When “Delta” Refers to a Star

Before they were symbols that represented a particular sound, the letters of the alphabet were not so fixed. They were understood to be more like gestures that conveyed meaning based on their relationships to one another. This was also how the planets and stars were understood, in relationship to one another. The ancient greeks told the story that it was Prometheus who found the vowels and consonants among the planets and the stars, so this idea of the celestials in relation to one another, and to the Earth lives in the deep background of our alphabet.

One letter that’s getting a lot of attention right now is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, “delta.” Now in the world of astronomy, the delta star is one of the four brightest stars in a constellation, and this according Bayer designation. So there’s the alpha star, which is brightest or largest, then the beta, gamma, and delta stars, and so on.

This week, there’s a meteor shower that peaks overnight July 28 to 29, and like all meteor showers, it’s named for the location of its radiant, which in this case is the delta star in the constellation Aquarius. The meteor shower is called the Delta Aquariid, and the delta star that lends its name to the shower is called “Skat,” which means “a wish.”

So, as we turn away from July and into August, moving through the halfway point of the season, we can imagine the Waterman Aquarius is pouring out wishes through the night.

The 1st century astronomer Claudius Ptolemy said that the stars fall through the gaps in the planetary spheres that were caused by the gods occasionally looking down to see what was happening on the Earth. So if you cast your wish up to such a falling star, it’s more likely to come true, because the gods are looking on.

May all your best wishes come true!


Image above from Sky&Telescope, and this episode on Interlochen and The Storyteller’s Night Sky podcast.