Have you ever wondered how come that Zodiac constellations have Greek origin and mythology, Latin names, and most of them contain Arabic named stars?
The answer lies in the thousands of years old history of the constellations.
Randomly grouping stars on the night sky and associating them with lores and myths is probably as old as mankind. Depictions from the early ages found in European caves date back to more than 10.000 years.
The earliest evidences of an effort to catalogue the stars come from inscribed stones, clay writing tablets and artifacts from Mesopotamia, around 3000 B.C. These texts and depictions already described the stars of the twelve Zodiac signs and were the source of the classical Greek constellations first mentioned in Homer’s and Hesiod’s works around the 7-8th century B.C. The knowledge of the Sumerians and Babylonians probably made its way to Egypt with the Cretans, where early Greek scholars first heard and wrote about the constellations.
According to an Alexandrian prose called Catasterismi attributed to Eratosthenes, by the 3rd century B.C. most of the stars and constellations – including the Zodiac signs – became associated with the Hellenistic myths, as we know them today.
From the next few hundred years several Greek works are known about constellations and myths, many of them are transcripts or commentaries of former texts. The book that is the key to our linguistic enigma is probably one of the most important and influential scientific texts of all times: Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy’s Almagest, originally titled Syntaxis Mathematica, written cca. 150 A.D.
Ptolemy’s catalogue includes 1022 stars grouped into 48 constellations, based partly on his own celestial observations, partly on historical astronomical records from 8th century Babylonia and 2nd century B.C. astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus.
The Almagest and the geocentric Ptolemaic planetary model had been the cornerstone of cosmology and astronomy for the next 14 hundred years until Copernicus, but not the original Greek version. During the fall of the Roman Empire the original manuscript and the Greek transcripts had been lost in Western Europe.
However, there were several translations made into Arabic from the 9th century, and the great Muslim astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi attempted to accommodate and augment Ptolemy’s star list with the traditional Arabic constellations and star names in his version af the Almagest titled Kitab al-Kawakib al-Thabitah – The Book of Fixed Stars.
Later in the 12th century in Western Europe these Arabic transcripts were used for translation in Latin – the established language of science in that era – and while the names of the Greek constellations were translated, most of the Arabic star names were preserved. These names usually referred to the position of a star in a certain constellation e.g.: Hamal,’ head of the Ram’, head of Aries; Rigel, ‘foot of the Giant’, the brightest star of Orion.
The name Almagest derived similarly: Ptolemy’s work was later titled ‘The Great Treatise’, and the superlative Arabic form of this – al-majisti – became the source of the popular title.
Ptolemy’s 48 constellations – including the twelve Zodiac constellations – formed the basis of the 88 constellations we use today, officially approved by the International Astronomical Union in 1928. They preserved the Latin names of the constellations, an although for scientific purposes inside a constellation the stars are referred to by the letters of the Greek alphabet in order of magnitude, the traditional names of the brightest stars are still in use. Thus, Alpha Tauri means the brightest star of Taurus, in Arabic called Aldebaran, the Follower, for following the Pleiades during the nightly motion of the celestial sphere across the sky.