The Mythology of the Constellations

Most ancient cultures saw pictures in the stars of the night sky. The earliest known efforts to catalogue the stars date to cuneiform texts and artifacts dating back roughly 6000 years. These remnants, found in the valley of the Euphrates River, suggest that the ancients observing the heavens saw the lion, the bull, and the scorpion in the stars. The constellations as we know them today are undoubtedly very different from those first few--our night sky is a compendium of images from a number of different societies, both ancient and modern. By far, though, we owe the greatest debt to the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The earliest references to the mythological significance of the Greek constellations may be found in the works of Homer, which probably date to the 7th century B.C. In the Iliad, for instance, Homer describes the creation of Achilleus's shield by the craftsman god Hephaistos:

On it he made the earth, and sky, and sea, the weariless sun and the moon waxing full, and all the constellations that crown the heavens, Pleiades and Hyades, the mighty Orion and the Bear, which men also call by the name of Wain: she wheels round in the same place and watches for Orion, and is the only one not to bathe in Ocean (Iliad XVIII 486-490).
At the time of Homer, however, most of the constellations were not associated with any particular myth, hero, or god. They were instead known simply as the objects or animals which they represented--the Lyre, for instance, or the Ram. By the 5th century B.C., however, most of the constellations had come to be associated with myths, and the Catasterismi of Eratosthenes completed the mythologization of the stars. "At this stage, the fusion between astronomy and mythology is so complete that no further distinction is made between them"--the stars were no longer merely identified with certain gods or heroes, but actually were perceived as divine (Seznec, 37-40).

Despite the many mentions of the stars in Greek and early Roman texts, by far the most thorough star catalogue from ancient times belongs to the Roman Ptolemy of Alexandria, who grouped 1022 stars into 48 constellations during the 2nd century A.D. Although Ptolemy's Almagest does not include the constellations which may only be seen from the southern hemisphere, it forms the basis for the modern list of 88 constellations officially designated by the International Astronomical Union (Pasachoff, 134-135). The influence of both the Greek and Roman cultures may be plainly seen; the myths behind the constellations date back to ancient Greece, but we use their Latin names.

The Major Constellations:

Andromeda | Aquarius | Aries | Cancer | Capricornus | Cassiopeia | Cepheus | Cetus | Corona Borealis | Cygnus | Draco | Eridanus | Gemini | Hercules | Hydra | Leo | Libra | Lyra | Orion | Perseus | Pisces | Sagittarius | Scorpius | Taurus | Ursa Major | Ursa Minor | Virgo

Mythology, of course, influenced the naming of many objects in the night sky, not just the constellations. The planets all bear names from Roman mythology which reflect their characteristics: Mercury, named for the speedy messenger god, revolves fastest around the sun; Venus, named for the goddess of love and beauty, shines most brightly; Mars, named for the god of war, appears blood-red; Jupiter, named for the single most important god, is the largest planet in our solar system. Even the names of the Galilean moons of Jupiter (the four largest, which may be seen with even a small telescope) are drawn from mythology. Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto were all desired--and taken by force--by Jupiter. It is ironic that the mythological characters mythological women the king of the gods so ardently pursued now revolve around him.

Works Cited and Consulted

These pages are the work of Cathy Bell
cmbell (at) comfychair (dot) org
originally for the Princeton University course CLA 212.