Throughout the ages, mankind has looked to the heavens and tried to make sense of the lights in the sky. The ancient peoples of the world thought they could see pictures in the stars. These chance alignments of stars, also known as asterisms, are known today as constellations. Many ancient cultures around the world have assigned pictures to these star groupings. Many of these images find their roots shrouded in mythology. In our modern world, it can be difficult to make out the shapes of the constellations because city lights obscure the dimmer stars. But they are still used to help identify and locate objects in space.
The Chained Maiden
Andromeda was one of the earliest constellations to be named, probably dating back to the ancient civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates region.
Cassiopeia was vain and boastful. Soon after their marriage, Cassiopeia bore her husband, King Cepheus, a daughter, Andromeda. So great was her beauty and that of Andromeda, she said, that it surpassed even that of Nereids (the Sea-goddess).
When Nereids overheard Cassiopeia boating she became very jealous. She complained to Poseidon, God of the Sea, and demanded that Cassiopeia be punished. Poseidon agreed and summoned a terrible sea-monster, Cetus, to lay waste to the land, kill the people, and kill the cattle.
The frightened people gathered and pleaded to their king to save them. Cepheus consulted an oracle who told him that there was only one way to stop the slaughter: "You must offer your daughter Andromeda as a sacrifice." Andromeda was to be chained to the rocks on the coast and left for Cetus to devour.
It was Perseus, the brave son of Zeus and Danae, just returning from a journey during which he had succeeded in killing the dreaded Medusa, who rescued Andromeda in exchange for her hand in marriage, and a kingdom. Cepheus promised Perseus that he would have what he asked for, whereupon Perseus unsheathed his sword. One thrust of his sword found a soft spot between the armored scales of the monster. Wounded, it twisted over on its side. Perseus then inflicted another deep cut, and another. Blood now colored the water red and soaked Perseus' winged shoes. Fearful of losing his ability to fly, he settled on a rock near the shore and waited for the sea-monster to attack again. As it did, Perseus' sword plunged deeply into the monster's evil heart.
Joyful beyond words, Cepheus and Cassiopeia led Perseus and Andromeda to their house, where a great feast and celebration were prepared. Perseus and Andromeda were married and lived a long, happy life together. When Perseus and Andromeda died, they were given honored places among the stars. Cetus, the sea-monster, was there waiting for them and forever chases Andromeda around the sky, but Perseus continues to guard her well.
The ancients needed a marker of some sort to indicate the beginning of spring. The only stars occupying that particular place on the Zodiac at that time were those dim ones we now recognize as Aries. Around 1800 B.C. the position occupied by Aries on the Zodiac band was an important one, and will be again in the distant future. It marked the beginning of spring and was known as the First Point of Aries.
Following a brave rescue of Phrixus over the Aegean Sea, the ram commanded the prince to sacrifice him to the gods and to remove his golden fleece. Phrixus did and presented the golden fleece to King Aeetes, who was delighted with the gift. The King hung the fleece in the sacred Grove of Ares, where there lived a dragon who never slept and guarded the golden fleece. We are told that so brilliantly did the golden fleece shine that by night it bathed the surrounding countryside in a warm golden light. The brave and generous ram was given an eternal place in the sky as the constellation Aries. It is said that this constellation is a dim one because the ram no longer had its brightly shining fleece.
The brightest star in Aries is Hamal, from the Arabic Al Ras al Hamal, meaning "the Head of the Sheep." The ancient Greeks from about 1580 B.C. to 360 B.C. oriented the construction of many of their sacred temples in relationship to Hamal. The Chinese knew Aries as a dog, Kiang Leu. Later they knew it as Pih Yang, or "the White Sheep."
The name comes from the Latin "cancer," means crab. Cancer joined the dreaded Hydra in battle against Hercules. It was only a bit part, but one which secured its immortality. Scholars believe that astrologers later added the crab to the myth in order to have the Twelve Labors of Hercules reflect the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. While it is difficult to associate all of Hercules' labors with the zodiac, it is true that the crab figured in Hercules' Second Labor, and is in fact the Second Sign of the Zodiac. In any case, apparently for sacrificing its life, the crab was awarded with a heavenly home. But, because Cancer failed to defeat Hercules, the gods did not give Cancer bright stars to mark its constellation.
Cancer is part of M44 (NGC 2632), better known as the Beehive Cluster. This is a bright open star cluster clearly visible to the naked eye on a dark enough night, best appreciated with binoculars or small scope. There are over three hundred stars in the Beehive. One of the largest clusters, its 1.5 degree size is equivalent to three full moons end-to-end. Its distance is calculated at between 520-590 light years from Earth. This grouping is so large it was well known in antiquity, when it was thought to be a nebula. The cluster often served to predict the weather: if not crystal clear, inclement weather might be on the way. Galileo was the first to study its stars with a telescope. He counted over forty members, putting to rest the idea of its nebulosity and introducing the idea of star clusters. It has been estimated that over a hundred of its stars are brighter than our Sun, and in fact if the Sun were a member of this group, it would be a very modest member indeed, at about 10.9 magnitude.
In 1531 Halley's Comet was discovered in this part of the sky.
In the summer of 1895, all of the planets, except Neptune, congregated here-and extremely rare event.
Cassiopeia is sometimes known as the Celestial "W" and Celestial "M". The Romans and the Arabs called her the Woman of the Chair.
Queen to King Cepheus and the mother of Andromeda, the beautiful Cassiopeia was vain and boastful. One story says that as punishment for her bragging, Cassiopeia was chained to her throne and placed in the sky to circle the North Star. At times she is hanging upside down in a most undignified position as a warning to all.
The Swan or the Northern Cross
Phaethon was the son of Clymene and the Sun-god Apollo. Taking advantage of his father’s affection, he demanded permission to drive the Sun-chariot across the sky. Apollo tried to convince his son that it was a very dangerous thing to do and the boy should reconsider. But Phaethon refused to change his mind, Apollo relented.
Phaethon was inexperienced in driving a chariot and it did not take the horses long to realize that an unsure hand was on the reins. First they bolted high up in the sky, far higher than they usually did, in their eagerness to rise above the eastern horizon and reach the top of the great sky dome. It was here that they scorched a great streak across the sky, a streak that became the Milky Way. Meanwhile, Earth's surface became cold because the Sun-chariot was too high in the sky. Next the horses plunged to close to Earth. As they crossed Africa they scorched the ground, creating a great desert and drying up rivers, lakes, and watering holes.
Horrified, Phaethon saw ahead a great scorpion (Scorpius) in the sky. Its mighty tail flashed and stung the lead horse. Up went the chariot again, even more wildly than before. Poor Phaethon now realized his foolishness and that he should have listened to his father's warning.
Zeus, King of the Gods, decided that it was time to stop this rash youth from causing destruction. He hurled a thunderbolt at Phaethon, killing the boy instantly and sending his smoldering body tumbling down to Earth. The horses returned to their stable and Phaethon's body fell into the Eridanus River and sank to the bottom.
Phaethon had a very devoted friend, Cycnus, the Musician-king of the Ligurians. On hearing of Phaeton's fate, Cycnus plunged into the Eridanus and swam back and forth trying to find the body of his friend. His motions through the water made him look like a swan searching for food. Apollo took pity on Cycnus, who died of grief, and raised him into the heavens, where he became the constellation Cygnus, or The Swan.
The planet Neptune was discovered in Aquarius in 1846.
Aquarius is an old constellation, and a common figure in ancient times. Aquarius, as the God of the Waters, must have been regarded as a benevolent god by some cultures, and a ruthless god by others. His role seemed to depend on the prevailing climate of a given region. To the Egyptians, Greeks, and others who lived in lands plagued by drought, Aquarius was looked on as a kindly god who brought rain when it was most needed during the planting season. The Babylonians, however, looked on Aquarius as a dangerous god and referred to the month when the Sun was in Aquarius as "the curse of rain."
According to one myth, Aquarius caused a great flood to wash over the entire Earth. Deucalion's father advised his son and wife to build a great boat and stock it with provisions. They did and the two floated in the world-sea for nine days and nine nights. Eventually the boat ran aground on Mount Parnassus. Safe but lonely, the two sole survivors of Earth walked about as the waters became lower and exposed more and more land. What were the two to do? They appealed to an oracle and were told to "… throw over your shoulders the bones of your mother." Deucalion guessed that the bones of Mother Earth must be stones. As the two walked along they picked up stones and tossed them over their shoulders. After a time they looked behind them and found that there were people. The stones that Deucalion had thrown had become men and those thrown by Pyrrha had become women. Aquarius became known as the taker of life and the giver of life.
This myth of a world flood and of rebirth on Earth is a common one and can by found in many ancient cultures.
In modern times this constellation was immortalized by the counterculture of the 1960's, which proclaimed the Age of Aquarius. This was a bit premature as the Aquarian age will not actually begin for another 600 years. Astrological age is identified by the constellation in which the Sun in found on the vernal equinox (March 21). This location moves slowly from one zodiac constellation to the next as a results of Earth's movement in space.
The Bear Watcher or the Herdsman
The name "Bootes" is at least 3000 years old, but in those ancient times the name most likely applied to the star Arcturus rather than to the entire group of stars we see today.
The Egyptians believed that north circumpolar stars that never set over the horizon, were evil. And one of the most evil of these northern constellations was the Great Bear. Boötes, they believed, was placed in the sky to guard the Great Bear and see that she did no harm. The Egyptians pictured Boötes as a constellation they called the Hippopotamus.
The Greeks at one time also knew Boötes as the Bear Watcher, or Bear Guard because he seems to chase Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great and Small Bears, across the sky. Greek mythology has many stories about the origin of Boötes. According to one legend, Boötes is Arcas, the hunter-son of Callisto, the Great Bear. In another myth, Boötes was the son of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Boötes is credited with inventing the plow and was placed in the heavens his invention.
Boötes is also called the Herdsman because is seems to hold the leashes of the Hunting Dogs, the constellation Canes Venatici. Both the Hindus and ancient Chinese regarded Arcturus as a pearl-star. In Chinese myth, a huge dragon was eternally chasing and trying to capture this star.
There is confusion over how Capricornus came to be. Some say that he represents the shepherd-god Pan. Others say that he was quite a different god, Aegipan. Capricornus' history can also be traced to Babylonian times. His appearance then, as it is now, was half-fish and half-goat. The Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Syrians all knew Capricornus as the Goat. In certain parts of the Orient, the constellation was known as the Southern Gate of the Sun, indicating that it is in this constellation that the Sun reaches its lowest point on the ecliptic and thereafter begins to appear higher and higher each day.
So terrible was the sight of the giant Typhon that Zeus himself is said to have changed himself into the form of the ram, Aries. Other gods also changed themselves into animal forms to escape Typhon’s detection. In time, however, Zeus reappeared in his own form, prepared to do battle with Typhon, Zeus was defeated when Typhon cut out the tendons of Zeus' hands and feet, rendering him helpless to move. Typhon then hid the tendons in a cave in the land of Cilicia guarded by the dragon-woman Delphyne.
Delphyne wasn't a very good guard and permitted the tendons to be stolen by the gods Hermes and Aegipan. Aegipan intended to transform himself into an animal to escape detection by Typhon. He had jumped into the river when Typhon approached, but was halfway submerged before he thought of what form of animal he should wear. He decided to be a goat. So a goat he became, but only from the waist up. From the waist down he took the form of a fish.
Aegipan and Hermes managed to steal the tendons and return them, making Zeus once again fit for battle. His strength regained, Zeus unleashed all his fury and killed the monster Typhon by hurling thunderbolts at him. For Aegipan's role in this battle against the Titans, Zeus gave him an honored place in the sky as the constellation Capricornus.
The Northern Crown
According to Shawnee Indian legend, twelve beautiful maidens who inhabited the stars of the Northern Crown nightly descend to Earth to dance in the fields. The early Arabs knew the constellation as the Dish, and as the Broken Platter, because it forms an incomplete circle. The ancient Chinese called the constellation Kwan Soo, meaning a Cord. The Australians recognized the constellation as Woomera, or the Boomerang.
According to a Greek myth dating back to approximately 450 B.C., Ariadne, having fallen in love at first sight, helped the handsome Theseus escape the maze of the Minotaur. After which, Theseus sailed back to Athens with her. Halfways home, they stopped to take on fresh water and rest. But as they slept Theseus received a message from a goddess telling him that Ariadne had been promised to a god and that no mortal should interfere. He silently crept back to his ship leaving Ariadne alone on the island.
When Ariadne awoke to find herself abandoned, she wept bitterly.
The god Bacchus came upon her. Seeing her great beauty, he begged her to marry him. But Ariadne did not believe he was a god, and she refused to marry him. To prove he was a god, Bacchus produced the most beautiful golden crown she had ever seen. Humbled, Ariadne agreed to marry Bacchus and they enjoyed a long life of happiness together.
When his beloved wife died, Bacchus placed the golden crown high in the heavens to honor her for her unrequited kindness to Theseus, and to her loyalty to him as her husband.