I’m taking a break from Serious Literature (next up: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich!) and reading Ivan Yefremov‘s 1957 Туманность Андромеды (The Andromeda Nebula), a foundational work of modern Russian science fiction. It’s frankly not very good—lots of chunks of “As you know, mankind long ago eliminated…” exposition and ludicrous love interests shoehorned in (showing the wisdom of early American sf writers in entirely avoiding the issue)—but it’s interesting enough to keep me reading (if occasionally skimming). There’s a mix of astronomy (it involves space travel and communication with alien civilizations) and paleontology (Yefremov was a paleontologist by profession), each of which provides me with plenty of opportunities to guess the English equivalents of technical terms. I just ran across a constellation with a fascinating history, which I will now share with you.
The Russian name I ran into was Гончие Псы [gónchie psy], which means ‘hunting dogs’ and did not immediately suggest a constellation to me. With Wikipedia to hand, I quickly learned that it is known to English speakers as Canes Venatici, which was probably familiar to me when I was a thirteen-year-old astronomy maven but has long since been displaced by some Russian word for part of the harness of a horse or by an irregular Georgian verb. At any rate, here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is the story of how it got its name:
In the medieval times, the identification of these stars with the dogs of Boötes arose through a mistranslation. Some of Boötes’ stars were traditionally described as representing the club (Greek, Κολλοροβος) of Boötes. When the Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated from Greek to Arabic, the translator Johannitius (following Alberuni) did not know the Greek word and rendered it as the nearest-looking Arabic word, writing العصى ذات الكلاب in ordinary unvowelled Arabic text “al-`aşā dhāt al-kullāb“, which means “the spearshaft having a hook”. When the Arabic text was translated into Latin, the translator Gerard of Cremona (probably in Spain) mistook the Arabic word كلاب for kilāb (the plural of كلب kalb), meaning “dogs”, writing hastile habens canes (“spearshaft having dogs”). In 1533, the German astronomer Peter Apian depicted Boötes as having two dogs with him.
These spurious dogs floated about the astronomical literature until Hevelius decided to specify their presence in the sky by making them a separate constellation. Hevelius chose the name Asterion (from the Greek ‘αστέριον, meaning the “little star”, the diminutive of ‘αστηρ the “star”, or adjective meaning “starry”) for the northern dog and Chara (from the Greek χαρά, meaning “joy”) for the southern dog, as Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, in his star atlas. In his star catalogue, the Czech astronomer Becvar assigned Asterion to β CVn and Chara to α CVn.
O felix culpa, that added two happy hunting dogs to the night sky!
Update. Primaler has posted a nice collection of images illustrating the story.