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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 16 June Solstice 1995

Stars and Texts in Arabia
by Dan Varisco, Sociology and Anthropology, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY 11550

The mention of Arabian Nights conjures up a world of wonder and enduring stories of adventure. But, in a far more literal sense, they set the stage for centuries of astronomical observations and practical star lore on the Arabian Peninsula. After the coming of Islam in the 7th century C.E., a sizable amount of poetry, proverbs, legends and folk science was written down in Arabic texts. A few of these books focused on the star lore of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Bedouins and farmers of the region. While this information was not compiled as "ethnographic", and often appears quite fragmentary today, a substantial corpus of data exists that can allow us to reconstruct some of the basic star calendars. Of added significance is the fact that in a few places it is possible to find individuals who still remember traditional star lore.

For the past fifteen years I have examined the Arabic textual sources in relation to my own (and other's) ethnographic studies of star lore for seasonal reckoning and navigation. While living among highland Yemeni farmers in 1978, I encountered a local agricultural star calendar that only a few old men could begin to explain to me. One of these men directed me to a published Yemeni source, which I discovered had little to do with the local system. Piecing together the very limited observations from other foreign scholars with a variety of unpublished Arabic manuscripts, I eventually found several systems of Yemeni agricultural star calendars (Varisco 1993). Austrian anthropologist Andre Gingrich (1994) has since published a far more comprehensive account of the ethnoastronomy of a specific northern Yemeni tribe. Far more information can still be retrieved before it disappears entirely.

In 1983, my interest in Arabic folk astronomy took me to the Egyptian National Library in Cairo, where I began to study an ancient star calendar known as the "lunar stations." Orientalist scholars of the last century debated the origin of this system of 27 or 28 asterisms along the moon's course (in effect, a lunar zodiac). The main battle lines were drawn between those who wanted a first appearance in India and those who preferred an origin in China. The notion of lunar stations was clearly borrowed from the east, but quite a few early Arabic texts stated that it had been a major calendar of the pre-Islamic Arabian Bedouin. Although my examination of the relevant texts is not complete, I believe the earliest Islamic textual sources merged a variety of local star lore with the "foreign" concept of a lunar zodiac (Varisco 1991). However, centuries of later Arab scholars spun seasonal almanac lore around this imported grid. Occasionally, the practical star lore of Bedouins and farmers intersected with the scholar's ivory-minareted world.

The range of star lore present on the Arabian Peninsula, particularly before oil spoiled traditional culture, is impressive. In Yemen there remains calendar based on the conjunction of the new moon and the Pleiades; elements of this calendar appear in the recorded pre-Islamic lore. In the Gulf, the Canopus calendar has long been a major calendrical system for Bedouins and sailors (Varisco 1990). This is generally based on arbitrary 10-day units dated from the late summer dawn rising of Canopus in the region. Individual stars and asterisms were used for defining the directions of the winds, timing of rain, planting crops, pastoral activities, pearling and fishing seasons, and the like. In addition, some savants cited the location of stars as indicators of the approximate location of Mecca; this was necessary for a Muslim to properly direct his prayers.

Most scholars working with Arabic texts have focused on the rich scientific tradition of astronomy (not to mention astrology). Here the links with Hellenistic and Indian world views and the substantial contributions in mathematics, astronomy, and astronomical instrument-making are obviously paramount. Yet, the pioneering work of the Italian Nallino and more recent research by David King (e.g., 1985) have opened up a wealth of data on the folk astronomy recorded in a wide variety of texts. In Arabia there is a unique opportunity to learn more about local knowledge of the stars through texts in the context of an ongoing, yet rapidly diminishing, cultural continuity. So little has been done, and I do not hesitate to note that the sky's the limit.


    Gingrich, A., 1994, Sdwestarabische Sternenkalender. Vienna. Wiener Beitr ge

    zur Ethnologie und Anthropologie, Vol. 7. King, D. A., 1985, The sacred direction in Islam. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 10:4:315-328.

    Varisco, D. M, 1990, Folk astronomy and the season in the Gulf. al-Ma'thurat al-Sha'biyya 16:7-29.

    Varisco, D. M., 1991, The origins of the anwa' in Arab tradition. Studia Islamica 74:5-28.

    Varisco, D. M., 1993, The agricultural marker stars in Yemeni folklore. Asian Folklore Studies 52:119-142.

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