Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Graving Tool, the Sculptor's Chisel

Johann Bode, Uranographia, 1801

Latin caelum means both 'the heavens' (from the same root as 'celestial'), and 'sculptor's chisel', or burin; an engraving tool for metals and stone. It is this instrument that La Caille had in mind when he named this constellation.

The word 'sky', often used to translate Latin caelum, is a cognate of Latin scutum, shield. Scutum is another constellation. Our word 'sky' comes from an Old Norse word, sky, which means 'cloud'. The word Caelum, on the other hand, is related to German heiter, which is translated 'clear, shining, cloudless'. The word celestial derives from Latin caelum; 'celestial' in English seems to refer to objects above the clouds; celestial beings are heavenly beings, meaning a god or angel, planets and stars are celestial bodies. The Roman counterpart for Greek Uranus is Caelus.

Caelum comes from the Indo-European root *kae-id- 'To strike'. Derivatives: caesura (a pause in speech), cement (rough stone chippings, 'to cut, hew, lop', whence also caelum for *caid-(s)lom, 'chisel'), cestus² (ancient Roman boxing gloves with studs), chisel, -cide, scissor (scissors), abscise, circumcise, concise, decide, decision, excise², incise, incisive, incisors, precise, recision (from Latin caedere, to cut, strike, hit, knock down, murder, smash), Caelum, ceil (to overlay, cover with a ceiling. — French ciel, 'sky, canopy'), ceiling (from Latin caelare, from caelum, chisel), celestial. [Pokorny (s)k(h)ai- 917. Watkins] Also related is cerulean (sky-blue, formed in English from Latin caeruleus dark blue, from caelum sky, heaven). Klein supplies more cognates and says "Compare also cheetah, chintz, chit, chitty, 'a short letter'".

"Lofty (celsus) is named after sky, because one is elevated and high, as if the term were 'celestial' (caelestis).” [p.215.] "The sky and its name (De caelo et eius nomine). The philosophers have said that the sky (caelum, 'sky, heaven, the heavens') is rounded, spinning, and burning; and the sky is called by its name because it has the figures of the constellations impressed into it, just like an engraved (caelare) vessel. God distinguished the sky with bright lights, and he filled it with the sun and the gleaming orb of the moon, and he adorned it with brilliant constellations composed of glittering stars. In Greek the sky is called ouranos, from orasthai, that is, from 'seeing,' from the fact that the air is clear and very pure for seeing through” [p.100]. "The sky (De caelo): The sky (caelum) is so named because, like an engraved (caelatum) vessel, it has the lights of the stars pressed into it, just like engraved figures; for a vessel which glitters with figures that stand out is called caelatus. ... Sometimes the word 'sky' is used for the air, where winds and clouds and storms and whirlwinds arise. Lucretius (cf. On the Nature of Things 4.133): The sky (caelum), which is called air (aer). And the Psalm (78:2; 103:12, Vulgate) refers to 'fowls of the sky (caelum), 'when it is clear that birds fly in the air; out of habit we also call this air, 'sky.' Thus when we ask whether it is fair or overcast we sometimes say, 'How is the air?' and sometimes 'How is the sky?' ” [p.272.]. "The chisel (cilium, i.e. caelum or cilio) is the tool with which silversmiths work, and from this engraved (caelare) vessels are named.” [p.376.] “Chased (caelatus) dishes are silver or gold, modeled inside and out with figures that stand out, so called from an engraver's burin (caelum), which is a kind of iron tool, which commonly is called a chisel (cilio).” [p.399.] [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD]

Quintilianus believed that the words celibate and caelum are related:

"Because Saturn cut off the genitalia of Caelus (Uranus), men who have no wives are, therefore, called caelibes (celibate). ... caelibes, 'bachelors' was the same as caelites, 'inhabitants of heaven'" [Quintilianus, ca. 35-ca. 100, p.55].

Isidore also sees celibate as related to caelum:

"A 'celestial one' (caeles) is so called because such a one directs his course to the sky (caelum). Celibate (caelebs), one having no part in marriage, of which kind are the numinous beings in heaven (caelum), who have no spouses - and caelebs is so called as if the term were 'blessed in heaven' (caelo beatus). Heavenly-dweller (caelicola), because they 'dwell in heaven' (caelum colere) - for that is an angel.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.215.]

Celestial Empire is the old name for China, or to the former Chinese Empire.

Praxiteles, was another name for Caelum after the greatest sculptor of the ancient Greek world. There is another constellation named Sculptor in the skies which is likely to refer to Pygmalion who carved his statue of Galathea out of ivory. Praxiteles and his school chiselled his statues almost entirely in marble.

His name derives from Greek Praxis 'the act of doing'. Derivatives: practical, from Greek prassein, prattein, 'to do, effect, accomplish, practice', practice, pragmatic, pratique, praxis, apraxia, chiropractic. Klein adds the word barato, to this root, a Spanish word "from the adjective barato, 'cheap', from baratar, 'to barter, traffic', which probably derives from Greek prattein, 'to do, perform'." The English word barter derives from Old French barater, looks like it would be a cognate of Spanish barato.

From this root derives Praxithea, the wife of Erechtheus, king of Athens. Lycurgus writes that she favoured sacrificing one of her daughters to gain a victory against Eumolpus, as Erechtheus had been advised to do by the Delphic oracle. She argued that if her daughter were a son, she would have sent him forth to war [1]. This is an extreme example of practicality.

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Caelum
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
delta (δ) 18TAU36 19TAU59 4h 30m 50.1s -44° 57' 14" -65 19 52 5.16 B3
alpha (α) 24TAU46 26TAU09 4h 40m 33.7s -41° 51' 50" -62 59 37 4.52 F1
beta (β) 28TAU00 29TAU23 4h 42m 3.5s -37° 8' 40" -58 32 18 5.08 F0
gamma (γ) 07GEM01 08GEM24 5h 4m 24.4s -35° 29' 0" -57 53 27 4.62 K5

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

Caelum or Scalptorium, the Burin or Graving Tool, sometimes incorrectly written Cela sculptoria, is the French Burin, the Italian Bulino, and the German Grabstichel.

It was formed by La Caille from stars between Columba and Eridanus, directly south of the Sceptrum Brandenburgicum; Gould now assigns to it twenty-eight components, of magnitudes from four to seven.

Burritt, in the early editions of his book, arbitrarily changed the name to Praxiteles, perhaps thinking thereby to avoid possible confusion with the constellation Sculptor.

Caelum comes to the meridian with the star Aldebaran on the 10th of January, and is entirely visible from the 40th parallel.

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