Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Cross

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

The word cross comes from Old Norse kross, from Latin crux, 'cross', which is of uncertain, perhaps Punic, origin. Compare across, crucial, Crucianella (crosswort), crucible (a vessel used for melting and calcining materials at high temperatures), crucify, cruise ( to traverse the sea, to traverse backwards and forwards), cruiser, crusade, crux, cruzeiro, excruciate. [Klein, Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary]

Francis Bacon used the phrase instantia crucis, 'crucial instance,' to refer to something in an experiment that proves one of two hypotheses and disproves the other. Bacon's phrase was based on a sense of the Latin word crux, 'cross,' which had come to mean “a guidepost that gives directions at a place where one road becomes two” [AHD].

"If the feet are placed together and the arms outspread, man then symbolizes the cross" [1]. "The cross represents fourfold systems: the four directions: north, south, east, and west; the four seasons; the four elements; the four winds..." [2].

“The cross is not only a Christian symbol, it was also a Mexican symbol. It was one of the emblems of Quetzalcoatl, as lord of the four cardinal points, and the four winds that blow therefrom.” —Fiske: Discovery of America, vol. ii. chap. viii. p. 250.)

To the four brightest stars of this Southern Cross, Dante (1265-1321) in Purgatorio, attributed the Cardinal Virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude, before the discovery and naming of this constellation (in 1679). The world itself is constructed in the shape of a cross, whose four points correspond to the four cardinal points or intersections of the horizon with the meridian. Cardinal is a vivid red, which gets its name from the cassocks worn by Catholic cardinals. The family of birds (Cardinalis cardinalis) takes its name from the color [3]. Cardinal from Latin cardinalis, 'principal, chief, from cardo, genitive cardinis, 'hinge of a door, pivot; that on which something turns'. In Latin, cardo means hinge or axis, 'something on which all else depends', as does the general meaning of the word crucial.

“A hinge (cardo) is the place on which a door swings and is always moved. It is so called after the term Greek kardia ('heart'), because as the heart (cor) governs and moves the whole person, so this pivot governs and moves a door. Whence the proverbial expression, for a matter to be 'at a turning point' (in cardine).” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, p.311.]

The human heart has four chambers or closed spaces, two atria and two ventricles. A cross has four points. Latin cardium means heart, -cardium is from the Greek word for heart 'kardia', and comes from the Indo-European root *kerd-1 'Heart'. Derivatives: heart (from Old English heorte), cordate, cordial, courage, quarry¹, accord, accordion ('concord of sounds'), concord, cordiform (heart-shaped), discord, misericord, record ('keeping records', from Latin cor, stem cord-). Suffixed form *krd-ya-; cardia, cardiac, cardio-, endocardium, epicardium, megalocardia, myocardium, pericardium, from Greek kardia. [Pokorny (kered-) 579. Watkins] [The 'creed' words included with this root (*kerd-1) are under dispute. Klein says "Latin credere, 'to believe', is not related to Latin cor, 'heart'"].

Crux was part of Centaurus, and is now positioned between the legs of the Centaur horse. Centaurus may be related the word 'center' from Greek kenteo. The heart is said to be in the center of the body. Chiron is identified with Centaurus and was the healer.

In animals the term knee is used widely to refer to any ginglymus joint.

The ginglymus or hinge joint (such as the elbow or knee) took its name as early as the Hippocratics from the hinge in a door or window, and is illustrated as such in the Fabrica. It is what you would see, he remarks, "if you compared this species of joint with the hinges of doors in which the iron driven into the wall receives that which is attached to the door, and the iron from the wall enters up into that of the door. The present species of articulation got its name from this model." [Metaphor and analogy in Vesalian anatomy]

The cruciate ligaments of the knee are crossed and an integral part of the knee's hinge mechanism, they hold the two main knee bones (femur & tibia) together, somewhat similar to a door hinge [4], if cruciate ligaments are torn the pain is 'excruciating'.

Vespucci was the first of Europeans to see the Four Stars, but did not use the title of the Cross, and called them Mandorla. Allen in Star Names notes: "This, literally 'an Almond,' is the word used in Italian art for the vesica piscis, the oblong glory, surrounding the bodies of saints ascending to heaven". The word almond, from Latin amygdala, from Greek amugdale, 'almond', is borrowed from Hebrew meghedh El, 'divine fruit'. Related to amygdalate, mandorla [Klein]. The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the anterior portion of the temporal lobe of the brain. "The concept of the amygdala as an important contributor to pain and its emotional component is still emerging". Excruciating, crucify and crucifixion all share the same root meaning referring to a cross and to the associated pain and suffering.

The Mandorla is an ancient symbol of two circles coming together, overlapping one another to form an almond shape in the middle. Mandorla is the Italian word for almond. The Mandorla is also known as the 'Vesica Piscis', symbolizing the interactions and interdependence of opposing worlds and forces. Although the symbol has its origins before the Christian era, the early Christians used the symbol as a method to describe the coming together of heaven and earth, between the divine and human. http://www.kyrie.com/symbols/mandorla.htm


The Ram of Aries has an alternative title Crius. Jason and the Argonauts sailed in the Argo Navis in search of the Golden Fleece, the Fleece of the Aries Ram. Chiron (Centaurus) placed a picture of himself in the sky to guide the Argonauts on their quest [5]; implying that Colchis, where the Fleece was kept, would be somewhere in the vicinity of Centaurus. Crux used to be part of Centaurus and is now between the legs of the horse of Centaurus. The Argonaut's destination was Colchis where the Fleece was nailed to a tree [6], a reminder of Jesus Christ nailed to a cross, and many see that cross as a tree. Colchis was an ancient region on the Black Sea south of the Caucasus Mountains. Prometheus was chained to a rock on the Caucasus Mountains. Prometheus was immortal and so could not die. So it was left to Heracles to arrange a bargain with Zeus to exchange Chiron's (Centaurus) immortality for the life of Prometheus. Chiron had been poisoned with an arrow in the foot, and suffering excruciating pain.

There are a number of cases of letting something go, or forgiving, involved with the Cross; as the Chiron (Centaurus) did in giving up his immortality to Prometheus, as Christ did on the cross when he said "into thy hands (hands are adjacent Centaurus) I commend my spirit" or forgiving as Christ forgave his persecutors while on the cross.

This constellation might relate to Krios

Krios was one of the four Titan brothers who conspired with Kronos to depose their father Ouranos. He and his siblings laid an ambush, each taking his place at one of the four corners of the cosmos and seizing hold of father Sky as he descended to lie upon the Earth. In this role, the four probably represented the pillars which were once believed to hold heaven and earth asunder, or else the entire cosmos aloft. Krios, in connection with the southern constellation of the Ram, and as the husband of a sea-goddess was probably the Titan god of the great Pillar of the South. http://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanKrios.html

The Southern Cross has been romanticized in music with the song Under the Southern Cross ("No other love have I"). As a result, this constellation has gained a reputation for conjuring up thoughts of romantic tropical nights in balmy southern climes. [p.247, The New Patterns in the Sky, Staal]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Crux
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
delta 04SCO17 05SCO40 183 07 09 -58 28 15 -50 24 53 3.08 B3
Gacrux gamma 05SCO21 06SCO44 187 05 40 -56 50 01 -47 49 28 1.61 M4
Mimosa beta 10SCO16 11SCO39 191 11 47 -59 24 57 -48 38 00 1.25 var B1
Acrux alpha 10SCO29 11SCO52 185 57 00 -62 49 20 -52 52 25 0.76 B1

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

The four that glorify the night!

Ah ! how forget when to my ravished sight

The Cross shone forth in everlasting light!

   —   Samuel Rogers' The Voyage of Columbus. [Allen notes: In this poem Rogers makes the great discoverer bring the telescope into use a century before its invention!]

Crux, the Cross is the German Kreuz, the Italian Croce, the French Croix and, in the 1776 edition of Flamsteed's Atlas, Croisade. With us it is the Southern Cross. It was unknown to the ancients by its present title, its four chief stars being noted by Ptolemy as a part of the Centaur (Centaurus), which now surrounds it on three sides. As such Bayer outlined it over the hind feet, lettering it epsilon, zeta, nu, {185} and xi Centauri; but these now are alpha, beta, gamma, and delta Crucis, — the 1.3-magnitude lucida (alpha star Acrux) at the foot, the 2nd-magnitude gamma at the top, with beta and gamma, the early xi and nu, as the transverse: these last, respectively, of 1.7 and 3.4 magnitudes. A fifth star, epsilon, of the 4th magnitude, between alpha and delta, somewhat interferes with the regularity of the figure; and there are forty-nine others visible to the naked eye within the constellation boundaries.

The statement that it was mentioned by Hipparchos probably is erroneous, although he distinctly alluded to its beta as of the Centaur; but Pliny may have known it as Thronos Caesaris in honor of the emperor Augustus; yet it was then invisible from Italy, though plainly visible from Alexandria, where it may have been thus named by some courtly astronomer. And Al Biruni wrote that a star could be seen from Multan in India, in 30° 12' of north latitude, "which they call Sula," the Beam of Crucifixion. This, if a reference to the Cross, is a striking anticipation of the modern figure. Hewitt, repeating this title as Shula, claimed it for the south pole of Hindu astronomers.

Whittier said, in his Cry of a Lost Soul:

The Cross of pardon lights the tropic skies;

which is correct for our day, as it is not now entirely visible above 27° 30' of north latitude. It was last seen on the horizon of Jerusalem  — 31° 46' 45"  — about the time that Christ was crucified. But 3000 years previously all its stars were 7° above the horizon of the savages along the shores of the Baltic Sea, in latitude 52° 30'.

Its invention as a constellation is often attributed to Royer as of 1679, but it had been the theme of much description for nearly two centuries before him, and we know that it was illustrated by Mollineux of England, in 1592, on his celestial globe, with others of the new southern figures; and Bayer drew it over the hind legs of the Centaur, giving it in his text as modernis crux, Ptolemaeo pedes Centauri. Bartschius had it separately in 1624, and Caesius catalogued it in 1662 as though well known; hence it seems remarkable that it was only outlined over the Centaur in the Flamsteed Atlas.

Crux lies in the Milky Way, — here a brilliant but narrow stream three or four degrees wide, — and is noticeable from its compression as well as its form, being only 6° in extent from north to south, and less in width, the upper star a clear orange in color, and the rest white; the general effect being that of a badly made kite rather than of a cross. So that, notwithstanding all the poetry and romance associated with it, — perhaps owing to these, — it usually disappoints those from northern latitudes who see it for the first time.

{Page 186} For twelve centuries, from Pliny to Dante, we find no allusion to its stars till that great poet, turning from his contemplation, in the Purgatorio, of Venus "veiling the Fishes,"

posi mente

Al altro polo e vidi quatro stelle

Non viste mai fuor che alia prima gente,

in which Baron Alexander von Humboldt, in his Examen Criticum, insists that he refers to the Cross; while Longfellow, translating the passage

and fixed my mind

Upon the other pole and saw four stars

Ne'er seen before save by the primal people,

calls it an acknowledged reference to the same, figuring, as it were, the cardinal virtues, Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance, attributes of Cato as the Guardian of Purgatory, claiming that

We here are Nymphs and in the Heaven are Stars.

Later on in the same canto we read again of Cato:

The rays of the four consecrated stars

Did so adorn his countenance with light.

But this reference to the "primal people" is not, Barlow says in his Study of Dante, to our first parents, as Gary's translation has it, but to the early races of mankind, who 5000 years ago could see the Cross from latitudes very much higher even than that of Italy. In the same passage Dante alludes to its local invisibility in his apostrophe to the northern heavens:

O! thou septentrional and widowed site

Because thou art deprived of seeing these!

and in the 8th canto calls them Le quatro chiare stelle.

Whence Dante learned all this we do not know, for it was not till 200 years later that we have any published account of the constellation; but that he paid great attention to the heavens is evident from his frequent and intelligent allusions to them throughout the Divine Comedy. He was, too, a man of erudition as well as of imagination and poetical genius, — Carlyle called him the spokesman of ten silent centuries, — and may have seen some of the Arabic celestial globes, on at least one of which — probably the Borgian of 1225 — we know that the stars of the Centaur (Centaurus) were represented; and he doubtless had frequent opportunities of intercourse with learned {Page 187} travelers, [Marco Polo was his contemporary] or some of the many returned voyagers among his own adventurous countrymen, worthy successors to their ancient neighbors the Phoenicians. This should be sufficient to account for these allusions without attributing them to prophetic inspiration. And here, although in no way connected with the Cross, I would call attention to a fact pleasing to star-lovers — viz., "the beautiful and endless aspiration, so artistically and silently suggested by Dante, in closing each part of his poem with the word stelle"

The Inferno ends with:

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars;

the Purgatorio;

Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars;

and the Paradiso:

The love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Note, too, the poet's perhaps unconscious advance in astronomical knowledge beyond his contemporaries in associating the sun with the stars.

Vespucci, on his third voyage in 1501, called to mind the passages from Dante, insisting that he himself was the first of Europeans to see the Four Stars, but did not use the title of the Cross, and called them Mandorla [Allen notes: This, literally "an Almond," is the word used in Italian art for the vesica piscis, the oblong glory, surrounding the bodies of saints ascending to heaven.] Vasco da Gama said of it in the Lusiadas:

A group quite new in the new hemisphere,

Not seen by others yet;

while nearly four centuries after him, in our day, Lord Lytton (Owen Meredith) has something similar in his Queen Guenevere:

Then did I feel as one who, much perplexed,

Led by strange legends and the light of stars

Over long regions of the midnight sand

Beyond the red tract of the Pyramids,

Is suddenly drawn to look upon the sky,

From sense of unfamiliar light, and sees,

Revealed against the constellated cope,

The great cross of the South.

Writers of the 16th century made frequent mention of it in their accounts of southern navigation; Corsali saying in 1517, as translated by Eden:

{Page 188} "Above these [the Magellanic Clouds] appeareth a marvelous cross in the midst of five notable stars which compasse it about (as doth Charles Wayne the north pole) with other stars which move with them abowt xxx (30) degrees distant from the pole, and make their course in xxiiii (24) houres. This cross is so fair and beautiful, that none other heavenly sign may be compared to it as may appear by this figure".

Subsequently, in 1520, Pigafetta, the companion of Magellan, mentioned it as El Crucero, and una croce maravigliosa used for the determination of altitudes, saying that Dante first described it; Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa called it the Star Crucero and the Stars of Crucero; Blundevill, in 1574, {Page 189} Crosier and, very differently, the South Triangle, but this was twenty-nine years before Bayer gave this title to other stars. Eden also cited the Crossiers and Crosse Stars; Chilmead, Crusero and Crusiers; Sir John Narborough, Crosers; and Halley, in 1679, Crosiers.

A century before Halley, the Portuguese naturalist Cristoval d'Acosta, writing the title Cruzero, — the old Spanish Cruciero, termed the Cross the Southern Celestial Clock; and as such it has served a useful purpose for nearly 400 years. Von Humboldt, in his Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, alluding to the Portuguese and Spaniards, wrote:

"A religious sentiment attaches them to a constellation the form of which recalls the sign of the faith planted by their ancestors in the deserts of the New World;  — "

a thought which Mrs. Hemans beautifully expressed in her Cross of the South where the Spanish traveler says:

But to thee, as thy lode-stars resplendently burn

In their clear depths of blue, with devotion I turn,

Bright Cross of the South' and beholding thee shine,

Scarce regret the loved land of the olive and vine.

Thou recallest the ages when first o'er the main

My fathers unfolded the ensign of Spain,

And planted their faith in the regions that see

Its imperishing symbol ever blazoned in thee.

Von Humboldt adds:

The two great stars, which mark the summit and the foot of the Cross, having nearly the same right ascension, it follows that the constellation is almost perpendicular at the moment when it passes the meridian. This circumstance is known to the people of every nation situated beyond the Tropics or in the southern hemisphere.

It has been observed at what hour of the night, in different seasons, the Cross is erect or inclined.

It is a time piece, which advances very regularly nearly four minutes a day, and no other group of stars affords to the naked eye an observation of time so easily made.

How often have we heard our guides exclaim in the savannahs of Venezuela and in the desert extending from Lima to Truxillo, "Midnight is past, the Cross begins to bend." How often these words reminded us of that affecting scene when Paul and Virginia, seated near the source of the river of Lataniers, conversed together for the last time, and when the old man, at the sight of the Cross, warns them that it is time to separate, saying, "la Croix du Sud est droite sur I'horizon."

Von Humboldt thought it remarkable that these so striking and well-defined stars should not have been earlier separated from the large ancient constellation of the Centaur, especially since Kazwini and other Muhammadan astronomers took pains to discover crosses elsewhere in the sky; and he {Page 190} said that the ancient Persians, who knew the Cross well, celebrated a feast by its name, their descendants, to whom it was lost by precession, finding its successor in the Dolphin.

The Pareni Indians of his day made much of the stars of the Cross, calling them Bahumehi, after one of their principal fishes.

Lockyer alludes to it as the Pole-star of the South, which it may be when on the meridian, as the most prominent constellation in the vicinity of the pole, although its base star is nearly 28° from that point, about four and one half times the length of the Cross. But this idea is an old one; Minsheu's Guide having, at the word "Cruzero," Quatuor stella poli, Foure starres crossing; and Sarmiento, even earlier, had much the same, but asserted that, "with God's help," he was enabled to select another pole-star nearer the true point.

In modern China it has been Shih Tsze Kea, the equivalent of our word.

The five stars are shown on postage stamps of Brazil, — Camoes' Realms of the Holy Cross, — surrounded by twenty-one stars symbolizing the twenty-one states, and some of the coins bear the same. But this name for that country was not new with the poet, for it was given by the discoverer Cabral, on the 1st of May, 1500; and the fine Ptolemaeus printed at Rome in 1508, with the first engraved map of the new continent, carries as its title for South America, Terra sancte crucis.

Partly within the constellation's boundaries, and at the point of the nearest approach of the Milky Way to the south pole, is the pear-shaped Coal-sack, or Soot-bag, 8° in length by 5° in breadth, containing only one star visible to the naked eye, and that very small, although it has many that are telescopic, and a photograph taken at Sydney in 1890 shows about as many in proportion as in the surrounding region. This singular vacancy was first formally described by Peter Martyr, although observed in 1499 by Vicente Yanez Pinzon, and designated by Vespucci as il Canopo fosco, and perhaps alluded to by Camoes. Narborough wrote of it in 1671 as "a small black cloud which the foot of the Cross is in"; but before him it was Macula Magellani, Magellan's Spot, and fifty years ago Smyth mentioned it as the Black Magellanic Cloud. Froude described it in his Oceana as "the inky spot — an opening into the awful solitude of unoccupied space." A native Australian legend, which "reads almost like a Christian parable," says that it was "the embodiment of evil in the shape of an Emu, who lies in wait at the foot of a tree, represented by the stars of the Cross, for an opossum driven by his persecutions to take refuge among its branches."

The Peruvians imagined it a heavenly Doe suckling its fawn. Although this is the most remarkable of those "curious vacancies through {Page 191} which we seem to gaze out into an uninterrupted infinity," there are many other such in the heavens; an extended list of forty-nine being given by Sir John Herschel in his Observations at the Cape of Good Hope, and an abbreviated one by Espin in Webbs Celestial Objects.

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