Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Sails of the Ship Argo Navis

Johann Rost, Atlas portatalis coelestis, 1723 1

Vela, Latin for the sails of a ship, is a constellation in the southern sky. It was originally part of a larger constellation, the ship Argo Navis, which was later divided into three parts, the others being Carina and Puppis, plus a subordinate division of Argo now called Pyxis Nautica, the Nautical Box or Mariner's Compass, and which used to be called Malus, the Mast.

The word Vela comes from the Indo-European root *weg-1 'To weave a web'. Suffixed form *weg-slo-; veil, Vela (sails, plural of velum), velarium, velum (sail), vexilum (a flag, banner, or ensign. The weblike part of a feather; the vane), voile (a fabric of plain weave used especially for making dresses and curtains), reveal1, revelation, (these words from Latin velum, 'a sail, curtain, veil'). [Pokorny weg- 1117. Watkins]

To reveal something is etymologically to 'remove a veil' from it.

Velum, a sail or veil, from vexillum, is anything flying or moved by the wind, a streamer, a flag, or a banner. The Latin word for a flag was vexillum, 'a military ensign or standard', vexilla 'banner', from the diminutive of velum, a covering, in English the word vexillum is the weblike part of a feather; the vane, a vexillary, was a standard-bearer, or ensign, vexillology is the study of flags.

“A banner (vexillum) is also a battle-sign, having its name drawn from the diminutive of 'sail' (velum), as if it were velxillum.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.361.]

The word sail (vela) and ensign (vexilum) are from the same root *weg-1. In ancient times the sail might have also been a flag:

"The sail had also to serve for an ensign (Ezekiel 27:7 )" [1].

"The flag proper seems not to have been used in ancient navigation; its purpose was served by the sail, as for example at the battle of Actium the ship of Antony was distinguished by its purple sail." [2]

An ensign is a national flag displayed on ships and aircraft, often with the special insignia to identify where it belongs. [The German word segel, sail, resembles the German word siegel, seal, from Latin sigillum, a seal].

In anatomy the velum is the soft palate, the soft tissue constituting the back of the roof of the mouth, it guards the opening to the throat, windpipe, and lungs, and is responsible for sealing off the nasal passages during the act of swallowing. Velarization is a secondary articulation of consonants by which the back of the tongue is raised toward the velum during the articulation of the consonant [3].

'To take the veil' can mean to become a nun, to become sequestered behind a veil, sectioned off from the rest of society.

“Isis first invented sails, for while seeking her son Harpocrates, she sailed on a ship” Hyginus Fabulae 277

Isis is the chief Egyptian goddess. The ancient writer Proclus speaks of a statue which carried her name and the inscription which translates: 'I am that which is, has been, and shall be. My veil no-one has lifted. The fruit I bore was the sun'. This gives rise to the saying: 'To lift the veil of Isis', i.e. to uncover a great secret. [4]

"Apocalypsis is translated from Greek into Latin as 'revelation' (revelatio), and a revelation means a manifestation of things that were hidden, as John himself says (Apoc. 1:1): "The Revelation (Apocalypsis) of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to make known to his servants" [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.138.]

Varro says that a ferry-raft was called a velabrum. "Velabrum is from vehere ‘to convey'" [Varro: On The Latin Language, 1st century AD, p.41]. "In the Middle Ages, the name was corrupted into Velum Aureum" [5]. "The Latin word for ferrying being velatura. Others derive the name from velum, a sail; because the exhibitors of public shows used to hang the road that leads from the forum to the Circus Maximus with sails" [Plutarch, Life of Romulus]. Varro says advectus is ‘transport by water’ and explains why he see a connection between velabrum and advectus (which is related to vehere): "I am decidedly of the opinion, that it is from advectus ‘transport by water’; for of old the hill was cut off from everything else by swampy pools and streams. Therefore they advehebantur ‘were conveyed’ thither by rafts; and traces of this survive, in that the way by which they were then transported is now called Velabrum ‘ferry,' and the place from which they landed at the bottom of New Street is a chapel of the Velabra". Vehere translates our word vehicle and is from the Indo-European root *wegh- 'To go, transport in a vehicle'. Derivatives: wee, weight, way, always, away, wayfarer, Norwegian, thalweg, wain, wagon, ochlocracy (government by the masses; mob rule), ochlophobia (an abnormal fear of crowds, from Greek okhlos, populace, mob < 'moving mass'), vogue (the prevailing fashion, from Old French, probably from voguer, to sail, row), earwig, wiggle, vector, vehement, vehicle, advection, convection, evection, invective, inveigh, (these words from Latin vehere, past participle vectus, to carry), via, voyage, convey, convoy, deviate, devious, envoi or envoy¹, invoice, obviate, obvious, pervious, previous, trivia, viaduct, (these words from Latin via, way), vex (from Latin vexare, to agitate < 'to set in motion'), convex (from Latin convexus, 'carried or drawn together - to a point)'. [Pokorny wegh- 1118. Watkins]

Skeat, 1893, here, says veil and vehicle derive from the same root: "The orig. sense (of veil) was sail or 'propeller' of a ship; Curtius, i. 237.—Lat. ueh-ere (vehere), to carry, bear along".

"It was a great step in the art of conveying themselves by water carriage to add a sail." [Significant etymology]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Vela the sails
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
gamma 25LEO59 27LEO22 121 59 12 -47 11 51 -64 28 44 1.70 var B3
ALSUHAIL lambda 09VIR49 11VIR11 136 32 20 -43 13 48 -55 52 21 2.22 K4
psi 13VIR22 14VIR45 142 10 55 -40 14 50 -51 09 53 3.64 A7
delta 17VIR35 18VIR58 130 49 51 -54 31 29 -67 11 51 2.01 A0
q 25VIR37 27VIR00 153 09 30 -41 52 26 -48 15 31 4.09 A2
Markeb kappa 27VIR31 28VIR54 140 08 29 -54 47 48 -63 43 16 2.63 B3
phi 04LIB35 05LIB58 148 46 35 -54 19 45 -59 56 56 3.70 B7
mu 09LIB08 10LIB31 161 09 12 -49 09 20 -51 05 10 2.84 G5

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Vela is the sail of the ship Argo Navis. Astronomers divided the great Ship of the Argonauts, Argo Navis, into four smaller constellations; Puppis, the Stern; Carina, the Keel, Malus, the Mast which is now Pyxis the Compass, and Vela, the Sail.

The Alfonsine Tables show Argo Navis as a complete double-masted vessel with oars, and Lubienitzki, in the Theatrum Cometicum of 1667, as a three-masted argosy with a tier of ports and all sails set full to the wind.

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