Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Arrow

Sagitta the Arrow
Urania's Mirror 1825

Sagitta is said to represent the arrow with which Hercules slew the eagle (Aquila) that fed upon the liver of Prometheus.

An arrow is a pointed projectile that is shot with a bow and penetrates a distant target. Sagitta is the constellation of the arrow, and Sagittarius is the bow or Archer. The constellation of Aquila, the Eagle, separates these two constellations. The shooter is the Archer (Sagittarius) and the shot is the Arrow (Sagitta). The English word arrow is confounded with the word archer (Sagittarius) and cognate with Latin arcus, 'bow, arch'. The English word Sagitta, arrow, is also confounded with the word Sagittarius, the archer.

“The arrow (sagitta) is named for its 'keen striking' (sagax ictus), that is, its swift striking. It is borne on feathers like a bird so that death might swiftly hasten for a person. The people of Crete first used arrows, on which feathers, as we have said, were glued so that they would be light and fly.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.363.]

The word sagax of 'sagax ictus' should belong to the constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer, from Latin sagire, to seek, 'seek to know'. The keywords for Sagittarius is 'I seek'. The word ictus in medicine means sudden attack, blow, stroke, or seizure. In music 'ictus' is the instant when a beat occurs. Latin ictus is past participle of icere, 'to strike'; cognate with Greek aikhme, 'point of a spear, spear', Latvian iesms, 'roasting spit', related to the first element in Aechmophorus (in reference to its bill), a genus of birds in the grebe family.

The Armenians and Persians called this constellation Tigris [Allen, Star Names], meaning an arrow in their language:

“The tiger (tigris) is so called because of its rapid flight, for this is what the Persians and Medes call an arrow. It is a beast distinguished by varied markings, amazing in its strength and speed. The river Tigris is called after the name of the animal, because it is the most rapid of all rivers” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.251.]

According to one Chinese legend, a young boy severely whipped or 'given many stripes' by his teacher ran off into the forest and in his rage became the first tiger. [1]

"From the Sumerians, who invented the first written Western language, we find references to the Mesopotamian god Enki masturbating, his ejaculation filling the Tigris River with flowing water" [2].

The star Nunki, the sigma star of Sagittarius, is identified with Enki - "of Enki, Sumerian god of waters and of most ancient city of Eridu": Jaculum was one title for Sagitta, 'jaculum' and 'ejaculate' are both derived from Latin iaculum, meaning a dart; there might be a correlation between the releasing arrows from a bow and releasing semen.

An arrow is basically a pointed stick, that sticks into a chosen target when released from the bow. The word stick is related to the word tiger from *steig- 'To stick; pointed'. Derivatives: stitch, stick, etiquette, ticket, distinct, distinguish, extinct, extinguish, instinct, stigma, stigmata, astigmatism, tiger, instigate, steak (to roast - on a spit or stick), thistle. [Pokorny (s)teig- 1016. Watkins]

The Tasmanian tiger is extinct.

Throughout the Northern Steppe it was custom, or etiquette, to require all who came to the king's assembly to bring arrows with them and to present them personally to the king. From these arrows a census was taken, each man submitting but a single shaft, which represented him and bore his distinct mark. Historically, these sticks 'rods or staffs' were bundled together as a ritual bundle and signified the unity of the nation... Invitation-sticks (usually arrow-formed) was required by American Indians to bring with them as tickets to the feast. (Hugh Nibley, The Arrow, the Hunter, and the State).

A story originating from classical Roman times is told by Bestiaries (a medieval collection of stories) with a number of different versions about the nature of the tiger to illustrate its instinctive characteristic as opposed to calculating intelligence. The tigress, seeing that her cubs are gone, tracks them by scent and chases the hunter. When the hunter sees the tigress catching up, he drops one cub. The tigress stops to pick up the cub and takes it back to the den and then runs after the hunter again. The hunter repeats this ruse until he reaches his ship; in this way he escapes with at least one of the cubs.

In describing the astrological influences of Sagitta Manilius illustrates another facet of how this characteristic instinct operates:

"Under this constellation indeed may well have been born that luckless parent who caught sight of a serpent couched upon his son's face and sapping the life-blood of the sleeping child, but nerved himself to let fly a shaft (arrow) at it and succeeded in killing the reptile. Fatherhood supplied his skill; a natural instinct overcame the danger and delivered the boy from sleep and death alike ...". [Manilius, Astronomica 1st century AD, book 5, p.235].

Obelus was mentioned as a title for this constellation [Allen, Star Names]. The Greek word Obolus was translated by the Latins into sagitta. Oboloi (measures of weight) were once made from bronze in the shape of an arrow, whence they get the Greek name meaning arrow, or roasting-spit, diminutive of obelos, 'skewer' or roasting stick (3). "Obelisk was said to be a petrified ray of the Egyptian aten, the sundisk. It was also thought that the god Aten existed within the structure" [3].

There seems to be a number of associations between the arrow and the penis, an organ known for its uncontrollable ability to react instinctually:

"The arrow would seem to be associated with the erect male penis as the single most representative feature of masculinity and the one thing never associated with the feminine" [4].

Sigmund Freud believed that the obelisk was a giant phallus (erect penis) with its ability to penetrate.

"The taboo factor certainly has to be taken into account. Modern Dutch 'piel' (a not so often used word for 'penis') e.g. is etymologically the same as 'pijl' (arrow)" [5].

Isis substituted the dead Osiris' missing penis with a stick provided by her good friend Thoth [6].

“Mesfres, king of Egypt, is said to have been the first to make an obelisk, for the following reason. Because the Nile once had damaged Egypt with a violent flood, the indignant king, as if to exact a penalty from the river, shot an arrow into the water. Not long afterwards, seized by a serious illness, he lost his sight, and once his vision was restored after this blindness he consecrated two obelisks to the sun god. 'Obelisk' (obeliscus) is the name of the arrow that is set up in the middle of the circus because the sun runs through the middle of the world. Moreover, the obelisk, set up in the midpoint of the space of the racetrack equidistant from the two turning-posts, represents the peak and summit of heaven (the pinnacle), since the sun moves across it at the midpoint of the hours, equidistant from either end of its course. Set on top of the obelisk is a gilded object shaped like a flame, for the sun has an abundance of heat and fire within it.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.367.]

Aratos (ca. 240 BC) called this constellation the Feathered Arrow (the word feather might relate to Libra, also penna the flight feathers): A classical Latin title for this constellation was Calamus, meaning the hollow shaft of a feather, also known as the quill. Artisans who make arrows are known as 'fletchers,' a word related to the French word for arrow, flèche. The verb 'fletch', meaning to provide an arrow with its feathers.

A neighboring constellation is named Aquila, the eagle, it separates the two constellations Sagitta and Sagittarius. In mythology Aquila carries the armor of Zeus, amongst his armor he carries the arrows (maybe quills?) An eagle is carrying and throwing the arrow of thunder in the Russian folklore [7]. In mythology the Stymphalian man-eating birds used their feathers as arrows [8].

The word arrow, air-row, might also relate to the meaning of a row of sticks in the air. Zeno of Elea (490-425 BC), a Greek philosopher famous for his Zeno Paradoxes, of 'the Arrow' he says: Consider a flying arrow. At any given moment it is in a space equal to its own length, and therefore is at rest at that moment. That the flying arrow is at rest, which result follows from the assumption that time is composed of moments [9].

The shooter is the Archer (Sagittarius) and the shot is the Arrow (Sagitta). Arrows are made from the off-shoots, or cuttings of trees, a straight-up shoot was preferred, the shooting of which would have caused some of these shots to have taken root in far-off places outside their usual environment, at least those with unpeeled bark. For both arrows and cuttings for planting the young shoots representing the current season's growth are used; the previous season's growth is favored for making bows. Shoot comes from the Indo-European root *skeud 'To shoot, chase, throw'. Derivatives: shoot, shot, shut, shout, shuttle, scuttle1. [Pokorny 2. (s)keud- 955. Watkins] [Some of these words may belong to the constellation Sagittarius which was the German titles Schutze, and Schutz, the Anglo-Saxons had Scytta, a manuscript of 1386 calling Sagittarius the Schoter. An arrow is shot with a bow.]

A sagittal plane divides the body into left and right portions; this section through an axis is called a plane. Sagittal relates to the suture uniting the two parietal bones of the skull. The sagittal plane, a front-to-back plane parallel to the midline of a body, "like an arrow passing through the body".

There is the story of a man named Abaris, a Hyperborean, who was given a magical arrow by the god Apollo, on which he flew around the world (like a witch on a broomstick) performing miracles. Abaris is said to have purified Sparta and Knossos, among other cities, from plagues. Plagues (and maybe the cure for plagues - Achilles) were associated with bows and arrows. Artemis is like her brother, Apollo, armed with a bow, quiver, and arrows, and sends plague and death among men and animals [1].

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

"Sagitta, The Arrow, will bestow the skill of hurling the javelin with the arm, of shooting the arrow from the string and missiles from rods, and of hitting a bird on the wing in the sky that is its home or piercing with three-pronged spear the fish that deemed itself so safe. What constellation or nativity should I rather have given Teucer? To what degree should I prefer to assign Philoctetes? His bow enabled Teucer to repel the flaming torches of Hector which threatened to pour fell fire upon a thousand ships (Those of the Greeks at Troy). Carrying in his quiver the fate of Troy and the Trojan War, Philoctetes*, who tarried in exile, proved a foe more potent than an armored host. Under this constellation indeed may well have been born that luckless parent who caught sight of a serpent couched upon his son's face and sapping the life-blood of the sleeping child, but nerved himself to let fly a shaft at it and succeeded in killing the reptile. Fatherhood supplied his skill; a natural instinct overcame the danger and delivered the boy from sleep and death alike, given then a second life and snatched whilst dreaming from the grave". [Translator's note:*It was decreed that Troy could not be taken without the arrows of Hercules; these were held by Philoctetes, who, afflicted with a noisome wound in the foot, had been abandoned by the Greeks in Lemnos; subsequently healed and brought to Troy, he slew many of the Trojans, including Paris. Unlike most of the Greeks Philoctetes, as an archer, wore no armor]. [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.235].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Sagitta
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Sham alpha 29CAP41 01AQU04 294 27 54 +17 53 51 +38 47 52 4.37 F8
beta 29CAP50 01AQU13 294 42 01 +17 21 32 +38 13 26 4.45 G7
delta 02AQU01 03AQU24 296 17 21 +18 24 35 +38 55 05 3.78 M2
gamma 05AQU40 07AQU03 299 07 58 +19 21 18 +39 11 42 3.71 M0

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

There is in front another Arrow cast

Without a bow; and by it flies the Bird

Nearer the north.

  — Brown's Aratos.

Sagitta, the Arrow, is the French Fleche, the German Pfeil, and the Italian Saetta, lies in the Milky Way, directly north of Aquila and south of Cygnus, pointing eastward; and, although ancient, is insignificant, for it has no star larger than the 4th magnitude, and none that is named. {Page 350} It has occasionally been drawn as held in the Eagle's (Aquila) talons, for the bird was armor-bearer to Jove; but Eratosthenes described it separately, as Aratos had done, and as it now is on our maps. It has been regarded as the traditional weapon that slew the eagle of Jove, or the one shot by Hercules towards the adjacent Stymphalian birds, and still lying between them, whence the title Herculea; but Eratosthenes claimed it as the arrow with which Apollo exterminated the Cyclopes; and it sometimes was the Arrow of Cupid. The Hyginus of 1488 showed it overlying a bow; indeed, Eratosthenes called it toxon, a Bow, signifying Arrows in its plural form; Aratos mentioned it as the Feathered Arrow and the Well-shaped Dart, the allos oistos, of our motto, "another arrow," in distinction from that of Sagittarius. Still, it has often been thought of as the latter's weapon strayed from its owner. Hipparchos and Ptolemy had plain oistos.

Latin authors of classical times and since knew it as Canna, Calamus, and Harundo, all signifying the Reed from which the arrow-shafts were formed; and as Missile, Jaculum, and Telum, the Weapon, Javelin, and Dart; Telum descending even to Kepler's day. But Sagitta was its common title with all the Romans who mentioned its stars; Cicero characterizing it as clara and fulgens, which, however, it is not.

Bayer, who ascribed to it the astrological nature of Mars and Venus, picked up several strange names: Daemon, Feluco, and Fossorium, apparently unintelligible here; Obelus, one of the semeiai, or notae, of ancient grammarians, or, possibly, an Obelisk, which it may resemble; Orfercalim, cited by Riccioli and Beigel from Albumasar for the Turkish Otysys Kalem, a Smooth Arrow; Temo meridianus, the Southern Beam; Vectis, a Pole; Virga and Virgula jacens, a Falling Wand.

The Hebrews called it Hes or Hets; the Armenians and Persians, Tigris; and the Arabians, Al Sahm, all meaning an Arrow; this last, given on the Dresden globe, being turned by Chilmead into Alsoham, by Riccioli into Schaham, and by Piazzi into Sham.

In some of the Alfonsine Tables appeared Istusc, repeated in the Almagest of 1515 as Istiusc, both probably disfigured forms of oistos; and the Alfonsine Tables of 1521 had Alahance, perhaps from the Arabic Al H'ams or H'amsah, the Five (Stars), its noticeable feature. The same Almagest also had Albanere, adding est nun, all unintelligible except from Scaliger's note: {Page 351} legendum Alhance, id est Sagitta, hebraicae originis, converso Dages in Nun, ut saepe accidit in Arabismo et Syriasmo.

Schickard wrote it Alchanzato.

Sagitta is not noticed in the Reeves list of Chinese asterisms.

Caesius imagined it the Arrow shot by Joash at Elisha's command, or one of those sent by Jonathan towards David at the stone Ezel; and Julius Schiller, the Spear, or the Nail, of the Crucifixion.

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