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Latin trepidātiōn-em, n. of action; trepidāre


  • 1. Tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation.
  • 2. Tremulous, vibratory, or reciprocating movement; vibration; oscillation, rocking; an instance of this; also, involuntary trembling of the limbs, as in paralytic affections; tremor.
  • 3. Astronomy. A libration of the eighth (or ninth) sphere, added to the system of Ptolemy by the Arab astronomer Thabet ben Korrah, c950, in order to account for certain phenomena, esp. precession, really due to motion of the earth's axis


According to a medieval theory of astronomy, trepidation is oscillation in the precession of the equinoxes. The theory was popular from the 9th to the 16th centuries.

The origin of the theory of trepidation comes from the Small Commentary to the Handy Tables written by Theon of Alexandria in the 4th century CE. In precession, the equinoxes appear to move slowly through the ecliptic, completing a revolution in approximately 25,800 years (according to modern astronomers). Theon states that certain (unnamed) ancient astrologers believed that the precession, rather than being a steady unending motion, instead reverses direction every 640 years. The equinoxes, in this theory, move through the ecliptic at the rate of 1 degree in 80 years over a span of 8 degrees, after which they suddenly reverse direction and travel back over the same 8 degrees. Theon describes but did not endorse this theory.

A more sophisticated version of this theory was adopted in the 9th century to explain a variation which Islamic astronomers incorrectly believed was affecting the rate of precession.[2] This version of trepidation is described in De motu octavae sphaerae (On the Motion of the Eighth Sphere), a Latin translation of a lost Arabic original. The book is attributed to the Arab astronomer by Ptolemy by the Arab astronomer Thābit ibn Qurra, but the attribution has been contested in modern times. In this trepidation model, the oscillation is added to the equinoxes as they precess. The oscillation occurred over a period of 7000 years, added to the eighth (or ninth) sphere of the Ptolemaic system. "Thabit's" trepidation model was used in the Alfonsine Tables, which assigned a period of 49,000 years to precession. This version of trepidation dominated Latin astronomy in the later Middle Ages.

Islamic astronomers described other models of trepidation. In the West, an alternative to De motu octavae sphaerae was part of the theory of the motion of the Earth published by Nicolaus Copernicus in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). Copernicus' version of trepidation combined the oscillation of the equinoxes (now known to be a spurious motion) with a change in the obliquity of the ecliptic (axial tilt), acknowledged today as an authentic motion of the Earth's axis.


  1. a fully quoted translation is found in Jones A., Ancient Rejection and Adoption of Ptolemy’s Frame of Reference for Longitudes in Ptolemy in Perspective, (ed) A. Jones, Spinger, 2010, p.11
  2. James Evans, (1998), The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, page 276


  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Otto Neugebauer, "Thabit ben Qurra 'On the Solar Year' and 'On the Motion of the Eighth Sphere'," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106 (1962): 264–299.
  • F. Jamil Ragep, "Al-Battani, Cosmology, and the Early History of Trepidation in Islam," in From Baghdad to Barcelona: Studies in the Islamic Exact Sciences in Honour of Prof. Juan Vernet, Barcelona 1996.
  • N. M. Swerdlow and O. Neugebauer, Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, (Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences 10), Springer-Verlag 1984.