Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Altar

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690
Ara as depicted in the 1723 edition of Johann Bayer's Uranometria (Skywatching)

Ara represents the heavenly Altar created by the gods of Mount Olympus to celebrate the defeat of the titans where the gods swore their allegiance to the supreme god Zeus (Jupiter). The smoke from the altar was said to pour out to create the Milky Way. According to another account Ara was the altar on which the Centaur (Centaurus) offered his sacrifice of Lupus. Centaurus is traditionally depicted as carrying Lupus, the Wolf, to sacrifice on Ara, the altar. Ara was also known as the altar that Noah built after the great flood when his ark rested on Mt. Ararat.

"The beginning of the stormy season of late autumn, early winter was marked in Greece by the rise of the constellation Ara (the Altar). This altar was said to have been forged by the Kyklopes [Cyclops, maybe adjacent Telescopium] when the gods forged an alliance with Zeus against the Titanes. The eastern rising of the constellation probably represented the release of the storms from the Tartarean pit whose gates were guarded by the Hekatonkheires (the hundred-handed Storm-Gods) and Kyklopes (Gods of Lightning and Thunder)". [Theoi]

"There is also an ancient sanctuary [at Korinthos] called the altar of the Kyklopes, and they sacrifice to the Kyklopes upon it." [Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 2. 1 Greek travelogue circa 2nd A.D.) from Theoi]

The word Ara comes from the Indo-European root *as- 'To burn, glow'. Derivatives: ash¹ (from Old English æsce, asce), Ara (probably denoting originally 'a parched place', from Latin ara), arid (from Latin aridus, dry, parched, from arere, to be dry), ardent, ardor (from Latin ardeo, ardere, be on fire, burn), arson (from Latin arsus from ardere, to burn, be on fire, from aridus, parched), zamia (tropical American cycads of the genus Zamia from Greek azein, to dry), azalea (from Greek azaleos, dry). [Pokorny as- 68. Watkins] The word area is cognate with arid.

"...the cut grain-sheaves arescunt, ‘dry out’ for threshing, is an area, ‘threshing-floor.' On account of the likeness to these, clean places in the city are called areae; from which may be also the Gods' araaltar,' because it is clean—unless rather from ardor ‘fire’; for the intention of using it for an ardor makes it an ara; and from this the area itself is not far away, because it is the ardor of the sun which arefacit 'does the drying.'" [Varro: On The Latin Language, 1st century AD, p.37]

The English word altar is not related to Latin ara (and not related to the word 'alter,' meaning to change something). Latin altar, which was borrowed directly into Old English altar, was a derivative of the plural noun altaria, 'burnt offerings,' which probably came from the verb adolere, 'burn up.'

Noah built an altar to God and made an offering:

"And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odour..." [Gen 8:21]

"The ‘aroma’ is a picture of something pleasing to the Lord which runs throughout the Bible. In Gen 8:21, the Lord smelled the pleasing odour of the sacrifice and spoke a blessing upon the earth and mankind. Even in the sacrificial system, the rising smoke is spoken of as being ‘a pleasing odour to the Lord’ (Lev 1:9) that the offerer might find acceptance before Him" http://home.clara.net/arlev/break.htm.

When the waters of the flood receded, and the Ark (Latin arca) came to rest on the mountains of Ararat in Armenia. There Noah built an altar to God, the first altar mentioned in the Bible, and made an offering. The ark is also identified with the Ship Argo Navis. It has been said that Noah might have used timber from the ark to build the altar which might account for the similarity of words; (where else would he have found the wood on that treeless snowy peak?) Isidore believed arca (ark) and ara (altar) are related:

"The Greeks called the front of the torso from the neck to the stomach the thorax; this is what we call the chest (arca), because in that place is a hidden (arcanus), that is, a secret thing, from which other people are shut out (arcere). From this also a strong box (arca) and an altar (ara) derive their names, as if the words meant 'secret things'” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.236.]

The word ark (might belong to Argo Navis) comes from the Indo-European root *ark- 'To hold, contain, guard'. Derivatives: arcane (mysteriously obscure, arcane language), ark, coerce (from Latin coercere, 'to constrain.' From Latin co-, 'together,' + arcere, 'to shut up, ward off, to box in, to enclose'), coercivity, exercise (ex- + arcere, the exercise of a duty. Exercise burns up calories), autarky (self-sufficiency, from Greek arkein, to ward off suffice), arcanum (a secret known only to the members of a small select group). [Pokorny areq- 65. Watkins] The Ark of the Covenant or Ark of the Testimony is the chest containing the Ten Commandments. Major Arcana are the trumph cards.

Titles for Ara were Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, all meaning a Hearth; and Greek Estia (Hestia), or Roman Vesta, the goddess of the hearth (see History of the Constellation below. Manilius says Vesta is associated with Capricorn). [The smoke from the hearth of Roman homes flowed into what was called an atrium - see adjacent Triangulum Australe]

"As the hearth of a house is at the same time the altar on which sacrifices are offered to the domestic gods (hestiouchoi or ephestioi), Hestia was looked upon as presiding at all sacrifices, and, as the goddess of the sacred fire of the altar, she had a share in the sacrifices in all the temples of the gods. (Hom. Hymn. in Ven. 31.) ...

As the goddess of the family hearth she also presided over the cooking of bread and the preparation of the family meal. Hestia was also the goddess of the sacrificial flame and received a share of every sacrifice to the gods. ... Hestia was the goddess of hearth, home and feast. By extension she also presided over the public hearths, namely the altars of the gods, and the state hearth. [Theoi]

"The goddess whom they call Hestia. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess, because she is the guardian of the innermost things." - [Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.27 - Theoi]

"The word Vesta is of uncertain origin; possibly cognate with Greek estia or hestia, 'the hearth of the house' (whence estian, 'to receive at one's hearth')" [Klein], from Indo-European root *wes-3 'To live, dwell, pass the night, with derivatives meaning 'to be''. Derivatives: was, were, wassail (to drink to the health of; toast), astute (from Latin astutus, skill, craft - practiced in a town, - from Greek astu, town < 'place where one dwells'), divan (from Old Persian vahanam, house). [Pokorny 1. wes- 1170. Watkins]

In Cratylus by Plato, Socrates asks Hermogenes "What did he mean who gave the name Hestia?" and Socrates answers:

For example, that which we term ousia is by some called esia, and by others again osia. Now that the essence of things should be called estia, which is akin to the first of these (esia = estia, and Hestia), is rational enough. And there is reason in the Athenians calling that estia which participates in ousia. For in ancient times we too seem to have said esia for ousia, and this you may note to have been the idea of those who appointed that sacrifices should be first offered to estia (the name of Hestia), which was natural enough if they meant that estia was the essence of things. Those again who read osia seem to have inclined to the opinion of Heracleitus, that all things flow and nothing stands; with them the pushing principle (othoun) is the cause and ruling power of all things, and is therefore rightly called osia. [Cratylus, by Plato, Part 08]

Greek ousia 'being, essence' is the Ancient Greek noun formed on the feminine present participle for the Greek verb 'to be', einai, from the Indo-European root *es- 'To be'. Derivatives: prude (a characteristic of Vesta and the Vestal Virgins), prosit (a drinking toast, to wish good health or good fortune), am¹, is, yes, sooth, soothe, sin¹ (a transgression of a religious or moral law), suttee (the old practice of a Hindu widow's cremating herself on her husband's funeral pyre), entity, essence, essential, abessive, absent, adessive, essive, improve (Middle English improwen, to enclose land for cultivation, from Anglo-Norman emprouwer, to turn to profit: Old French en-, + Old French prou, profit, from Late Latin prode, advantageous), inessive, interest, present¹ (present time, pre- + esse, to be), present² (gift, pre- + esse), proud (pro- + esse, to be; pride), quintessence, represent, representation, stover (the dried stalks and leaves of a cereal crop, from Latin esse, to be). Basic form *es-: -ont, onto- (the present participle stem of einai ‘to be’.'In the beginning' meant also 'in the ontological principle' [1], ontogeny), -biont (bi(o)- + -ont, living organism; as in symbiont), Parousia (the Second Coming, Para-ousia, feminine present participle of pareinai, from para-, beside + einai, to be). Suffixed from es-ti-; swastika (from Sanskrit svasti, well-being; su- good; and -asti, 'is') [Pokorny es- 340. Watkins]

Transgendered (eunuch) priests were called essenes, 'king bees', or drones. Essential oils contain volatile aroma, or odor.

The word sin (from *es-) might relate to Sinai? The Ark of the Covenant or Ark of the Testimony is the chest containing the Ten Commandments; the ten injunctions given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, against sinning.

"In his account of the Fasti of the Roman year, Ovid twice recounted an anecdote of Priapus' foiled attempt on a sleeping nymph: once he told it of the nymph Lotis and then again, calling it a 'very playful little tale', he retold it of Vesta, the Roman equivalent of Hestia. In the anecdote, after a great feast, when the immortals were all either passed out drunk or asleep, Priapus — who had grotesquely large genitalia — spied Lotis/Vesta and was filled with lust for her. He quietly approached the nymph, but the braying of an ass awoke her just in time. She screamed at the sight [as a prude would] and Priapus immediately ran away" [2]. The story is told here - Ovid, Fasti 6.319. Lotis was a nymph of Greek mythology, the daughter of Poseidon or Nereus. Priapus tried to rape her and she was changed into a lotus tree to escape him [3].

Vesta, because she is clothed (vestire) with plants and various things, or from 'enduring by her own power' (vi sua stare). ... They call this same one both Vesta and fire, because there is no doubt that the earth possesses fire, as can be seen from Etna and Vulcanus. And they thought she was a virgin because fire is an inviolable element, and nothing can be born from it; indeed it consumes all that it seizes...Ovid in the Fasti (6.291): Understand Vesta as no other than living flame - you see no bodies born from flame. Furthermore, virgins are said to wait on her, because just as nothing is born from a virgin, so nothing is born from fire.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.187.]

Isidore says “Vesta, because she is clothed (vestire)...". Greek Hestia or Roman Vesta, presided at all sacrifices, she had a vested interest; her Vestial Virgins received a share of every sacrifice to the gods. Latin vestire is from the Indo-European root *wes-4 'To clothe' Extension of *eu-. Derivatives: wear, vest, devest, invest, revet, travesty, (these words from Latin vestis, garment). Suffixed form *wes-nu-; himation (woolen or linen cloak worn in ancient Greece, from Greek hennunai, to clothe). [Pokorny 5. wes- 1172. Watkins].

If the above associations are correct Ara would relate to these three words: Astute investments yield interest.

Indo-European root *wes-4 'To clothe' is an extension of *eu- 'To dress'. Latin exuere (exuuiae) is a cognate of vesta (uestis) and indutus is armor stripped from an enemy, but can also refer to a garment or animal skin. Derivatives: endue, indument (from induere, to put a garment on. Also a covering of fine hairs or scales), exuviae (the cast-off skins or coverings of various organisms, such as the shells of crabs or the external coverings of the larvae and nymphs of insects), reduviid (‘things cast off’, formed from exuere ‘to divest oneself of’. The assassin bug is called reduviid, of the family Reduviidae), indusium (the amnion of the fetus, from Latin indusium, a tunic, from induere to put on). [Pokorny 2. eu- 346. Watkins]

"Philolaus (fl. 470 BC) a pupil of Pythagoras, taught the earth floated in space and revolved in a circle once each day around a central fire, called 'the hearth of Zeus,' or the hearth of the universe" [4].

"[Constellation] Altar. On this altar the gods are thought to have first made offerings and formed an alliance when they were about to oppose the Titanes. The Cyclopes [see adjacent Telescopium] made it. From this observance men established the custom that when they plan to do something, they make sacrifices before beginning the undertaking. [Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 39 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D, from Theoi]

The Altar was a place where oaths were sworn: The Greek word for oath was horkos from where we get the word exorcise 'to drive out evil spirits', from Greek exorkizein, from ex- out + horkos.

On the constellation Ara, the altar, which formerly was called a well, according to Eratosthenes, Zeus swore his oath [horkos], before he attacked his father Kronos and threw him off his throne and out of the heavens, thus usurping the rule of Olympia in the first mythical dawn of gods and turn of an era of the ancient Greeks. http://www.rkdn.org/alternative/Santa.asp

Ovid expands on a theme ... that corpses littered the Athenian temples, and produces a clever and unobtrusive bilingual etymological wordplay, exoratis [exorcise] picks up the sense of imploration inherent in ara through its Greek origin. [Andreas Michalopoulos, Ancient Etymologies in Ovid's Metamorphoses]

Klein says that these words (from *ark- above) "stand in gradational relationship to Orcus, name of the god of the infernal regions in Roman mythology". Michael Paschalis in Virgil's Aeneid sees Virgil as also making this connection:

'Orcus', who exercises his power of keeping her [Dido] outside the boundary of the Underworld, because she is still living. Virgil's treatment of 'Orcus' also suggests an etymological association with arceo ('keep off'). ... and 'Orcus' have to do with bonds, boundaries, and barriers: oath (Greek orkos, horkos) 'binds'; Orcus punishes those who transgress the boundaries; 'Orcus' keeps off the living, and receives and keeps the dead within his 'enclosure'. [Virgil's Aeneid, Semantic Relations and Proper Names, p.179]

Isidore gives another likely derivation:

"Some call him Orcus, receiver of the dead, as it were - whence the vessel that receives water is called orca. He is also Charon in Greek.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, p.186.]

In Roman mythology, Orcus was a god of the underworld, punisher of broken oaths [5]. Greek orkos, horkos, meaning oath or 'to swear', is similar to the name and function of Orcus. Our word exorcise, comes from Greek orkos, horkos, meaning to drive out evil spirits, literally ‘to swear out'. From Greek exorkezein, 'to bind by an oath; to banish an evil spirit', from Greek orkizein 'to make to swear', from orkos, 'an oath', literally 'a limitation, binding, obligation', in gradational relationship to erkhos, (for Greek serkos, 'enclosure, hedge, fence', and probably cognate with Latin sarcire, 'to patch, mend'. See sartorial [Klein]. Sartorial is from the Indo-European root *serk- 'To make whole'. Derivative: sartorius (from Latin sarcire, to mend, repair. [Pokorny serk- 912. Watkins] The sartorius is a flat narrow thigh muscle, the longest of the human anatomy, crossing the front of the thigh from the hip to the inner side of the tibia. Latin for tailor; hence, sartorius which produce the posture in which tailors once worked, squatting on the floor. The legal verb *sark- (infixed sar-ni-k-) 'make restitution', which matches Latin sarcire 'repair'.

A tailor, which the Latins called sarcitector, makes clothes (Latin vestire) to wear. A sarcitector also has another meaning:

“A sarcitector is so called because out of many planks joined together on this side and that he repairs (sarcire) one structure of a building” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.382.]

The ancients saw a link between the word Aries, and the word ara, meaning altar, Isidore says:

“The ram (aries) is either named after the word Ares, that is, after 'Mars' - whence we call the males in a flock 'males' (mas, genitive maris) - or because this animal was the first to be sacrificed on altars (ara, genitive aris) by pagans. So, the 'ram' because it was placed on the altar; whence also this (Sedulius, Paschal Poem 1.115):  The ram is offered at the altar.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.247.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Ara
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
eta (η) 17SAG31 18SAG54 16h 49m 47.1s −59° 02′ 29″ -36 16 11 3.68 K5
epsilon (ε) 18SAG12 19SAG35 16h 59m 35.1s −53° 09′ 38″ -30 15 36 4.15 M1
zeta (ζ) 18SAG26 19SAG49 16h 58m 37.2s −55° 59′ 25″ -33 05 05 3.06 K5
beta (β) 22SAG49 24SAG12 17h 25m 18s −55° 31′ 48″ -32 15 29 2.80 K1
gamma (γ) 22SAG55 24SAG18 17h 25m 23.6s −56° 22′ 39″ -33 06 11 3.51 B1
alpha (α) 23SAG33 24SAG56 17h 31m 50.5s −49° 52′ 34″ -26 33 12 2.97 B3
delta (δ) 24SAG11 25SAG34 17h 31m 05.9s −60° 41′ 2″ -37 20 53 3.79 B8

from Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, 1889, Richard H. Allen

And this you note but little time aloft;

For opposite Bear-watcher doth it rise.

And whilst his course is high in air,

It quickly speeds beneath the western sea.

-- Robert Brown, Junior's, translation of the Phainomena of Aratos.

Ara, the Altar, is Altar in Germany, Altare in Italy, Autel and Encensoir in France. It is located as Aratos described it —

'neath the glowing sting of that huge sign

The Scorpion, (Scorpio) near the south, the Altar hangs;

{Page 62} and in classical times was intimately associated with Centaurus and Lupus, which it joined on the west before Norma was formed.

The Latins knew it under our title, often designated as Ara Centauri, Ara Thymiamatis, and as Thymele, the altar of Dionysus; and occasionally in the diminutive Arula. It also was Altare, Apta Altaria, Altarium; Sacrarium and Sacris; Acerra, the small altar on which perfumes were burned before the dead; Batillus, an Incense Pan; Prunarum Conceptaculum, a Brazier; Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, all meaning a Hearth; and Estia (Hestia), or Vesta, the goddess of the hearth.

Thuribulum and Turribulum, a Censer, more correctly Turibulum, were customary titles down to the 18th century.

Pharus also appears, altars often being placed upon the summits of temple towers and thus serving the ancients as lighthouses, of which the Alexandrian Pharos was the great example. [Pharus, or Pharos, the Great Lamp, or Lighthouse, of Alexandria]

The Alfonsine Tables added to some of these titles Puteus, a Pit; Sacrarius, and Templum, a Sacred Place; but represented it as a typical altar. The Leyden Manuscript made it a tripod censer with incense burning; the illustrated editions of Hyginus of 1488 and 1535, an altar from which flames ascend, with demons on either side; and an illustrated German manuscript of the 15th century showed the Pit with big demons thrusting little ones into the abyss. This recalls the story of Jove's punishment of the defeated giants after he had, as Manilius wrote,

Rais'd this Altar, and the Form appears

With Incense loaded, and adorn'd with Stars;

the occasion being the war with the Titans, when the gods needed an altar in heaven for their mutual vows. That poet also described it as

ara ferens turris, stellis imitantibus ignem,

which would show that the flame was conceived of as rising northwards through the Milky Way, or that the latter itself was the smoke and flame; and it was so thought of and represented by the ancients, and down to the times of Arabic globes and Middle Age manuscripts. But from Bayer's day to ours it has been shown in an inverted position, which for a southern constellation is appropriate.

Aratos called it Thuterion; others, Thusiasterion both signifying an Altar; Proclus and Ptolemy, Thumiaterion, a Censer; and Bayer cited Ekhara that should be Eskhara, a Brazier; Pnramne, not a lexicon word; and Aibanotris, by which he doubtless intended the Aibanotris, or Censer, where the votive {Page 63} plant was burned. Eratosthenes had Nektar, which Ideler and Schaubach, however, did not understand, and thought a corrupted reading.

Its varied classical names show disagreement as to its form, yet great familiarity with its stars, on the part of early observers, with whom it was of importance as portending changes in the winds and weather; Aratos devoting twenty-eight lines — a large proportionate space — of the Phainomena to this character of Ara.

In Arabia it was Al Mijmarah, a Censer, which, being its only title in that country, implies that it was unformed there before the introduction of Greek astronomy. Derivations from this word are found in the Alme-gramith of Riccioli and the Almugamra of Caesius.

This last author said that Ara represented one of the altars raised by Moses, or the permanent golden one in the Temple at Jerusalem; but others of the biblical school considered it the Altar of Noah erected after the Deluge. Euphratean research seems to show a stellar Altar differently located, which Brown says probably was the lost zodiacal sign subsequently represented by the Claws and afterwards by the Balance (Libra); and identifies it with the 7th Akkadian month and sign Tul-Ku, the Holy Altar, or the Illustrious Mound, perhaps a reference to the mound-altar of the Tower of Babel. When these changes were accomplished this early zodiacal Altar was removed to its present position, and its diversified altar-censer form retained from the Euphratean figuring. This recollection of the first Altar will perhaps account for the otherwise strange prominence given in classical times to our visually unimportant Ara, when Manilius called it Mundi Templum; this last word also having another stellar signification, for Varro used it to indicate a division of the sky.

Other details of this early Euphratean Altar are noted under Libra.

Ara is not wholly visible now north of the 23d degree of latitude; and its brief period above the horizon — only about four hours — explains Aratos' allusion in our motto; his horizon being about the same as that of the city of New York.

Gould catalogues in it eighty-five stars, from 2.8 to the 7th magnitude; but none seem to be named except in China.

There alpha, 2.9 magnitude, was Choo, a Club or Staff; and with beta, gamma, and iota, Low, Trailing.

With theta it marks the top of the Altar's frame, culminating, on the 24th of July, just above the horizon in the latitude of New York, — 40° 42' 43" at the City Hall.

Bayer's map carries the latter star several degrees too far to the south-west; similar errors being found in others of his constellation figures of the southern heavens.

{Page 64} beta, a 2.8-magnitude, gamma, delta, epsilon, and zeta mark the flame rising toward the south. In China delta, 3.7, with zeta, was Tseen Yin, the Dark Sky; epsilon, a 4th-magnitude, was Tso Kang, the Left Watch; and e 602 of Reeves was Tseen O, Heaven's Ridge.

La Lande stated that a constellation was supposed to exist here, containing Ara's stars, that was represented on the Egyptian sphere of Petosiris as a Cynocephalus (baboon).

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]