The Star Catalogue

Felix came home from his cousin’s house much enthused.

“We’ve got a plan, mum,” he informed me excitedly. “We’re going to make things like bracelets and stuff, and then we’re going to set up a stall at the shops and sell everything.”

He grinned beatifically. My son likes money very much.I pictured the two princesses and my son flogging bracelets to the shoppers: some, given, middle and upper class, but with a sprinkling of  burly tattooed woman and their brauny possible-spouses. And dodgy dogs.

I blanched: and I thought quickly.

“Darling,” I ventured, “selling to strangers can be fine, but it can also get complicated. How about making a catalogue of the things you are going to sell, and then all our friends can take them to their friends?”

That – mercifully – was the correct answer.

Felix nodded vigorously, because a catalogue has glamour. It has charm. It promises Things, and it does so in annotated lists. For my logico-mathematical son it is close to heaven.

And so he has sprung into action, and is creating the perfect catalogue for the children’s wares.

When I was a child, catalogues held such glamour that I would cut out pictures and use them to stick on the walls of my dolls house. For all of us, a catalogue from a place we like is the perfect reading material to accompany a mug of tea and a biscuit. We use them to dream, and muse on what might be. And just occasionally we turn that dream into reality.

There are catalogues of just about anything:  wellington boots, silverware, Tupperware, zimmer frames, pushchairs. Each, for the right person, holds promise. You can tell a lot about a person by the catalogues that drop through their door, or into their mailbox.

I wonder how many of us have a Star Catalogue arrive on a regular basis?

Yes: for thousands of years, people have been making catalogues on starry nights.

There were only 36 stars in the first known lists.

Known as the ‘Three Stars Each” lists, they were written on clay tablets by the Ancient Babylonians. Twelve stars were listed in honour of three of the old Babylonian gods, Anu, Ea and Enlil. The Ancient Chinese wrote theirs on oracle bones. The line between mathematics and astronomy, and an unshaking belief that the stars knew something we didn’t ,was already becoming blurred.

Ancient Greece had its star catalogues: one by Eudoxus, a poem, describing constellations and their rising and setting; by the time of Roman Egypt Ptolemy was cataloguing 1,022 stars as they glittered over Alexandria in Almagest.

 The Andromeda Galaxy was first catalogued by an Islamic astronomer, Adzophi, in around 964AD.

By the 1600s things were getting really organised. Johan Bayer used the letters of the Greek alphabet, followed by the constellation to which they belonged – like Alpha Centauri. But with only 24 letters and all the constellations in the sky to name, he was bound to run out of  letters sooner or later. It was John Flamsteed who hit on the idea of using numbers instead of Greek letters. With this infinite source of cataloguing, the modern star catalogues were born.

One sad little emission, from these more modern catalogues.

There are no pictures.

The poetry, the whimsy, the what-if: it’s all gone, replaced with systematic lists of the positions of the stars on a given day at a given time. Look at the Histoire Céleste Française, by France’s Jérome Lalande:

This is a catalogue for scientists, not dreamers. It is an essential tool for understanding a starry night: a great advance in astronomical science.

But: do we still believe that the stars know something we don’t?


Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: Starry night


52 thoughts on “The Star Catalogue

  1. Star-star-ing can be star-tlingly practical, it seems! Though it might also lead to star-vation. And how could you put the dog star in a catalogue? That would have to be a doggy stump. (OK, I’ll star pit now.)
    Darn tooting the stars know lots we don’t. That doesn’t take much knowing, of course …

      1. The cleverest of scientific boffins runs out of explanations of the simplest things if you keep pressing. Take magnetism: oh, the molecules attract or repel according to alignment. WHY and HOW? And don’t give me that ‘Natural Law’ copout!

  2. We still receive catalogs from various companies, clothing, jewelry, cruises, etc. The Lovely Miss TK gets at least two a day from various places. I guess the marketing concept is to overwhelm us and we will eventually give in and buy something.

  3. Your post made me realize it’s been a long time since I’ve looked through a catalogue. Nowadays everything’s just a click on the screen–an ‘add to cart’ process. 🙂

  4. A copy of Starry Night hangs on the wall above my bed. I sleep beneath the stars. What is interesting is finding the dividing line between Astronomy and Astrology. That line is different in many different cultures both now and throughout time.

  5. I’m sure at some time in the past one of the children bought a star, or a plot for a vegetable garden on a far off star, for one of my wife’s birthdays. I can remember the scroll declaring ownership. With the Histoire Celeste I could check out our star’s/vegetable patch’s current position.and if it is about to bring wealth and fortune or, hopefully not, a tall dark stranger into my wife’s life.

    1. I think that is an excellent idea, Roger: it is always as well to have advance warning of invasive tall dark strangers. They can be an infernal nuisance. Sure Histoire Celeste could help.

  6. Love this post, Kate. I like the image you have posted first, depicting the wheels of time. I love Felix’s business mind. I love the description of the people Felix may have had to deal with. I love the idea that there were only 36 stars in the beginning (that really fires my imagination into a million and one directions!) And, for some reason I like the final image from the Histoire Céleste Française… I like to see numbers set out in such a way…
    To answer your final question… I believe it is still true. They’ve been around for millennia and have been witness to a fair bit…

    1. Have you ever read the story of the creation of Narnia, Tom? The people watching it hear the most amazing singing, and they realise after a while that it is the stars. Breathtaking writing by CS Lewis. When I look at that feature picture I always thing of that scene, for some reason.

  7. Fascinating, as always Kate, and I’m quite impressed with Felix and the princesses as well. You’ve set me on a trip down memory lane, however, as I recall the hours we spent cutting apart the Sears Roebuck catalogue, turning the models into paper dolls.

  8. Starry nights bring to my mind an artist and an author: Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh, and Tom Robbins who talked of Sirius, the Dog Star, in “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.” That celestial view contains so much that we don’t know, and, yes, the stars know infinitely more than we do. They’ve been around so much longer.

    Felix has the beginnings of a great entrepreneur. I wish him and the little princesses the best success in their venture.

  9. Even in those cold analytical charts is the passion to understand those stars. The mathematicians see music in the numbers, so perhaps to these scientists hear whispers on their charts we need pictures to hear.

  10. I’d love a peek at that finished catalogue–Felix’s, that is! I love his creativity.I do enjoy catalogues, but I don’t think I have the ability to decode the star catalogues. I do subscribe to a couple of apps that inform me about the stars and nightly constellations. I admit I don’t understand it all, but I hang in there with fascination and pure awe. I’m glad we have scientists who DO understand and add to our knowledge of the spheres!

  11. I loved catalogues too as a child, the making of, but I never got into obsessive drooling over the most renowned one. I like stars and I don’t know what they know but as I firmly believe that most things have greater knowledge and understanding than I do then has to include them! 😉

      1. I drew all the pictures (despite the fact that I seriously cannot draw) but I bet these days Felix will be putting digital cameras and computer technology to good use. I wish Felix all the best in his enterprise. 🙂

      1. There’s something so enchanting about seeing a pile of perfectly folded t-shirts, each a different colour, and then reading the names of each colour. Names like “oatmeal” and “sandstone” and “heather” and “periwinkle”.

  12. A couple of summers ago when we were out camping and watching stars through our telescope, we were out long enough to see everything shift positions as they moved across the sky – and making out all of the different shapes of the constellations and noting their placements – I couldn’t help but be impressed and understood how the ancients assumed there was something important to be read up there.

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