(Schema 3, December 1986)
english translation by Daria Dudziak
Perseus, Suwar al-Kavahib al-Thabita
Bibliotèque Nationale (Ms Arabe 5036)
Everybody knows the myth about Perseus and Medusa. The four stars which represent her head (beta, pi, ro, omega Persei) and which are called gorgoneio (Hipparch. in Ar. 2,3,27; Ptol.,alm. 7,4) are absorbed by a small tongue of the Milky Way.Among them the most brilliant is the b Persei, usually called Caput Medusae.
The Greek myth has been expressed in a meteorological key (cfr. Quintus Sm. 14,454-458), seeing that Medusa and her sisters, horrible and dark monsters who live in the gloom of the West impersonate the clouds of the storm (1). During the cloud of the storm which forms on the sea (Serv. ad Aen. 5,823; ad Georg. 4,403)- beatiful Medusa was loved by Poseidon and she united with him in "a soft prairie among the spring flowers" (Hes. thg. 278; cfr. Ovid. met. 4,798; 6,119).Consequently Perseus's victory indicates the triumph of the solar hero who kills the demon of the storm and of the lightning (2).Generally the ancients believed that the lightning petrified and in several qabbalistic scripts the rocks with Medusa's head carved on them have the apotropaic value against the ligthing, the storm and demons'attacks (3). However , if the gorgoneio protects from the evil eye it can also bring death : Persephone sends the monster's head to those who he wants to kill.(Hom. Od.12,634) (4).
b Persei is a variable star and there is no other star in the sky which variation would be so sudden. This phenomenon was discovered by Montanari at the end of theXVII century, demostrated then by John Goodricke jr. from York in the 1782 and reasserted by Pickering in the 1880.Algol is a binary star subjected to eclipse. It is composed of two celestial bodies: one brilliant and another lusterless. Its light remains more or less steady to our eyes for two days and a half, at the visual magnitude of 2,3; but before the third day begins it declines, first slowly and then quickly at the visual magnitude of 3,5. It remains in this sudden gulf for no more than two hours and it returns to its maximal brightness very quickly ,in three hours and a half.
Whether in the Greek tradition the b Persei is Medusa's head, the Arabs call this star al-Ghûl, or 'the malignant spirit', 'the devil', 'the ghost', 'the frightful phantom', 'the ogre', 'the cannibal'. Al-ghûl is the Ogre who leads out the travellers of the right way and devours them beginning from the feet. The word derives from ghâla, "to enrapture", "to put someone to death" and this verb means, in his third form (mughâwala), "to take various forms". In Enoch's version of the hermetic de XV stellis , Algol's figure is a human head with a long beard, a virile head, not feminine, with a blood-stained neck (5).To this image and to his name must be referred the Maghrebin legend gathered by Joaquin Garcia Campos in Tetuan which says that " the famous variable star Algol is but a lamp which The Flower of Love (Naûrat ash-shaq) following the advice of Perseus , her faithful lover, has put in the dormer window of her cave. The Flower of Love was the adored and beatiful Orcus' slave who in spite of gifts and caresses was unable to make her his.She made Orcus believe that the lamp's light was shining only in order to guide him in the darkness of the night when he was coming back from hunting and that she would put it out little by little when he would come in the cave. Every time when the young beloved saw that al-Gol , her master was coming back from hunting step by step she covered the lantern with more and more veils until it seemed out. The lack of light warned then her lover about the danger: Orcus was there! However when he went back haunting the veils were raised one by one and gradually the lantern returned to shine again.Then Perseus rushed to Naura's arms and love deified the cave again.Yet the lovers have been once unexpectedly taken by surprise by Orcus. He was out of his mind because of jealousy and attacked the unprepared lovers and managed to kill the slave , but he was also killed by her beloved who flew into a rage and cut Orcus' throat and since then he holds the monster's head in his hand, seizing it by the hair.In memory of his unforgettable lover and in order to revere her, Perseus , faithful to his Naura far beyond the death continues perpetually to light and to put out the lantern which has given light to his lost happiness"(6).
Franz Boll ,in his beautiful essay about the colours of the stars , observes that the majority of the variable stars may be classified as red or reddish, but Algol is an exception and has a clear white light (7); nevertheless as-Sufi says that it shines with a red light (8) and it is also classified as red (or bright red) in the hermetic De XV stellis (9). According to Ptolemy (quadr. I, 9) Algol's nature is similar to that of Jupiter and Saturn, as a whole of the stars of Perseus' figure (10). Being so if it rises or culminates it brings "the rich and those who have a lot of wealth and properties in different regions and cities and are country and costruction lovers. And if the Moon observes one of these stars (having the nature of Jupiter and Saturn) as they rise or culminate, the natives have excellent morals, respect old people, have noble feelings, are generous, tolerant, wise and family lovers" (11).
In particular case if Mars rises or culminates with Algol it makes the person very quarrelsome (12).This star is one of the most powerful of the whole starry sky in the nativities and in the beginnings of the actions. Its stone is the diamond, Saturn's stone (Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, XI/2, p. 119) and thanks to its hardness the other stones may be cut and its virtues are boldness , animosity and the protection of the limbs (13). Its herb is the 'helleborus niger", a poisonous plant, sporadical in woody places which rises from the plain to the mountain tops and blossoms from December until March.If you put a little bit of this herb with some artemisia under the diamond , "you will be able to take your revenge on anyone you want (14).John Gower says: "I heard that its nature is Saturnian, but its character agrees with that of Jupiter. Its stone is the diamond and its plant is the hellebore which is malignant and murky. The plant and the stone are consonant". (15).
It is the star of animosity , boldness and power also according to the astrologers of the Renaissance; if it culminates with Jupiter, remarks G. Stadio, it gives the power on other people's life and death. The same thing if it culminates with the Sun and if Jupiter testifies it (16). Cardano states, during his stay in Scotland, that if it moves together with Mercury in its daily motion it means the priesthood and the authority in law administration (17). It also arouses cruelty and violence according to Origanus (18). United with the Moon's lot it threatens the forfeiture of the goods or their waste (19).
However this star is generally known as connected with a violent death: "If Mars is contradicts his hairesis, is in opposition or in square to the Sun or to the Moon...near to the gorgoneio of Perseus causes death from beheading or from mutilation", affirms Ptolemy in the ninth chapter of the last book of the quadripartitum. In several traditions this star is connected with mutilation and with capital punishment. In the ancient China, during the autumn, the trials were done and death sentences were executed and the bodies of the criminals were thrown into a big common grave. (20). In fact, as they were sentenced to death from torture and mutilation, their bodies could not be accepted inside the consecrated cemeteries (21). The asterism composed of the stars k, 30, 32, w, r, 24, 17, 15 of Perseus' figure, marked in the Cinese sphere by eight red stars, is called Ta-ling, 'the big grave'. It is at the head of the places of burial. If it appears bright and conspicuous and if many stars are visible in its middle , there are going to be many dead among the vassals, many diseases among the people and armed insurrections; while the apparition of tiny stars in its middle indicates the prize increase of any kind of grain and pestilential diseases. In the middle of Ta-ling, in the Cinese sphere, a black star is marked and it gives name, alone, to an asterism, Tsì-chi, "the gathered corpses" and it corresponds to b Persei. It represents the dead bodies which were thrown into the comune grave. If it is bright it is a presage that the dead will be numerous like the sand.When Mars enters into the'grave'there will be lamentations and cries in the Empire.,whence therefore its darkness was considered a good presage (22).
In the Ps.Ptolemy's Centiloquium (sentence 73) we can read: "When Mars' star is placed on Medusa's head and it is not observed by a benefic star and a benefic star is not present in the the eighth place and the lord of the luminary of the time is in opposition to Mars or is in square to it the native will have his head cut off. Then if the luminary is in the upper culmination his body will be put crossways and if the application comes from Gemini or from Pisces his foot and his hands will be cut off" (23). Yûsuf ibn al-Dayah, commenting on this aphorism, says: "Once upon a time a servant showed me his master's son nativity and I saw that the Sun was in the Midheaven and it was apheta; and Mars was in Square to it in the ascendent, Saturn was at the bottom of the sky and Pisces were ascending. Whence I was bewildered by it and I postponed the judgement saying: 'Before I judge, it is necessary that the days of feeding are finished. The little boy grew up and I even if I was continuously urged to pronounce judgement on hisn inclinations I did not dare to do it. Actually I was afraid that his hands and his foot would be cut off and that he would be sent to the gallows despite the fact that he was mild , moderate and had good morals.However when he was 30 years old some fugitives accused of a crime committed in an Egyptian city broke into his house and they have been arrested in his house. Therefore he and they lost their hands and foot and were sent to the gallows and I saw him hanged up without hands and foot" (24).
Algol has a north declination of 40deg;53'32", a north attitude of 22deg;25'45" , a right ascension of 46°45'49" (values 01.1983) and it may be put in the zodiac at 25deg;55'48" degrees of the Taurus. It rises in Milan at 1deg;55'43" of the Pisces, it sets at 23deg;08' of the Gemini. On the Roman horizon it rises at 22deg;33' of the Pisces, it sets at 16deg;44' of the Gemini. On the Neapolitan horizon it rises at 22deg;23' of the Pisces, it sets at 16deg;44 of the Gemini. It culminates acronycally to the Sun during the night of the 12th of November.
1. W. Roscher, Die Gorgonen und Verwandtes, 26
2. J. Lenormant, Revue de l'histoire des religions, 1881, 38.
3. Le Blant, Notes sur quelques formules cabalistiques, Revue d'archéologie, 1892.1, 55; G. Schlumberger, Amulettes byzantines anciennes, Revue des études grecques, 1892,88.
4. The Medusa's head was one of the most efficient apotropaia. Tegea said to be impregnable since she was protected by a lock of Medusa's hair. (Paus. 2,21,5; 8,47,5); every drop of her blood was able to kill or to heal (Eur. Ion 1003s), but from some of the drops which fell down wild beasts (FHG Iv, 313) and poisonous snakes of Libya were born. (Apoll.Rh. 4,1517).
5. L. Delatte, Textes latins et vieux français relatifs aux Cyranides, Liège-Paris 1942, 280. An interpretation of the Greek myth of Gongonifer would lead too far away from our limited plan.Nevertheless we point out some Greek literary references which seem relevant to the the nature of the star. The wide-open Medusa's eyes cast flashes. (Hom. Il. 5,741; 8,349; Aesch. Coeph. 249). In Hesychius gorgôpis (s.v.), in another place epithet used for Athena , cfr. Soph. Aiax 450 Athena is a paranatéllôn of the Aries, the sign together with which our star rises), is definied: 'having a terrible glance and gorgos 'extremely changeable'. The Medusa's head is called 'gongonifer', the Souda (s.v. Medousa) says "for the quickness of her action". Alessandro Mindio (ap. Athenaei Naucraticae, Dipnosophistarum libri XV, ed G. Kaibel 489) says that the nomads from Libya call gongonifer a certain animal, similar to the wild ram, which mane falls over its eyes from its frontlet, but as soon as it shakes it mane, it kills anyone he sees.
6. Joaquin Garcia Campos, De Toponimia arabigo-estelar, Madrid 1953, 39-40. One of the better versed arabists of Maghreb, don Faustino Marti, "nos dijo que recordaba perfectamente haber oìdo, quizà màs de una vez, una historia idéntica, o parecidisima, a uno de tantos populares narradores de cuentos que en los sokos, o mercados maroquìs, hacen las delicias de los muchachos y desocupados, poniendo a contribuciòn su memoria, o su propria fantasìa, y atrayendo a los oyentes con invocaciones a Al-làh, o al son de una campanilla".
7. F. Boll, Antike Beobachtungen farbiger Sterne, Abh. Kön. Bay. Akad. Wiss., Philos.-philol., hist. Kl., 30. 1916, 76, n.2.
8. H.F.C. Schjellerup, Description des étoiles fixes composée au milieu du Xe siècle de notre ère par l'astronome persan Abd-al-Rahman al-Sûfi, St. Pétersbourg 1874, 87.
9. L. Delatte, op.cit., 250.
10. The same way an anomynous of 379, Rhetorioss, Liber Hermetis (Gundel 53,11) the De XV stellis and in general all the astrologers. Only Agrippa (De occulta philosophia 2,31) places the Saturn before Jupiter, almost as if he wanted to show the malevolent character of the star. On the other hand in the Ps.-Ptolemy's book published by Boll (op.cit. 77,82) who gives to every star the nature of only one planet, Algol is said to be similar in nature to Saturn. I think that only Bayer reviews it to the nature of Saturn and Venus, probably basing himself on the authority of Omar Khayyam's, Traktaty, transl. B.A. Rozenfel'd, Moscow 1961,23. However cfr. John of Eschenden, Summa astrologiae..., Venetiis 1489, fo. 38r: "Stellae Persei qui defert caput algol vel demonis sunt de natura saturni et Veneris"
11. Rhetorio, C.C.A.G. 8,4, c.58.
12. Delatte, loc.cit.: "Si autem Mars fuerit cum ea in ascendente vel in medio caeli, facit hominem litigiosum fortem"; cfr. ibid. 279: "Et si Mars est cum ea in ascendente vel in medio caeli, facit homines fortes et bellantes". The effect of the star has been summarised this way by Cardano, De supplemento Almanach, 19 Opera Omnia V, pag. 589: "Cui caput Algol infortunatur, accidit capitis periculum; si fortunabitur, acquiret gladii super homines potestatem"
13. op.cit. pag. 260; however: "Et si quis vult deferentem illum incantare vel ficticiare, incantatio revertitur super facientem illud".
14. op.cit. 267. Artemisia or wormwood which grows in uncultivated and dry places, and which has an aromatic taste, acrid and bitter is a plant attributed to the sign of Scorpion. (C.C.A.G. VII, pag. 232; VIII/3, pag. 139). This action should be done when the Moon is with Algol
15. John Gower, Confessio Amantis, cit. da E. Zolla, Le meraviglie della natura, Introduzione all'alchimia, Milano 1975, 177-178.
16. Jo. Stadius; Tabulae Bergenses..., Coloniae Agrippinae 1560, 210; ma cfr. A. Argoli, Ptolemaeus parvus..., Lugduni 1652, 131: "Etiam si non respiciatur a Iove".
17. G. Cardano, Opera Omnia V, Lugduni 1633, 513.
18. D. Origanus, Astrologia naturalis, Massiliae 1645, 207.
19. Jo. Stadius, loc.cit.
20. Le Yue-Ling, Observances mensuelles, ed P. Grison, Nîce 1972, 44.
21. Tcheou-li 2,21.
22. G. Schlegel, Uranographie chinoise, Leyden 1875, pagg. 350-351. The stars which form the Ta-ling are not very brilliant: the magnitude of r is 3,5; of k is 4; of 17 is 4,5; of 32, of w, of 24 is 5, of 30 and of 15 is 5,5.
23. Cfre. L. Delatte, cit., pag. 250: Si Luna fuerit cum ea in ascendente et Mars vel Saturnus eam aspexerit ex opposito, significat malum et ammissionem capitis. cfr. p. 279. In the Latin text of the aphorism of Centiloquium we find 'The Sun' instead of 'Mars', considering also the resemblance of their symbols. This the opinion of Joannes Bonus de Bonitatibus, Astronomia expurgata ad mentem Antiquorum redacta... (ms. B.N. Milano, lib. III, fo. 36v) in his interpretation of Cardano's first-born nativity.
24. Haly Heben Rodan, Commentarii in Pto. Quadr., Venetiis 1494, fo. 114r. About Algol determining the kind of death cfr.beautiful interpretation of Cardano's first-born nativity in P. Titi, Tabulae primi mobilis..., Patavii 1657, 136-139.