Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Whale, or Sea Monster

Urania's Mirror 1825

Cetus, the whale, or Sea Monster, has been identified, at least since Aratos' day (3rd century B.C.), with the fabled creature sent by Neptune (Poseidon) to devour Andromeda, but turned to stone at the sight of the Medusa's head (Algol) in the hand of Perseus. Cetus is positioned on the banks of the River Eridanus, the other side of his body is bordered by the constellation Pisces.

Manilius in Astronomica tells of the drama of the sea-monster, Cetus, coming to devour Andromeda:

"Now had a heavy surge begun to rise and long lines of breakers were fleeing before the thrust of the massive monster. As it cleaves the waves, its head emerges and disgorges sea, the waters breaking loudly about its teeth and the swirling sea afloat in its very jaws; behind rise its huge coils like rings of an enormous neckchain [the star Mira has been called the constellation's necklace], and its back covers the whole sea. Ocean clamors in every quarter, and the very mountains and crags quake at the creature's onset.

"What terror then, unhappy maiden [Andromeda], was expressed on your countenance, defended though you were by such a champion! [Perseus] How all your breath fled into the air! How all the blood ebbed from your limbs, when from the cleft in the rocks you beheld with your own eyes your fate, the avenging monster swimming towards you and driving the waves before it, how helpless you a victim for the sea!

"Hereupon with a flutter of winged sandals Perseus flies upwards and from the skies hurls himself at the foe, driving home the weapon stained with the Gorgon's blood [Medusa, see Algol]. The beast rises to meet him, rears its head, twisting it out of the water, leaps aloft upon its support of winding coils, and towers high in the air with all its bulk. But as much as it rises hurtling up from the deep, always so much does Perseus fly higher and mock the sea-beast through the yielding air, and strike its head as it attacks. Yet not submitting to the hero the monster bites furiously at the breezes, though its teeth snap vainly and inflict no wounds; it spouts forth sea towards heaven, drenches its winged assailant with a blood-stained deluge, and sends in spray the ocean to the stars...

"At last, its frame riddled with stabs, through which the sea fills its body, the beast sinks, returns once more to the surface, and covers the mighty ocean with its massive corpse, still a fearful sight, and not for a maiden's eyes to look on." [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century A.D., Book 5, p.347-349]

Cetus is a Latin word for the order Cetacea which includes the whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Derivatives of Latin cetus, Greek ketos: cetacean, cetaceous, cetene, cetyl (an alcoholic substance taken from whale wax and is called cetyl alcohol), spermaceti. Spermaceti is derived from a wax in the Sperm Whale's head. A large whale can hold as much as three tons [1].

Indo-European sqalos, squalus, (cf. Lat. squalus) is probably cognate with qalos, as in Germanic khwalaz (compare Old Saxon hwal, Old Norse hvalr, Old English hwæl, Middle Dutch wal, Old High German wal), possibly from an original (s)qalos, with a general meaning of big fish, then constrained in its meaning in individual dialects. (See s-Mobile) [Indo-European Language Association].

The word whale is from Old English hwael, and comes from the Indo-European root *(s)kwal-o- 'Big fish'. Derivatives: whale1, narwhal, rorqual, (these words from Old Norse hvalr, whale, from Germanic *hwalaz), squalene (from New Latin Squalus, shark genus from its occurrence in the liver oil of sharks, from Latin squalus, a sea fish), squalid (related to Latin squales filth, squalus filthy, squalere, to be covered with a rough or scaly layer). [Pokorny (s)kwalo-s 958. Watkins]

"Probably related to the word squall1, a brief harsh cry, and squall2, a brief sudden violent windstorm, to blow strongly for a brief period" [Klein], and squeal.

"Cetus undulates its scaly back (Cetos convolvens squamea terga), it rises aloft upon a spiral of coils and splashes with such a belly as drove the sea beyond its proper shores when it appeared from the waves to destroy the daughter of Cepheus exposed upon the cliffs..." [Manilius Astronomica 1st century AD, P.39] [The daughter of Cepheus is Andromeda]

Manilius in describing the astrological influences associates this constellation with the production of salt:

"Moreover, such men [those astrologically influenced by Cetus] will be able to fill great salt-pans, to evaporate the sea, and to extract the sea's venom [salt], they prepare a wide expanse of hardened ground and surround it with firm walls, next conduct therein waters channeled from the nearby sea and then deny them exit by closing sluice-gates, so the floor holds in the waves and begins to glisten as the water is drained off by the sun. When the sea's dry element has collected, Ocean's white locks [salt] are shorn for use at table, and huge mounds are made of the solid foam; and the poison of the deep, which prevents the use of sea-water, vitiating it with a  taste, they commute to life-giving salt and render a source of health" [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.355.].

Salt comes from the Indo-European root *sal-1 'Salt'. Derivatives: salt, souse¹ (pickled meat), silt (fine sand, salt marsh), salsa, sauce, sausage, sal, salad, salami, salary, sali-, saline, halo- (from Latin halos, threshing floor, disc around the Sun or Moon), Halogen (Greek hals + genes = born, from Greek halos, stem hal-, salt, sea), Halon (a halocarbon used as fire-extinguishing agents). [Pokorny 1. sal- 878. Watkins] Salzburg, Salamanca, Salamis, from salama ("he was safe or free").

 "Take it with a grain of salt" (to accept a statement with skepticism). "To salt away" (to protect money for future use, budget, see below),  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to the crowd as the "salt of the earth".

Apparently the pre-Indo-European Proto-Finno-Baltic word for the whale was 'hal', borrowed by Germanic speakers and ended up in English through a long complicated process as 'whale', from Germanic *hwalaz. The Finnish is 'kala' and the Magyar (Hungarian) is 'hal'. Greek hal is salt.

The inhaling and the dramatic exhaling (from Latin halare 'to breathe'), of a whale as it breaks surface, that blows from the blowholes, is a reminder of the squall2, "a brief sudden violent windstorm, to blow strongly for a brief period".

Manilius is describing the making of sausage, sauce, salami, souse, pickled meat, in his astrological influences:

This monster enlists its sons [those influenced astrologically by Cetus] in an onslaught on the deep and a butchery of scaly creatures; theirs will be a passion for ensnaring the deep with nets spread wide and for straitening the sea with bonds; they will confine in spacious prisons seals which deem themselves as safe as in the open sea and shackle them fast in fetters; the unwary tunny they will draw along in a network of meshes. Their capture is not the end, the fish struggle against their bonds, meet a new assault, and suffer death by the knife, and the sea is dyed, mixed with blood of its own. Furthermore, when the victims lie dead along the shore, a second slaughter is perpetrated on the first; the fish are torn into pieces, and a single body is divided to serve separate ends. One part is better if its juices [sauce] are given up, another if they are retained. In the one case a valuable fluid is discharged, which yields the choicest part of the blood, flavored with salt, it imparts a relish to the palate. In the other case all the pieces of the decaying carcass are blended together and merge their shapes until every distinguishing feature has been lost, they provide food with a condiment of general use. Or when, presenting the very likeness of the dark-hued sea, a shoal of the scaly creatures has come to a stop and cannot move for their numbers, they are surrounded and drawn from the water by a huge drag-net, and fill large tanks and wine-vats, their common endowment of liquid is exuded upon each other, for their inward parts melt and issue forth as a stream of decomposition. [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.353, 355.]

This constellation is the French Baleine, the Italian Balaena, the 1515 Almagest and the Alfonsine Tables called it Balaena, the fourth century Christian astronomer, Firmicus, called it Belus, the Beast or Monster, Ovid called it Belua Ponti (Sea-Monster). There are two orders of whales, the other suborder of the Cetacea, the toothed whales, are of the family Delphinidae (oceanic dolphins) and have a constellation of their own, Delphinus. This constellation, Cetus, might refer to the baleen whales in particular, also called whalebone whales or great whales, the Mysticeti. Baleen whales have baleen plates instead of teeth which they use to filter their food.

“Whales (ballena) are beasts of enormous size, named from casting forth and spraying water, for they throw waves higher than the other sea animals; in Greek ballein means 'cast forth'. The sea-monster (cetus, plural cete) is named ketos, plural kete, that is, on account of its vastness. These are huge types of sea-monsters (bellua), and their bodies are the same size as mountains. Such a cetus swallowed Jonah; its belly was so big that it resembled hell, as the prophet says (compare Jonah 2:3): "He heard me from the belly of hell." (The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.260.]

Star Phosphoros cried out (to Phaethon) 

"...Spare this wild driving, and let not the Olympian Ketos [starry Cetus the Sea-Monster] entomb you in his belly in high heaven..." Nonnus, Dionysiaca 38. 90 ff 

Whales produce blubber, the fat of the whale, the originally meaning was 'bubble, foam'. Compare bleb, blob, the verb blubber, to weep loudly [Klein]. Most of Europe's and American lamps were lit by whale oil obtained from the blubber of various species of whales, until replaced by kerosene after 1860.

Cetus is a whale positioned on the banks of the river Eridanus; the banks of the Eridanus is where the sisters of Phaeton, the Heliades ("children of the sun"), were weeping (blubbering, salty tears) before being turned into poplar tree. From the tears of the Heliades comes amber which floated down the Eridanus River. Whales produce ambergris. The word 'amber' is probably derived from the Arabic word anbar, meaning ambergris, a substance from sperm whales used as a base to make perfume. Another etymology is suggested on this webpage quoting Eugenion Ragazzi (2000): "'amber' is believed to derive from the Arabic word 'Haur Rumi' that means 'Roman poplar tree': the following corrupted terms were Haurum, Habrum, Hambrum and finally Ambarum and Amber". [Arabic Rumi means Rome, and haur seems to what they call the Populus alba 1]

Amber (sucinus), which the Greeks call electron, has the color of tawny wax, and is said to be the sap (sucus) of trees, and for the reason is called 'amber.' An explanation taken from myth has led it to being called electrum, for the story goes that when Phaethon was killed by a bolt of lightning, his sisters, in their grief, were turned into poplar trees, and they exude amber (electrum) as tears, year in and out, by the river Eridanus (i.e. the Po); and it is called electrum because many poets said the sun used to be called Elector (the 'Shining One'). But in fact amber is not the sap of the poplar tree but of the pine tree, for when it is burned it gives off the fragrance of pine pitch.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.323.].

Elector (the 'Shining One'), might relate to Latin halos, 'threshing floor, disk around the sun or moon'. In chemistry, solutions of salts in water are called electrolytes. Electrolytes as well as molten salts conduct electricity. Salt is a preservative and amber preserves the body of an insect trapped in the resinous drop of amber. A salt is an ionic compound composed of positively charged cations and negatively charged anions (cation from Greek kation, go down kata-, + ienai, 'to go', 'ion'. Anion, from Greek anienai, to go up: ana-, up, + ienai, 'to go', 'ion'). An ion or group of ions having a positive charge and characteristically moving toward the negative electrode in electrolysis.

Greeks used the same word for 'salt' and 'sea'; als (which became sal in Latin), alos, alas, this root survives in th-alas-sa (Thalassa) which means 'sea' [2]. The word isle (which is not related to the word 'island') is from Old French isle (French ile), from Latin insula; Klein says "which is of uncertain origin. Following the ancients, some modern philologists derive Latin insula from in salo, 'that which is in the sea', from in, 'in', and ablative of salum, 'the open sea, the high sea', which is cognate with Middle Irish sal (genitive saile), 'sea; compare Greek en-alos, en-alios, 'in the sea', from Greek en, 'in', and als, genitive alos (masculine), 'salt'; (feminine), 'sea'. Compare islet, insular, isolate, peninsula." Also insulin which is a hormone secreted by the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. One legend about whales, with a number of variations, tells how sailors mistake a whale for an island (or isle). They proceed to land there and build a fire to cook their food. After a time the heat penetrates the whale's thick skin, and it dives to cool itself. The ship is dragged down with it and the sailors drown.

Within the borders of this constellation was a modern constellation created in 1800, Machina Electrica, to honor the creation of the first electricity generator. Composed of dim stars that can be found south of Cetus, the sea-monster [south of the belly] between Fornax, the furnace, and Sculptor. The constellation appeared in a few star atlases, but was never widely accepted and is no longer recognized by astronomers [3].

"The Elektrides (Amber) Islands that lie off the Pados." [Pados is an alternate name for the Po or Eridanus River] mentioned by Strabo, Geography 5.1.9 [4] are identified with the Kvarner islands in the Adriatic.

"Amber was prized for its perfume, warmth, electrical properties, and ability to preserve life in its resin (Pliny NH 37). Martial suggests that insects preserved in amber have eternity as jewels. Amber was probably traded down from northern Europe to the Adriatic via the Po and the Rhone. But neither river was the source of amber in antiquity. It came from northern Europe, from Jutland in Denmark, and from the Baltic coast". [Frederick Ahl, Metaformations, p.189-190]

Mythology tells us that amber originated from the tears shed by the Heliades that flowed into the river Eridanus. Eridanus or Eridanos, was a name given by geologists to a river which flowed where the Baltic Sea is now. In the Pleistocene era, the current Baltic Sea was the river basin of a river, currently named Eridanos. The tertiary forests of the Baltic produces the best amber in the world and the Baltic sea area contains 90% of the world's amber - Heliades tears.

“Eridanos … swallowed a foreigner, Phaethon in his flood … he brings wealth from his trees to the friends who live near him as he rolls along the brilliant amber gifts of the Heliades.” Dionysiaca 22.90

The names of goddesses Electra 1, and Electra 2 (one of the seven Pleiades), should be from the same root as 'electric', we know that the isle of Electra was near the Eridanus, as is the constellation Cetus:

"And quickly they [the Argonauts] entered the ship, and toiled at their oars unceasingly until they reached the sacred isle of Electra, the highest of them all, near the river Eridanus [Grimal]

Electra is translated from Greek 'a-lektron', 'with no marriage bed' [5].

The spouting exhale of a whale creates a steaming misting fountain of air and water through which the observers, depending on their position in reference to the sun, can see the colors of the rainbow in the mist above the head of the whale, giving them a halo [from the above Indo-European root *sal-1 ], a sort of holy, mystical image. This constellation with Roman authors were titled Pristis, Pristix, and Pistrix, these words are related to the word 'prism'. A prism has the same effect as a water-drop in the air where rays of light are decomposed into colored rays of rainbow. [Cetus is not the rainbow itself; Electra (see above) is mother of Iris, the rainbow].

Another meaning of cetus.

*Qet- (meaning hole in the ground for dwelling, living space or living room) in the IE protolanguage was adopted, after some mutations in the meaning, as ketos in Greek [6].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Cetus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
iota 29PIS32 00ARI55 004 13 12 -09 06 03 -10 01 19 3.75 K3
Deneb Kaitos beta 01ARI11 02ARI35 010 16 12 -18 15 39 -20 47 01 2.24 K0
eta 10ARI22 11ARI45 016 31 06 -10 26 48 -16 07 01 3.60 K1
theta 14ARI51 16ARI14 020 22 51 -08 26 27 -15 46 03 3.83 K0
tau 16ARI27 17ARI50 025 26 11 -16 12 00 -24 50 19 3.65 G4
upsilon 18ARI02 19ARI25 029 24 44 -21 19 10 -31 02 09 4.18 M1
Baton Kaitos zeta 20ARI33 21ARI57 027 14 51 -10 34 53 -20 20 12 3.92 K0
Mira omicron 00TAU07 01TAU31 034 12 15 -03 12 13 -15 56 15 3.00 var M6
xi 06TAU05 07TAU28 036 22 27 +08 14 13 -51 51 35 4.34 A0
delta 06TAU11 07TAU34 039 13 45 +00 06 50 -14 27 58 4.04 B2
Kaffaljidhma gamma 08TAU02 09TAU26 040 10 36 +03 01 34 -11 59 58 3.58 A2
mu 10TAU33 11TAU56 040 33 32 +09 54 15 -05 34 11 4.36 F4
Menkar alpha 12TAU55 14TAU19 044 54 57 +03 53 41 -12 35 23 2.82 M2
lambda 13TAU43 15TAU06 044 15 29 +08 42 33 -07 47 27 4.69 B5
Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

The south wind brings her foe

The Ocean beast.

    — Brown's Aratus.

Cetus, the Whale or Sea Monster, is the French Baleine, the Italian Balaena, and the German Wallfisch.

This constellation has been identified, at least since Aratos' day, with the fabled creature sent to devour Andromeda, but turned to stone at the sight of the Medusa's head (Algol) in the hand of Perseus. Equally veracious additions to the story, from Pliny and Solinus, are that the monster's bones were brought to Rome by Scaurus, the skeleton measuring forty feet in length and the vertebrae six feet in circumference; from Saint Jerome, who wrote that he had seen them at Tyre; and from Pausanias, who described a nearby spring that was red with the monster's blood. But the legend in which Cetus figured seems to have been current on the Euphrates long before our era; and, descending to Euripides and Sophocles, appeared in their dramas, as also in much subsequent literature.

For its stellar title the Greeks usually followed Aratos and Eratosthenes in Ketos, but they also had Orphis, and Orphos, some species of {Page 161} cetacean; and the equivalent Prestis; and Pristis,1 [This word is seen in more modern days in the Physetere that Rabelais used.] from prethein, to blow or spout, the common habit of the animal. The last word, variously transliterated, was common for the constellation with Roman authors, appearing as Pristis, Pristix, and Pistrix, qualified by the adjectives auster, Nereia, fera, Neptunia, aequorea, and squammigera. Cetus, however, has been the usual title from the days of Vitruvius, varied by Cete with the 17th-century astronomical writers, although the stellar figure is unlike any whale known to zoology.

The Harleian2 and Leyden Manuscripts show it with greyhound head, ears, and fore legs, but with a long, trident tail; the whole, perhaps, modeled after the ancient bas-relief of Perseus and Andromeda in the Naples Museum. It is found thus on the Farnese globe, and this figuring may have given rise to, or originated from, the early title that La Lande cited, Canis Tritonis, his own Chien de Mer. But the Hyginus of 1488 has a dolphin-like creature with proboscis and tusks, all imitated in the edition of 1535 by Micyllus; and Durer still further varied the shape of the head and front parts.

Thus in these, as, in fact, in all delineations, it has been a strange and ferocious marine creature, in later times associated with the story of Andromeda, and at first, perhaps, was the Euphratean Tiamat, of which other forms were Draco, Hydra, and Serpens; indeed, some have thought that our Draco was Andromeda's foe because of its proximity to the other characters of the legend. But as an alternative signification of the word ketos is Tunny,3 [This tunny, the horse-mackerel of the American coast and the Attacora thynnus of ichthyology, is found in the Mediterranean up to 1000 pounds' weight.] also a signification of Khelidonias, applied to the Northern Fish of the zodiac, it is not unlikely that the latter figure should be substituted in the story for the time-honored Whale.

Cetus is sometimes represented swimming in the River Eridanus, although usually as resting on the bank with fore paws in the water; its head, directly under Aries, marked by an irregular pentagon of stars, and its body stretching from the bend in Eridanus to that in the Stream from the Urn. It occupies a space of 50° in length by 20° in breadth, and so is one of the most extended of the sky figures; yet it shows no star larger than of the 2nd magnitude, and only one of that lustre.

{Page 162} Argelander enumerates 98 stars in the constellation, and Heis 162.

The 1515 Almagest and the Alfonsine Tables called it Balaena, but Firmicus said Belus, the Beast or Monster, a more appropriate name than ours. Bayer mentioned it as Draco, and drew it so, but without wings; he also cited for it Leo, Monstrum marimim, Ursus marinus, Orphas, and Orphus; and Grotius quoted Gibbus, Humped, from anonymous writers.

The Arabian astronomers of course knew the Greek constellation and called it Al Ketus, from which have come Elketos, Elkaitos, and Elkaitus; but their predecessors, who had not heard of the Royal Family and its foe, separated these stars into three very different asterisms. Those in the head, alpha (Menkar), gamma (Kaffaljidhma), delta, lambda, mu, xi ¹and xi2, were Al Kaff al Jidhmah, the Part of a Hand, from a fancied resemblance to their Stained Hand, our Cassiopeia; eta, theta, tau, and upsilon, in the body of our Cetus, were Al Naamat, the Hen Ostriches; and the four in a straight line of 3° length across the tail, all lettered phi, were Al Nitham, the Necklace.

The biblical school of the 17th century of course saw here the Whale that swallowed Jonah; and commentators on that great astronomical poem, the Book of Job, have said that it typified the Leviathan of which the Lord spoke to the patriarch. Julius Schiller thought it "SS. Joachim and Anna.” [Grandparents of Jesus]

The Easy Chair has popularly been applied to it from the arrangement of its chief stars, the back of the chair leaning towards Orion.

Although an old constellation, Cetus is by no means of special-interest, except as possessing the south pole of the Milky Way [actually in nearby Sculptor - Coma Berenices contains the North Galactic Pole, the northern perpendicular to the Milky Way. The South Galactic Pole is in Sculptor] and the Wonderful Star, the variable Mira; and from the fact that it is a condensation point of nebulae directly across the sphere from Virgo, also noted in this respect.

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