GUEST BLOG: Avittam – The Demon Star

We’re back with another Guest Blog article, exploring the skies and constellations according to Indian folklore, with a new contributor: Tanvi Singh! If you would like to submit your own article and tell us all about the lore of where you’re from or the places you’ve visited, do check out our Contact page for more information. Happy reading!

Delphinus, the little dolphin constellation, has held the attention of astronomers and mythologists alike since its discovery by Ptolemy, along with forty-eight other original constellations. In Greek mythology, a legend speaks of Poseidon’s wooing of the beautiful nereid Amphitrite – who, to protect her virtue, fled to the Atlas Mountains. Many a searcher sent by Amphitrite’s suitors looked for her, all in vain – until the noble Delphinus stumbled upon her by accident. He was able to persuade Amphitrite to marry Poseidon, and as a sign of his gratitude, Poseidon placed an image of a dolphin in the skies for Delphinus.

Photo of starry skies beyond a mountain.
Credit: Amanshu Raikwar via Unsplash.

Another legend states that Arion, the Greek poet from Lesbos and a court musician in Periander’s palace in Corinth, was saved by a dolphin. Arion had amassed a fortune during his travels to Sicily and Italy. On his way home from Tarentum, his wealth caused the crew of his ship to conspire against him. Threatened with death, Arion asked to be granted one last wish which the crew granted: he wanted to sing a dirge. This he did, and while doing so, flung himself into the sea. There, he was rescued by a dolphin which had been charmed by Arion’s music. The dolphin carried Arion to the coast of Greece and left.

Delphinus and Equuleus in Prodromus Astronomiae by Johannes Hevelius (1690).
Available from Google Books.

In Indian mythologies however, Delphinus takes a rather unnerving form, unlike the benevolent and noble dolphin as it has been depicted in Greek myths, or Xuánwǔ, the Black Tortoise—one of the four great symbols of the Chinese constellations.

The Tamil language recognizes Avittam as the name for the binary star Dhanishta, or Delphini. Dhanishta gives its name to the twenty-third of the twenty-seven lunar mansions in the Vedic calendar. Classified as a movable nakshatra, Dhanishta is ruled by Mars. Under electional astrological beliefs, it is best to begin activities such as journeys when the moon is in Dhanishta. This is based on the Panchanga reading only, which is also known as a calendar to track the suitable day for doing or starting anything auspicious. Unlike the dolphin, the primary star in this nakshatra is depicted as a lioness, symbolized as a “lioness resting majestically after a lioness’s share”.

Hence, one night of each lunar cycle is in Avittam. The addition of beliefs and superstitions creates a fascinating monster, found first in the written account of the oral traditions by the pioneer Tamil writer Ki Rajanarayanan.

Tall creature walking with moon in background.
Credit: Shahab Alizadeh via Behance.

Avittam manifests as a grotesque demon which resides on cremation grounds. In this form, it doesn’t look any different from a Pret with its emaciated appearance, and a disturbing fondness for feasting on ash from the funeral pyres. It is believed that if someone is unfortunate enough to die on the night of the Avittam, the demon will visit the house of the deceased for years afterwards on the night of Avittam each month. And it must be propitiated.

The relatives of the deceased are expected to leave offerings for the demon on a thinnai—a raised platform outside the house, a little water in a conch shell, a handful of rice, and sand spread evenly upon the thinnai for the demon to rest after a meal. Great care is taken during this process, as failure to propitiate Avittam properly is believed to have dire consequences.

A furious Avittam will grow in stature till its head skims the sky, and at midnight, the behemoth monster leaves the cremation ground, its abode where he cannot move from in his weaker form. In its terrifying manifestation, huge bells hang from its side and they clang with each step, and like a perch, small rakshasas sit on its shoulders and limbs. If it so desires, the Avittam is capable of destroying not just the house that had been neglectful in feeding it, but levelling whole villages in flames.

The fascination humans have held for the stars—manifesting them sometimes as gods, sometimes as kindred aides, and sometimes as grotesque demons, is something to marvel at on its own. Yet, in Asian culture—no matter which, these demons aren’t truly seen as their biblical counterparts in popular culture and media, but rather as tools devised to educate; where divine beings—benevolent or malevolent, are revered with equal faith and dedication.

SOURCES (as provided by the Guest Author):

Defouw, H., Svoboda, R. (2003). Light on Life: An Introduction to the Astrology of India, p. 206.
Herodotus, Histories I.23-24; see also Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae XVI.19; Plutarch, Conv. 160-62; Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Act I, Sc 2, line 16).
Khanna, R., (2023). Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India, p. 28.
Ki Rajanarayanan, Chakravarthy, P.K. (2008). Where are You Going, You Monkeys? Folktales from Tamil Nadu.
Ki Rajanarayanan (~1990). Naattuppura Kathaikkalanjiyam Annam Agaram.
Ridpath, I., Tirion, W. (2017). Stars and planets guide, p. 140–141.
Schaaf, F. (2012) ‘The celestial Dolphin: this tiny but shapely constellation is full of wonder’, in Sky & Telescope, 124(3), 47.

Tanvi Singh is a writer from Gurgaon, India, who writes
women-centric cross-genre fiction inspired by Indian folklore,
while highlighting cultural ethos and malpractices.
For her role in the upliftment and empowerment of women,
she has been felicitated with the ‘Nari Shakti Award’.
You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @tanvsngh.