The starry skies of Middle-earth are fascinating, with names that offer both insigths and some mystery. The etymology and meaning of the names is a small but important piece of Tolkien's unsurpassed sub-creation. This is a concerted attempt of the Mellonath Daeron to list all the Elvish astronyms with their present-time meaning. 1 Comments and criticism are welcome.
|Name||Lang||Translated name||Modern name|
|Telumehtar||Q||Warrior of the Sky||Orion|
|Valacirca||Q||Sickle of the Valar||Ursa Major 2|
|[etymologies, OT-(OTOs, OTOK)]|
[the great] seven-star (odo(g) + gil)
|Remmirath||S||The netted stars|
|Soronúme||Q||Eagle going down||Lyra? Aquila? 3|
|Telumendil||Q||Lover of the heavens|
Vault [of heaven-]lover
|Name||Lang||Translated name||Color||Modern name|
|Earendil||Q||Sea-lover||-||Venus (Also called 'Gil-estel')|
|Name||Lang||Translated name||Modern name|
|Naira||Q||heart of flame|
This early manuscipt contains several names of astronomical objects. Some of those are clearly superseded by the names listed above.
|eksiqilta or ekta-||Telimektar's swordbelt|
|Itselokte||(the cluster of flies) the Pleiades|
|Mordo||name of Telimektar|
|Morwinyon||(Glint in the Dark) Arcturus|
|Nierninwa or Niellŭne||blue-bee Sirius|
|Nielluin||Sirius [? GL? BoLT??]|
|Silindo(u)||a star, Juppiter [sic]|
|Silmo(u)||the Moon (masc. in Eldarissa)|
|Silmarinko(o or u)||the Orbéd Moon|
|Morwen||(daughter of the dark) Jupiter|
|Taimondo (or -ordo)||Telimektar|
|Taimavar||Shepherd of the Sky, (poetic) Taimordo [Orion]|
|Telimektar (or Telimbektar)||Swordsman of Heaven [Orion]|
|Til||a small star near Sirius|
|Ur(ūr-), Uri||the Sun|
|Ūrinki||the orbed Sun, the rising and setting of the Sun|
The Gnomish Lexicon, written at the same time as the QL also contains some astronomical names. Most prominent is Daimord for Orion.
The solstices and equinoxes shift slowly westwards. Each whole turn takes 26 000 years. Since the zodiac has twelve constellations, the four points change constellation roughly every 2200 years. It might be argued that the precession has shifted the constellations since the time of the War of the Ring. It is however clear from several indicies that although Tolkien knew about the precession, he chose to ignore it in his sub-creation.
Other names are The Silver Sickle and the Seven Butterflies (BLT p. 133).
It is also called The Burning Briar in three places in The Lay of Leithian (LB III). Commentary on Canto II states:
"Many names have these [the seven stars] been called, but in the old days of the North both Elves and Men called them the Burning Briar, and some The Sickle of the Gods."Tolkien also mentions the corresponding Old English name, Brynebrér (SM p.345). The name 'Briar' should be understood as the botanical name, OE brēr. (A possible Swedish interpretation of Brynebrér would be 'fackeltörne' or 'fackeltorn'). Brynebrér suggests a flowering bush or tendril (cf the constellation shape) with brightly-coloured flowers. The elves certainly had a love for bright flowers:
"O Stars [...] / In windy fields now bright and clear / We see your silver blossom blown!" (LR 1 III).
The Burning Briar has been referred to the biblical 'burning bush' by astronomer Kristine Larsen ("Tolkien's Burning Briar: an astronomical explanation", Mallorn 43), symbolizing the oppressed people, with the fire as the oppression (Exodus 3:2). We are not convinced of this. To let a name directly allude to a biblical text would be most unlike Tolkien. Larsen's quotation (L 142) where Tolkien characterizes LR as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" is not in conflict with his. Furhtermore, we believe that Tolkien would not approve of Larsen's thesis: that the fire symbolizes the oppressors and the intact bush the successful resistance. On the contrary, according to the Bible the unconsuming fire is an epiphany (appearance or manifestation) of Yahweh, who missions a somewhat reluctant Moses to liberate his chosen people. In traditional Catholic symbolism the burning bush also prefigures the Annunciation: the fire is the Redemptive Word Incarnate and the bush that is not consumed is Mary who retains her virginity despite pregnancy. We also wonder why in the same paper Larsen takes the detour over the Aurora Borealis to explain the ephitet "burning". It is eminently clear from her own quotations from the Lay of Leithian that the burning refers to the brilliance of the contained stars ("The Northern stars, whose silver fire / of old Men named the Burning Briar...").
Ursa Major has also been equated with Durin's Crown, the stars that could be seen in Kheled-zâram, the Mirrormere, even in daylight. But this assumption, which probably originates with Robert Foster (The Complete Guide to Middle-earth), must be due to a misunderstanding of the note in the LR index that describes the emblems of Durin as seen on the Moria West-gate: 'Seven stars (above a crown and anvil)...represented the Plough'. There is no indication in the corpus that these seven stars referred to the stars in Kheled-zâram. However, according to the cosmology in BLT the originator of the Valacirca stars is Aule, although Varda then affixed them in the heavens. Later sources have naught on this. But perhaps the dwarves kept a tradition with similar content? If so, this could explain why Durin's emblem of seven stars is said to represent (i.e. symbolize, not depict) the Plough.
'Briar' is also a type of tobacco pipe (made from the root of a different species of bush, also called 'briar'), and the constellation shape might suggest a pipe. However, that would not fit at all with elvish lore. Also, pipe-smoking was introduced later into the sub-creation with The Hobbit. But just for fun we may speculate that if the pipe-smoking Author had invented hobbits earlier (in 1930), he would have let them recast the elvish name to 'the Glowing Pipe' in the same hobbit vein as with Baranduin/Brandywine. This would also be a nice in-joke like Gamgee/Cotton. And with the constellation Draco rising out of the pipe...
Q. Soronúme is presumably a compound of soron 'eagle' and núme 'going down' (L 276), meaning 'eagle of descent, swooping eagle'. If so, it is strongly reminiscent of an old byname for Lyra, Aquila cadens (Latin for 'sinking eagle'), and of Arabic al-wâki 'the swooping [eagle]' from which Vega, the name of Lyra's brightest star, is derived.
It has been proposed [e.g. by the astronomer Kristine Larsen in Tolkien Studies VII] that the name 'sun-edge' or 'sun-border' signifies that the constellation marks the sun's position when it is furthest from the celestial equator, i.e. at either the summer or winter solstice. That would indicate either Gemini or Sagittarius, respectively.
We agree, and think that Gemini is the ideal candidate; a well-known and easily recognizable constellation, visible at night during most of the year from the northwestern European horizon (cf Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Orion). Sagittarius is just the opposite; a group of rather faint stars that are only visible at the horizon and are gone from the night sky most of the year.
In the text, Tolkien marked Nénar with "N", suggesting the planet Neptunus. However, he then struck that out. There has been much speculation about the meaning of this, but there is no conclusive evidence of any solution. We think that the most probable explanation is that he for a brief moment associated Nénar with Neptune because of the common element water (Q nén- 'water': Neptunus 'roman water-god') but abandoned the thought because Neptune could not qualify as a member of the group "new stars and brighter".
It should be noted that Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury all can shine stronger than Sirius, the brightest fix star. Saturn is slightly more modest, but surpasses at least half of the twenty brightest fix stars. So if Lunil and Nénar hold the same class, they must be stars of the first magnitude.
So unless some hitherto unknown manuscript is discovered, these names must remain unassigned.
Thanks to all who have contributed with material, pointers, contributions, and criticism. This article could not have been written without the extensive work of the the members of the Mellonath Daeron.