Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Fornax Chemica

the Chemical Furnace


Johann Bode's Uranographia, 1801

First named the Chemical Furnace, this constellation was formed by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, 1752, in honor of the accomplishments of his good friend and famous chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier who leaves us the Metric System, modern chemistry, and Fornax - his combustion furnace.  Lacaille created Fornax out of several faint stars in the constellation Eridanus. 

In ancient Rome, Fornax was the goddess of bread and baking, her festival was the Fornacalia. It was held in the Forum by the Curia, or ancient unions of kinsmen, under the superintendence of the Curio Maximus, or president of the masters of the curia. Corn was baked in ovens in the ancient fashion. All who missed the festival were called fools (stulti), as being supposed not to know which was their curia, and had to make an offering at the so-called Feast of Fools (stultorum feria) on the 17th February, the day of the Quirinalia [1].

The word Fornax comes from the Indo-European *gwher- 'To heat, warm'. Derivatives include: burn¹, brimstone (Middle English brinnen, 'to burn', and ston, 'stone', hence the word literally means 'burnstone'), brindled (tawny or grayish with streaks or spots of a darker color, brindled cats are tabby cats, from Old Norse brenna, to burn), brand (from Old French brand, sword), firebrand (a burning stick carried as a torch or a weapon, also somebody with a strong or aggressive personality who encourages unrest), brandy, brandish, therm, -therm, thermo-, thermos, -thermy, hypothermia, thermometer, (these words from Greek thermos), forceps (from *formi-caps, from formus, 'hot', and capere, 'to catch'), fornicate (brothels were called fornices, i.e. 'arches', because prostitutes used to gather 'under the arches' of certain buildings of ancient Rome), Fornax, furnace, hornito (an oven-shaped mound in volcanic regions, sometimes emitting smoke or vapor, from Spanish horno, 'oven', from Latin furnus), fornix (a structure or fold in the shape of an arch, especially either of two bands of white fibers that meet at the base of the brain), ghee (Sanskrit ghrtam, ghee, clarified butter). [Pokorny gwher- 493, bh(e)reu- 143. Watkins] California from 'calida fornax', 'hot furnace'.

'Therma' (hot) is from the town in Greece called Therma, known for its hot springs. Therma (Therme) was a town in ancient Mygdonia (which was later incorporated into Macedon), situated at the northeastern extremity of a great gulf of the Aegean Sea, the Thermaic Gulf. Therma was later renamed Thessalonica (alternative name Salonica) by Cassander [2].

Pokorny links the two Indo-European roots; *gwher- (Pokarny 493) and *bhreue- (Pokarny 143). Chambers (Dictionary of Etymology) says the word burn (from *gwher-) is related to brew (from *bhreue-) through an Indo-European present stem *bhre-n-u- to the root *bhreu- of Old English breowan, to brew. Klein (Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary) also gives an explanation of how the words burn, brew, and bread, are related to each other. This gives a link between the two words Fornax and bread. Fornax was the goddess of bread and the furnace. Indo-European root *bhreue- Also bhreu-, bhreeu-. 'To boil, bubble, effervesce, burn, with derivatives referring to cooking and brewing': brew (from Old English breowan, to brew), bread (from Old English bread), blaff, broth (from Old English broth), broil² (a rowdy argument, a brawl), embroil, imbroglio (a difficult or intricate situation, from Vulgar Latin *brodum, broth), brood (keep eggs warm, from Old English brod), breed (to beget or cherish offspring, breed, 'a warming,' hatching), braise (simmer), braze² (to solder two pieces of metal together), brazier² (a metal pan for holding burning coals or charcoal), breeze² (the refuse left when coke or charcoal is made, from Old French brese, burning coal, ember), yeast, barm (the yeasty foam that rises to the surface of fermenting malt liquors), barmy (full of barm, foamy, or eccentric, daft), ferment, fervent, fervid (marked by great passion or zeal), fervor (from Latin febris, fever), defervescence (the abatement of a fever), effervesce (from Latin fervere, to be boiling or fermenting), bourn¹ (also bourne, a small stream, a brook), burn² (a small stream, a brook, from Old English burn, burna, spring, stream), phreatic (relating to ground water, from Greek phrear, spring, the Greek word phreatos meaning well or underground water, this term refers to types of plants with extensive root systems that utilize water from the underlying water table). [Pokorny bh(e)reu- 143, 2. bher- 132. Watkins] Perhaps Brazil from Portuguese brassa, or a derivative of Old French breze (whence French braise), 'glowing charcoal' [Klein].

John Ayto explains that the word breath comes ultimately from the Indo-European base *bhreue- 'burn, heat' (source also of braise, breed, brood, and probably brawn), and in its original Indo-European form *bhretos appears to have meant something like the 'steam, vapor, etc given off by something burning or cooking.' ... [John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins]

The word broth (from *bhreue-) resembles the word brothel. Brothels were called fornices (hence fornication), i.e. 'arches', because prostitutes used to gather 'under the arches' of certain buildings of ancient Rome [3]. The word brothel comes from another *bhreu- root: *bhreu- Also bhreue-. 'To cut, break up'. Derivatives: brittle, brothel (from Old English breothan, to deteriorate, from Germanic *breuthan, to be broken up), bruise, frustule (the hard, siliceous bivalve shell of a diatom), frustum (the portion of a solid – normally a cone or pyramid – which lies between two parallel planes cutting the solid). [Pokorny 1. bhreu- 169, 2. bhreu-s- 171. Watkins]

The word brand from Old French brand, and Old Norse brandr, also meant a 'sword, or sword-blade.'

"In alchemical terms, 'the Philosopher's Sword' is the fire in the furnace"  [Penguin Symbols].

An athanor, or alchemists' furnace, is an Arabic word 'al-tannur', Hebrew tannur, related to Akkadian tinnuru, meaning an furnace or oven, usually shaped like an egg [4]. Built of brick or clay, it was designed to keep an even heat over long periods of time. The alchemists considered it an incubator and sometimes referred to it as the 'House of the Chick.' [5] The making of the Philosopher's Stone (also referred to as the Philosopher's Egg) requires the combination of the purest possible sulfur and the purest possible mercury, to be combined in the athanor [6].

Alchemists regarded the athanor, in which the process of transmutation took place, [as] an egg-shaped matrix, like the world itself, which is a gigantic egg, the Orphic egg which may be found at the base of all initiatory rites both in Egypt and in Greece. And just as Ruah Elohim, the Spirit of the Lord, floats upon the waters, so ought the spirit of the world, the spirit of life, to float above the waters of the athanor. The alchemist needed the skill to make this spirit his own.(GRIM p. 392) [Penguin Symbols]

English translations of the Bible commonly refer to sulfur as brimstone (brim- from *gwher-, means 'burnstone', from the same root as the word fornax). The 'smell of sulfur' usually refers to the odor of hydrogen sulfide, e.g. from rotten eggs. [Alchemically, the eagle (Aquila) was a symbol of purified sulfur and Greek aetos, eagle, is cognate with the words avis and egg]. The words brood, meaning keeping eggs warm, and breed meaning to give birth or hatch (from *bhreue-), suggests something to do with eggs. There is a likeness between the word 'oven' (which the Latins called fornax), and the Latin word for egg; 'ovum'? The furnace is often likened to the womb in alchemy and symbolism; but I suggest the ovary is more appropriate (one in birds, two in mammals; there is a two-headed eagle symbol?). [The shell of the egg (and seashells) might be adjacent Sculptor; the words sculpt- and shell are related.]

The Latin word fornix means an arch, a vaulted ceiling, and a brothel. In ancient Rome prostitutes were restricted to soliciting only under the archways, or fornixes of the outer city gates. The fornix in the brain is an arch-like shape like a vaulted ceiling. A fornix is also found at the superior end of the vagina, described as a 'vaulted ceiling' surrounding the cervix of the uterus. Both fornixes in the body have only architectural purposes [7].

Fornicator (fornicarius) . . . Prostitute (fornicatrix), a woman whose body is public and common. Such bodies would lie prostrate under arches, places that they call fornices - hence also the term 'female fornicator' (fornicaria). (Vergil Aen. 6.631: And with the archway (fornix) opposite)” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, 219.]

Latin far is cognate with the word 'barley' (not 'spelt'):

“An oven (furnus) is a term derived from 'spelt' (far), because bread made from spelt is baked there” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, 311.]

The name California (calida fornax, Latin for hot furnace) is most commonly believed to have derived from a fictional character, Queen Califia, in a 1510 book The Exploits of Esplandian, about a fictional paradise peopled by black Amazons and ruled by Queen Califia [8]. There might be a resemblance in mythology to the capital of the Amazons, Themiscyra, on the river Thermodon (maybe related to therm?), where Hercules encountered the Amazons, his ninth labor was to retrieve the girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. The Amazon river runs mostly through Brazil (the word Brazil is possibly from *bhreue-).

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Fornax
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
nu Fornax 14ARI57 16ARI20 030 33 45 -29 32 10 -38 55 27 4.74 A0
beta Fornax 18TAU33 19TAU56 041 44 57 -32 36 54 ? 4.50 G6

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Fornax Chemica, or Fornax Chymiae, the Chemical Furnace was formed by La Caille from stars within the southern bend of the River (Eridanus); but modem astronomers, by whom it is still recognized, have abbreviated the title to Fornax.

The Chinese know it as Tien Yu, Heaven's Temporary Granary.

Bode changed the early name in 1782 to Apparatus chemicus, and translated it as the Chemische Apparat, Chymische Ofen, and l’Apparat Chimique, an alteration in honor of the celebrated chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. These titles, however, have fallen into disuse. Gould assigns to it no stars, from 3.6 to 7th magnitudes. alpha, the lucida, is a double of 4th and 7th magnitudes, 3" apart, with a position angle of 320°, and may be binary. It comes to the meridian on the 19th of December.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]