Since the beginning of time, people turned their eyes to the sky to find animals and objects that were already part of their everyday life.
They saw lions, scorpions, and bulls, as cuneiform texts found in the valley of the Euphrates suggests. These artifacts, about 6,000 years old, represent primitive societies’ attempts to understand the skies.
However, the civilizations that most influenced the names of the constellations were the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In the Iliad, for example, Homer explains how the god Hephaistos gave origin to Achilles’s shield while describing the “constellations that crown the heavens, Pleiades and Hyades, the mighty Orion and the Bear, which men also call by the name of Wain” (Iliad XVIII 486-490).
Back in Homer’s times, though, most constellations were simply known as the objects or animals they represented, but in the long run, most of them had come to be associated with myths to the point that “stars were no longer merely identified with certain gods or heroes, but actually were perceived as divine” (Seznec, 37-40).
The Roman, Ptolemy of Alexandria, grouped 1,022 stars into 48 constellations during the second century A.D.
The catalog does not include the constellations only seen from the southern hemisphere, but it still forms the basis for the modern list of 88 constellations officially designated by the International Astronomical Union.
Both Greek and Roman cultures influenced the names of the stars and while the myths behind the constellations date back to ancient Greece, we use their Latin names.
Not only constellations had their names influenced by mythology, all planets bear names from Roman mythology according to their own characteristics. For instance, the speedy messenger Mercury is the god that gave his name to the planet that revolves fastest around the sun. The goddess of love and beauty, Venus, is also the planet which shines the brightest.
The god of war gave his name to Mars, red as blood, while Jupiter, named after the most important Roman god, is the largest planet.
When it comes to moons, even four of the moons of Jupiter are called after Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Calisto, all of them desired and abducted by Jupiter. As far as constellations are concerned, let’s see some of the myths that gave the name to many of them.
Ara or the Altar
It had been foreseen that Cronus would die by the hand of his own child so he swallowed five of them as they were born.
His wife protected the sixth child, Zeus, by giving Cronus a stone wrapped in a blanket instead of the baby. When Zeus grew up he poisoned his father, causing him to vomit up the other children.
Then Zeus and his brothers fought a war with Cronus and the other Titans. During the war, Zeus freed some Titans that Cronus had imprisoned, among them the Cyclopes, expert metal workers.
During a battle, the Cyclopes built an altar and burned a sacrifice so that the smoke would hide Zeus and his brothers as they attacked Cronus and the Titans. In gratitude, Zeus placed the altar in the sky at the horizon, under the Milky Way which now appears to be the rising smoke.
Auriga or the Charioteer
The son of Hephaestus and Mother Earth, Erichthonius, was born with the lower body of a snake. The goddess Athena felt pity for him and raised him as her own son in the city of Athens. There, he became king and was famous for his four-horse chariot, used to defend Athena’s honor. As a reward, Erichthonius the charioteer was placed in the sky.
Cancer or the Crab
When Hercules was fighting the Hydra, he was pinched on the foot by a crab. Hera, queen of the ancient Greek gods, was pleased by the crab’s attack so placed it in the sky.
Centaurus or the Centaur
Chiron the centaur was a student of medicine but was accidentally shot by Hercules with a poisoned arrow, leaving him in great pain. At the same time, Prometheus kept receiving punishment for giving men the skill of making fire. Prometheus was bound to a rock and his liver was continuously pecked by a vulture. He could only be released if someone voluntarily took his place. Chiron did so, meaning only one of them would suffer. After that, Hercules killed the vulture ending the torture, and Chiron was later placed in the sky as a constellation by Zeus.
Corona Borealis or the Northern Crown
When Theseus sailed to Crete to kill the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, she gave him a big ball of string which he unrolled as he walked through the Labyrinth. This helped him out of the maze after he managed to kill the monster. Hephaestus made a crown for Princess Ariadne — its seven stars represent the seven maidens and seven youths that had been sacrificed to the Minotaur.
Delphinus or the Dolphin
When Poseidon tried to convince Amphitrite to marry him, she hid in the Atlas mountains. Poseidon sent a dolphin to beg her to marry and she finally agreed to be a bride. The dolphin was rewarded with a place in the sky.
Gemini or the Twins
The fraternal twins Castor and Pollux were the sons of Leda and a mortal, Tyndareus. Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce Leda, who laid an egg from which Helen and Pollux were born. At the same time, she also gave birth to Castor and Clytaemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus. Being the son of Zeus, Pollux was immortal while Castor was not. They grew as close brothers but Castor was killed during the Olympic Games. Pollux asked Zeus to let him die in order to remain close to his brother, therefore Zeus placed both of them in the sky.
Milky Way or the Galaxy
Cronus had swallowed most of his children in an attempt to prevent the prophecy of his death from coming true. Zeus was saved by his mother Rhea who tricked Cronus into swallowing a rock instead. Cronus asked her to nurse the baby one more time before he swallowed it. To do so, she pressed the rock against her; the resulting milk became the Milky Way.
Pisces or the Fish
The monster Typhon was in love with the beautiful goddess Aphrodite. He pursued her one day while she and her son Eros were walking along the Euphrates River. The nymphs of the river transformed them into fish to protect them and, to show their appreciation, fishes were placed in the sky.
The Pleiades or the Sisters
Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph had seven daughters. Six of them were married to gods while Merope was married to a mortal named Sisyphus. During their trip to Boeotia, the sisters were pursued by Orion the hunter. Zeus turned them into doves and they flew into the sky. Orion continued to chase them for years up until his death. Zeus put them in the sky just to the west of Orion where he can see them, but never catch them.
Taurus or the Bull
In order to abduct Europa, Zeus turned himself into a large white bull. He hid her on the island of Crete where she bore him several children, including King Minos. The constellation commemorates the adventure of Europa’s kidnapping.
Ursa Major and Ursa Minor
or the Greater Bear and the Lesser Bear
When Zeus fell in love with the nymph Calisto, his wife Hera transformed Calisto into a bear when she heard that she had given Zeus a son named Arcas. One day Calisto saw her son in the woods and attempted to approach but she could not speak. Seeing the bear, Arcas prepared to attack her. To protect Calisto, Zeus also transformed Arcas into a bear and then placed them both in the northern sky swinging them up by their tails.
Works cited or consulted:
Skywise unlimited & The Mythology of Constellations, Cathy Bell