The Three Kings and the Cape Clouds: Two astronomical puzzles

posted: 3287 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!

2009 August 07 at 20:27 by Mintaka

in dutch astronomy they used driekoningen to name orion's belt. Maybe im wrong and they used something else, but driekoningen and drie konings definately have a connection.

2012 April 15 at 08:45 by Pao

My name is Pao, mean secret in my culture. I happen to have seven stars or "moles" in my lelf showder and three straight stars or "moles" in my right showder. Many people who I don't know come to see me once in a while telling me that I am a saver of my people or the world when it become dome. I ask them how they find me...? they says...angels tell them to look for me...what an odd? I need help here. Thanks

2009 October 10 at 22:41 by Bruce

In astronomy the three kings aka three Mary's (Orion's Belt) follow the star to the East (Sirius) to the place of birth of the sun on December 25th. On December 22nd (winter solstice) the sun reaches it's lowest point in the sky which represents the death of the sun. 3 days later on December 25th the sun begins to rise again and is reborn. I am not sure of the origins of the term three kings representing Orion's Belt, but the story is oddly familiar.

2009 October 22 at 23:28 by Isacc

Well I read in a book once by E.G Wight don't recaLl wich book but she states that when God returns he will come from the direction of oriens belt. I've also read that the bible says the when he returns all eyes will see him. Now if I recall oriens belt is located at the equater of the earth and can be seen from evry wear. It kind of makes me think a little if this is true. So if this is so then the only logical explanation for the three kings is the father the son and the holy spurit aka the trinity. My thoughts.

2009 December 24 at 01:22 by Charlotte

Both these names are mentioned in Richard Hinckley Allen's "Star Names - Their Lore and Meaning" published by Dover in 1963. The original book was published in 1899 under the title "Star-Names and Their Meanings".

The Three Kings are mentioned on page 316 of the Dover edition, but unfortunately there is no mention of the origin of the name.

The Cape Clouds are mentioned on page 294 of the Dover edition, and this is what is said:-

'Nubeculae Magellani, the Magellanic Clouds, were the Cape Clouds of the earliest navigators, being the prominent heavenly objects seen as they neared the Cape of Good Hope; but after Magellan became noted and fully described them, they took and have retained his name. The Latin word is the diminutive of nubes, and literally signifies "the Little Clouds."'

You will probably know that quite a number of inaccuracies have been discovered in Allen's book over the years, but he is still one of the best sources for constellation and star names.

There is a huge reference list at the end of the book, it would be really difficult to use it to trace the origin of his statement.

2010 April 30 at 22:20 by Orion

My name is Orion, I was also born on the month of june the 23rd under the zodiac of cancer. ancient religeon says orion is the house of osirus, thus the pyrimid formations match. also the ancients believed that cancer was the portal of heaven or the door of angels.just strange coincidences I guess????

2010 May 04 at 19:41 by Lynnette

Ek ken die drie konings al vanaf my kinderjare as die drie susters. In die afgelope 2 jaar het ek op Sutherland ook al 'n paar keer ondervind dat ander besoekers dit ook so noem.

2010 May 14 at 18:37 by Ernst

Is Orion se belt sterre nie in Egipte as die Drie Konings bekend nie? Seker ek het dit iewers gelees.

2010 May 14 at 19:08 by Auke

Dit mag wees, ja. 'n (ou) Bron sal handig wees…

2010 May 28 at 10:27 by Terry

Very interesting! I must admit I've never heard of the 3kings even with my fathers family - who were direct decendents of Gert Maritz (Pietermaritzburg) - absolutely fascinating reading tho' - thank you.

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