Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Cup, or the Crater

Urania's Mirror 1825

A crater is a circular depression created by the impact of some body; an asteroid or comet or meteorite. A volcanic crater is a circular depression in the ground caused by volcanic activity.

Crater, the Cup, is often considered a part of the threefold constellation; Hydra, Corvus and Crater. It relates to the myth [Ovid's Fasti, 2.243-66] that Apollo sent a Raven (Corvus) to fetch water in the god's cup (Crater). The raven got back late because he waited at a fig tree for figs to ripen before returning. He brought back a Water-snake (Hydra), along with the water-filled cup (Crater), and told Apollo that the Hydra had caused the delay. Apollo was not deceived by the lie and placed the Raven (Corvus), the cup (Crater), and the Water-snake (Hydra) among the stars, where the Water-snake guards the water from the thirsty Raven.

The word Crater comes from the Indo-European root *kere-1 'To mix, confuse, cook'. Derivatives: uproar (from Middle Low German hror, motion), rare² (cooked just a short time, from Old English hrer), idiosyncrasy, acrasia (Greek akrasia, a-, 'not' + kerannunai, 'to mix'; 'bad mixture', excess; intemperance), dyscrasia (any disease condition, especially in hematology, as in 'blood dyscrasias.' The term 'dyscrasia' was borrowed from the Greek meaning 'a bad mixture' referring to imbalance between the four humors which caused disease [1]), crater (from Greek krater, mixing vessel). [Pokorny kere- 582. Watkins]

According to Christian legend, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, said to possess miraculous powers [2]. The word grail is believed to be related to Crater, grail is from Old French graal, grael, from Medieval Latin gradalis, 'cup, platter', from Vulgar Latin *cratalis, from *cratus, 'a mixing bowl', from Latin crater, from Greek krater. [Klein, Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary]

"Manilius described Crater as 'gratus Iaccho Crater' (Iaccho is Roman Bacchus, who is identified with Greek Dionysus and may be Orion), so using the mystic, poetical name often applied to Bacchus" (Allen, Star Names):

"The Bacchic feast of intoxication was, however sensual in later performance, a token of the legitimate and blessed ecstasy of the soul upon partaking of the heavenly wine. The vine and the mixing bowl were constellated as celestial symbols, the latter as the cluster called the Crater (Latin: bowl) or the Goblet, the sacramental cup or grail. The juice of the grape was the blood of Horus or Osiris, in the Egyptian Eucharist" [The Lost Light, Alvin Boyd Kuhn].  

The grail, the Holy Chalice, the Cauldron, according to medieval legend is the platter used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and contained the blood of Jesus Christ turned into wine, from Old French graal, grael, from Medieval Latin gradalis, ultimately from Latin crater.

In Old French, san graal, or san greal, means 'Holy Grail', literally meaning 'sanctified grail'.

"According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, after the cycle of Grail romances was well established, late medieval writers came up with a false etymology for sangreal an alternate name for 'Holy Grail'. In Old French, san graal or san greal means 'Holy Grail' and sang real means 'royal blood' [real means royal]; later writers played on this pun. Since then, 'Sangreal' is sometimes employed to lend a medievalizing air in referring to the Holy Grail" [3].

Blood in Latin is called sanguis. Centuries before the Medieval times Isidore saw a relationship between sanguis, blood and sanctus:

"Holy (sanctus), so called from an ancient custom, because those who wished to be purified would be touched by the blood (sanguis) of a sacrificial victim, and from this they received the name of holy ones (sanctus).” [p.228.] "A sanctum is so called from the blood (sanguis) of sacrificial victims, for among the ancients nothing was called holy (sanctus) except what had been consecrated and sprinkled with the blood of a sacrifice. Again sanctum, what is known to have been sanctified (sancire, ppl. sancitum). Moreover to sanction (sancire) is to confirm, and to defend from wrong by imposing punishment. Thus both laws and city walls are said to be holy (sanctus)” [p.309.] [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD]

Wine (vinum) is so called because a drink of it speedily replenishes the veins (vena) with blood"  [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.397.]

Greek krater is a mixing vessel, from kerannunai, 'to mix'. Blood consists of several types of cells suspended in a fluid medium known as plasma.

A certain man named Cerasus mixed wine with the river Achelous in Aetolia, and from this 'to mix' is called kerasai. http://www.theoi.com/Text/HyginusFabulae5.html

From Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) on The Holy Grail:

"The meaning of the word [Grail] has also been variously explained. The generally accepted meaning is that is given by the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus (d. about 1230), who, under the date of about 717, mentions of a vision, shown to a hermit concerning the dish used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, and about which the hermit then wrote a Latin book called 'Gradale.' "Now in French," so Helinandus informs us, "Gradalis or Gradale means a dish (scutella), wide and somewhat deep, in which costly viands are wont to be served to the rich in degrees (gradatim), one morsel after another in different rows. In popular speech it is also called 'greal' because it is pleasant (grata) and acceptable to him eating therein" etc. The medieval Latin word 'gradale' because in Old French 'graal,' or 'greal,' or 'greel,' whence the English 'grail.' Others derive the word from 'garalis' or from 'cratalis' (crater, a mixing bowl). It certainly means a dish, the derivation from 'grata' in the latter part of the passage cited above or from 'agréer' (to please) in the French romances is secondary".

Helinandus says "Gradalis or Gradale means a dish, wide and somewhat deep, in which costly viands are wont to be served to the rich in degrees (gradatim), one morsel after another in different rows". Greek krater is translated, 'mixing vessel', with the meaning 'to mix, confuse, cook'. An element in a mixture is called an ingredient. These words come from the Indo-European root *ghredh- 'To walk, go'. Derivatives: gressorial, aggress, congress, degression, digress, egress, ingredient, ingress, introgression, pinnigrade, plantigrade, progress, regress, retrograde, retrogress, tardigrade, transgress, (these words from Latin gradi, past participle gressus, to walk, go), aggression, gradient, grade, gradual, graduate, gree, centigrade, degrade, degree, (these words from Latin gradus, step, stage, degree, rank). [Pokorny ghredh- 456. Watkins] The word 'grail' has another meaning; 'book for use of the choir' which according to Klein is from "Old French grael, from Medieval Latin gradale, a collateral form of graduale. See gradual".

In Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1 "The Crater was the Cup in which the Creator mixed the Elements of the World-Soul; for we read in Timæus (41 D), where Plato is treating of the formation of human souls: "

“Thus spake He, and once again into the Cup [Crater] which He had used in blending and mingling the Soul of the Universe, He poured the remains of the Elements He had employed, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but in the second and third degree.”

"In popular speech it is also called 'greal' because it is pleasant (grata) and acceptable to him eating therein" [6]. Manilius described the constellation as 'gratus Iaccho Crater'. Latin grata and gratus comes from the Indo-European root *gwere-3 'To favor'. Derivatives: grace, gracious, grateful, gratify, gratis, gratitude, gratuitous, gratuity, agree, congratulate, disgrace, ingrate, ingratiate, maugre (notwithstanding; in spite of, from Latin gratus), bard¹ ('he who makes praises' from Celtic bardo-, bard), engrail (indented along the edge with small curves in heraldry, en- + gresle, slender, tapered, from Latin gracilis). [Pokorny 4. gwer(e)- 478. Watkins] Gracilis muscle; originates from the lower edge of pubic bone and is inserted into the upper part of the tibia, flexes knee and hip and medially rotates the thigh and tibia (rotates them inwards). The Greek Graces were three sisters who have the power to grant charm, happiness, and beauty.

"The authors of the Vulgate Cycle used the Grail as a symbol of divine grace. ... the Grail is a symbol of God's grace, available to all but only fully realized by those who prepare themselves spiritually, like the saintly Galahad.... [7]

Known in the East as 'kundalini', and in the West as 'grace' [8]

A maar is a volcanic crater lake of explosive origin that is often filled with water. This term comes direct from German for one of the craters or crater-lakes of the Eifel district in Germany where the type occurrence is located. Its generic meaning is any low-relief volcanic crater which does not lie in a cone, was formed by single or multiple explosive events, and is usually occupied by a lake [9].

Whoever derives hence his birth and character [from the constellation Crater] will be attracted by the well-watered meadows of the countryside, the rivers, and the lakes [Manilius, Astronomica 1st century AD, p.318]. [inde trahit quicumque genus moresque, sequetur irriguos ruris campos amnesque lacusque]

The word maar comes from Latin mare (meaning sea), which gives us the words marine, maritime. As no Indo-European root-word exists for sea, except for their word *mori, which is thought to represent a small body of water, it is theorized that the Indo-Europeans originated in a land-locked region. The Indo-European navigated these small bodies of water in ships [10], hence the word maritime, meaning marine shipping or navigation. These words come from the Indo-European root *mori- 'Body of water; lake (?), sea (?)'. Derivatives: mere² (small lake, pond, or marsh), mermaid (from Old English mere, sea, lake, pond), marram (beach grass), meerschaum (sepiolite, or a tobacco pipe with a bowl made of this mineral), meerkat (a small, burrowing mammal, Suricata suricatta, related to the mongoose, from Middle Dutch meer, sea), marsh (from Old English mersc, merisc), morass (from Old French maresc, mareis, marsh, water-logged land), -maar, maar (a volcanic crater that is often filled with water), mare² (the large dark areas on the moon or Mars or on other planets), marinara (a sauce), marine, maritime, cormorant (sea-raven, shag), mariculture (cultivation of marine organisms in their natural habitats). [Pokorny mori- 748. Watkins]  Merlin, a wizard in the Arthurian legend, the enchanter, his name is thought to derive from Mori-genos, 'born from the sea'. [Latin mare, meaning 'the sea', is a homophone of English mare, a female horse]. The name Muriel, is believed to be related to Latin mare and translated 'sea bright'.

Klein sees the word moor, 'waste ground', as a cognate with *mori-, moor comes from the Indo-European root *ma-3 'Damp'. Derivatives: moor2 (swampy land, from Old English mor, marsh, wilderness, from Germanic *mora-), emanate (ex-manare, from Latin manare, to flow, trickle). [Pokorny 2. ma- 693. Watkins] Crater, the Cup, is often considered a part of the threefold constellation Hydra, Corvus and Crater. Latins had the title Emansor for adjacent Corvus, related to the word emanate, from Latin ex + manare, to flow out, relating to the story of Apollo sending out the raven with a cup to fetch water. Apollo sent out (emanare) the Raven (Corvus) with a cup (Crater) to fetch water (Hydra, from Indo-European root *wed-1, water).

The remaining astrological influences given by Manilius for Crater:

"He will sow corn among the grapes and will adopt any other of the countless forms of cultivation that exist throughout the world as the conditions of the district will require. "He will drink without stint the wine he has produced and enjoy in person the well earned fruits of his labors; neat wine will incite him to jollity, when he will drown all seriousness in his cups.
Nor only on the soil will he stake his hopes for paying his yearly vows he will also go in pursuit of the grain tax (become a tax collector), and of those wares (papyrus, for example, or sponges) especially which are nourished by moisture or to which water clings. Such are the men to be fashioned by the Bowl, lover of all that is wet". [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.318-321].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Crater
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Alkes alpha 22VIR19 23VIR41 164 20 03 -18 01 56 -22 42 56 4.20 K1
epsilon 24VIR52 26VIR15 170 31 14 -10 35 05 -13 28 12 5.07 M0
Labrum delta 25VIR18 26VIR41 169 12 35 -14 30 28 -17 34 28 3.82 K0
beta 27VIR11 28VIR34 167 17 56 -22 33 09 -25 38 10 4.52 A2
theta 27VIR13 28VIR36 173 32 09 -09 31 32 -11 18 12 4.81 B9
gamma 27VIR51 29VIR14 170 35 42 -17 24 33 -19 39 56 4.14 A5
zeta 02LIB41 04LIB04 175 33 23 -18 04 22 -18 17 44 4.90 G8
eta 04LIB43 06LIB06 178 21 57 -16 52 21 -16 05 22 5.16 A0

The threefold constellations Hydra, Corvus and Crater [The Witness of the Stars]

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Crater, the Cup is the French Coupe, the German Becher, and the Italian Tazza, formed by several 4th and 5th-magnitude stars above the Hydra's back, just westward from Corvus, and 30° south of Denebola, in a partly annular form {Page 183} opening to the northwest. This was long considered a part of the threefold constellation Hydra et Corvus et Crater; but modern astronomers catalogue it separately, Argelander assigning to it 14 stars, and Heis extending the number to 35.

the generous Bowl

Of Bacchus flows, and chears the thirsty Pole.

—  Creech's Manilius.

In early Greek days it represented the Kantharos, or Goblet, of Apollo, but universally was called Krater, which in our transliterated title obtained with all Latins, Cicero writing it Cratera; while Manilius described it as gratus Iaccho Crater (Iaccho is Bacchus, Greek Dionysus), so using the mystic, poetical name often applied to Bacchus. In ancient manuscripts it appears as Creter. The Greeks also called it Kalpe a Cinerary Urn; Argeion, Ugreion, and Ugria, a Water-bucket.

The Romans additionally knew it as Urna, Calix, or Scyphus, and, poetically, as Poculum, the Cup, variously, of Apollo, Bacchus, Hercules, Achilles, Dido, Demophoon, and Medea; its association with this last bringing it into the long list of Argonautic constellations.

Hewitt connected it with the Soma-cup of prehistoric India; and Brown with the Mixing-bowl in the Euphratean myth of Istar-Kirke, referring to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord's hand.

But any connection here would seem doubtful, although the Jews knew it as Cos, a Cup. Hewitt also identifies it with "the Akkadians' Mummu Tiamut, the chaos of the sea, the mother of heaven and earth, and the child of Tiamut, the mother (mut) of living things (tia)"; but all this better suits Corvus.

It was known in England two or three centuries ago as the Two-handed Pot; and Smyth tells us of a small ancient vase in the Warwick collection bearing an inscription thus translated:

Wise ancients knew when Crater rose to sight,

Nile's fertile deluge had attained its height;

although Egyptian remains thus far show no allusion to the constellation.

In early Arabia it was Al Malaf, the Stall, — a later title there for the Praesaepe of Cancer; but when the astronomy of the Desert came under Greek influence it was Al Batiyah, the Persian Badiye, and the Al Batinah of Al Achsasi, all signifying an earthen vessel for storing wine. Another title, Al Kas, a Shallow Basin, — Alhas in the Alfonsine lists, — has since been turned into Alker and Elkis; but Scaliger's suggestion of Alkes generally has been adopted, although now applied to the star alpha (Alkes). These same Tables Latinized it as Patera, and as Vas, or Vas aquarium.

{Page 184} Riccioli's strange Elvarad and Pharmaz I cannot trace to their origin.

Its more conspicuous stars, with chi and others in Hydra, twenty-two in all, formed the 10th sieu, Yh, Yih, or Yen, Wings or Flanks; and the whole constellation may have been the Chinese Heavenly Dog shot at by Chang, the divinity of the 9th sieu in Leo, which also bore that god's name.

Caesius said that Crater represented the Cup of Joseph found in Benjamin's sack, or one of the stone Water-pots of Cana, or the Cup of Christs Passion; others called it the Wine-cup of Noah, but Julius Schiller combined some of its stars with a part of Corvus as the Ark of the Covenant.

Astrologically it portended eminence to those born under its influence.

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