Space, Stargazing

The Patterns in the Sky

How does constellation mythology change through cultures?

My favourite constellations are Leo, Gemini, Orion and Ursa Major… basically the major constellations of the Northern Sky! It’s amazing how we can look up at the sky and see patterns. Ever since the beginning of humankind, people have made up stories to explain what they see in the night sky… Nowadays, of course, we know that by looking up, we see things more fantastical than even our ancestors could have dreamt of… objects so dense light can’t escape, planets like our own, planets very unlike our own (think pulsar planets, hot Jupiters, super earths and more), and entire galaxies racing away from us! 

But the stories from the past still remain significant today: Most of the 88 IAU recognised constellations we use as a reference to navigate the sky when stargazing come from greek mythology, with the names being shared by characters in Greek legends. For example in Greek Mythology, Orion, the Hunter who provided food for the Gods, was immortalised in the Sky after Artemis ordered his execution as punishment for killing many more animals than there required- even the Greeks knew sustainability was key! In the story, he was killed by a scorpion, which was placed on the opposite side of the sky (Scorpius) to avoid any conflict. 

See All Five Planets Line Up at Dawn! – Astro Bob
The planets appear on the ecliptic, sometimes they line up, which makes for an amazing viewing experience!

Scorpius is one of the 12 major constellations that lie on the ecliptic. This is the apparent path of the sun across the year, so ancient cultures used these zodiac constellations to tell what time of year it was! The planets also appear on the ecliptic, which is why your horoscope will tell you how lucky you’re going to be depending on what planet is in the constellation that the sun was found in your birth month… which totally makes sense? *rolls eyes* Their use in modern magazines might be questionable, but in ancient history, they were vital for telling the time of year!

Illustration of the 'zodiac band' with a few of the constellations depicting the they represent.

Although the modern zodiac constellations have Greek names, they actually originated from Babylonian Astronomy a few centuries before it was magpied by the Greeks. We owe a lot of modern science to the foundations set in Ancient Greece, but much of this work was building on that of Babylonian and Egyptian societies, amongst others. In Egypt, the stars were organised into 36 decans, rather than constellations, and were used as a clock, to count time on both short (within the day) and longer scales. This idea of 36 sections is also found in Indian Astrology and (more commonly) the Chinese Zodiac. 

Ancient Chinese astronomers are known for their contributions to astronomy, such as their meticulous observations of Halley’s comet, dating back 3000 years! Like many other ancient cultures, people used the stars not only to mark the passing of time but also believed what happened in the skies affected life on the ground, so the making of star maps and predictions was an important job. The exact number and location of constellations changed with each dynasty, but in general, the sky was split into 4 quarters and a circumpolar/middle section. Each quarter was associated with a compass point and an animal (eg. the azure dragon of the east, who’s ‘heart’ was the red star Antares!), and the middle region featured constellations with names relating to the emperor. The sky was also further divided into 28 ‘mansions’ which each had a constellation and are thought to be related to the lunar cycle, and aren’t equally spaced like the decans found in Greek/Egyptian astronomy.

Ancient Chinese Constellation. The stars in yellow make up the animal constellations associated with each quarter, illustrated on the edge of the circle

Jumping across the Pacific to the Americas, astronomy was also important to Native Americans, but the stories and constellations vary greatly between tribes. I’ve linked two websites that cover lots of these, but here are two of my favourites:

  • Cygnus and the Milky Way: A grizzly bear (the constellation we know as Cygnus) climbed a mountain to go hunting in the sky. As he climbed, snow and ice clung to his feet, which was then trekked across the sky (forming the milky way). From the Shoshone Tribe. Other Native American Cultures thought of the Milky Way as a road walked by the deceased.
  • The Council of the Chiefs and The Star That Does Not Walk Around: This constellation appears to match the Corona Borealis, and in Skidi-Pawnee tribe culture, represented the chiefs watching of the people, and the North Star watching over the chiefs, and everyone else. 
A native american star chart circa. 1700
image via astrobob.areavoices.com

I’ve actually had this blog post on my list of ideas for a while since I watched Kirsten Banks’ TED talk on aboriginal astronomy, where she talks about the milky way being known as the Great Celestial Emu. The position of this constellation just after sunset indicates the time of year when aboriginal hunters could go looking for emu eggs: when it is close to the horizon, it looks like an emu running across the sky, which shows they are looking for a mate; later in the year, it rises higher, so just after sunset it is high in the sky, and is now seen as an emu egg in a nest- the right time to find them! So, unlike the early Greek astronomers, the Australian first nations people (who were probably some of the earliest astronomers and used the skies to navigate some 65,000 years ago), saw patterns not just in the stars, but in the dark dust clouds too. And like the myths of the constellations, the stories behind aboriginal astronomy don’t always rely on join-the-dot-characters, but a single star or planet might be assigned a whole entity, and stories are related to their movements across the sky and interactions with other celestial bodies! The Milky Way features more prominently in Australian tradition, probably because it is more visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

Many of the most famous ‘constellations’ and many that appeared in astronomy in different cultures aren’t actually considered constellations by the IAU, but asterisms, such as the Pleiades, or seven sisters. This is a star cluster in Taurus and was important/recognised in many cultures- in Greek Mythology, they are chased by Orion, and in many Aboriginal Groups they are also chased by the stars in Orion, although referenced differently (to the Yolngu people, the stars in Orion’s belt represent 3 men sitting in a canoe, its ends marked by stars Rigel and Betelguese)!

Another of these asterisms is the Big Dipper/Plough. Known by many names, it is the most recognisable part of Ursa Major. At the moment, it appears directly overhead after sunset (at least for the UK)! It actually has a double star in its handle, which used to be a used as a test for eyesight- if you can distinguish Mizar (the brightest star) from Alcor, then you are said to have good vision! It turns out that although it appears to be simply a double star (cool in itself), Mizar is actually a quadruple star system, and Alcor is a binary! However these can only be resolved using a spectroscopic telescope.

What fascinates me is how the sky unites us. Although we see it from different perspectives, we all see pretty much the same stars. And so even though the cultures I have written about here are separated by huge amounts of time and space, many of the same patterns and stars were given importance, although its interesting to see how the stories created to explain their movements are more specific to each region, which makes sense! 

Did you guys like this post? It’s slightly different from my usual content, but I loved investigating this and learning about all the different cultures! What is your favourite constellation or constellation mythology? Which story did you find most intriguing? I could only cover a few of the thousands of different traditions and cultures, but if this is well recieved I might do some more posts lke these! For the meantime, check out the links below to learn more about constellation mythologies!

Sources/Further Reading:

Stay Curious!

News– I have a twitter now! Find me here, where I will be posting things I learn from the virtual NASA social celebrating the first crewed mission launching from US soil since 2011!

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