Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Mensa

Mons Mensa, the Table Mountain

The constellation Mensa is close to the South Pole (in Octans), and named by La Caille who originally called it Mons Mensae after Table Mountain, the name of the mountain near his observatory in Cape Town, South Africa. A mensa land formation has steep walls and a relatively flat top. Table Mountain is a flat-topped mountain forming a prominent landmark overlooking the city of Cape Town, and is the only terrestrial feature to give its name to a constellation. In summer dense white clouds spills over the flat top of the mountain, forming what is imagined to be the 'table cloth', this cloud is identified with the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy straddling the border between the constellations of Dorado and Mensa.

There are three legends directly linked to this mountain constellation, Mensa, and its table-cloth the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy

1. Van Hunks and the Devil: There is a story about how this tablecloth was formed. Devil's Peak (on the side of this table-mountain) was originally known as Windberg, and supposedly gets its current name from the folk-tale about a Dutch man called Jan van Hunks, a prodigious pipe smoker who lived at the foot of the mountain circa 1700. He was forced by his wife to leave the house whenever he smoked his pipe. One day, while smoking on the slopes of the peak, he met a mysterious stranger who also smoked. They each bragged of how much they smoked and so they fell into a pipe-smoking contest. The stranger turned out to be the Devil and Van Hunks eventually won the contest, but not before the smoke that they had made had covered the mountain, forming the table cloth cloud (Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil's_Peak_(Cape_Town)

2. The African legend of Umlindi Wemingizimu (Watcher of the South): In Xhosa legend, Djobela - the Earth Goddess turned mighty giants, placed in the four corners of the earth, into mountains to guard the world. The greatest giant of them all – Umlindi Welingizunu was Table Mountain, the Watcher of the South. http://www.south-african-hotels.com/table-mountain-text.php

3. The Portuguese myth of Adamastor: The story of the mythical monster Adamastor, the grisly spirit of the Cape of Storms, is told by the Portuguese poet Camoens in the 1500s. Camoens tells it like this:  As Vasco da Gama and his fleet approached the Cape a dark, ominous cloud (the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy) appeared overhead taking the shape of a monstrous human figure who reproached the voyagers for venturing into the seas and prophesized that disaster would befall anyone who dared round the Cape of Storms. The monster tells the frightened mariners that he is Adamastor who, in classical myth, sought to overthrow the gods. However, Adamastor was punished by the gods who metamorphosed the monster into a mountain and set it at Cape Point to guard over the southern seas. http://cybercapetown.com/CapeTown/myth.php

Mensa comes from the Indo-European root *mems- 'Flesh, meat'. Derivatives: member, membrane, meninx (the meninges, singular meninx, is the system of membranes that envelop the central nervous system), mensal, commensal, mensal2 (pertaining to, or used at, the table, relating to meals etc.) [Pokorny memso- 725. Watkins]

Klein says of the word mensal, "from Late Latin mensalis, from Latin mensa, 'table', which is probably identical with mensa, feminine past participle of metiri, 'to measure', and short for tabula mensa, 'a measured board'". Latin meteri, to measure, is derived from the Indo-European root *me-2 'To measure'. Derivatives: meal² (food served on a table), measure, commensurate, dimension, immense (in + mensus), (these words from Latin metiri, to measure), Metis (Zeus' first wife whom he swallowed, from Greek metis, wisdom, skill), meter¹, meter², meter³, -meter, metrical, -metry, diameter, geometry, isometric, metrology (measurement), mahout (the keeper and driver of an elephant), moon, Monday, month, meno- (menstruation), meniscus (a crescent-shaped body), menses. [Pokorny 3. me- 703, menot 731. Watkins]

The Mensa club, the high-IQ organization of select membership, was originally to be named mens in the sense of 'mind', but took instead the name Mensa, Latin for 'table', to avoid ambiguity with 'men's in English and 'mens' in other languages [1]. Mensa means table in Latin as is symbolized in the organization's logo. The organization says the word mensa has a triple meaning in Latin: mind, table and month, suggesting a monthly meeting of minds around a table [2]. "The name chosen, according to the organization, to suggest a 'round table' type group" [3].

In Spanish the original Latin term mensa survived as mesa [Ayto]:

"... Afterwards it [the table] was made round, and the fact that it was media ‘central’ with us and mesa, 'central’ with the Greeks, is the probable reason for its being called a mensa, ‘table’; unless indeed they used to put on, amongst the victuals, many that were mensa 'measured out.'" [Varro: On The Latin Language, p.113 ]

The constellation Mensa, is translated by the French as Montague de la Table; by the Italians, as Monte Tavola; and by the Germans, as Tafelberg. Our word table comes from Latin tabula, is synonymous with 'board', 'cuisine', 'food', 'list', 'slab', 'tablet'. It originally denoted a 'board' or 'plank,' and hence a 'slab for writing on' and a 'list or similar arrangement of words or figures written on such a slab' (as in a 'table of contents'). Derivatives in English include tableau, tablet, tabloid, and tabular.

Isidore relates tabula, table, to tabernacle:

“A tabernaculum is a soldier's tent, with which they avoid the heat of the sun, the onslaughts of rainstorms, and the injury of cold while on the march. They are called tabernacula because their sides are stretched out and suspended by ropes from the boards (tabula) standing between them which hold up the tents” [p.313]. “'Living together' (contubernium) is an agreement to sleep together for a time; whence the term 'tent' (tabernaculum), which is pitched now here, now there [p.211]. [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD]

The word tabernacle, from Late Latin tabernculum, from Latin, tent, diminutive of taberna, hut, and related to tavern. Taverna refers to a small restaurant serving Greek cuisine, originally derived from the Latin word taberna ('shed' or 'hut', from tabula 'board', table, possibly by dissimulation from traberna, from trabs: beam, timber) [4]. A tavern, or a Greek taverna, like a Mensa club, is a meeting place.

“The word 'table' (mensa) was made from 'eating' (esus) and 'consuming' (comesus), for a table has no other use.” [p.395.] “Tableware (messorium) is so called from 'table' (mensa), as if it were mensorium.” [p.399.] [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD].

© Anne Wright 2008.

   

from Star Names 1889, Richard H. Allen

Mons Mensae, the Table Mountain, now abbreviated by astronomers to Mensa, is translated by the French as Montague de la Table; by the Italians, as Monte Tavola; and by the Germans, as Tafelberg.

La Caille (18th-century French astronomer Nicolas Lacaille), who did so much for our knowledge of the southern heavens, formed the figure from stars under the Greater Cloud (in 1752) (Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy), between the poles of the equator and the ecliptic, just north of the polar Octans; the title being suggested by the fact that the Table Mountain, back of Cape Town, "which had witnessed his nightly vigils and daily toils," also was frequently capped by a cloud.

Gould found in the constellation 44 naked-eye stars, the brightest being of 5.3 magnitude; but within its borders is a portion of the Nubecula Major (Large Magellanic Cloud).

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