The Three Kings and the Cape Clouds: Two astronomical puzzles

posted: 3317 days ago, on Saturday, 2005 Oct 01 at 07:03
tags: astronomy, ethnoastronomy, LMC/SMC.

Perhaps readers can help solve a puzzle that's been exercising me for some time. How did the custom arise in South Africa of calling the three brilliant stars of Orion's Belt, the Drie Konings (E: Three Kings)? And who was the first to use Kaapse Wolkies (E: Cape Clouds) for the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds?

Afrikaner cultural astronomy

While involved in the redesign of ASSA's annual Skyguide, I started searching for indigenous star lore to include in the handbook. While there's nothing wrong with the Greek legends behind the constellations, we are living in South Africa and have our own legends.

[ 1 ] the term "ethnoastronomy", denoting folk astronomical knowledge, was suggested by Elizabeth C. Baity in 1973 (Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy So Far, Current Anthropology, 14, 389-449), and can be understood to be part of the wider discipline of cultural astronomy that researches relationships between people and the astronomical knowledge of their culture.

[ 2 ] Professor Snedegar is an invited speaker and a member of the Scientific Committee for the African Astronomical History Symposium.

A selection of material is available on African ethnoastronomy [1], with good summaries published by professors Keith Snedegar [2] (Utah Valley State College, USA) and Brian Warner (University of Cape Town).

But I drew a blank when I started searching for boere-stories, traditional Afrikaans tales.

Perhaps the most knowledgeable person on Afrikaans folk tales and cultural history is prof Pieter W. Grobbelaar, who used to be at the Department of Cultural History (University of Stellenbosch) before his retirement. His authoritative Die Afrikaner en sy Kultuur records a vast number of fascinating tales but nothing to excite the ethnoastronomer in me.

I recently visited him at his home in Wellington and asked him if he knew of any boere ster-stories. Surely, I said, the dark African night sky and brilliant southern constellations must have made quite an impression on our outdoors-oriented forebears. Did they tell any folktales that could be considered unique? His considered opinion was no, there weren't any such stories. He speculated that the strongly religious heritage of the Afrikaner led them to regard the heavens as God's domain, not to be meddled with by the telling of flippant stories.

He was familiar with the Drie Konings as a name for Orion's belt, but did not know its origin. When I asked him about the Kaapse Wolkies he admitted he hadn't heard the phrase before.

Orion's Belt and the Three Kings

A few weeks later, I asked readers of my astronomy column in Die Burger newspaper if anyone knew the origin of these terms. I received one reply – from a friend of mine. "It's in the [Afrikaans] Bible", Ed said. I was dumbstruck. I thought I was familiar with all the astronomical references in the Bible.

I checked all the Afrikaans Bibles I had, looking up Job 9:9, Job 38:31 and Amos 5:8 in each. All mention Orion (originally, kesil in the Hebrew) and the Pleiades (kimah). A Dutch Bijbel from 1929 also spoke of Orion. Then I came upon a Bible dated 1940, and in all three verses, "Drie Konings" is used instead!

Ed was right, but why only in this one Bible? The "Astronomy in the Bible" entry (written by the well-known astronomer Agnes M. Clerke) in the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, says it quite plainly: "We may then safely admit that kimah and kesil did actually designate the Pleiades and Orion."

Could the solution be that "drie konings" came into the Afrikaans language because of an eccentric bible translation?

Next I went to speak to prof Hendrik Bosman, Old Testament scholar at the Theology Faculty, University of Stellenbosch, and explained my situation. He thought at first that the ancient Hebrew and Greek source-texts mentioned 'three kings', but to his surprise, found the obscure references to kesil. Intruiged, he investigated further, and came to the conclusion that most biblical sholars have identified kesil with Orion. So why the reference to three kings in that one Bible, I asked?

The 1933 version of the Afrikaans Bible, he explained, was the first translation into Afrikaans, and was done from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The translators for some reason decided to use "drie konings" instead of "Orion" for kesil. In 1953, the bible translation was modified using less anachronistic Afrikaans. One of the many changes was to replace "drie konings" with "Orion" (and "Pleiades" in place of "Sewester"). All later Afrikaans bibles have followed this convention. Prof Bosman thinks that when the 1933 translation was undertaken, "drie konings" was in common use amongst Afrikaans speakers, and may have been more familiar to them than "Orion".

And here my trail ends. If "drie konings" was commonly used by Afrikaans-speaking people in 1933, where did it come from? No Englishman i've spoken with, uses "three kings" for Orion's Belt. Willie Koorts of the SAAO has been in touch with several Dutch astronomers, none of whom in their mother tongue use that phrase for the belt. Is this useage, in an astronomical context, limited to Afrikaans?

More speculation

In mythology, the number three has many connotations. It symbolizes beginning-middle-end, birth-life-death, father-mother-child, body-soul-spirit, past-present-future, new-full-old moon, and more. It is the Christian Trinity, the Hindu Trimuri (Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu), the Taoist Great Triad (heaven, man and earth). Three wise men bring three gifts to Christ who is tempted thrice, denied thrice by Peter, and who rises from death on the third day, is witnessed by three Marys, then appears three times to his apostles. And so on. Orion, of course, is a conspicuous constellation.

Perhaps these three wise men were transformed into the three kings? Of course, nowhere in the Bible are three wise men mentioned - there were magi, and there were three gifts. The narrative doesn't mention the number of people, and there is no long-standing tradition in this matter. Early Christian art, the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, "is no consistent witness"; some works show two, three, four or eight magi.

Whatever the number, I'm still at a loss for the currency of "drie konings" in Afrikaans, and its apparent absence from English or other languages when applied astronomically to Orion's Belt. Help!

Magellanic Clouds

As for the Kaapse Wolkies/Cape Clouds, things are not much clearer.

Perhaps the earliest astronomy book in Afrikaans, Sterrekunde Vir Skole by A W Long (1941) mentions neither "drie konings" nor "kaapse wolkies"; however, this work was translated from English and in the process these "indigenous" terms could have been overlooked.

In preparation for the Sterrekundewoordeboek by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, a sterrekundewoordelys (1960) was compiled by the late prof Gawie Cillié. His list has neither the "cape clouds" nor "magellanic clouds" but the subsequent Sterrekundewoordeboek (1966) does have an entry for "kaapse wolke".

In the same year, Roy Quarmby's Ons Suiderhemel (1966) was published following translation, and it mentions the "kaapse wolkies" a number of times.

I have no paper-trail before 1966 – help, again!

nothing more to see. please move along.