Category Archives: Altar
Etymology – The Altar (Latin), Incense Burner or Censer (Greek – Thymiaterion)
Also known as: θυτήριον, θυμιατήριον, Thymiaterion (Greek), Ara Centauri (Roman), Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, Thuribulum (Latin),
Ara is the name of a constellation in both Greek and Roman mythology that represents the altar that sacrifices to the gods were made on. The Milky Way galaxy was said to represent smoke rising up from the offerings on the altar. It is a southern constellation that lays between the Scorpius and Triangulum Australe constellations along the southern horizon on the Northern Hemisphere.
The constellation known as Ara is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Ara was noted as being close to the horizon by Aratus in 270 B.C.E. Bradley Schaefer, a professor of astronomy, has commented that the ancient star gazers must have been able to see as far south on the southern hemisphere for where Zeta Arae lays, in order to pick out an alter constellation. The stars comprising of Ara used to be part of the Centaurus and Lupus constellations until the astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille created the Ara constellation during the mid-eighteenth century. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is one of the smaller constellations, ranking 63rd in size.
Constellations bordering with Ara are: Apus, Corona Australis, Norma, Pavo, Scorpius, Telescopium, and Triangulum Australe. The best time to spot Ara is during July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The stars for Ara are found in Dōng Fāng Qīng Lóng or the Azure Dragon of the East. In modern Chinese, Ara is known as Tiān Tán Zuò (天壇座), meaning: “the heaven altar constellation.”
Guī – Five of the stars (most likely Epsilon, Gamma, Delta, Eta, and Zeta Arae) in Ara form a tortoise that lived in the river formed by the Milky Way. Since tortoises are land animals, this likely a turtle as they were a prized delicacy. Another turtle found in Chinese astronomy is Bie who is located on the banks of the Milky Way in the Corona Australis.
Chǔ – Three stars (most likely Sigma, Alpha, and Beta Arae) in Ara form a pestle that is seen as pounding rice and separating the husks into a basket, Ji that is found in Sagittarius. Sometimes Chǔ is placed within the constellation Telescopium and depicted by the stars Alpha and Zeta Telescopii.
In Christian astronomy, Ara represents the altar that Noah built to make sacrifices to God on after the great flood.
In Greek myth, Ara represents the altar that Zeus and the other Greek gods swore their oaths of allegiance on before they went to war against the Titans to overthrow Cronus. This particular altar that the gods swore on is held to have been built by the Cyclopes.
It should be noted that Cronus was one of twelve Titans who had also usurped his own father, Uranus, the previous ruler.
What comes around, goes around. A prophecy was given that Cronus would suffer the same fate of being displaced by one of his own children. To prevent this from happening, Cronus swallowed all of his children whole as they were born. These children being: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon who would all go on to be the Olympic gods.
When Rhea, Cronus’ wife gave birth to her youngest son, Zeus, she hid him in a cave on Crete and gave Cronus a stone, telling him that this was Zeus. Duped, Cronus swallowed the stone. Later, when Zeus had grown up, he managed to get Cronus to vomit up his siblings. Cronus’ children swore vengeance and to help Zeus overthrow Cronus and the other Titans.
The war lasted many years and had come to a standstill at one point and Gaia, goddess of the Earth and spouse to Uranus instructed Zeus to free the ugly, deformed kin of the Titans. These kin were the Hecatoncheires (hundred-handed giants) and the one-eyed Cyclopes who sorely wanted revenge against Cronus for having been imprisoned down in Tartarus.
Making his way down to the depths of the underworld of Tartarus, Zeus freed the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, asking them to join his side against Cronus and the other Titans. In gratitude for their freedom, the Cyclopes created a helmet of darkness for Hades, Poseidon’s trident and thunderbolts for Zeus.
Victory didn’t take long after, bringing a ten-year war to an end. Zeus would become the god of the sky, ruling over the other gods from Mount Olympus, Poseidon would become the gods of the sea and Hades would become the god of the underworld.
To commemorate their victory over the Titans, Zeus placed the alter up into the heavens to become the constellation Ara.
Alternatively, Ara has been seen to represent the altar of King Lycaon of Arcadia. Yes, that Lycaon, who held a feast for the gods and dished up one of his sons, Nyctimus as the main course.
Why? Because Lycaon wanted to test Zeus to see if he was omnipotent. Okay dude, not a good idea, this sort of thing with testing and challenging the gods is called Hubris. It is never a good idea to anger the gods.
Needless to say, Zeus was not amused by this affront and turns Lycaon into a wolf (represented by the constellation of Lupus) before killing Lycaon’s other sons with lightning. As for Nyctimus, Zeus restored the child back to life.
Another version of this story given by an Eratosthenes, holds that Lycaon had served up his grandson Arcas at this feast. This would really anger Zeus as Arcas is his son by way of an affair with Callisto, who happens to be Lycaon’s only daughter.
In terms of predicting the weather forecast, it was said by the Greek poet Aratus, that if sailors saw the constellation of Ara, it meant that there would be wind blowing in from the south.
Other weather forecasting held that if the Ara constellation was the only visible constellation in a cloudy night sky, that there would be a storm coming.
The Romans called Ara by the name of Ara Centauri as it represented the altar that Centaurus used when sacrificing the wolf, Lupus.
In this version of the myth, Centaurus is shown in the night sky as carrying the wolf, Lupus to sacrifice on the altar, Ara.
Altar To The Gods, Hearths & Oaths
A more minor bit of lore, is that the Ara constellation represents the actual altar that people would burn incense on to show respect for Zeus.
Out of all the constellations for Ptolemy and other ancient Greek Astronomers to point out, why an Altar? It’s clearly important to the ancient Greeks. Many heroes in the Greek & Roman mythologies made sacrifices to different deities, so it does make sense that something so important would find a place of note in the heavens.
It is very likely that this is just a smaller constellation taken from a larger whole that tells a story narrated out in the night sky, much like the constellations for the story of Perseus and Andromeda or the three constellations that make up the Argo Navis for the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Usually I want to roll my eyes when I come across an article while researching for a bit of mythology that gets too long winded about the etymology of a word and seems to try and make far too many linguistic connections.
This time it seems to bear some strong merit.
The interesting tidbit I came across is how the Latin word altar was adopted into the Old English word altar as a derivative from the plural noun “altaria”, meaning: “burnt offerings” and likely from the verb “adolere” meaning: “burn up.”
This word connection and etymology has been linked to Hestia, the goddess of the Hearth. The center of the home. That the description of Ara with the smoke from the Altar is that of smoke rising from the hearth of Greek and Roman homes.
More significant is that the Altar was the place where people would swear their oaths. Further etymology games and connections have brought up that the Greek word for oath is horkos and where the modern word exorcise, meaning: “’to bind by an oath” or “to drive out evil spirits” as seen in the Greek word of exorkizein (ex – out and horkos – oath). That seems to make sense in the story of the Titanomachy when Zeus swears an oath on the altar to kill his father and over throw the other Titans. Thus, making way for a new era ruled by the Olympian gods
Making a jump to Roman mythology, you have Orcus, a god of the underworld and punisher of broken oaths. There wouldn’t be this aspect to a deity unless it wasn’t considered important. Again, comes the linking of the Roman Orcus to the Greek orkos or horkos, meaning to swear and the variations of exorkezein, “to bind by an oath,” orkizein ‘to make to swear’, from the word orkos, ‘an oath.”
Continued word etymology has me looking at how the root orkos is very similar to the Greek erkhos or serkos, meaning: “an enclosure, hedge or fence” and is a cognate to the Latin “sarcire” meaning: “to patch or mend” with similar words of sark “make restitution,” sartoruis and sarcire, “to mend or repair.”
It used to be that your word was your bond and that giving one’s word or oath really meant something. Nowadays it feels like you need to have it in writing with the possibility of needing to take people to court if they don’t fulfill any contractual agreements of significant importance.
The constellation of Ara, along with 18 other constellations of: Aquila, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Stars of Ara
Alpha Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tchou or Choo, meaning “pestle.” Is the second brightest in the Ara constellation.
Beta Arae – This is the brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Gamma Arae – Is a blue-hued supergiant star thought to be 12.5 to 25 times bigger than the Earth’s own Sun.
Mu Arae – Is a sun-like star that has four known exo-planets orbiting it.
Delta Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tseen Yin, meaning “the Dark Sky.”
Zeta Arae – This is the third brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Named for the distinct “stingray” shape, this Nebula is located roughly 18,000 light years away from the Earth. As of 2010, this is the youngest known planetary nebula found within Ara. While smaller than many other planetary nebulae that have been discovered so far, the Stingray Nebula is still 130 times larger than our solar system. The light for this nebula was first observed in 1987. It is a planetary nebula some 18,000 light years away from the Earth.
Water Lily Nebula
Also, catalogued as IRAS 16594-4656, this is a pre-planetary nebula found within the Ara constellation that is in the process of forming planets. It was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Westerlund 1 (Ara Cluster)
This is a compact cluster of relatively young (a few million years old) stars located some 12,100 to 16,000 light years from Earth. Westerlund 1 is named after the Swedish astronomer, Bengt Westerlund who first discovered it in 1961.