Names of Stars and Constellations in Harry Potter
The Harry Potter books contain loads of references to classical names and myths related to astronomy, but did you know that The Philosopher’s Stone has been translated into Latin and Classical Greek?
This is a light hearted look at some of the astronomy-related names in the Harry Potter books. It’s aimed at my younger (or like me, younger at heart) readers.
I came late to ‘HP’. My daughter had been a fan for many years, pretty much since she learned to read. I used to wind her up by referring to ‘Larry Schlotter’ or ‘Darren Blotter’ or ‘Gary Grotter’. Then one day, my daughter said, in a very Hermione-ish way, ‘Look Dad, why don’t you actually read a Harry Potter book? Then at least you could criticise it with authority.’
So I did. Late in Advent one year, I sat down next to the Christmas tree one night, with a mince pie and a glass of port, and started to read. By Twelfth Night, seven books and many too many more mince pies later, I emerged briefly and started again. At this stage I have read the lot several times (alright, alright, numerous times). You could say I’m a fan. Call me an escapist; call me infantile. I don’t care.
Whatever you think of the vast marketing machine that Harry Potter has become, even the most jaundiced would allow Rowling’s Dickensian genius for names. Who could resist a chuckle at the magical historian Adalbert Waffling? Or perhaps the author of a book on potions named Arsenius Jigger?
Other characters – quite a few of them - take their names from stars and constellations. What many who sneer at Harry Potter (as I once did) don’t realise is the depth of Rowling’s cleverness in this, using names linked to classical mythology (she trained as a Classicist). So I thought I’d round them up here with a look at the significance those stellar names often have for their characters.
We meet Sirius, son of Orion Black, in Book three as the titular Prisoner of Azkaban. Sirius is a ‘notorious mass murder’ who killed a street full of Muggles and then laughed, or so we are led to believe. In fact, Sirius turns out to be Harry’s godfather and his father’s best mate at school. The twist is that Sirius is a type of wizard called an animagus who can turn into a large black dog at will and has thus evaded capture.
The astral Sirius is of course the Dog Star and has been so since antiquity: Sirius rises after Orion the Hunter and then follows him across the winter sky. Sirius and Orion are mentioned in Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were written around 725 BCE and probably record the songs of bards passed down for centuries before that.
As an example, here Homer is describing the Greek warrior Achilles in Book 22 of The Iliad lines 26-29:
“He swept across the plain, glittering like the star which will come next from autumn, whose brilliant beams appear among the multitude of stars in the dark of the night: which they call by the nickname Dog of Orion …”
The Greek for that last clause shows that ‘Dog of Orion’ (highlighted) is original, not some modernising interpretation by the translator:
… ὅν τε’ κυν’ ’Ωρίωνος επίκλησίν καλεουσίν
Rowling trained as a classicist and would doubtless have known that quote, so it is probably no coincidence that through Harry’s darkest times in books four and five, Sirius becomes a light in that darkness, the only adult to whom Harry can turn for support and guidance.
From an astronomical perspective, Sirius is the brightest star in the sky (excluding the Sun). It is a young white (class A) star just 8.6 light years away and shining with 25 times the luminosity of the Sun.
Regulus Arcturus Black
Sirius’ long-dead younger brother revels in the names of two famous stars. Regulus means ‘little king’ in Latin and is the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Regulus Black was indeed the little king of the Black family, the chosen son, preferred over his rebellious brother Sirius.
Arcturus meanwhile is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes (another Greek name, literally meaning ‘shouter’ or ‘ox driver’). Arcturus is the fourth brightest star in the sky.
For the character, his middle name may have even more significance. He joined Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters, but watched Voldemort for weaknesses and tried to destroy one of his ties to immortality, Voldemort’s soul-fragment hidden in Slytherin’s locket. Perhaps not coincidentally, ‘Arcturus’ means ‘Watcher of the Bear’ in Greek, a name that appears in the poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer.
Father of Sirius and Regulus, was known to be a supporter of the Dark Arts and a collector of dark objects in his dank and sinister London home at Grimmauld Place (get it?) that Harry eventually inherits from Sirius.
Orion is of course The Hunter, a constellation known since ancient times (see above). Orion was a mythical figure too, a great hunter (and lover) who pursued the Pleiades, assaulting Merope. He was punished by being turned into the constellation.
Interestingly, Orion Black did in a sense assault Merope Gaunt: he bought Slytherin’s priceless locket which had once been Merope’s property and out of which she had been cruelly swindled for a pittance.
Father of Andromeda, Narcissa and Bellatrix in the books. Cygnus is another prominent constellation - Cygnus (The Swan) lies as a huge cross overhead in the northern hemisphere during the late autumn and early winter.
In the books, Sirius’ uncle Alphard helped him out after he ran away from home to escape his parents oppressive household. Alphard means ‘the solitary one’ in Arabic.
Astronomically, Alphard is the brightest star in the constellation of Hydra.
Hydra was a monster with many heads and Alphard is sometimes known as the heart of Hydra. Perhaps Uncle Alphard is the only member of the old many-headed and monstrous Black lineage with a heart.
Other Stellar Blacks
Names like Arcturus and Cygnus were traditional in the Black family and crop up elsewhere on the family tree tapestry that was a feature of Grimmauld Place. But there are other past members of the family with stellar names we haven’t met before, including Cassiopeia and Pollux.
Cassiopeia is another bright constellation, shaped like a giant ‘W’. The star Pollux is one of the heavenly twins in Gemini.
Merope Gaunt is Lord Voldemort’s mother, daughter of the fallen Gaunt wizarding family and much bullied by her father and brother. In the novels, Merope Gaunt shames her family by falling in love with a Muggle (Voldy’s father, Tom Riddle senior).
More Rowling cleverness lies behind the choice of Merope’s name. In legend, Merope was one of the Pleiades – seven sisters who were turned into a star cluster, an asterism, one of the most recognisable in our sky. Significantly, Merope is the faintest star in the Seven Sisters, who hides her face in shame because she alone among them married a mortal.
Bellatrix is Sirius’ evil cousin. She is Lord Voldemort’s most devoted follower and a powerful and ruthless witch. Bellatrix is the infamous torturer of Harry’s friend Neville’s parents and she eventually kills Sirius himself. She goes on to torture and cut Hermione in book seven and is one of the Series’ nastiest and most complex characters.
Not coincidentally, the stellar Bellatrix is the right-hand shoulder of Orion. Appropriately, the name derives from the Latin word for female warrior, but was only associated with the star (officially Gamma-Orionis) in the Fifteenth Century.
Rabastan Lestrange is the brother of Bellatrix’s husband Rodolphus and another follower of Lord Voldemort (i.e. a ‘Death Eater’).
Rabastan isn’t a stellar name, but curiously its close anagram Rastaban is. The star Rastaban is in the constellation Draco (meaning serpent, but also the name of Harry’s arch-enemy at Hogwarts). The word is derived from an Arabic phrase meaning ‘Head of the Serpent’. Given Voldemort’s affinity with snakes, can this be a coincidence? Did Rowling deliberately change the name around for reasons unknown? Did she just have a moment of dyslexia?
One of the best-known characters in the books, Draco becomes Harry’s arch-enemy from his first moments in the Wizarding World and remains so until he finds some redemption at the very end.
Draco is from a rich and dark wizarding family who are followers of Voldemort and the name means ‘snake’ or ‘dragon’ in Latin, but comes from Greek. Draco’s mother is Bellatrix’s sister, another member of the extended Black family.
Astronomically, Draco is the constellation of The Serpent or Dragon – a suitably serpentine asterism that circles the celestial north pole.
Scorpius is Draco’s son, who we meet only in the very last moments of the final book, when the older protagonists are watching their own children go off to Hogwarts on the train.
Scorpius features more prominently in the later play, but Rowling didn’t write it and I don’t consider it ‘canon’ (shock! Horror!)
Scorpius is of course another famous constellation – the Scorpion in Latin – another one known since at least the time of Ptolemy. In Greek myth, Scorpius kills Orion.
Appropriately, the astronomy teacher at Hogwarts.
Sinistra is a star in Ophiuchus, it means ‘left’ in Latin.
Aurora was the Roman Goddess of dawn and is of course the word we give to the Northern Lights, the glowing curtains of colour sometimes seen in the northern hemisphere, caused by charged particles travelling the earth’s magnetic field lines and exciting atoms in the air to fluoresce.
Andromeda Tonks is the mother of the auror and staunch Order of the Phoenix member, Nymphadora Tonks. Andromeda is also the sister of Bellatrix, but one of the good members of the complex Black family.
The Greek legend has Andromeda chained to a rock and rescued from a sea monster by the hero Perseus (who has recently slain Medusa and carries her head in a sack). Roman mythology, perhaps based on a lost play by Euripides, has Andromeda, Perseus et al. cast into to heavens as constellations – Andromeda being the constellation that houses the eponymous (also the brightest and largest) external galaxy, Messier 31.
There may well be more astronomical names or references hidden in the Potter books. Let me know if so.