“Beetlejuice” and Other Star Names

I remember watching the 1998 Tim Burton movie Beetlejuice and thinking, “Hey, that’s the name of the star in Orion,” every time they mentioned the name of Michael Keaton’s ghost character. The bright red-orange star in the upper left of Orion is actually called Betelgeuse, and it is easily visible in the night sky right now. It is a colorful name for a colorful star, but where did the name come from? And who named the stars?

When I was in elementary school, I learned the names of the (then) nine planets. Except for Earth, each was a god or goddess from Roman myth. Betelgeuse, however, is a Western spelling of an Arabic name. In fact, a great many stars are still called by their Arabic names. The study of astronomy flourished in the Islamic world between the 8th and 15th centuries. European astronomers of the era were greatly influenced by the work of astronomers in the Arab world, so much so that many names were passed on and survive to this day.

Arabic astronomers knew the constellation Orion as a giant named al-jauza (see this article from The Examiner). The star we know as Betelgeuse was called the hand of al-jauza—in Arabic, yad al-jauza. A few spelling errors later, and the name was transcribed as bedelgeuze.

Similarly, the brightest star in Orion, Rigel, in the lower right of the constellation, came from the name the foot of al-jauza—in Arabic, rijl al-jauza. Several other bright stars currently visible in the night sky have Arabic names (source, Wikipedia):

  • Aldebaran comes from the Arabic for “the follower,” al-dabaran
  • Mirzam comes from the Arabic for “the herald,” al-murzim
  • Alhena comes from the Arabic for “the brand (on the neck of the camel),” al-han’ah
  • Alnath comes from the Arabic for “the butting (of the bull’s horns),” an-nath
  • Menkalinan comes from the Arabic for “the shoulder of the rein-holder,” mankib oi-l-inan

Our knowledge of astronomy owes a great deal to the Arabic astronomers of the Middle Ages, and the names of many stars reflect that.

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