Septentrio

This beautiful 16th century model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is currently on display in the British Museum. A compass rose on the roof has for its cardinal points Orientes, Occidentes, Meridies and Septentrio, and it turns out that these four were common at that time.

Septentrio refers first of all to the constellation of the Great Bear, a name we can trace back to Greek myth. However, the modern picture of a bear with a long tail is not the ancient one. Bears do not have long tails. The three tail stars were seen by the Romans as oxen (triones) drawing a wain, and the word septentrio is a contraction of septem triones. The etymology of triones is unclear. Some say that the word originally meant a trio of oxen.

The word was used in the late 1st Century BC by Vitruvius in his 10 books on architecture.

The Great Bear is also found in the Book of Job (the oldest book in the Bible). Jewish astronomers are said to have seen the three tail stars as three cubs following their mother.

What I find strange about all this is that the Great Bear does not contain the Pole Star, and never has. Until the advent of electricity, everyone had a strong awareness of the stars. Septentrio makes no sense as North unless it refers to Ursa Minor.

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~ by scalambra on February 7, 2012.

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