Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Vulpecula et Anser

the Fox and the Goose

Urania's Mirror 1825

It was originally known as Vulpecula cum Ansere: the Fox and the Goose. The Goose was pictured in the jaws of the Fox, the Goose is no longer officially in the sky but reputedly remains in the name of the alpha star: Anser (1). Anser, the Goose, is usually seen as a sub-constellation of Vulpecula.

Vulpecula is a diminutive of Latin vulpes, fox, and believed to be from Greek alopex, Aeolian Greek falopex, whence valopes, volpes, vulpes [Valpy, Greek..., p.18], and comes from the Indo-European root *wlpé- 'Fox'. Derivatives: vulpine, from Latin vulpes, alopecia (loss of hair, baldness, literally ‘fox mange’, from Greek alopex, fox), vixen (feminine of fox, alteration of Middle English fixen, from Old English fyxe). [Pokorny wlpe- 1179. Watkins]. The red fox is Vulpes vulpes.

The Old French for fox is goupil, is also a derivative of Latin vulpes, fox. Because of the popularity of the Reynard stories, renard was often used as an euphemism to the point that today renard is the standard French word for "fox" and goupil is now dialectal or archaic [2].

The Modern English word 'fox' is derived from Germanic fukh, German fuchs, Dutch vos, which corresponds to the Proto-Indo-European word puk, meaning 'tail', Indian pucchah, 'tail', or puccha, Polish puch, 'woolly hair'. The bushy tail is also the source of words for fox in Welsh (llwynog, from llwyn meaning 'bush') and fox in Lithuanian is uodegis, from uodega meaning 'tail'.

The Irish word for fox is sionnach, and it is believed that the word shenanigans could come from Irish sionnachuighim `I play the fox.'[2].

In Scotland and Northern England a fox was called a tod1. The collective term for foxes is skulk. The color fuchsia (magenta), fuchsin (bluish red dye), was named after fuchs (fox). The plant genus Fuchsia (named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs) has a similar color. The drug digitalis (found in foxgloves) is used in treating heart conditions. Bovista, a genus of gasteromycetous fungi, the first element is from Middle High German vohe, 'vixen'.

The 'fox and goose' might have long-forgotten connotations, the fox was seen as representing the preaching friar on the pulpit, with the 'silly geese' representing the congregation. In Symbolism of Animals and Birds, Represented in English Architecture, 1913, Arthur H. Collins tells about the satirical 13th century carvings of foxes in friar’s garb, and how the begging friars were much disliked by the secular and monastic clergy:

"The Bestiaries relate that the fox ensnares unwary fowls by pretending to be dead; in like manner the devil deceives unwary souls who love the corrupt things of the world. When geese are listening to a fox we suppose that they symbolize the silly souls who put their trust in the monk or friar, as the case may be. But, of course, the meaning is often simpler than that. Quite as frequently the fox is represented as preaching in a monk’s or friar’s habit to geese and other creatures, as on the stalls of Beverley Minster, S. Mary’s Beverley, and Ely Cathedral (13th century). Generally such carvings are accompanied by others which represent Reynard devouring his flock, or paying the penalty of his crimes on the scaffold: from which ordeal he sometimes emerges alive to try again! At Worcester Cathedral there are carved on a misericord foxes running in and out of holes. St. John the Evangelist stands near by with his Gospel in his hand, and his eagle at his feet. Here we can see an allusion to our Savor’s words, “Foxes have holes,” etc., in S. Matt. viii. 20. It has been supposed that the object of this particular carving is to induce him who sees it to choose between good and evil."

The sanctimonious fox of the mediaeval stories, preaching from a pulpit to a flock of gullible geese, characterizes the pious fraud:

"'Semper peccator, semper Justus' (ever sinning, ever righteous), so Germaine Dieterlen sums up the verdict of African folk wisdom upon this creature" [Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p.407].

"Reynard can often be found dressing up as a religious figure or pretending to be pious in order to avoid punishment or get a meal" [3].

The Gnostics ... admonition of Solan:

"Fools, ye are treading in the footsteps of the fox; can ye not read the hidden meaning of these winning words?" [The Lost Language of Symbolism, v. 2, p.104]

Foxes are notorious for cunning and slyness, and they characterize falsety. In Reynard the Fox he was referred to many times 'as the false fox', the French word for false is faux, faux pas, a blooper, is meant to be pronounced 'foe pa' but it is sometimes pronounced in English 'fox paws' or 'fox pass' by the ignorant. False comes from Latin fallere, derivatives are: fail, failure, fallacy, fallacious, fallible, false, fallible, infallible, fault, default, faucet, fault, French faux.

Fox fire is the ignes fatui or 'Will o' the wisp'. In Scandinavian mythology the 'light of the fox' is the Aurora Borealis. Fox-fire - i.e. fause or 'false fire,' the phosphoric light, without heat, which plays round decaying matter, especially that produced by certain fungi found on rotting wood.

The fox, goose and bag of beans puzzle is a mental puzzle originating from an old riddle, and can be read here

"The fox is a crafty and deceitful animal that never runs in a straight line, but only in circles. When it wants to catch birds to eat, the fox rolls in red mud so that it appears to be covered in blood. It then lies apparently lifeless; birds, deceived by the appearance of blood and thinking the fox to be dead, land on it and are immediately devoured" [http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast179.htm]

Foxes painting themselves with red mud evokes the concept of using make-up or cosmetics. Fucus is phonetically similar to fuchs(?) and denoted a kind of red dye obtained from lichens, later this name was applied to 'rouge' or 'face paint'.. Fucus also meant disguise, deceit "...a fucus that cannot be detected..." [4]. Its linguistic offspring, infucate, 'To apply cosmetics; paint the face', isn't used all that often today [5]. Latin had the word offucia, paint; disguise, trick, from ob-fucus [Valpy, p.299]. The brownish seaweed or algae, rockweed, is of the order Fucales, from fucus.

Foxites was a term for the Quakers. So called from George Fox, who organized the sect (1624-1690).

Foxes (vulpes) are so named as if the word were volupes, for they are 'shifty on their feet' (volubilis + pes) and never follow a straight path but hurry along tortuous twistings. It is a deceitful animal, tricking others with its guile, for whenever it has no food it pretends to be dead, and so it snatches and devours the birds that descend to its apparent corpse.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.253.]

Another translation:

Foxes (vulpes) are named as if pleasurable (volupes), because the fox flies with its feet (volat pedibus). They are deceptive animals that never run on a direct course, but only follow a winding path. To get food fox pretends to be dead, then captures birds that come to feed on what they suppose to be its corpse. [Aberdeen Bestiary]

"Foxes (vulpes) are named as if pleasurable (volupes)", from *volupis, pleasant (cognate with Greek elpis, 'hope'). Greek alopex, fox, may be relate to Greek elpis 'hope' from obsolete alpos? The Latin counterpart of Elpis, Spes, had several temples in Rome.

The god Dionysus (might be Crater) had an epithet Bassareus when he was in his fox form. His followers, the Maenads (or Bacchae or Bacchantes of Roman mythology), were called Bassarids, Greek Bassaris, from bassara, 'fox', a word of unknown etymology; so called because their dresses were made of foxskins [Klein]. A variant form was Bassaros, 'the Vulpine One', Lord of the Bassarids [6]. "Others derive the name Bassareus from a Hebrew word, according to which its meaning would be the same as the Greek protrugês, that is, the precursor of the vintage. On some of the vases discovered in southern Italy Dionysus is represented in a long garment which is commonly considered to be the Thracian bassara" [7].

Foxes were destructive to vineyards, being plunderers of ripe grapes. The well known Aesop fable The Fox and the Sour Grapes is about grapes hanging too high up for the fox to reach. Frustrated, he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of feigned dignity and unconcern, remarking, "I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour" [8]. The English idiom "sour grapes" is derived from this fable.

The verb 'to fox', foxing, is to make sour by fermenting, used of beer and wine. Foxy is a tasting term for the musty character of wines with an animal aroma or taste which reminds the smell of fox. It is not certain if the the term is related to the animal, 'fox', or derives from the French faux, faulx ('false'). According to this wine tasting terminology website, the French phrase "gout de renard" literally translates as 'odour' or 'taste' of fox, but means something more like "presence of fox" in the intangible sense.

Fox, a term for a sword frequent in the Elizabethan dramatists, may perhaps be the French faux, faulx, Latin falx, a "falchion" (a short, broad sword with a convex cutting edge and a sharp point, used in medieval times. from Latin falx, falc-, sickle). Fox, a cant term for to make, or become, drunk, perhaps akin to Fr. fausser, as if to disguise (?). Compare also the French fausser, or faulser, to pierce or broach a cask, whence fausset, a, faucet for a hogshead. [to make wine go sour] Fuller uses fauxety for faussete (falsity), with allusion to Guy Faux. It is worth noting, however, that in Icelandic fox is a fraud or deception, and perhaps to fox is to beguile or fuddle one. Fuzzed (=z fuddled) is perhaps related. A print or book is said to be foxed, when the paper has become spotted or discoloured by damp (musty). In Warwickshire the same term is applied to timber when discoloured by incipient decay. It is, no doubt, the same word as the West country foust, soiled, mouldy, and fust, to become mouldy, Scot, foze, the same. Compare fouse, a Craven form of fox. Fust is from O. French fuste, "fusty," originally smelling of the cask (fust, from Lat. fustis). [Folk-etymology; 1882, Abram Palmer, p.127-128]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Vulpecula
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
1 23CAP16 24CAP39 288 30 60 +21 18 03 +43 13 07 4.60 B5
alpha 28CAP08 29CAP31 291 39 21 +24 33 45 +45 51 54 4.63 M1
13 05AQU40 07AQU03 297 50 02 +23 56 53 +43 56 38 4.50 A0

1 From Hevelius atlas

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Vulpecula cum Ansere, the Little Fox and the Goose, is known in Italy as Volpe colla Oca; in Germany as Fuchs, or Fuchschen, mit der Gans; and in France as Petit Renard avec l'Oie.

Smyth wrote that this is "a modern constellation, crowded in by Hevelius to occupy a space between the Arrow (Sagitta) and the Swan (Cygnus), where the Via Lactea (Milky Way) divides into two branches. For this purpose he ransacked the infamies of this bifurcation, and was so satisfied with the result, that the effigies figure in the elaborate print of his offerings to Urania. He selected it on account of the Eagle (Aquila), Cerberus (an obsolete constellation in Hercules) and Vultur Cadens (Lyra). "I wished," said he, "to place a fox and a goose in the space of the sky well fitted to it; because such an animal is very cunning, voracious and fierce. Aquila and Vultur are of the same nature, rapacious and greedy.''

The two members are sometimes given separately; indeed the Anser is often omitted. Flamsteed's Atlas shows both, but separates the titles; and Proctor arbitrarily combined both in his Vulpes. Astronomers now call the whole Vulpecula.

Its inventor saw 27 stars here, but Argelander catalogued 37, and Heis 62. They come to the meridian toward the end of August.

Although I have elsewhere found no named star in Vulpecula, and its {Page 474} general faintness would render it doubtful whether there ever has been one, yet the Standard Dictionary says of it under the word Anser: a small star in the constellation of the Fox and the Goose; and the Century Dictionary has much the same. This may have been alpha, the lucida, a 4.4-magnitude just west of the Fox's head.

A meteor stream, the Vulpeculids, appearing from the 13th of June to the 7th of July, radiates from a point in this constellation; but the latter's most noteworthy object is the Double-headed Shot, or Dumb-bell Nebula, N. G. C. 6853, 27 M., just visible in a 1¼-inch finder, 7° southeast from the star Albireo.

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