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Christmas is a time for stars – we put stars on our Christmas trees, sing about stars in carols, send cards with glittering stars on them, and cut gingerbread in the shape of stars. Elea at British Baby Names has a post on starry names up on her lovely Advent calendar; she also had a post on astronomical names back in October, which contains many star names. If you name your child after a star, you will want to show them “their” star when they get older, so I’ve given a few hints as to the best time to view the star from Australia; to learn more, two great resources are the Skynotes newsletter from the Melbourne Planetarium (includes video), and the Beginner’s Guide to the Night Sky at ABC Science. I normally do ten names per list, but because it’s the last set for the year I’ve done twelve – besides, stars naturally seem to go in groups of twelve, don’t they?
Alya is a common name for the yellow binary star Theta Serpentis in the constellation Serpens (“The Serpent”). Its name comes from the Arabic word alyah, meaning “fat tail of the sheep”. Arab astronomers saw this part of the sky as a pasture, with Alya representing a sheep’s tail. The Arabs have cooked with the rich fat from a sheep’s tail for centuries, and it is still considered a delicious comfort food. It might seem like calling your daughter Lard, but it fits in with the popular Aaliyah variants, while being simpler to pronounce and spell. You can always tell people the baby is named after a star that represents a sheep gambolling in a field; however vegetarians may not be able to get past the fact that the Arabs were looking up at the star and thinking, “Yum yum yum”. Serpens is visible in Australia in the middle of winter, and its stars are not easy to see.
Andromeda is a constellation named after a character from Greek mythology. This princess was chained naked to a rock for a sea monster to gobble, thanks to her rather stupid mother’s boasting of her beauty. The hero Perseus, on his way home from other heroic deeds, saw her in distress, and did the traditional hero’s rescue-and-marry-damsel manoeuvre. An awkward detail was that Andromeda was already engaged to her uncle, but Perseus turned him into stone, which got rid of him nicely. The name is pronounced an-DROHM-eh-da, and is said to mean “to think as a man” in Greek, interpreted as meaning to be as intelligent or brave as a man – which sounds a bit sexist, but the story isn’t exactly a feminist fairytale, and it’s clearly meant to be complimentary. Andromeda is a stunning name which can easily be shortened to Andie, Annie, Meda, Mia or Romy; it will remind people of the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see best in November from Australia, along with the constellation.
Capella is a common name for the yellow star Alpha Aurigae, the brightest in the constellation Auriga (“The Charioteer”). It means “little she-goat” in Latin, and represents the divine goat Amalthea from Roman mythology. Amalthea was the foster-mother of the god Jupiter, and provided him with milk. When Jupiter broke off one of her horns, it became the ‘”horn of plenty”, which provided its owner with whatever food they desired. For the Boorong people of Victoria, this star was Purra, a kangaroo who is chased and killed by the twins in the constellation of Gemini; the tracks of Purra form the bed of the Wimmera River. Capella is a small town in central Queensland named after the star, so it’s a surprisingly Australian choice as a star name. It’s a fresh twist on Capri or Caprice, with the popular -ella ending. You can see Capella on the northern horizon during summer in Australia, and it’s bright enough to be clearly visible.
Carina is a constellation of the southern hemisphere; its name is Latin for “keel”, and it represents part of the ship, the Argo, sailed by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek legend. The most prominent star in the constellation is Canopus, the brightest star of southern skies, clearly visible and high in the sky. If you live in the far south of Australia, Canopus will never set. The Bibbulum people of south-western Australia saw Canopus as their ancestor Waa Wahn, the trickster crow. The Maoris called it Atutahi, or “Stand Alone”, because of its brightness. Carina also has meteor showers which peak around Australia Day, and contains the Diamond Cross, sister to the Southern Cross. Considering that the winged keel on Australia II is said to have won us the America’s Cup in 1983, Carina adds up to being a patriotic star name (and suitable for boaties). As Carina is also a name related to either Cara or Katherine, it has the added advantage of sounding like a “regular name”.
Gemma is a common name for the binary star Alpha Coronae Borealis, the brightest in the constellation Corona Borealis (“The Northern Crown”). In Greek mythology, Corona Borealis represents a crown worn by Ariadne when she married the wine god Dionysus; Gemma is Latin for “jewel”, so it’s “the jewel in the crown”. Australian Aborigines called this constellation The Boomerang, because of its shape (being in the southern hemisphere, we see the constellation upside-down). Gemma is a popular name in Australia, and the star association helps give it another layer of meaning, while also showing that you don’t need to have a strange or rare name to be named after a star. The constellation is best viewed in winter from Australia, and its difficult to see without practice.
In the constellation Centaurus (“The Centaur”) is a tiny white dwarf star, smaller than the Earth, with the boring name of BPM 37093. Its carbon atoms are believed to have formed a crystalline structure, and because diamonds are also carbon arranged in crystalline formation, astronomers have nicknamed this star Lucy – as in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. It’s a fun star and song reference for a very popular name, and as you probably know, Lucy means “light”, which seems apt for a star. Because of its size, you can only see Lucy with a telescope; however the constellation Centaurus is the most magnificent in the southern hemisphere, with two of the brightest stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri. You can see a great portion of the Milky Way in Centaurus, and on a moonless autumn night, it will be easy enough to point at Lucy’s general location. Does it matter if it cannot be seen? The Little Prince told us that what is essential is invisible to the eye …
Lyra is a small constellation whose name is Greek for “lyre”. It is associated with the myth of Orpheus, a legendary musician, poet and prophet who is best known for his descent into the Underworld in search of his wife, Eurydice. According to some accounts, he died being ripped apart by savage Bacchantes, the female worshippers of the god Dionysus; the Muses gave him a proper burial, and he was finally reunited with his beloved. The Muses took his lyre to heaven and placed it amongst the stars in his honour. In Australia, you can see Lyra low in the northern sky during winter. The name has become well known since Lyra Belacqua is the young heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. English model Sophie Dahl named her daughter Lyra in May this year.
Maia is the common name for 20 Tauri, a blue giant in the constellation Taurus, and the fourth-brightest star in the Pleiades cluster. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were seven beautiful nymphs who were sisters. They were pursued by the hunter Orion, and Zeus changed them first into doves, and then into stars – where they are still chased by the constellation Orion. The Pleiades are often called the Seven Sisters, and you can see them clearly in summer from Australia. The Aborigines have several legends about the Pleiades, and one involves seven sisters being pursued by a man, just like the Greek myth. Maia was the eldest of the Pleiades, and the mother of the god Hermes. The meaning of the name is uncertain; it may be a respectful title for a mature lady. Maia the star appears as a character in Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers – an Australian writer who clearly loved stars, because the Mary Poppins books are filled with them. Maia is said like the popular Maya (MY-ah), but seems more elegant and literary.
Mimosa is a common name for the yellow binary star Beta Crucis, the second-brightest in the constellation Crux (“Cross”). Crux is the smallest of the constellations, but very significant in Australia, as it is our dear Southern Cross, represented on the national flag as well as the Eureka flag (Mimosa is the left-hand arm of the Cross). Various Aboriginal peoples saw the Cross as an eagle’s footprint, a stingray, a possum in a tree, or two brothers cooking a fish on their campfire. The Aborigines of Eastern Australia called it Mirrabooka; Mirrabooka was a kind and clever man who was placed in the sky by the creator Biami so he could watch over the earth. Because the Southern Cross is always visible here, Mirrabooka never leaves us. The Maoris call it The Anchor; it anchors the Milky Way. The star Mimosa received its name because of its colour; the mimosa is related to acacia, including our national flower, the wattle. The name is from the Greek for “mimic”. It’s an extravagant name that’s very patriotic; you could use Mim, Mimi, Mia or Mo as nicknames.
Mira is the common name for Omicron Ceti, the most notable star in the constellation Cetus. It’s a binary star consisting of a red giant and a white dwarf; the closest symbiotic pair of stars to the Sun. Mira is a variable star; like other red giants, its surface oscillates so that its brightness increases and decreases. Mira was the first variable star ever observed in modern times, and so it gained its name, for Mira means “wonderful, astonishing” in Latin, and is said MEE-rah. The constellation Cetus depicts the sea monster that was going to eat Andromeda: for some reason it has also been immortalised in the stars, and placed worrying close to its intended victim. It’s a large constellation, but not very bright or easy to see; it’s best viewed in Australia in November. At its brightest, you can see Mira with the naked eye; at its dimmest, you will need powerful binoculars to view it. Mira is also a Sanskrit name meaning “ocean”, and a Slavic name possibly meaning “peace”.
Talitha is one of the common names for Iota Ursae Majoris, a yellow and purple star system in the constellation Ursa Major consisting of two binary stars orbiting around each other. The name is Arabic, and means “the third leap”, referring to a gazelle jumping about, which is how Arab astronomers saw this portion of the sky. Talitha is also the Aramaic for “little girl”, and is taken from the New Testament when Jesus raises a child from the dead by saying Talitha cumi (“Little girl, get up”). Talitha is pretty, and fits in with popular names like Talia and Taia; it’s pronounced TAH-lith-ah. Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, is one of the best known and loved constellations of the northern hemisphere, but in Australia it can only be viewed in April/May, and is so low on the northern horizon we see only part of it; we cannot see Talitha at all.
Vega is the common name for Alpha Lyrae, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, and fifth-brightest star in the sky. The name is from Arabic, and means “falling” or “landing”, referring to the constellation Arab astronomers called The Alighting Vulture. Lyra was seen as a descending vulture; an idea dating back to ancient Egypt and ancient India. Even when the Greeks said it was a lyre, it was still often pictured as a vulture or eagle holding the instrument in its talons. The Boorong people saw Vega as a Mallee Fowl, and knew that once the star disappeared in October, it was time to collect that bird’s eggs. Vega is also a Spanish surname meaning “meadow-dweller”; it’s familiar from the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, and folk singer Suzanne Vega. Vega is a glamorous-sounding name that’s strongly associated with its star. Once you learn to find Lyra, it will be easy to spot Vega because of its luminosity.