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The Ancient Greek Stars Lighting Up Our Night Skies

Ancient Greek stars
Greek constellations in art. Painting by Baldassare Peruzzi at the Villa Farnesina in Rome, 1510. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Since the beginning of time, people, especially ancient Greeks, have turned their eyes to the sky and discerned the shapes of animals and objects in the stars, thus creating constellations.

Among other things, they saw lions, scorpions, and bulls, as cuneiform texts found in the Euphrates Valley suggest.

These priceless 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian texts, written on clay tablets, represent early societies’ first recorded attempts to understand the skies.

However, the civilizations which had the most influence in giving names to the constellations were the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Ancient Greeks and the stars

In The Iliad, for example, Homer explains how the god Hephaistos gave origin to Achilles’ 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.”

In Homer’s day, most constellations were simply known as the objects or animals they represented.

Over time, however, most of them came to be associated with myths, to the point that, according to writer Jean Seznec, “stars were no longer merely identified with certain gods or heroes, but actually were perceived as divine.”

ancient greek stars
Some believe the Antikythera Mechanism was used to chart the stars. Credit: Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.5

The Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria grouped 1,022 stars into 48 constellations during the second century A.D.

His astronomical chart does not include the constellations which are only seen from the southern hemisphere, but it still forms the basis for the modern map of 88 constellations officially designated by the International Astronomical Union.

Although both Greek and Roman cultures influenced the names of the stars, and the myths behind the constellations date back to ancient Greece, we commonly use their Latin names today.

Names of constellations, planets have their roots in ancient Greek mythology

ancient greek stars constellations
Credit: Nasa/Public domain

But it is not only constellations which had their names influenced by mythology. All the known planets bear names from Greek and Roman mythology, according to their differing characteristics.

For instance, the planet which revolves fastest around the sun was given the name Mercury, after the speedy “messenger” god.

The goddess of love and beauty, Venus, is the planet which shines the brightest.

Mars, the god of war, gave his name to the planet which is as red as blood, while Jupiter, named after the most important Roman god, is the largest planet in our solar system.

The moons in our system have also been given the names of mythological figures. The four moons of Jupiter are called Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Calisto, for the four goddesses who were desired by, and abducted by, Jupiter.

Of course, entire constellations were named after myths as well, allowing each one of us a fascinating glimpse back in time to when they were named.

The Greek Names of the Constellations
Jupiter.Credit: Nasa/Public domain

The myth behind the constellation “Ara”

greek constellation
Image depicting the constellation Ara from the Hubble telescope. Credit: ESA/Hubble/ CC BY 4.0

According to mythology, 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.

Zeus and his brothers then fought a war with their father Cronus and the other Titans.

During the war, Zeus freed some Titans whom Cronus had imprisoned, among them the Cyclopes, who were expert metal workers.

ancient greek stars constellation
Illustration of the constellation Ara by Johann Bayer. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

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 an altar in the sky at the horizon, under the Milky Way, which now appears like the rising smoke from the altar.

The ancient Greek stars of Auriga, The Charioteer

Erichthonius, the son of Hephaestus and Mother Earth, 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 chariot pulled by four horses, which he used to defend Athena’s honor.

Erichthonius the charioteer was placed in the sky as his eternal reward.

Cancer, The Crab in ancient Greek myth

Hercules was pinched on the foot by a crab while fighting the Hydra. Hera, the queen of the ancient Greek gods, was pleased by the crab’s audacious attack, so she placed it in the sky.

The story behind Centaurus, The Centaur

ancient Greek constellation
illustration of the constellation Centaurus. Credit: Chaouki/CC BY-SA 2.0

Chiron, the Centaur, was a student of medicine but was accidentally shot by Hercules with a poisoned arrow, which left him in great pain.

At the same time, Prometheus was being continually punished for giving men the skill of making fire. He was bound to a rock, and his liver was continuously pecked at by a vulture.

Prometheus could only be released if someone voluntarily took his place.

Chiron did so, voluntarily sacrificing his own life. Afterward, Hercules killed the vulture, ending the torture, and Chiron was later placed in the sky as a constellation by Zeus.

Ancient Greek myth and the stars in Corona Borealis

When Theseus sailed to Crete to kill the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, she gave him a large 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.

The god Hephaestus made a crown for Princess Ariadne. Its seven stars represent the seven maidens and seven youths which had been sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Delphinus, 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 him, and she finally agreed to be his bride. The dolphin was rewarded with his own eternal place in the sky.

Gemini, the tragic story of mythic twins

gemini
Gemini illustration by Johann Bayer. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The fraternal twins Castor and Pollux were the sons of the goddess Leda and a mortal man, 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.

gemini
A beautiful stellar nursery located in the constellation of Gemini (The Twins).  Credit: ESA/Hubble/ CC BY 4.0

They grew up as loving brothers, but Castor was later killed during the Olympic Games. Pollux asked Zeus to let him die in order to remain close to his brother; Zeus then placed both of them together in the sky.

The ancient Greek myth behind the Galaxy

Cronus had swallowed most of his children in an attempt to prevent the prophecy of his death from coming true.

Zeus had been 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. She then pressed the rock against her chest; the resulting spray of milk became the Milky Way.

Pisces and a story of love

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.

Greek constellations
Sidney Hall’s 1824 illustration of Pisces. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The nymphs of the river transformed them into fish to protect them and, to show their appreciation, two fishes were then placed in the sky.

The Pleiades, or the sisters who can’t be caught

Pleiades
The Pleiades. Credit: NASA/Public Domain

Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph, had seven daughters together.

Six of them were married to gods, while Merope was married to a mortal man 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, until his death. Zeus placed them in the sky just to the west of Orion, where he can see them, but never catch them.

Taurus and the kidnapping of Europa

Zeus turned himself into a large white bull in order to abduct the goddess Europa.

He hid her on the island of Crete, where she bore him several children, including King Minos.

The constellation commemorates the event of Europa’s kidnapping.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor,  the Greater Bear and the Lesser Bear

Ancient Greek stars constellations
Ursa Major as depicted by Sidney Hall in 1825. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Zeus fell in love with the nymph Calisto. His wife Hera later 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 him, but she could not speak.

Seeing what he thought was a bear, Arcas prepared to attack her. In order 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.

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