History, Religion, Science

Society in the sky: a seventeenth century attempt to redraw the constellations

The National Maritime Museum’s Weigel globe, 1699, from their online catalogue (click to go to catalogue and see larger image)

We’re all more or less familiar with the constellations in the night sky; we all understand that their names and shapes are ancient in origin. However, these names and shapes have not always been uncontested, and some fascinating political, religious, and scientific motives have been behind attempts to reform the map of the stars. This article is based on work I did as a research intern at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, looking at a particularly interesting and unique item in their collections, a celestial globe from the late seventeenth century. A globe such as this would normally be expected to bear the constellations in their standard form, and be used as a teaching aid for people learning the layout of the night sky, a vital skill for navigators. Some attractive specimens may have been intended as gifts, possibly in an attempt to gain patronage from the wealthy aristocracy.

This particular globe, however, is something of a mystery. Designed by the German mathematician and astronomer Erhard Weigel (1625-1699), it bears a plaque which dates it to 1699, although the actual design goes back earlier than that, possibly to the 1670s. And the remarkable thing about the design is that it embodies Weigel’s attempt to completely replace all the traditional constellations with a new set of his own devising, represented by individual component parts, called blazons, of the heraldic crests of important countries, city-states and social classes of seventeenth century Europe. For example, Great Britain was represented by a Gaelic harp, from the Irish coat of arms, for Spain Weigel replaced Leo with three castles and a golden fleece, and the Danish elephant replaced Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Various social classes were also represented, such as traders, educators, artisans, and the Church, represented by the lamb, which replaced Aries the ram. The institutions of monarchy and nobility more generally were, amongst others, also given their own crest constellations.

Weigel looked at the existing constellation names and shapes and matched as many as he could up to components of coats of arms, or the emblems of orders. He took the single blazons which best fitted the existing constellations, like changing the constellation of Draco, the dragon, to the Russian dragon, and Pegasus, the winged horse, to the Lüneburg horse. I think this was so that his new constellations would be easier to remember, as people were already familiar with many of the shapes; if many of the names also correlated recognisably, then the transition to the new constellation scheme would be quicker. Weigel was certainly keen that these constellations should be taught and remembered; in a pamphlet published in 1686, he listed the new constellations in a poem comprising sets of rhyming couplets. Significantly, the pamphlet was in German, the vernacular, instead of the academic Latin of many of his publications. Weigel wanted this to be accessible. Another pamphlet from 1688, also in German, contained a proposed curriculum for teaching astronomy in schools using Weigel’s heraldic celestial globes.

Attempts at constellation reform were not a new phenomenon, and perhaps it should not be so surprising. Constellations on star maps can be seen as celestial countries, arbitrarily divided up by observers to enable a stargazer to systematise their viewing of the heavens. They make it easier for astronomers or astrologers to share findings and to locate objects repeatedly and reliably. Similar to the changeable political boundaries of countries, the boundaries of constellations, and thus the stars which comprise them, are fixed by those with the power and influence to enforce them. Groups of stars have retained, on the whole, age old constellation names and shapes because they were familiar, and constituted a universal standard. Hence all astronomers knew which stars made up a certain constellation, and this gave them a set of established reference frames within which to base their further observations. But short of this ideal of the constancy of the constellations across different generations and different countries, there is no reason why the constellations should look specifically as they do, or represent the images and symbols bestowed upon them by previous civilisations. The heavens reflect the values projected upon them by the observer.

Erhard Weigel’s Astroscopium Orbi Europaeo Sacrum, 1688, showing his new constellations (from the website of the Galileo Museum, Florence; click image to see large version)

Earlier in the seventeenth century there had been one or two major attempts to overhaul the map of the sky, and some scholars talk of a “constellation mania” in this period. This may have been due in a large part to the recent invention of the telescope at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Its use by astronomers, starting with the English astronomer Thomas Harriot, revealed many more stars than could previously have been seen with the naked eye. Many new, often short-lived constellations were placed in the sky, reflecting the priorities of the astronomers concerned. Some astronomers depicted important geographical features, such as rivers, others put the heraldic crests of their wealthy patrons in pride of place among the stars. One of the biggest reform attempts before Weigel was in 1627, when a new star map was published which replaced all the constellations with Catholic figures and symbols, such as saints, apostles, and archangels. The reasoning of these reformers was that it was inappropriate for Christians to be using Pagan constellations and to be constantly exposed to such heathen influences. In the case of the politically motivated constellations, the astronomers concerned were generally honouring a specific monarch or patron, for example Edmund Halley in Britain honoured Charles II with his Charles’s Oak, and Johannes Hevelius in Poland honoured the Polish king Jan III Sobieski with Scutum. The period was thus definitely receptive to new heraldic constellations, although all but one, Hevelius’ Scutum, are now obsolete. Weigel’s reform represents a fusion of sorts between two tendencies: the religious tendency to replace old constellations with Christian imagery, and the secular tendency to add new heraldic constellations. Weigel’s would have been the crowning achievement of this period: the replacement of every single constellation with a new heraldic alternative.

Erhard Weigel, aged 30. Note the globe. From Wikimedia Commons (image is in the public domain).

I believe Weigel’s motivation for his new constellations was considerably more nuanced than simply gaining patronage from the wealthy aristocracy. As Professor of Mathematics at the University of Jena from 1652, Weigel had a reputation as a populariser of the sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy, on which he lectured to large audiences and also wrote and distributed pamphlets. The fact that the pamphlets mentioned already were published in German instead of Latin is evidence of this. His 1688 publication of a proposed astronomy curriculum, mentioned already, hinted at a broader programme of educational reform. Weigel lived in Protestant Germany, and he considered the old pagan constellations an anathema to his Protestant sensibilities. In place of the lewd and idolatrous images which he thought had no place in schools, especially the naked people, he put the secular symbols of state, projecting them onto the sky as an idealised depiction of the Europe he wanted to see, one governed by reason. Abandoning the ancient, mythical imagery, he banishing the old pagan superstitions as the last remnants or vestiges of an unenlightened age. He was certainly consciously attempting to demarcate astronomy and astrology, making the boundary very distinct by choosing a pointedly secular method of mapping out the sky for future generations. Weigel had had some training in astrology as a young student in Halle, but had abandoned it, deciding that the glory of the Creator was better realised if one did not consider the stars to have any influence over human beings.

Culturally, Weigel seems to have been representing the entire European social order in the sky. The merchants, farmers, artisans and educators were all present. While it might be almost egalitarian to have everyone depicted in the heavens together, nevertheless, some crests were bigger than others, so maybe he was reinforcing the existing hierarchical order by associating it with the divine heavens. The scientific community were in general against his reforms for logistical reasons, noting that it would be difficult to implement such wide ranging reforms on an international scale. However, Weigel did have plenty of support from patrons and parties interested in funding him, as evidenced by accounts of the production of his ‘pancosmos’, a giant celestial globe thirty two feet in diameter, rather like a modern-day planetarium, into which people could enter. As Weigel’s proposals were reasonably popular with those who had enough power and money to provide an incentive for his reforms to be implemented, it is worth questioning why they were not adopted more widely. In the realm of the constellations, acceptance and rejection are very much contingent. It is notable here that the authority of the increasingly institutionalised scientific community, which had produced new scientific societies around Europe throughout the seventeenth century, trumped the wealth of the ruling classes. Even at the dawn of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, an age which self-consciously sought to cast out old superstitious influences from the sciences, a secularised sky did not seem to appeal to the right people.

Of all the other attempts to alter or add to the constellations in the seventeenth century, Weigel’s was by far the most comprehensive. It was politically, religiously, and scientifically motivated, and could be seen as an attempt to rev up the engine of enlightenment, to remove mythical pagan superstitious influences, at least in the field of astronomy. He failed, though, and this particular engine stalled. For some reason the shapes of the existing constellations were too popular, and the scientific community resisted his attempts at reform, although there are indications that one or two leading lights of the scientific world were actually in favour, such as Gottfried Leibniz (who was a student of Weigel at Jena for a semester). Maybe the existence of these images in the sky was not seen as a problem, rather they were harmless anachronisms, historical curiosities worth keeping around for sentimental reasons, or simply out of a sense of inertia. Today we still use these ancient constellations, having never substituted them systematically for something newer.

This magnificent globe serves as a reminder to us of an attempt to do things differently, and paints a picture of a time when science, religion, and politics were far blurrier categories than today. In some ways it also reminds us that our current situation, where science and politics have been largely secularised, is contingent, the result of conscious decisions, and Weigel’s failed reform attempt provides us with an example of a secularising decision which was not made. Viewed correctly in the context of the period, I believe the failure should be seen as more of a surprise than the attempt itself. Those with the authority to change the constellations didn’t want to. These groups of stars may no longer mean to us what they did to the ancient astrologers, but perhaps these relics of the past have some nostalgic, sentimental value, connecting us to our ancestors and to our history.

The Weigel globe held at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; the colouring on this globe makes some of the details more clear, especially on the two close-up pictures on the right. (Click image to see these images on the Franklin Institute website.)

When compiling this article, I have made use of the following books, articles and websites which might provide interesting further reading:

  • Allen, Richard Hinckley, Star-Names and their Meanings (G. E. Stechert, 1899), reprinted as: Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning (Dover Publications Inc., 1963) (available online here)
  • Dekker, Elly, Globes at Greenwich (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Horn, Werner, Die Alten Globen der Forschungsbibliothek und des Schloßmuseums Gotha (Gotha, 1976)
  • Horn, Werner, Der Heraldische Himmelsglobus des Erhard Weigel, in Der Globusfreund, No. 8 (Vienna, 1959)
  • Kanas, Nick, Star Maps: History, Artistry and Cartography (Praxis Publishing Ltd., 2007)


7 thoughts on “Society in the sky: a seventeenth century attempt to redraw the constellations

  1. If you found this article interesting, I would recommend reading this blog post, also about Erhard Weigel and his heraldic celestial globes, which I have come across since I wrote my own: http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/a-17th-century-astronomer-on-my-twitter-stream/

    Posted by Michael Kay | 28 February, 2012, 2:31 pm
  2. I actually discovered and read your post before you discovered mine. Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt from Greenwich, who is my histsci soul sister, tweeted a link to it that I immediately retweeted with a link to my own Weigel post. Becky and I work closely together promoting history of science in the Internet.

    I think your post is excellent except for the fact that it contains one historical error that no English historian of science should make. You write, “Its use [the telescope] by astronomers, starting famously with Galileo…”. Thomas Harriot used the telescope for astronomical observations before Galileo! 😉

    Posted by Thony C. | 28 February, 2012, 7:21 pm
    • Thanks! I also appreciate a bit of history of science promotion. I have articles planned on Darwin, Faraday, and perpetual motion over the coming months. Thanks for the heads up about Harriot, I have to confess I hadn’t heard actually of him, but am glad to be corrected. 🙂 I have amended the article accordingly, but don’t mind readers seeing here that I did originally make this mistake.

      Could you possibly shed some more light on Weigel’s theology? I have seen that he may have had some pretty heterodox views, and annoyed some theological colleagues; from what I can gather he formulated a proof of God based on mathematics. Is this true? I would be interested to know more about this.

      Thanks again!

      Posted by Michael Kay | 29 February, 2012, 10:36 am
  3. My space compass of the constellations may be of interest:
    It simply replaces the irregular constellations by
    48 triangular “sectors” all of the same size.

    Posted by George Jelliss | 17 March, 2012, 5:30 pm
    • Hi George, thanks for reading, and for this interesting link! As you mention on the page, and as I believe, the present system of constellations probably has too much social inertia to be changed. People could of course make the decision to reform the system, but it would take an international effort and those with the authority may simply be unwilling to history and the heritage which they represent.

      One of Weigel’s other, more successful, reform attempts was the attempt to promote the adoption of the Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian calendar by many of the Protestant German states. The GC had been used in the Catholic world since the late sixteenth century, but there was reluctance amongst many Protestants to use what was seen as a Catholic invention. Weigel was instrumental in campaigning for this reform, but unfortunately died one year before it was adopted in 1700.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 17 March, 2012, 8:52 pm
  4. I’m very pleased to say that this article has been included in ‘The Giant’s Shoulders’, a monthly list of new history of science blog posts: http://skullsinthestars.com/2012/03/16/the-giants-shoulders-45/

    If you have come here from there, thanks for clicking through, and I hope you enjoy reading my article (comments and feedback greatly appreciated)!

    If you haven’t, and are interested in the history of science, I recommend you have a look!

    Posted by Michael Kay | 18 March, 2012, 1:14 pm
  5. Hi, I’m currently writing about seventeenth-century celestial globes and I found this really useful. I’m focusing on the new constellations from the southern hemisphere that cropped up after the Dutch started bringing astronomical data home from their travels. If you’re interested you should have a look at the way they amalgamated the stars and the depictions they decided on. In my thesis I am arguing that they constitute part of European imperial ‘myth-making’ about the New World (they are heavily reliant on exoticism). You may have come across them during your internship at ROG! http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/19920.html

    I am fascinated by this heraldic globe. To me it shows there was an underlying need to totally start ‘afresh’ with the advent of the New Science. Perhaps there’s something Baconian about that. But maybe it was the humanist insistence on ‘authoritas’ in the production of knowledge that proved too much for this poor old globe!


    Posted by Ellen Moran | 17 September, 2013, 8:54 pm

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