Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 36.djvu/706
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
By J. C. HOUZEAU.
WHEN we take up a treatise on astronomy and come to the description of the constellations, we meet an amazing system of nomenclature. The celestial sphere is represented as covered with fictitious figures of all sorts of personages and objects, to which the stars are referred. There are heroes, like Hercules and Perseus; women, like Andromeda, Cassiopeia, and the Virgin; a giant, Orion; simple workingmen, such as a charioteer and a herdsman; a considerable number of animals, including two bears, a lion, a bull, a serpent, a crab, and a scorpion; monsters, like the dragon and the Capricorn; and various inanimate objects, from a crown and a harp to a river. No other science offers so singular a system of nomenclature, so far outside of scientific conceptions. In botany, zoölogy, and topography, objects have distinctive names. We are universally accustomed to apply to the things we speak of designations that belong to them; but a system by itself, a figurative nomenclature, is applied to the groups of stars. This is a unique exception in the sciences. It is furthermore remarkable in this exception that it has held with all peoples who have made or begun a description of the sky. While the work may have been executed in isolation and in ignorance of the way followed by other nations, and the figures employed may be distinct, original, and inspired by the character of the people, the system of figuration has been the same.
There must evidently exist a cause of a general nature which has directed the thought of man in this always identical direction. There must be some feature in the aspect of the constellations different from those of other collections of natural objects and conditions which provoke a distinct work of the intelligence. This feature and these conditions we are concerned to find. It would have been no more strange to apply a figurative nomenclature to topographical groups than to the stars. Persons who first arrive in previously uninhabited countries are obliged to give names to the landmarks of the region which they will occupy; they have to distinguish the rivers and their affluents, the mountains and rocks. A chain of mountains might, perhaps, be more justly compared to a dragon than the file of stars that bears that name. The first mountain of the range might be the head of the monster, the second the neck, and the last the tail, while the lesser chains might be called the flippers or feet. This possibility is not to be rejected, for traces of a similar application are to be found in Formosa. The Chinese have, according to Ritter, put