Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

2.10.19 The Latin Stars


Disarmed by lit skies
I had utterly forgotten
this arc of darkness,
this black night
where the frost-hammered stars
were notes thrown from a chanter,
crans of light.

from Moya Cannon’s ‘Night’

I can remember one of the first bits of Latin poetry that stayed with me was a teacher’s translation of a half-line from Aeneid 2: ‘the falling stars are counselling sleep’. If I show you the original you’ll see how Virgil packs the line with similar sounds, and makes use of its rhythmic pattern – its metre – to have you nodding off even as you read: suadéntque cadéntia sídera sómnos. It was years later before I copped what the line actually means: it’s near morning and the stars are setting (as they do), not ‘shooting’ across the sky, as I had vaguely imagined; it’s late and Aeneas thinks it’s time for bed, but Dido is eager to hear more about her guest’s adventures. They stay up, of course, and he tells her the story of the fall of Troy.

Virgil’s poetry is full of stars. Here he is recounting the song sung at the banquet of Dido and Aeneas by a Carthaginian bard. It might be the happiest moment in the poem, when things seem to be looking up for all concerned, even as the gods are beginning to interfere and meddle.

                                               … Lord Iopas,
With flowing hair, whom giant Atlas taught,  
Made the room echo to his golden lyre.
He sang the straying moon and toiling sun,
The origin of mankind and beasts,
Of rain and fire; the rainy Hyades,
Arcturus, the Great Bear and Little Bear;
The reason winter suns are in such haste
To dip in Ocean, or what holds the nights
Endless in winter.

And here is the ill-fated helmsman, Palinurus, working diligently to keep the Trojans on course:  

Now Night drawn by the Hours had not yet reached
The midpoint of her course when Palinurus
Turned out briskly. Studying the winds,
He cupped his ears to catch movements of air;
Observed the slowly wheeling constellations
In the still heaven: bright Arcturus, rainy
Hyades, Great Bear and Little Bear,
Orion in his belt of gold.

A lot of this can seem obscure and redundant – skippable – on the page, until you realize that the constellations in question are still up there, and will be there again this winter: Orion the Hunter, the rain-bringing sisters of Hyas. On the one hand all this Greek and Latin mythology can be hard to relate to, even if you have a fairly good grasp of the stories. But on the other hand, songs and stories have always been full of stars – for wishing, for hoping, for a sense of perspective – and that’s nothing to do with the ancient Romans. Emily Dickenson puts it well:

‘Arcturus’ is his other name —
I'd rather call him ‘Star’.
It's very mean of Science
To go and interfere!

There is one instance, however, where the Latin stars really skipped on the page and jumped into people’s lives. The zodiac is the name given to the twelve constellations which the sun appears to move through during the course of its yearly path across the sky. Much more importantly, it gives us our star signs, by which we look for signs of things to come, whether it’s glancing at a horoscope or sizing up a new date. So in the end the stars cut across all sorts of lives and interests, and there wouldn’t still be a zodiac if it wasn’t for all those people who learned and lived through the Latin stars for all those centuries. Here are the Latin nouns behind the twelve signs, just in case you need to brush up. They might just be the most popular, most well-known bunch of Latin words that have ever existed.

aries      ‘ram’  
taurus     ‘bull’   
gemini      ‘twins’
cancer      ‘crab’
leo      ‘lion’
virgo      ‘a young girl’
libra     ‘scales’  
scorpio      ‘scorpion’   
sagittarius      ‘archer’ (from sagitta, ‘arrow’)
capricornus       ‘capricorn’ (from caper, ‘goat’ and cornu, ‘horn’) 
aquarius      ‘water-bearer’ (from aqua,  ‘water’)
piscis      ‘fish’  

Note: the translations above are of Aeneid 1. 740–6 and 3. 512–17, and are by the American poet Robert Fitzgerald (1910–1985), from his Aeneid (London: Harvill Press, 1984). Moya Cannon’s poem ‘Night’ is most recently published in Carrying the Songs (Manchester: Carcanet, 2007) p. 110; you can read Emily Dickenson’s poem here.