Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


Equuleus Pictoris, the Painter's Easel

Equuleus Pictoris, is the name of this constellation 'The Painter's Easel': Easel is an old Germanic synonym for donkey and is borrowed from Dutch ezel, which means literally 'ass' (donkey). An easel (generally a tripod) is an upright frame for displaying or supporting something such as an artist's canvas, or a school blackboard. The comparison being of loading a painting on to a stand much as a burden is loaded on to an ass. The word ass is related to Greek onos, ass, probably ultimately from the same source as Sumerian anse, ass. The word ass is related to: asinine, easel, (these words from Latin asinus, ass), onager (onos, ass + agrios, wild, from Greek onus, ass).

The word Pictor comes from the Indo-European root *peig-1 'To cut, mark (by incision)'. Derivatives: file² (as in nailfile), paint, Pictor, picture, picturesque, pigment, pimento (a spice), pint, pinto (a horse with patchy markings of white and another color, they are also called 'paint'), depict, pictograph, pictogram, (these words from Latin pingere, to embroider, tattoo, paint, picture), pik-, pig-, picro- (from Greek pikros, sharp, bitter), picric acid (used in explosives, dyes, and antiseptics), poikilotherm (an organism, such as a fish or reptile, having a body temperature that varies with the temperature of its surroundings; an ectotherm, 'cold-blooded', from Greek poikilos, spotted, pied, patchy color). [Pokorny 1. peig- 794. Watkins]

The word for the ancient people of northern Britain, the Picts, also comes from the *peig- root. Their bodies were covered with 'pictures' or tattoos stained into the skin.

“the Picts (Pictus), whose name is taken from their bodies, because an artisan, with the tiny point of a pin and the juice squeezed from a native plant, tricks them out with scars to serve as identifying marks, and their nobility are distinguished by their tattooed (pictus) limbs” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.386.]

Pigments are the basis of paints. Pigments are chemical compounds that were ground to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Pilumnus is the inventor of the pounding of grain and he might relate to the adjacent constellation, Lepus, the Japanese Jeweled Hare, pounding his elixir of immortality in a mortar and pestle.

“Mortar (pila) from crushing (pisere, i.e. pinsere) seeds, that is, grinding them up. From this also 'crushed herbs' (pigmentum), because they are made (agere) in a mortar and with a pestle (pilum), as if the word were piligmentum. A mortar is a concave vessel suited to use by physicians, in which, properly, grains are usually ground for tisanes and herbs for drugs are crushed. But Varro reports that there was a certain Pilumn[i]us (Pilumnus) in Italy who was first to grind (pinsere) the crop, whence also the terms 'miller' (pilumnus) and 'baker' (pistor). Therefore both the mortar (pila) and the pestle (pilum), by which grain is crushed, were invented by this man, and are named after his name. The pestle is what crushes whatever is placed in the mortar.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.114.]

The 'Big Picture' evokes concepts of; the divine plan, a plan, an overview, to be able to see how everything fits into the Big Picture. "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot" [Charlie Chaplin]. The donkey's bray, hee-haw! hee-haw! is like a parody of laughter. The ass is a calm, patient, stubborn animal, with its ridiculous ears, and whose name is associated with the most ridiculous part of our bodies, the ass or buttocks.

“A picture is an image representing the appearance of some object, which, when viewed, leads the mind to remember. It is called 'picture' (pictura) as if the word were fictura, for it is a made-up (fictus) image, and not the truth. Hence also the term 'painted' (fucatus), that is, daubed with some artificial color and possessing no credibility or truth. Thus some pictures go beyond the substance of truth in their attention to color, and in their efforts to increase credibility move into falsehood, just as someone who paints a three-headed Chimera, or a Scylla as human in the upper half and girded with dogs' heads below. The Egyptians first discovered the picture when they outlined a person's shadow with a line. It began like this, and was followed by the use of single colors, and afterwards by assortments of colors, so that gradually this art defined itself, and devised light and shadow and the differences in color. For this reason even now painters (pictor) first draw certain shadows and the outlines of the images to come, and then fill in the colors, following the order in which the art was discovered.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.380.]

Fictura and fictus come from the Indo-European root *dheigh- 'To form, build'. Derivatives: dairy (from Old English daege, bread kneader), lady (from Old English compound hlaefdige, mistress of a household < 'bread kneader', hlaf, bread, loaf), dough (from Old English dag, dough), teiglach (a confection consisting of bits of dough from Old High German teic, teig), figure, figurine, configure, disfigure, prefigure, transfigure, (these words from Latin figura, form, shape < 'result of kneading'), fainéant (given to doing nothing; idle), faint, feign, feint, fictile, fiction, figment (of the imagination), effigy (a copy), (these words from Latin fingere, to shape), thigmotaxis (also called stereotaxis; movement of an organism in response to contact with a solid body), thixotropy (the property exhibited by certain gels of becoming fluid when stirred or shaken and returning to the semisolid state upon standing, from Greek thinganein, to touch), paradise (pairi-, around, + daezo, wall, from Avestan daza-, wall - originally made of clay or mud bricks). [Pokorny dheigh- 244. Watkins]

Fictores ‘bakers’ were so called from fingere ‘to shape’ [Varro: On The Latin Language, p.309]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Pictor
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
gamma 20GEM48 22GEM11 087 13 45 -56 10 43 -79 32 32 4.38 K1
beta 21GEM10 22GEM33 086 31 29 -51 05 02 -74 25 53 3.94 A3

Johann Bode, Uranographia, 1801

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Equuleus Pictoris, The Painter's Easel, was formed, and thus named, by La Caille, but also has been called Pluteum Pictoris; astronomers know it as Pictor. It is the Chevalet du Peintre, or the Palette, of the French; the Pittore of the Italians; and the Malerstaffelei of the Germans.

The constellation lies just south of Columba, between Canopus and the south pole of the ecliptic in Dorado, La Caille assigning to it 14 stars, of from 3½ to 5½ magnitudes; but Gould catalogued 67 down to the 7th.

Near its epsilon, and close to Columba, Kapteyn recently has discovered an 8.2-magnitude orange-yellow star having a proper motion of 8".7 annually, thus much exceeding that of Goombridge's 1830 Ursae Majoris, hitherto the Flying Star.

Kapteyn's Star (HD 33793) mag: 8.85 Kapteyn's Star, a nearby red dwarf at the distance of 12.78 light years, is the closest halo star known.

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