The star served to mark the start of the year when the Zenith Moon passed nearest during the year, with the zenith located directly over Tanggu (Yanggu) and the Fusang Tree. This latter location has basically the same identity, at least geographically, with Yamakoti and Cattigara. Marinus of Tyre may have heard of the Chinese grid system together with its starting point from Maes Titianus or Alexander the Macedonian, and simply reversed the order of reference. The Indian astronomers may have heard of the system from Sakadvipa migrants, who had established themselves in India during the country's golden age of astronomy.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Lewis, Mark Edward. The construction of space in early China, Albany , NY : State University of New York Press, 2006.

Sachau, Edward C. Alberuni's India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India About A.D. 1030, Routledge, 2001.

William, Vincent. The Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi, AES (reprint), 1998.