When ancient stargazers looked up at the night sky, they created pictures by drawing
imaginary lines connecting the stars. These pictures, called constellations, were named
after gods, people, animals and objects. Most of the names and legends we use today are
based on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome. Some of these pictures are easy to see. When
people in several different cultures around the world looked at the part of the sky occupied
by Orion the Hunter, they all saw a giant with a bright belt. Other constellations, however,
bear no resemblance to the names that people gave them. The stars in Perseus the Hero, for
example, do not really have the shape of a man. These constellations were just a way to
honour some mythical or legendary characters.
Antlia, the Air Pump, was created by the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de
Lacaille to honour the air pump invented by Robert Boyle.
Cancer, the Crab, is an ancient constellation. Hera, the Queen of Olympus, sent a
crab to harm Hercules, but he trod on it and killed it. Hera placed its image in the
heavens. The Tropic of Cancer is the northernmost latitude at which the sun can appear
overhead. It was named after this constellation because the Summer Solstice occurred here in
ancient times. Cancer's five brightest stars form the Greek letter lambda 'λ'.
Coma Berenices, the Hair of Berenice, was named by the great Danish astronomer
Tycho Brahe in 1602. According to legend, Berenice, the daughter of the king of Cyrene, was
famed for the beauty of her hair. As an offering of thanksgiving to the gods, she cut it off
when her husband returned victorious from battle. The hair was placed in a shrine, but the
next night it disappeared. The royal astronomer Conon then pointed to the night sky and
claimed that the offering had met with favour from the gods who had taken it up into the
Corvus, the Crow, is an ancient constellation. In myth, Apollo sent a white crow
to watch over his lover, Coronis. The crow failed to prevent Coronis from being unfaithful,
and was turned black forever. Corvus is easily recognised by a trapezoidal shape.
Crater, the Cup, was associated with Hydra and Corvus in ancient times. Apollo
sent his pet crow to earth to fetch a cup of spring water. When the mission was delayed, the
crow lied that a sea-serpent had attacked it. Apollo punished it by flinging it, the cup and
the serpent out of heaven.
Hydra, the Sea-snake, was associated with the many-headed monster killed by
Hercules. Corvus and Crater can be seen resting on its back. Its head forms a neat cluster
of five stars. Its brightest star, Alphard, 'the Solitary One' is also known as Hydra's
Leo, the Lion, is one of the longest-recognised constellations. All the ancient
civilisations in the Middle East saw a lion here. In Greek mythology, this was the Nemean
Lion killed by Hercules. The front part of Leo is the famous 'Sickle', which looks like the
mirror image of a question mark. Regulus, 'Little King', is at the bottom of the question
mark. The rear of Leo is a right-angled triangle with Denebola, 'Tail of the Lion', as the
tail. Regulus is also known as the 'Heart of Leo'.
Leo Minor, the Little Lion, was introduced by the Polish astronomer Johannes
Hevelius in 1690. It is situated just north of Leo.
Libra, the Balance, was probably a creation of Roman times. Earlier civilisations
saw it as the claws of Scorpius. At around 1800 BCE, the Autumn equinox was situated here.
This is the time of the year when the lengths of day and night are equal, or 'balanced'.
Pyxis, the Compass, was carved out from the large constellation Argo Navis by
Sextans, the Sextant, is an obscure constellation introduced by Hevelius.
Vela, the Sails, was carved out from the large constellation Argo Navis by
Lacaille. It can be identified easily by the 'False Cross', a figure resembling the
'Southern Cross' but not so bright and lacking the 'Pointers'.
Virgo, the Virgin, is one of the oldest constellations. She is seen holding a
sheaf of wheat. The helical rising of its brightest star, Spica, 'Ear of Wheat', occurs at
harvest time. In Greek mythology, she was Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the Earth
goddess. Hades fell in love with Persephone and took her to the underworld, causing much
grief to Demeter, who neglected her duties, resulting in widespread famine. Through Zeus's
intervention, Hades agreed to let Persephone spent half the year in the underworld, and half
the year with her mother. In this way, winter comes when Persephone is in the underworld,
and crops can grow again when she returns to Olympus.
Aquila, the Eagle, has been identified as a bird in mythologies for at least 3500
years. In Roman mythology, it was the eagle sent by the gods to fetch Ganymede, a shepherd
boy, to serve as cup-bearer of the gods. Later Ganymede became the constellation Aquarius.
Its brightest star, Altair, can be recognised by the presence of two companion stars next to
Bootes, the Herdsman, was mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey as the Bear Driver,
chasing the Great Bear and Small Bear across the sky. The whole constellation resembles an
ice-cream cone with its brightest star, Arcturus, at the tip.
Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, was identified by Ptolemy. It is quite easy
to recognise with its small, curved shape.
Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, was the crown given to Ariadne, the daughter
of King Minos of Crete, builder of the labyrinth guarded by the fearsome Minotaur. When the
Greek hero Theseus was imprisoned in the labyrinth, Ariadne gave him a sword and a spool of
thread. Theseus entered the labyrinth, unwinding the thread as he went. After slaying the
Minotaur, he followed the thread out and fled with Ariadne but later abandoned her. The
godesses placed her crown in heaven.
Cygnus, the Swan, is an ancient constellation. In one legend, Zeus changed into a
swan to visit Leda, the wife of the King of Sparta. Leda laid an egg, from which hatched the
twins Castor and Pollux, and Helen of Troy. Cygnus forms a large cross, known as the
'Northern Cross'. Its brightest star is Deneb, 'the Tail'. Deneb, together with Altair in
Aquila and Vega in Lyra, forms the famous 'Summer Triangle'.
Delphinus, the Dolphin, rescued the poet-minstrel Arion when he leapt overboard
from a ship to escape the sailors who were threatening his life. The dolphin carried Arion
to shore before the ship arrived. When the ship finally arrived, the crew was taken and
executed. The constellation is shaped liked a small diamond or kite, with fainter stars as
Hercules, the Giant, is an ancient constellation, found in Assyrian texts of 3000
BCE. In Greek mythology, Hercules was the son of Zeus by a mortal mother, Alcmene. He was
famous for accomplishing twelve seemingly impossible labours. The constellation appears
upside down for northern observers, and shows Hercules kneeling with a foot on the head of
the dragon, Draco. His body is formed by the trapezoidal 'Keystone'.
Lyra, the Lyre, is a very old constellation. Hermes made a lyre and gave it to
Orpheus, who used it to play the most beautiful music. When his bride Eurydice died, Orpheus
made his way to the underworld to look for her. Hades was so charmed by his music that he
allowed Eurydice to follow Orpheus back, on the condition that Orpheus must not look back.
But Orpheus looked back and at that instant, Eurydice vanished forever. This small but
beautiful constellation contains the brilliant Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky.
Norma, the Level, was named by Lacaille.
Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, represents the god of medicine, Aesculapius, the
son of Apollo and Coronis. He was able even to bring back the dead to life, which worried
Hades, the god of the underworld. Zeus subsequently killed Aesculapius but raised him among
the stars as Ophiuchus, along with the serpent from which he learnt his skills. The main
stars form a large, roundish figure with an almost empty interior.
Sagitta, the Arrow, has been known since Greek times. It is seen as the arrow
shot by Hercules.
Sagittarius, the Archer, is a centaur. He is depicted as shooting an arrow at
Antares, the heart of Scorpius. Its main stars also form a easily recognisable teapot.
Scorpius, the Scorpion, is the constellation that most closely resembles its
namesake. A charming string of stars lines the full length of the scorpion, ending with two
close stars which mark the sting at its tip. The scorpion was a creature sent by Apollo to
kill Orion, so the gods placed them on opposite sides of the sky. In the sky, Scorpius is
flanked by the two centaurs, Sagittarius and Centaurus. Sagittarius' arrow is aimed straight
at Scorpius' heart, marked by the red giant Antares, 'the rival of Mars'.
Scutum, the Shield, was created by Hevelius to commemorate the Polish King John
Sobieski III, who saved Vienna from the Turks.
Serpens, the Serpent, is a very old constellation. It is depicted as entwining
Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.
Telescopium, the Telescope, was introduced by Lacaille in 1752.
Vulpecula, the Little Fox, was named by Hevelius.
Andromeda, the Princess, was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia.
Her mother offended Poseidon, the god of the sea, by boasting that she and Andromeda were
more beautiful than any sea nymph. Poseidon demanded that Andromeda be chained to a rock by
the seashore, to be devoured by the sea monster, Cetus. However, the hero Perseus (on his
way home after slaying the gorgon Medusa) rescued Andromeda by turning Cetus to stone. Her
head is marked by the star Alpheratz, at the upper left corner of the Great Square of
Aquarius, the Water Bearer, is an old constellation, and appears on carvings from
the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians called the area of the sky around Aquarius the Sea,
since it contained many sea creatures like Cetus, Pisces and Capricornus. The asterism
easiest to spot is the 'Water Jar' that Aquarius is pouring water from, shaped like the
Mercedes-Benz symbol. The water from the jar flows towards Fomalhaut, which represents the
mouth of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish.
Aries, the Ram, has been seen as a ram for at least 2000 years. Even though it is
a very dim constellation, it was called the 'Prince of Constellations'. Around 1800 BCE,
when the sun passed through Aries, it marked the location of the vernal equinox and heralds
the arrival of spring. In Greek mythology, it was the ram sent by Zeus to rescue Phryxus and
Helle, children of the King of Thessaly, from their cruel stepmother. Phryxus later
sacrified the ram and hung its golden fleece in a sacred grove. Many years later, Jason and
the Argonauts sailed the ship Argo Navis to seek the fleece.
Capricornus, the Sea Goat, is a dim constellation of the zodiac. In Greek legend,
the god Pan escaped from the giant Typhon by leaping into the Nile. His hindquarters became
a fish, while his front, still above water, looked like a goat. The Tropic of Capricorn was
named after this constellation since in ancient times, the winter solstice occurred here.
Cetus, the Whale, is seen as the sea monster that tried to devour Andromeda. The
main attraction in Cetus is the variable star Mira, 'the Wonderful', which has a period of
about a year. When at full brightness, it is brilliant, but when most dim, it cannot be seen
even with binoculars.
Equuleus, the Foal, has little mythology. It is situated in front of the head of
Grus, the Crane, was introduced by the German cartographer Johann Bayer.
Previously it was the Arabs' second Southern Fish. It is situated just south of Piscis
Austrinus, the Southern Fish.
Lacerta, the Lizard, was introduced by Hevelius. The stars form a 'W' on its side.
Microscopium, the Microscope, was created by Lacaille.
Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is a very old constellation, since the winged horse
was a favourite motif of Assyrian art. In Greek myth, Pegasus was born of the blood of the
slain Medusa as Perseus decapitated her. The four stars (starting from near the neck and
moving in an anticlockwise direction), Markab 'the saddle', Scheat 'the leg', Alpheratz 'the
horse's navel' and Algenib 'the side', together form the 'Great Square of Pegasus'. The
Square, which appears to have a completely empty interior, is the most easily recognised
feature in the autumn sky. The start Alpheratz actually belongs to the constellation
Andromeda. The horse is oriented upside down for northern observers.
Phoenix, the Phoenix, was named by Bayer. It is the mythical creature which,
after being incinerated, grew again from its ashes.
Pisces, the Fishes, is a very old constellation which appears as one or two
fishes in several ancient civilisations. In Greek mythology, it represents Aphrodite and her
son Eros, who jumped into the Euphrates when attacked by the monster Typhon. The asterism
easiest to recognise is the 'Circlet' of Pisces which represents the western fish, situated
just south of the Great Square of Pegasus.
Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, is an ancient constellation, being the
parent of the zodiacal Pisces. Its mouth is marked by the star Fomalhaut, which is the
destination of the stream of water poured out by Aquarius.
Sculptor, the Sculptor, was named by Lacaille.
Triangulum, the Triangle, is an old constellation originally named Deltotron by
the Greeks after the Greek letter delta 'Δ'.
Auriga, the Charioteer, represents Hephaestus, the lame smith, who invented the
chariot so that he could move around. Its brightest star is Capella, who in Greek mythology
is Amalthea, the she-goat that suckled the infant Zeus. The whole constellation is seen as a
polygon, just touching one horn of Taurus.
Caelum, the Sculptor's Chisel, was named by Lacaille.
Canis Major, the Great Dog, is one of Orion's hunting dogs. It contains Sirius,
the Dog Star, the brightest star in the whole sky. The ancient Egyptians watched eagerly for
its first appearance in dawn each year, which coincided with the coming of the annual
flooding of the Nile.
Canis Minor, the Little Dog, is the second of Orion's hunting dogs. It brightest
star Procyon, means 'before the dog', since it rises slightly before Sirius. Procyon, Sirius
and Betelgeuse together form a large equilateral triangle.
Columba, the Dove, represents the dove sent out by Noah to find dry land. It flew
in front of Argo Navis, which some considered to represent Noah's Ark.
Eridanus, the River, has been associated with the Nile or Euphrates in ancient
times. It flows from near Orion and ends at the brilliant star Achernar, the 'End of the
Fornax, the Furnace, was named by Lacaille to represent steel refinery, which was
new during his time.
Gemini, the Twins, represents Pollux, the immortal son of Zeus, and Castor, his
mortal brother, both born of the same egg by Leda. To remember their relative positions in
the sky, use the fact that Castor is nearer to Capella (both starting with 'C'), and Pollux
is nearer to Procyon (both starting with 'P').
Horologium, the Clock, was made from stars left over from Eridanus and Caelum.
Lepus, the Hare, is an ancient constellation. Its location near to Orion is
appropriate, since Orion was fond of hunting hares.
Monoceros, the Unicorn, has no mythological association to the legendary unicorn.
It is a faint constellation situated between the two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor.
Orion, the Hunter, is the most splendid constellation of all. It contains more
first- and second-magnitude stars than any other constellations. In the winter sky, we see
Orion with a raised club in his right hand and a shield in his left hand, fighting off
Taurus the Bull. The easiest way to locate Orion is to looking for the 3 equally bright
stars lying in a straight line, which forms Orion's belt. Hanging on the belt are 3 fainter
stars which forms a sword. The figure of Orion is framed by a large rectangle formed by four
bright stars (starting from the northernmost in a clockwise direction): Betelgeuse 'the
Armpit of the Central One', Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph.
Perseus, the Hero, is one of the ancient heroes. His most famous deed was to kill
the Gorgon Medusa, whose appearance would turn anyone looking at her into stone. The
constellation contains the eclipsing binary Algol 'the Demon' which represents the head of
Puppis, the Poop, is the raised stern of the ship Argo Navis.
Taurus, the Bull, is seen charging at Orion in the sky. In Greek mythology, Zeus
turned into a white bull and swam off with Europa on his back. Since the bull's body was
mostly submerged during the swim, we can only see the front part of Taurus. The head of
Taurus is formed by the V-shaped cluster Hyades. More famous is the cluster Pleiades which
represents the seven sisters. The bright red star Alderbaran 'the Follower' seems to follow
the Pleiades across the sky.
NORTHERN CIRCUMPOLAR CONSTELLATIONS
Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, was introduced by Hevelius. The giraffe was once
called a camel-leopard.
Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, was named by Hevelius. The two dogs, Asterion
and Chara, are held on a leash by Bootes, the Herdsman, and chasing the two bears around the
celestial north pole.
Cassiopeia, the Queen, is the wife of King Cepheus and mother of Andromeda.
Cassiopeia angered Poseidon by boasting about her and Andromeda's beauty. Poseidon sent a
sea monster to devour Andromeda, but she was saved by Perseus. Cassiopeia is depicted seated
on a throne shaped like a 'W'.
Cepheus, the King of Joppa, is placed in heaven closed to his wife Cassiopeia,
his daughter Andromeda and son-in-law Perseus. The constellation looks more like a house
with a pointed roof.
Draco, the Dragon, is identified as the dragon that guarded the golden apples in the
Garden of Hesperides. In the sky, we can see Hercules stepping on the head of Draco.
Lynx, the Lynx, is almost invisible to the naked eye and was introduced by
Hevelius. Lynx may once have been thought of as the prey of Ursa Major.
Ursa Major, the Great Bear, represents Callisto, whom Zeus fell in love with and
whom the jealous Hera turned into a bear. One day Callisto, in her bear form, met her son
Arcas. Not recognising her mother, Arcas raised his spear and was about to kill her. Zeus
quickly turned Arcas into the bear Ursa Minor. Grasping both bears by their tails, he hurled
them into the sky, which explained why both bears have such long tails. The constellation
contains the Big Dipper, which points to the North Star Polaris.
Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, contains the Little Dipper. At the end of the Little
Dipper is the North Star Polaris. It marks the celestial North Pole and is very useful for
SOUTHERN CIRCUMPOLAR CONSTELLATIONS
Apus, the Bird of Paradise, was created by Bayer. The real bird can be found in
Papua New Guinea.
Ara, the Altar, is used by Centaurus to sacrifice the wolf Lupus.
Carina, the Keel, was once part of the large constellation Argo Navis. It
contains Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky.
Centaurus, the Centaur, is identified as Chiron, who was a tutor to many Greek
heroes like Hercules, Theseus and Jason. The forelegs of Centaurus are marked by the
brilliant Alpha and Beta Centauri, which form the 'Pointers' that point to the Southern
Chameleon, the Chameleon, was introduced by Bayer. It is sometimes depicted as
eating Musca the Fly.
Circinus, the Compasses, was introduced by Lacaille.
Crux, the Southern Cross, the smallest constellation in the sky, is easily
located by the 'Pointers', Alpha and Beta Centauri. It was an important inspiration to
sailors and soldiers from the Catholic nations as they sailed the southern seas in the 15th
and 16th centuries.
Dorado, the Swordfish, can be seen swimming near the front of the ship Argo
Hydrus, the Little Snake, was introduced by Bayer in 1603.
Indus, the Indian, was introduced by Bayer in 1603. He was inspired by the native
Americans brought back to Europe at that time.
Lupus, the Wolf, was probably a medieval mistake in translation. The Arabs had a
leopard or panther. It can be seen being sacrificed by Centaurus at Ara the Altar.
Mensa, the Table, was named by Lacaille after the Table Mountain, near Cape Town.
Musca, the Fly, is depicted as being eaten by Chameleon.
Octans, the Octant, was introduced by Lacaille. The south celestial pole is
Pavo, the Peacock, was introduced by Bayer. In Greek mythology, the giant Argos,
who had one hundred eyes was sent to guard Io. Zeus sent Hermes to make the hundred eyes of
Argos fall asleep, one by one. After the death of Argos, Hera gave the hundred eyes to her
favourite bird, the peacock.
Pictor, the Painter's Easel, was introduced by Lacaille.
Reticulum, the Reticle, represents the eyepiece reticle found in telescopes.
Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle, is an equilateral triangle formed by
three bright stars.
Tucana, the Toucan, was introduced by Bayer in 1603.
Volans, the Flying Fish, can be seen swimming south of the ship Argo, behind
Dorado the Swordfish.