Biblical astrology: Orion

Orion, the mighty hunter, is Kesil in the Hebrew, a strange word that is also translated as fool. According to Peake’s commentary, Orion is Nephila in Aramaic [p260], which means that the Nephilim – a race of giants – were the descendents of Orion. A very similar word, (H5307) means the fallen ones, although the etymology is uncertain. The Nephilim could then be identified with the Orionids meteor shower.

The Hungarians preserve the name of Orion as Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord (Gen 10) who is at best an ambivalent figure. A Jewish tradition says that he tried to burn Abraham at the stake; the attempted sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac could be seen as a reframing of this earlier episode.

In Arabic, Orion is said to be Al Jauza; Betelguese is Yad al-Jauza’, the Hand of Orion.

Many of the names passed down to us are Arabic, following the Arabic dominance of astronomy – of all sciences – from the 9th to the 15th centureis. The Arabs appear to have been preservers of earlier Greek names, catalogued by the Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandra in the 2nd century BC. You can read a nice article about this by Robert Lebling in the magazine of magazine of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company. This article The online version does not have as many pictures as the printed copy.

κ Orion is called Saiph. R.H. Allen says this is from Saif al Jabbār, the sword of the giant. Now in Arabic, Saif is a curved sword, which it would have to be for Saiph to form part of the sword. However representations of Orion do not show a curved sword. Here for instance is the engaving in Bayer’s 1602 atlas Uranomatria (named after Urania, the Greek Muse of Astronomy), drawn not from earth but as if looking on the firmament from without.

What about Eastern versions? Here is the drawing by Abd Arrahman al-Sufi (903 – 986) from his famous star catalogue, The Book of Fixed Stars in 964


Al-Sufi updated the work of Ptolemy and his work is widely praised for its accuracy as well as its beauty. The sword, as you can see, is straight.

Another Arabic image shows a huntress facing the other way. The stars in Orion’s belt are three vertebrae in her back. Roland Laffitte uses Arabic tradition to explain this as Al Jawza, the wife. Laffitte’s article is interesting, but be prepared to brush up your French.

Now Bullinger has shûph H7779, which means bruised. As explained in the previous post, this would relate to the curse in Genesis 3:15. In this view, Orion is standing on the head of a serpent (rather than the modern hare). Bullinger followed Rolleston whose etymology is widely condemned as unreliable: she assumed that the Arabic names were homonyms of earlier Hebrew ones. In this case, the Arabic name is unsatisfactory, because even the Arabs don’t draw Saiph in the sword of Orion. And as far as I know, Jewish swords were straight.

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~ by scalambra on March 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “Biblical astrology: Orion”

  1. I’ve always found ‘Star Names, their lore and meaning’ by Richard Hinckley Allen, 1st pub. Dover 1963 to be a comprehensive reference source to Star name etymology.

  2. For example, Hinckley Allen writes of Orion – ‘We find in the various versions of the Book of Job and Amos the word Orion for the original Hebrew word K’sil, literally signifying ‘foolish’ ‘impious’ ‘Inconstant’ or ‘Self-confident’. This perhaps is etymologically connected with Kislev, the name for the ninth month of the Hebrew calender, the tempestuous November – December.

    Julius Furst considered this Kislev an early title of Orion. The epithet ‘Inconstant’ has fancifully been referred to the storms usual at his rising.

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