The Harry Potter Astronomical Marathon
By Mike Weinstein

Saturday, Feb. 10, 2007 ’ 40º N latitude


two of my passions ’ astronomy and Harry Potter ’ will come together. The
challenge I have set for myself: to watch the sky from dusk until dawn, and
track down, in a single night, most of the stars and constellations whose names
Jo Rowling uses for the characters in her books. A Harry Potter astronomical
marathon, if you will. This journal will record my thoughts and observations as
the night progresses, especially concerning the connections between the
characters and their celestial namesakes.

check: I've got my star maps, my binoculars, and my light source (dim red
light, so as not to ruin my night vision). On the table next to my lawn chair
are an enormous box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans and plenty of hot,
homemade butterbeer in a large thermos. Jim Dale's mellifluous voice wafts out
of the CD player on the ground beside me ’ his twelve-hour audio recording of Harry
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
, just the right length for an

As the
twilight deepens, I adjust the zipper on my down parka, pull my Ravenclaw scarf
a bit tighter about my throat, settle into my lawn chair, and wait for the stars
to appear. Let's rock and roll.


The last
traces of dusk have faded away, and I look high in the west for my first
target: the constellation Andromeda, two curving lines of stars reaching
upwards. The figure represents a beautiful princess of Greek mythology; her
parents had to give her up as a sacrifice to a sea monster, as penalty for
their boasts that her beauty rivaled even the gods' (not a good idea).1 Her Potter counterpart, Andromeda
Tonks (née Black), was also given up by her family, although in her case
it was for the heinous crime of marrying a Muggle-born.2

lies the W-shaped configuration of stars representing the mythical Andromeda's
royal mother, Queen Cassiopeia.3 That name also appears in the House of Black, although there
she is not Andromeda's mother but her¦ er, let me check my copy of the
Lexicon's Black Family Tree¦ ah yes, her paternal
grandfather's sister.4

I open up
the box of Every Flavor Beans, and munch on a lovely peppermint one. Hope
there's not an earwax-flavored bean in here. Or tripe. I hate tripe.


High in
the south stands the most famous of the winter constellations, Orion the
hunter. A rectangle of four bright stars, bisected by three more in a line ’
his famous belt. Orion is also the name of Sirius Black's father in Potter

A line
drawn through Orion's belt to the lower left points to the brightest star in
the heavens, Sirius itself. The star lies in the constellation of Canis
Major, one of Orion's hunting dogs;6 for this reason it is also called the Dog Star. Rowling
chose this name, of course, because of Sirius Black's canine Animagus form. One
supposes that Orion Black hoped his son would be as faithful to the family name
as a pure-bred dog ’ and when Sirius disappointed his father and ran away from
home, you can bet that no "LOST DOG" signs were posted.

1: All-sky map for observer at 40º N latitude at
8 PM on February 10, 2007. Generated by John Walker's Your Sky web site
(, annotated by Mike Weinstein.


Back to
Orion. Of its rectangle of four bright stars, the one at the upper-right corner
is Bellatrix, a Latin word which signifies a female warrior.7 A perfect name for Sirius Black's
cousin Bellatrix Lestrange, the militant follower of the Dark Lord. How unfair
that the celestial representations of Sirius and his murderer lie so near to
each other in the sky.

line drawn through Orion's belt, this time upwards and to the right, roughly
points to the pretty cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, or the Seven
Sisters. In Greek myth, the Pleiades were the daughters of the god Atlas.8 Most of them had offspring with
immortals as befitted their divine status, and therefore glimmer proudly in the
sky borne by their father. Only one married a mortal ’ the one named Merope.
For the shame that this brought to her and her family, her star was dimmed.9 A fitting namesake for poor
Merope Gaunt, who brought similar shame to her pure-blood family by running off
with a Muggle. Raising my binoculars, I focus on the Pleiades and admire the
view ’ with optical aid one can see far more than seven stars keeping Merope

getting quite cold now. Wish I could conjure up blue flames in a jam jar like
Hermione. Will settle for hot butterbeer in a thermos. Delicious! And somewhat

2: Simulated binocular view of the Pleiades star cluster. Generated by John
Your Sky web
site (, annotated by Mike Weinstein.


Back to
Orion again. A line drawn approximately perpendicular to his belt, to the upper
left, points towards the constellation of Gemini, the celestial twins. Its two
brightest stars are Castor and Pollux. No Castor on the Black family
tree, but Sirius's maternal grandfather was a Pollux.10

Why did
the Blacks give their sons and daughters all of these astronomical names? The
ancients sharply divided the universe into two parts: the celestial and the
terrestrial. The celestial realms were the home of the dazzling stars, the
god-like planets, and the pure, crystalline, celestial spheres. The terrestrial
globe ’ this imperfect Earth ’ was where the muddy, grubby mortals resided.11 One can see why the haughty,
pure-blood Blacks ("Toujours Pur" 12) would choose to align themselves with the stars.

What an
extraordinary jelly bean I just popped into my mouth! Was that¦ hot fudge
sundae? Holy Hedwig, I think I can actually taste the crushed nuts and
sprinkles! Much better than the kelp-flavored one I discovered (to my horror) a
few minutes ago.


As the
Earth's rotation shifts Orion and his crowd off towards the west, some more
Blacks are ascending in the southeast. The constellation Hydra represents a
fearful multi-headed serpent that kept sprouting two new heads every time one
was cut off13 (giving Snape an apt analogy for
the Dark Arts in Half-Blood Prince14). For such an impressively hideous monster, the stars
that make it up are nevertheless quite dim ’ all except for one, Alphard,
whose name means the Solitary One in Arabic.15 Sirius Black's Uncle Alphard showed solitary support for Sirius by giving him "a decent bit of gold" 16 ’ and his name was consequently
blasted off the family tapestry.

Near the
Hydra is the constellation of Leo the lion. Since the lion is the ruler of the
jungle, its brightest star was given the name Regulus, meaning the
Little King or Prince in Latin.17 A perfect name for Sirius's younger brother, the favored child who upheld the family honor. (Sirius recalled that his parents believed that "to be a Black made you practically royal." 18) Can't you just see Sirius's parents proudly calling his brother "our Little King" while referring to Sirius himself as "the mangy Dog"? The sky, however, attests to the truth: Regulus's star is far outshined by Sirius's.


Alas! An
earwax-flavored jelly bean. Blecch.


to Sunday! Rising in the east is the bright star Arcturus in the
constellation of Boötes the herdsman, easily found because the handle of the
Big Dipper points to it. In Potter mythology, Arcturus Black was Sirius's
paternal grandfather19
(and fans have speculated that his name also serves as the A in R.A.B.).

My feet
are freezing! I get up to do a virtual round of Dance Dance Revolution (minus
the video game) so I can warm them up. While doing this, I amuse myself by
using a stick as a wand and shouting "Expelliarmus!" every so often.20


how did Bertie get an entire pizza ’ complete with mushrooms, peppers, and
pineapple chunks ’ into one delicious jelly bean? A confectionary conundrum!

In the
north, winding around the Pole Star, is a constellation representing a
snake-like dragon: Draco. It seems that Draco Malfoy's mother, Narcissa,
decided to continue her family's tradition of using star maps as inspiration
when choosing baby names. She clearly expected that her son would be sorted
into sneaky, snaky Slytherin. (If Ron found that name funny, it's a darn good
thing that Narcissa didn't decide to name her son Betelgeuse or Nunki or
Zubenelgenubi. Hee hee ’ "Zubenelgenubi's a booby!" Sorry, I think the late
hour is making me punch-drunk. Or maybe it's the butterbeer.)

One of
the stars in the celestial dragon's head is called Rastaban, meaning
Head of the Serpent in Arabic.21 Bellatrix's slithery brother-in-law, Rabastan Lestrange, has a similar name. (Why did Rowling scramble the letters? Maybe she had a bit too much butterbeer!)


third-quarter Moon is rising in the southeast. I gaze at it with binoculars,
while pondering the fact that people used to think the Moon (Luna in
Latin) made people go crazy and become lunatics, just like "Loony" Luna
Lovegood. (She definitely had a bit too much butterbeer! OK, sorry,
getting off the butterbeer thing now.)


Jim Dale
has reached the part where Gryffindor beats Slytherin in the final school
Quidditch match, and I cheer loudly as they are awarded the House Cup. This
wakes my neighbor, who opens his window and sends some curses my way. I attempt
to jinx said neighbor with my stick. Doesn't work. Pity.


Low in
the northeast is a cross-shaped constellation depicting a soaring swan, Cygnus.
Sirius's Uncle Cygnus was the father of Bellatrix, Andromeda, and Narcissa.22 Was his Animagus or Patronus a
swan? Did he have a long, graceful neck? Did he sing beautifully in the shower?
We may never know.

Why did
the last jelly bean have to be tripe?! And why is the butterbeer gone? O woe.

3: All-sky map for observer at 40º N latitude at 5 AM on February 11, 2007.
Generated by John Walker's
Your Sky web site (, annotated by
Mike Weinstein.


My last target climbs high enough in the southeast for me to find. In the
sprawling constellation of Ophiuchus, the
Man-Holding-a-Large-Snake-for-No-Apparent-Reason, is a dim star that
astronomers call Nu Ophiuchi, but which also has the name Sinistra.23 The word means Left Hand in
Latin, 24 apparently because it marks that
part of the serpent-holder's body.25 When Rowling needed a name for the Hogwarts Astronomy
professor, she used one belonging to a star, of course. (And it seems that at
one point, she was considering Aurora
for Professor Sinistra's first name,26 perhaps thinking of the aurora borealis, or northern

Near the
star Sinistra is the much brighter Jupiter ’ apparently Professor Sinistra's
favorite planet, judging from all the essays about it she's given to Harry and
Ron. If these binoculars were a telescope (or Omnioculars), I would be able to
make out Jupiter's four largest moons arranged in a line around it: Ganymede,
Callisto, Io, and Europa (the one with the ice, not the mice, weren't
you paying attention, Harry?).


Well, I
made it. Jim Dale is just finishing up the final page of Prisoner of Azkaban,
and I managed to hunt down most of Rowling's astronomical inspirations in a
single night. The Sun will be up in about an hour, and the sky is starting to
brighten over in the east. I catch a quick glimpse of red Mars low on the
horizon, and amuse myself by muttering "Mars is bright tonight" 27 in a centaur-like voice. Except
that it isn't very bright tonight. And it's not really night anymore. Hoo boy,
I need some sleep¦.


Your Own Marathon

the night of February 10, it really is possible for an observer at 40º N
latitude (and any longitude) to see most of the stars and constellations that
Rowling references in Books 1-6 ’ although in reality I have never actually
done it. There is nothing special about the year 2007 in this regard; the stars
repeat themselves every year (although the Moon and planets do not).

Potter astronomical marathons are also possible at other times of year (generally
October through March) and from many other locations on Earth (between 70º N
and 20º S latitude). However, the particulars of these star tours ’ the stars'
locations in the sky, the times when they will be visible, the positions of the
Moon and planets ’ may be somewhat different from the ones given in this essay.
So if you would like to give this a try, you should use star maps drawn for
your date and location to plan things out; one terrific resource for generating
such maps is John Walker's easy-to-use web site, Your Sky.

interested in pulling an all-nighter? Or is it not possible from where you
live? Well then, walk outside on any clear night, and chances are good that
some of these stars and constellations will be in the sky above you. As the
months go by, others will come into view. Depending on your location, you can
find most or all of them during the course of a year. Again, Your Sky or
other star maps will be helpful in tracking them down.

A final
note: if you would like to print out the maps in this essay, it is best to save
them to your computer, open them in a graphics program, and invert their
colors. The resulting black-on-white images will use much less printer ink.



Dibon-Smith, "Andromeda' paragraph 1.

Rowling, Order of the Phoenix,

Dibon-Smith, "Cassiopeia' paragraph 1.

4. Bunker,
Black Family Tree.

5. Ibid.

Dibon-Smith, "Canis Major' paragraph 1.

7. Gibson,
"Star Names' Orion – Gamma Ori – Bellatrix.

8. Ibid.,
"Pleiades Mythology' Genealogy.

9. Atsma,
"Merope." See esp. quote from Hyginus, Astronomica 2.21.

Bunker, Black Family Tree.

11. Van
Helden, "Ptolemaic System' paragraph 2.

Rowling, Order of the Phoenix,

13. Dolan,
"Hydra' paragraph 2.

Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 177.

Gibson, "Star Names' Hydra – Alpha Hya – Alphard.

Rowling, Order of the Phoenix,

Gibson, "Star Names' Leo – Alpha Leo – Regulus.

Rowling, Order of the Phoenix,

Bunker, Black Family Tree.

20. Noe,
"Dance Dance Revolution."

Gibson, "Star Names' Draco – Beta Dra – Rastaban.

Bunker, Black Family Tree.

MasterFroggy, "Guide to Stars and Moons' Sinistra. The author of that work
cites an astrology web page (Wright, "Fixed Star: Sinistra") as a reference. As
of this writing, I have not yet found an astronomical source that gives
Sinistra as a name for the star Nu Ophiuchi.

24. Lewis
and Short, Latin Dictionary, "sinister" def. I.2.

Ophiuchus is traditionally drawn with his back to the viewer, so Nu Ophiuchi
really does mark the Serpent-Bearer's left hand, not his right. For instance,
see folio 13 verso from Johann Bayer's famous 1603 book of stellar cartography,
Uranometria (archived online by the Linda Hall Library of Science,
Engineering, and Technology at

26. Hobbs,
"More idle jottings' transcription.

Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 253.


Aaron. "Merope." Theoi Project: Guide to Greek Mythology, 2000-2007.

Johann. Uranometria. Augsburg, Germany:
Christophorus Mangus, 1603. Archived at the Linda Hall Library of Science,
Engineering, and Technology.

Lisa Waite, ed. "The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black." The Harry
Potter Lexicon
, Which Wizard, 25 November 2006.

Richard. "Andromeda." The Constellations, 1999-2000.

"Canis Major." The Constellations, 2000.

"Cassiopeia." The Constellations, 2000.

Chris. "Hydra." The Constellations and their Stars.

Steven. "Star Names."
. Table of names at

"Pleiades Mythology." The Pleiades.

Hobbs, Belinda, ed. "More idle jottings
(Page 1)." The Harry Potter Lexicon, Guide to, 4 July 2006.

Charlton T. and Charles Short. Entry for "sinister" in A Latin Dictionary.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879. Archived
online at the Perseus Digital Library, Tufts.
Crane, Gregory, ed.

"Guide to Harry Potter's Stars and Moons." Master Froggy's Encyclopaedia of
All Things Harry Potter
, 2003-2005.

Noe, John.
"John Noe performs Dance Dance Revolution." The Harry Potter Video Galleries. /videogallery/video/show/46.

J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine
Books, 1999.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Goblet of Fire
. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine
Books, 2000.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine
Books, 2005.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine
Books, 2003.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine
Books, 1999.

”””. Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine
Books, 1998.

Helden, Al. "Ptolemaic System." The Galileo Project, 1995.

John. "Your Sky." 18
April 2003.

Anne. "Fixed Star: Sinistra." The Fixed Stars.

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