Identification of Borgil as Mars

Asterion

New Member
Hi! As already discussed in Episode 13 around the 1:22:00 mark, "red Borgil" is normally associated to Aldebaran, with other candidates being Betlegeuse and Mars. I think Betlegeuse can be easily discarded, and Mars is normally discarded due to two reasons:

1. Although it can be seen around midnight in late September below the Pleiades (Remmirath) and above Orion (Menelmacar), this is rarely the case.

2. The name for Mars is elsewhere (Morgoth's Ring) given as Carnil/Karnil.

I have read an interesting article (https://funkmon.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/identifying-borgil/) where it states that, since Carnil is Quenya for "red star", and Borgil is Sindarin for "red star", the association of Carnil with Mars would be an argument for identifying Borgil as Mars, not actually against it. I must agree here, as I think it would be unusual to give the exact same name in Quenya and Sindarin to two different stars.

As to the first counter-argument, I have been checking the night sky eastwards as seen from Oxford on every September 24th at midnight during Tolkien's life, and in 1943 Mars appears exactly where Borgil should be: between the Pleiades and Orion, at the same apparent height as Aldebaran. The nearest nights where this also happens (although not as perfectly aligned as in 1943) is 1928 and 1958. I attach an image of the sky on that night, but you can check it too at https://in-the-sky.org/skymap.php. Could it be possible that Tolkien took note of the position of the stars that same night, hence referring to Mars rather than Aldebaran? If one tried to describe the midnight eastward sky based on that night, I feel it would be difficult to give the "red star" title to an entity other than Mars. Or was that passage already fixed and not re-visited after that date, making this theory absoulte nonsense?


1943_annotated.jpg
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
We do know that Tolkien used the Moon phases from 1942 in writing Lord of the Rings, as Christopher Tolkien confirmed in Treason of Isengard.


So, it is not beyond the pale to suggest that he may have used the location of Mars in the night sky in Oxford on Sept. 24, 1943 in his description in that passage.

Aldebaran has the advantage of always being in the correct place, and certainly would be plenty bright and noticeable in the dark Shire sky. But I don't think Borgil=Mars can be dismissed. Good work digging up that star chart!
 

Asterion

New Member
Thank you, MithLuin!

Looking at the passage in The Return of the Shadow, what originally roused the Elves to sing was the Moon, without any reference to stars. In Phase 1 of the manuscript it was a full moon, but Tolkien changed it to a new moon in Phase 3 of the manuscript (1939?). However, this posed another problem: according to Christopher Tolkien, "it is an odd and uncharacteristic aberration that my father envisaged a New Moon rising late at night in the East", so in the final version the Eastern Autumn stars replaced the Moon. Is it known when this change from the Moon to stars took place? If it was after 1943, the identification of Borgil with Mars based on that particular observation on 24 September 1943 could still be true.

[By the way, in the image I should have used the form 'Menelvagor' instead of Quenya 'Menelmacar', as the rest of the names are in Sindarin. Sorry for that!]
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
Hi Asterion,

I love your astronomical look at red Borgil, and your hypothesis that this might be Mars. I especially like your illustration.

Great astronomical observation. However, if we look more mythologically, rather than astronomically, would the same hypothesis be supported?

Mythologically, I think, Borgil might more likely have been Aldebaran after all. The name 'Aldebaran' comes from a similar Arabic word meaning 'the Follower'. Generally thought to be so named because it follows after the Pleiades (rising later). "Away high in the East swung Remminrath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire." This introduction of Borgil in TLOTR certainly seems to emphasize the 'Follower' aspect of Aldebaran, and it's appearance rising after the Pleiades.

Mars, mythologically is the God of War. Now it might seem fitting that Frodo observed Mars rising in the East, as a portent of the War of the Rings that was soon to come. I would think that a good interpretation if it weren't for the next sentence, "Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt."

I think with Menelvagor described as 'the Swordsman of the Sky', rather than as 'The Huntsman' (which is the attribution in Greek mythology), he becomes the portent of War rising in the East, and it is less likely that JRRT would have included two portents?

Now let's go to the etymology of the Pleiades. Some think that the constellation was named before the Mythology of the Seven Sisters was hung upon it. The name may have derived from the Greek word 'to sail'. Hesiod wrote a poem:

And if longing seizes you for
sailing the stormy seas
when the Pleiades flee mighty
Orion
and plunge into the misty deep
and all the gusty winds are
raging,
then do not keep your ship on
the wine-dark sea
but, as I bid you, remember to
work the land.

The Pleiades is visible in the evening sky from November to April in the northern hemisphere. Those winter months were dangerous sailing in ancient Greece.

So, a mythological interpretation of Frodo's view of the stars when hanging out with the Elves at Woody End might be:

Remmirath - Pleiades - Sailing (to the West). Just referenced by Gildor. A portent for Frodo.

Borgil - Aldebaran - The Follower - Frodo - A portent. He will follow Remmirath into the West. But who is he really following? Earendil, I think?

Menelvagor - Orion - The Swordsman of the Sky - A portent. War from the East. Frodo must survive it for the rest of the pattern to hold.

Anyway, loved your astronomy. Just thought I would offer a possible alternative attribution for Borgil based on mythology.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Flammifer,

I would not take the association of Mars with the god of war too seriously in attempting to understand the mythology of Middle-earth. There is no such connection between the planet Mars and warfare in Tolkien's mythology. As you pointed out, he has 'changed' the mythological meanings of the stars/planets/constellations he presents...or rather, he has come up with original and novel interpretations of them to fit his story. Thus, we do not have 'Orion the Huntsman,' but rather 'Menelvagor, the Swordsman of the Sky'. No longer is it 'the Big Dipper' or 'Ursus Major', but rather 'the Sickle of the Valar.' And Venus, the morning/evening star, is no longer the goddess of beauty, but rather Eärendil, Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.

Carnil, meaning 'red star' in Quenya, does not have any warlike association. I cannot think of any other instance where Tolkien referred to Mars (the planet) mythologically within his world, so I don't have an 'alternative' interpretation to offer, simply pointing out that the primary world mythology you are referencing does not seem to apply to this passage.
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
Hi MithLuin,

I totally agree with you that the mythology of Middle Earth does not necessarily connect with the mythology we know. Of course, Mars has no association with war (that we know of) in Middle Earth. (Although, Middle-earth is our earth, just in an earlier age, so it is not unreasonable that if we have an association between Mars and war, this association might have long pre-dated the Greeks.)

However, Tolkien would certainly be aware of the associations that known mythology would have for his readers. Even more than mythology, he was acutely aware of linguistics and etymologies. I suspect that the Arabic derivations of 'Aldebaran' as meaning 'Follower', and of the Pleiades linguistic association with sailing in ancient Greek, would have been known to JRRT. In fact, it would be entirely typical of him to lean into those linguistic associations. I guess it is the linguistic, more than the mythological, which leads me to suspect that Borgil is more likely Aldebaran than Mars.

I wonder if JRRT might have been inspired by Dante - who set various cryptic astronomical observations into the Inferno, which, if deciphered, clued the reader in to the timing of his journey being over Easter.
 
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Asterion

New Member
Wow! Thank you all for sharing all of this information!

I think in this particular passage Tolkien may have had a more astronomical than mythological approach. After all, in the first drafts it was the Moon which rose in the East and prompted the Elves to sing, and the change to stars was probably motivated by him realising that the Moon would not be an accurate observation there. So it would make sense for him to try to (try and?) describe the night sky accurately this time.

The only clue I could find as to when that change took place is in letter 69, from May 1944, where he tells Christopher that he had been busy revising his descriptions of the Moon: "I found my Moons in the crucial days between Frodo's flight and the present situation (arrival at Minas Morghul) to be doing impossible things. [...] Rewriting bits of back chapters took all afternoon!". Using an observation or almanac from the previous September, it would be difficult to identify an object other than Mars as that red star glowing like a red jewel between the Pleaides and Orion. But of course he may not have noted the position of Mars that particular September at all, or he may have used an almanac of a different year, in which case there would be no trace of Mars in the sky.

To help visualise this starry scene, I have recreated this particular night mapping the real positions of the stars in question on a LOTRO's screenshot taken from the Elf-camp above Woodhall. I used the position of the stars on 14 September rather than 24 September because it was pointed to me on the LOTRO discord that, of course, 24 September corresponds to The Shire calendar, so that night would actually be around 14 September in our Gregorian calendar. It does not make much difference for our purpose, but I tried to get all details I could get right, so there you go!

 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
we do not have 'Orion the Huntsman,' but rather 'Menelvagor, the Swordsman of the Sky'. No longer is it 'the Big Dipper' or 'Ursus Major', but rather 'the Sickle of the Valar.' And Venus, the morning/evening star, is no longer the goddess of beauty, but rather Eärendil, Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.
I've always loved 'Menelvagor, the Swordsman of the Sky' and I always think of the constellation that way.

I thought I remembered some other culture calling Ursus Major "the Sickle", but could only google up the (obviously more modern) "the Plough". "The Sickle" is an alternate constellation using parts of the modern Leo (I did not dig to see how far back that name goes).
I guess it is the linguistic, more than the mythological, which leads me to suspect that Borgil is more likely Aldebaran than Mars.
I second this.
 

Asterion

New Member
In the chapter "The Ring Goes South" there is another reference to a red star:

"But low in the South one star shone red. Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens, burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley."

This scene takes place right after a full moon in early November (or late October), and in those weeks both Betelgeuse and Aldebaran can be seen from Oxford around midnight due South, and in 1943 Mars was there too, so I think there is a good chance this red star is Borgil too.

The funny thing is that, while reading that passage and musing about Borgil, I looked South out of my window and there they were, the three main alternatives for Borgil (Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and Mars) all neatly lined up and looking down on me! If you are in the Northern hemisphere and want to check them out too, today and during the next month or so they will be clearly visible and almost lined up right after sunset up high due South and setting due West as the night advances. It's not common to see Mars in such a position, so now it's a good opportunity to compare the three Borgil possibilities with the naked eye!
 
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