excerpted from Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning, by Richard H. Allen, 1889, p.7-10.
The Lunar Mansions once bore an important part in observational astronomy, especially in that of Arabia, China, and India, and of Khiva — the ancient Khorasmia — and Bokhara — the ancient Sogdiana; while recent research finds them well established in the Euphrates valley, Coptic Egypt and Persia, perhaps originating in the first.
They lay for the most part along the celestial equator or in the zodiac, varying in extent, although theoretically each was supposed to represent the length of the moon's daily motion in its orbit. They sometimes were twenty-seven, but usually twenty-eight in number, the lunar month being between twenty-seven and twenty-eight days, and possibly long antedated the general constellations, or even the solar zodiac. They seem to have been among the earliest attempts at stellar science; indeed with the Khorasmians, to whom Al Biruni attributed great knowledge of the stars, an astronomer was called Akhtar Wenik, "Looking to the Lunar Stations" and they have largely been made use of in the astrology of all ages, as well as in early poetry and prose, even in Arabic doggerel.
Their astrological characters were various, eleven being considered fortunate, ten the reverse, and seven of uncertain influence; but each, at least in India, was associated with some occurrence of life. Their antiquity is proved by the fact that there, and probably elsewhere, the list began with the Pleiades, when those stars marked the vernal equinox, although this was changed about the beginning of our era, owing to precession, to stars in Aries, the 27th of the early series, and further from the fact that many of their titles occur in the most ancient books of China, and are positively claimed there as of at least 2500 b.c.
While these lunar asterisms in the main agree as to their component stars, — eighteen are coincident,— some of the Hindu and Chinese are located in our Andromeda, Aquila, Bootes, Crater, Delphinus, Hydra, Lyra, Orion, and Pegasus, outside of the moon's course. Nor are their titles similar, except in the 16th, 17th, and 28th of China and Arabia; but our great Sanskrit scholar Whitney thought that this can hardly be fortuitous, and claimed, from this and other points of resemblance, that they are "three derivative forms of the same original."
They have been much disputed about, yet no substantial agreement has been reached as to the date of their formation, or their place of origin. Whitney's resume of the discussion appears in his Lunar Zodiac, his conclusion being that the moon stations were adopted into India, perhaps everywhere, from Mesopotamia, their birthplace.
Biot, early in this century, said that they were of Chinese origin, and Sedillot, that they came from Arabia; but Miss Clerke considers India as their source, and that they were first published in Arabia, in Al Ferghani's Elements of Astronomy, under the Khalif Al Mamun, in the early part of the 9th century, when Hindu cultivation in art, literature, and the sciences was much looked up to by the Arabians. Yet in the year 1000 Al Biruni wrote, in his India, about its astronomers:
"I never came across any one of them who knew the single stars of the lunar stations from eyesight, and was able to point them out to me with his fingers."
The Hindus knew them as Nakshatras, Asterisms, the Jufur of Al Biruni, and thought them influential in their worship, and selected from the list the names of their months; but, although in some form or other they were very ancient in India, they do not seem to have been fully recognized there until the 7th or 8th century before Christ, when they appeared in the Brahmanas.
Unlike their counterparts in Arabia and China, each seems to have been represented by some special figure, in no way associated with the title.
In Arabia they were Al Nujum al Ahdh, the "Stars of Entering", and Al Ribatat, the "Roadside Inns", although better known as Al Manazil al Kamr, the "Mansions", or "Resting-Places", of the Moon (Arabic manzil or manazil), in the singular, signifying the noonday halt of camel and rider in the desert. Readers of Ben Hur will recall this in connection with Balthasar, the Egyptian, at the meeting of the Magi in their search for Him
" that is born King of the Jews,"
after they saw
"his star in the east, and are come to worship him."
They are alluded to in the 10th Sura of the Kur'an (Koran), where, referring to the moon, it says that God
"hath appointed her stations, that ye might know the number of years, and the computation of time;"
but long before the Prophet the authors of the Chaldaean Creation Legend and of Genesis wrote similarly; while in the 104th Psalm, that noble nature-psalm for Whitsunday, we read :
"He appointed the moon for seasons."
In China they were Sieu, Houses, the series commencing with Kio,— alpha (Spica) and zeta Virginis,— at the September equinox: and some are disposed to regard them there not merely as lunar divisions, but also as determinant points in reference to the movements of the sun and planets. Differing, however, from the analogous divisions of other nations, they generally were located along the equator. In the legends of that country they were the sky representatives of twenty-eight celebrated generals. They also were introduced into Japan at an early day, and the chronicler of Magellan's voyage in 1521 found them familiarly known in the Malay Archipelago, and their astrological influence well recognized.
These Hindu, Arabic, and Chinese lunar asterisms have long been familiar to us, but the Persian have more recently been found in the Bundehesh, and Brown has only lately published transcriptions and translations of the Chaldaean, Khorasmian, and Sogdian titles,— the originals of the last two from Al Biruni,— as also the significations of the Coptic and Persian. Their names and locations are given in connection with their component stars throughout this work: and they have been charted in detail by Williams and by Newton.
Other divisions of the sky, somewhat analogous to these (Lunar Mansions), were the Decans of the Chaldaeans, Egyptians, and Greeks,
"belts of stars extending round the heavens, the risings of which followed each other by ten days or so,"
but of much greater extent north and south than the Lunar Mansions, and thirty-six in number instead of twenty-eight. Miss Clerke writes of them:
"The Chaldaeans chose three stars in each sign to be the 'councillor gods' of the planets. These were called by the Greeks 'decans,' because ten degrees of the ecliptic and ten days of the year were presided over by each. The college of the decans was conceived as moving, by their annual risings and settings, in an "eternal circuit" between the infernal and supernal regions."
They are mentioned by Manilius (Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 1, p.31]) as Decania, by others as Decanica, Decane, Decanon, Degane, Deganae, and Decima; while the lords of the decans were known as Decani and their titles have been preserved to us by Maternus Julius Firmicus (a Christian Latin writer and notable astrologer, who lived in the reign of Constantine I ), the prose writer of Constantine's reign. They appear in representations of ancient zodiacs on temple walls and astrological monuments in Egypt, as probably elsewhere.