Size ranking: 22nd
Origin: One of the 48 Greek constellations listed by Ptolemy in the Almagest
Greek name: Ἀετός (Aetos)
Aquila represents an eagle, the thunderbird of the Greeks. The constellation’s name in Greek was Ἀετός, i.e. Aetos, meaning eagle. There are several explanations for the presence of this eagle in the sky. In Greek and Roman mythology, the eagle was the bird of Zeus, carrying (and retrieving) the thunderbolts which the wrathful god hurled at his enemies. But the eagle was involved in love as well as war.
According to one story, Aquila is the eagle that snatched up the beautiful Trojan boy Ganymede, son of King Tros, to become the cup-bearer of the gods on Olympus. Authorities such as the Roman poet Ovid say that Zeus turned himself into an eagle, whereas others say that the eagle was simply sent by Zeus. Ganymede himself is represented by the neighbouring constellation of Aquarius, and star charts show Aquila swooping down towards Aquarius. Germanicus Caesar says that the eagle is guarding the arrow of Eros (neighbouring Sagitta) which made Zeus lovestruck.
The constellations of the eagle and the swan are linked in an account by Hyginus. Zeus fell in love with the goddess Nemesis but, when she resisted his advances, he turned himself into a swan and had Aphrodite pretend to pursue him in the form of an eagle. Nemesis gave refuge to the escaping swan, only to find herself in the embrace of Zeus. To commemorate this successful trick, Zeus placed the images of swan and eagle in the sky as the constellations Cygnus and Aquila.
Aquila swooping across the pages of John Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis (1729). Its brightest star,
Altair, lies at the base of its neck and is labelled Alpha. Some depictions of Aquila, such as by
Johann Bode and Johannes Hevelius, show the eagle as seen from above, but Ptolemy’s
description in the Almagest makes it clear that the eagle should be imagined as though seen
from below, as it appears on Flamsteed’s chart.
Altair and the stars of Aquila
The name of the constellation’s brightest star, Altair, comes from the Arabic al-nasr al-ta’ir, meaning ‘flying eagle’ or ‘vulture’. The Greeks, including Aratus and Ptolemy, called this star Ἀετός (Aetos), the eagle, the same as the whole constellation. The German scholar Paul Kunitzsch notes that the Babylonians and Sumerians referred to Altair as the eagle star, testimony to an even more ancient origin of the name. Altair’s neighbouring stars Beta and Gamma Aquilae lie in the eagle’s neck and in its left shoulder respectively, according to Ptolemy’s description. These two stars have their own names, Alshain and Tarazed, which come from a Persian translation of an old Arabic word meaning ‘the balance’. Altair forms one corner of the so-called Summer Triangle with the stars Vega and Deneb, found in the constellations Lyra and Cygnus respectively.
The southern part of Aquila was subdivided by Ptolemy into a now-obsolete constellation called Antinous, visualized on some maps as a young man being held in the eagle’s claws. Flamsteed did not show Antinous on his chart of Aquila, but in his catalogue he listed their stars together under the title ‘Aquilæ cum Antinoo’.
In China, Altair and its two flanking stars, Beta and Gamma Aquilae, were known as Hegu, a large battle drum – beating the drum was a signal for the army to attack. The line to the south formed by Theta, 62, 58, and Eta Aquilae was Tianfu, the drumstick. Delta Aquilae and surrounding stars including Mu, Sigma, and Iota were Youqi, a banner flying on the right side of the drum, while the stars of Sagitta to the north were a banner on the left of the drum.
Altair and its attendant stars also had two other identifications. In one they were known as the Three Generals, the commanding officer in the centre flanked by two subordinates. In a popular Chinese folk tale, Altair represents a cowherd flanked by his two sons. The cowherd was separated by the Milky Way from his wife the weaving girl (the star Vega) and the two were allowed to meet only once a year, when magpies formed a bridge for them over the Milky Way. For the full story see Lyra.
Lambda and 12 Aquilae were grouped with stars of Scutum to make Tianbian, a team of trade officials or trading standards officers overseeing the organization of markets. (A large adjoining area of sky including much of Hercules, Ophiuchus and Serpens was visualized as a marketplace, called Tianshan, and these trade officials were positioned just outside its wall. The star Zeta Aquilae was part of the wall.) The L-shaped figure formed by 69, 70, and 71 Aquilae plus 1 Aquarii was known as Lizhu, representing four pearls as worn by the Empress. These stars were astrologically linked with the Emperor’s harem.
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