Today, we have a scientific understanding of the world but ancient civilizations did not have this luxury, so they made up stories to explain natural wonders and everyday events like the wind, thunder and lightning, movement of the Sun and Moon, and even the shapes of mountains. Often these stories involved mighty characters or gods who wielded the power to move heaven and Earth. Over time, these stories became traditions, beliefs and even religions. This occurred all over the world with every civilization.
The “stories” that influenced our culture the most came from the Greeks and were adopted by the Romans.
The Greek stories are plentiful and rich in content but they differ from the stories that we tell and write today. Our modern-day stories unfold in a way that is familiar because they reflect our experiences and perceptions. And so did the Greek’s but they saw life differently! To them, life was capricious and heavily laced with nonsequitur twists and turns. As such, their mythological stories often take us on a wild roller-coaster ride that jumps rails.
The mythological stories vary and overlap. Presented below are some of the more popular versions as they relate to the heavens.
North Circumpolar Constellations
Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, respectively the “Big Bear” and “Little Bear,” are better known as the Big and Little Dippers. In Greek mythology they represent a mother, Callisto and her son, Arcas sent to the sky by Jupiter. Jupiter came upon the beautiful Callisto, daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia, when he was on Earth, inspecting carnage caused by Phaethon, son of Helios, who had arrogantly tried to ride the Sun Chariot across the sky. Jupiter took favor upon Callisto, and against her will, fathered her a son, Arcas. Jupiter’s wife, Juno discovered her husband’s escapade and turned Callisto into an ugly bear. Later, when Arcas had grown up and was hunting, he encountered a bear running towards him. Not knowing that it was his mother, he aimed an arrow for the kill but Jupiter took sympathy and intervened, turning Arcas into a bear and hurling both into the sky as restitution for all the agony he caused.
Cepheus and Cassiopeia were the king and queen of Ethiopia and parents of a daughter, Andromeda. The gods became angry at Cassiopeia because of her boastings that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids mermaids, whose protector was Poseidon. To appease the gods for Cassiopeia’s disrespect, Cepheus had to sacrifice his daughter to the Sea Monster, Cetus. About this same time, Perseus, the son of Jupiter, had cut off Medusa’s head as a wedding gift, and was heading back from a journey. He saw Andromeda chained to a sea cliff, and instantly fell in love.
Noticing her parents watching in agony, Perseus agreed to rescue her for marriage and then chopped Cetus’ head off with the sickle he had used on Medusa. At his wedding, a prior suitor showed up which prompted the royal parents to renege on their promise to Perseus.
A fight ensued, and Perseus was almost overpowered but was saved by using Medusa’s head, for all who looked upon her face turned to stone. Afterwards, the royal couple was banished to the heavens by Poseidon for their misdeeds.
Draco the Dragon was one of the many monsters fighting along with the great Titans against the Olympians, commanded by Jupiter. Near the climax of a battle, the dragon opposed the goddess of Wisdom, Minerva, who in turned flung it into the heavens where it froze twisted, after landing so close to the frigid North Celestial Pole.
Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, Lacerta, the Lizard and the Lynx are faint constellations that were added in the 1600’s.
Originally, Leo, the Lion, extended eastward to Cancer and westward to Coma Berenices. Its whiskers were the Beehive (M44) and its tail ended up in the faint cluster of stars at the top of Coma Berenices. Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, has been identified with the birth of Christ. Its name implies King, Mighty, Great, Center or Hero, depending on the culture.
There is no classical mythology for Leo Minor, because this constellation was created in the 1600s. Cancer, the Crab was sent to prevent Hercules from killing the Hydra. However, Hercules trampled the Crab and succeeded in killing the Hydra anyway. The Hydra had nine heads and if one was chopped off, two grew back in its place. Hercules had to burn each stub to prevent the heads from growing back. Corvus was a bird placed in the heavens on Hydra’s back by Apollo for being slow in bringing him water and lying about his tardiness. Crater represents the container of water that is always out of reach of Corvus.
Canes Venatici are the Hunting Dogs of Bootes, the Bear Driver who is sometimes seen as a Herdsman or Ploughman. One story has it that Ceres, the goddess of Agriculture, asked Jupiter to place Bootes amongst the stars in gratitude for his invention, the plough. Another story is that Bootes was a grape grower taught to make wine by Bacchus, the god of Wine. Upon doing so, he celebrated and got his friends so drunk that they fell asleep. The next morning, his friends killed him because they thought he was trying to poison them. His hunting dogs were so shaken by his death that they died with him.
An interesting story about Virgo, the Maiden is that she was Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres. Pluto, the god of the Underworld noticed her beauty one day when she was playing in her mother’s fields. He swiftly abducted her to the Underworld. Ceres was enraged at his action and decided to abandon all the crops. Jupiter intervened when he noticed the Earth becoming barren, so he struck a compromise. Pluto would have Proserpina for half a year and Ceres for the other half. When Virgo is in the night sky, crops grow, but when she has sunk below the horizon to the Underworld, the growing season ends.
Centaurs were offspring of the gods, half-man and half-horse creatures that walked on four legs. Some say that Centaurus represents Chiron, the wisest and gentlest of his kind, whom Jupiter placed in the heavens to reward him for educating Hercules, Jason, Achilles and others. Lupus, the Wolf was a generic wild animal to the Greeks but was also seen as the centaur’s offering to the gods or a wine skin for libation. Take your pick!
There is probably more lore about Hercules, the Strongman than any other mythological figure. It is ironic however, that his stars are not as prominent as his stature. Hercules should have the stars of Orion. Hercules’ mother was Alcmene and his father Jupiter, but, Alcmene was married to the Thebesian military leader Amphytrion. Once, when he was off to battle, Jupiter came to Alcmene in the form of her husband, feigning a short leave. Hercules, like many offspring of Jupiter, had to endure the wrath of Jupiter’s wife Juno for most of his life. One day, Hercules met two women, Pleasure and Virtue, who foretold that he could have either of their lives, but that the life of Virtue which Hercules picked would be difficult yet have a glorious end. This leads to the famous twelve labors of Hercules which were tasks directed by King Eurystheus. The labors often involved fighting ferocious beasts with themes loosely based on the twelve zodiacal constellations. Hercules was placed into the heavens by Jupiter after his wife Deianeira gave him a caustic poison because she wrongly believed that he was interested in another women.
Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, was the golden crown that always sat atop the head of Bacchus, the god of Wine. He threw it to the heavens to prove to the beautiful mortal Ariadne that he was a god. She then married him and later was made immortal.
Ophiuchus, the Snake Bearer, a healer, holds Serpens, the Snake. Ophiuchus is identified with Aesculapius, the son of Apollo. One day, Aesculapius strangled a snake. Immediately afterwards, a live snake slithered in and gave the dead snake an herb that brought it back to life. Aesculapius then took some of the herb and used it to raise the dead. This angered Pluto because he was losing clientele, so he complained to Jupiter who sent Aquila the Eagle to kill Aesculapius with a thunderbolt. Jupiter placed Aesculapius in the heavens so as not to raise suspicion about his death and disappearance. Serpens accompanied him. Today, Serpens is the only constellation that has discontinuous boundaries, two separate areas, one representing the head and the other the tail of the snake whos middle lies acoss Ophiuchus.
Libra, the Scales, represents the weighing of the length of day and night and signifies the location of the Autumnal Equinox, which was located in this constellation during ancient times. When the Sun is in this position, day and night are equal. This also happens at the Vernal Equinox.
Norma, the Carpenter’s Square, was a tool needed to build ships and was a constellation added in the 1600s.
Cygnus, the Swan is widely recognized as the beautiful Northern Cross amidst the Milky Way. Cycnus was friends with Phaethon, son of Helios, who unsuccessfully rode the Sun Chariot across the sky. After Phaethon was thrown into the river Eridanus, Cycnus diligently dove in to retrieve all his bones so he could ensure his friend a proper afterlife in the Underworld. For this consideration, Jupiter transformed Cycnus into Cygnus, a swan and placed him in the Milky Way river.
Lyra, the Lyre, was invented by Mercury as he sat on a shore, playing around with a tortoise shell. Apollo took a liking to this marvelous instrument and passed it to his son Orpheus. Orpheus mastered the lyre and when he played, its music could stop arrows and knives midair if thrown at him. The lyre was placed in the heavens by Jupiter after Orpheus was killed by jealous women who became enamored of him through his enchanted music.
Aquila, the Eagle was Jupiter’s bird who carried out various tasks for the supreme god. Hercules killed Aquila with Sagitta, the Arrow, because Jupiter had ordered the bird to daily eat the liver of Prometheus, one of the Titans, while he was chained to a mountain. His liver grew back each day.
Delphinus, the Dolphin was placed in the sky by Neptune in return for helping him find and win over the woman he loved, Amphitrite, daughter of Oceanus.
Scutum, the Shield was a constellation added in the 1600s.
Sagittarius, the Archer is usually represented by a centaur, a warlike hunter distinctly different from Centaurus, representing Chiron the educator.
Scorpius, the Scorpion, tail lies over a dark part of the Milky Way, signifying a crevice leading to the Underworld from which it came. One version of Orion’s story has him boasting about killing all the animals on Earth. For this reason, Mother Earth, Gaia, sent a giant scorpion to kill him, and it bit him in the heel. The healer, Ophiuchus, who stands above Scorpius in the sky, brought Orion back to life, and keeps the scorpion at bay under his feet.
Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, was placed into the sky by Bacchus, the god of Wine, in honor of his mother, Semele who was accidentally destroyed by the trickery of Juno because of her affair with Jupiter.
Aquarius, the Water Carrier is depicted as holding a container of water that is pouring into the mouth of the Southern Fish, Piscis Austrinus, which is sometimes seen as the parent of Pisces. Aquarius and Ganymede were considered cup-bearers and waiters for the gods. Ganymede was eventually made a god and after that, Aquarius and Ganymede were referred to as the same person. Ancient mythology sees Aquarius as the one who poured the water for the great flood, killing all but two people, Deucalion, a man and Pyrrha, a woman who repopulated the world.
Capricornus, the Seagoat represents the half-transformed body of Pan. One day, the titanic, ill-willed demon Typhon took the gods by surprise. Many of them quickly changed form to get out of its way. Pan, who often took the form of a goat playing pipes, hurriedly jumped into the water to become a fish, but because of the ensuing panic (the word panic is derived from Pan), only his back half changed into a tail. When Pan came out of the water, he saw that Typhon had incapacitated Jupiter by ripping him to shreds. Upon seeing Jupiter’s helplessness, Pan blew on his pipes with such an awful shrill sound that it scared Typhon away, but also caught Mercury’s attention. Both helped put Jupiter back together again. Typhon was then struck hard by one of Jupiter’s largest thunderbolts. Jupiter put Pan in the stars in gratitude for his service.
Microscopium, the Microscope, Grus, the Crane and Sculptor were constellations added in the 1600s and 1700s.
Pegasus, the Winged Horse was born from the drippings of Medusa’s severed head. He was tamed by Bellerophon with a golden bridle given to him by Athena. While riding Pegasus, he was able to kill the Chimaera, a creature with a lion’s head, goat’s body and the tail of a serpent, by shooting it with arrows from above. Bellerophon became a conceited king and had Pegasus fly him to Olympus, to live with the gods. This angered Jupiter who sent a gadfly to bite Pegasus, making him rear, throwing Bellerophon to Earth where he wandered destitute and aimlessly. Pegasus became the deliverer of Jupiter’s thunderbolts.
Triangulum, the Triangle is believed to have represented the mathematical accomplishments of ancient Greece.
Aries is the Ram with the golden fleece. King Athamas had two children by Nephele, the goddess of the Nebulous Cloud. After Nephele returned to Olympus (gods usually didn’t stay with mortals for long), Athamas took another wife, Ino, who disliked his children. She blamed a crop failure on them and convinced Athamas that the gods were angry at his children and that they had to be sacrificed for appeasement. The King was taken aback, but Ino had even convinced the local priests that this was necessary. Of course, the goddess Nephele saw all this from Olympus and planned a rescue for her children, Phrixos and Helle. A ram with a curly golden fleece would appear at the moment of sacrifice. They were to jump on and hold tight, for it was to fly them to safety. Nephele specified that the only thing they could not do while on the ram was to look down. Unfortunately, Helle did, and fell to the ocean. The place where she landed is now called Hellespont.
Pisces represents the Fishes, transformations of Venus, the goddess of Love and Beauty, and Cupid, the god of Love. One day, Venus and Cupid were startled by Typhon, the monster-dragon who could live in fire but not water. To escape, they changed themselves into fishes and dove into the sea. To stay together, they tied themselves to a long line. The constellation represents two fishes connected by a v-shaped line.
This section of the sky is inundated with water-related constellations. Eridanus, Cetus, Pisces, Aquarius and Capricornus are all next to each other. It is ironic that the constellations on or near the Milky Way Band are not water-related.
Eridanus is a meandering connection of stars that were recognized by various cultures as a river. In Egypt, it represented the Nile. In Greek mythology, its water was used by Hercules to help clean the stables of King Augeas, as one of his twelve labors. Phaethon fell into this river after being thrown from the Sun Chariot. Although Eridanus is not near the Milky Way, it is sometimes associated with it.
Cetus was an ugly, evil Sea Monster that lived deep in the ocean and personified everything bad. It almost devoured Andromeda, but Perseus chopped its head off before it reached her. It is sometimes referred to as a Whale.
In illustrations, Auriga the charioteer or wagoneer, is often shown holding a goat, represented by the star Capella, and two kids. One of the charioteer’s responsibilities was supervising the royal livestock. One story has it that the milk from the goat Amaltheia was fed to Jupiter when he was a child. Another has Jupiter placing the chariot in the sky as an appeasement for causing the physical disability of his offspring Hephaestus, whose son inherited the disability, but invented the chariot to move about more easily.
The Pleiades or Seven Sisters are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. They were changed into doves and sent into the heavens as stars to avoid the amorous clutches of Orion. Thus, the Seven Sisters always rise before Orion, forever escaping him. A Native American legend also has Seven Sisters who longed to wander among the stars, lost their way home and huddled together so as not to get separated. The seventh star is difficult to see and in both stories it is said that crying blurs its brightness.
The Hyades are piglets and the half-sisters of the Pleiades, all having Atlas as their father. Together, they make up the 14 Atlantides which reside in Taurus.
There are two stories related to Taurus, the Bull. Jupiter’s wife, Juno, turned the beautiful Io, the daughter of the river god Inachos, into a white heifer to stop Jupiter’s affair with her. In another story, Jupiter fell in love with the beautiful Europa, daughter of Agenor, King of Sideon. To lure her away, he changed himself into a mighty white bull and stood among her father’s cattle. She went to see the white bull and was captivated by its friendliness. After getting on its back for a ride, Jupiter rode off with her to Crete. Afterward she bore a son, Minos, who became King of Crete.
Fornax, the Furnace and Caelum, the Engraver’s Tool have no lore because they were added in the 1600’s.
The Phoenix is a great bird that lives for 500 years and can regenerate itself from its own ashes. At the end of its life, it builds a nest and lays until the noon sunlight strikes it, setting it aflame. From the ashes comes forth a worm that transforms into a new Phoenix.
Columba, the Dove was set aflight by Jason to see how it would fare between the dangerous rocks of a channel. It returned safely, providing Jason with a good omen to sail his ship Argo through the same waters. The god of wisdom, Minerva, placed the bird in the sky as a reward for its helpful role.
Gemini, the Twins, represented by the stars Castor and Pollux, were warlike heroes who protected seafarers from pirates. Pollux was immortal but Castor was not and was eventually killed in a quarrel. Pollux then asked Jupiter for death so he could be with his twin, but immortals cannot be killed. However, Jupiter allowed him to live alternately one day with the gods and the other in Hades with his brother. Thus, the stars Castor and Pollux take turns in rising and setting.
Orion, the Hunter was the handsomest man alive. He was the son of Neptune and the nymph Euryale. When he visited the island Hyria, he fell in love with Merope, daughter of Oenopion, who promised her to him in marriage if Orion rid the island of dangerous wild beasts. Oenopion kept Orion busy hunting the beasts, long past his commitment because he favored his daughter to the point of wanting her for himself. One night, in his grief, Orion drank wine and was given even more until he fell asleep. Oenopion then put out both of his eyes and threw him on the shore. An oracle pronounced that he could regain his sight if he traveled east and gazed with his sockets at the place where Helios rises from the ocean. He did, and then returned for revenge, but he could not find Oenopion anywhere. During his pusuit, he met up with Artemis, sister of Apollo, who persuaded him to forget his revenge and to hunt with her. But Apollo did not favor Orion and arranged to have Mother Earth send Scorpio, a giant scorpion, after Orion to prevent him from taking advantage of his sister. During the scorpion’s pursuit, Apollo tricked Artemis into killing Orion with her arrow. She pleaded with Apollo’s son Asclepius to revive him, but Jupiter struck him down before he got the chance. Artemis then sent Orion’s image into the stars because his spirit had already descended to the Underworld. So, as the constellation Orion sets, Scorpius is rising for the chase.
Lepus the Hare is quiet at Orion’s feet, waiting to spring if discovered. Canis Major and Canis Minor are respectively Orion’s loyal Greater and Lesser Dogs.
Monoceros, the Unicorn was the ultimate prize for any hunter, even just to catch a glimpse of it. Its horn had magical powers that could protect from evil.
The Greeks recognized a very large constellation, Argo Navis, which represented the great ship Argo that Jason and his 50 Argonauts sailed to search for the golden fleece. This “unweilding” constellation was divided by Nicolas Lacaille around 1763 into Puppis, the Stern, Carina the Keel and Vela, the Sail.
The Stars, Meteors & Milky Way
To the Greeks, the stars were lights from the fires of the god’s palaces shining through many holes in the fabric of the sky. Meteors were embers the gods threw down for amusement and the Milky Way was considered the River of Heaven.
South Circumpolar Constellations
There is no classical Greek and Roman mythology for the stars around the South Celestial Pole because the Greek and Roman empires resided mostly in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, hence they never got to see these stars. Of course, the people residing in the southern hemisphere created lore and constellations associated with the stars but the patterns drawn by early European explorers prevailed.
The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are companion galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy, were named in honor of Magellan for his voyage around the world that began in 1519. In 1596, Dutch explorer Pieter Dirckszoon Keyser constructed a dozen constellations, mostly named after animals and using brighter stars. Keyser’s only inanimate constellation was Triangulum Australe. During the 1600s, Frenchman Augustin Royer created Crux, the “Southern Cross,” by breaking off part of the constellation Centaurus. Then in the 1750s, Frenchman Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, while on a respite at the Cape of Good Hope, constructed fourteen new constellations based mostly on scientific instruments and mainly using fainter stars. Lacaille’s patterns were the last to be recognized and many consider his to be clutter. His constellations were kept in recognition of contributions he made to astronomical cataloguing.
What’s Out Tonight? is sponsored by Ken Press, publisher of astronomy books and charts.