The Ancient Game of Cosmic Connect the Dots
Since the dawn of man and probably even eons before, our oldest ancestors were fascinated by the stars in the sky. After a day spent taking down a Woolly Mammoth or defending their valley or water source, a group of early men entertained each other around the cook fires with stories about the stars. Much like we can see shapes and patterns in the clouds today, they connected together the stars to form patterns that looked like animals, gods, goddesses, and heroes from their cultures. Some of these stories survived the millennia, and we remember them today as the origins of the constellations. These stories have become the foundation on which many of the myths are based; these have been passed down through the centuries by the Greeks, Romans, Polynesians, Native Americans, and members of many African tribes and Asian societies.
To remove yourself from the glow of the metropolitan light pollution you have to trek pretty far out of the suburbs to really appreciate the night sky. But when you do, the visible universe is splashed across the blacked dome above you, just as it has been for thousands of years.
Constellations Visible to You
There are 88 named constellations in the night skies over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, 50 ancient and 38 modern ones, all officially recognized in 1930 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Most of the names we use for constellations today come from ancient Greece or from the wandering cultures of the Middle East. Both of these societies enjoyed a very advanced understanding of the stars, their patterns, positions in the sky, and the myths assigned to them. But some constellations are much older than early Greece and ancient Middle Eastern cultures. For instance, the names Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, describing the Big Bear and the Little Bear constellations, have been used to identify those star groupings since the Ice Age, whereas, some “modern” constellations, such as the Peacock and Giraffe, were identified and named by astronomers in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Sailors followed specific constellations like a compass as they journeyed across vast oceans toward unknown lands.
For organization’s sake, the IAU divided up the entire night sky with irregular boundaries around the 88 constellations, and if any star is with that boundary, it is considered part of that constellation, even if it isn’t used in the actual image. For example, the Big Dipper is not a constellation, but the stars that form the Big Dipper are part of Ursa Major (it forms the head and shoulders). The Big Dipper is an asterism, a group of stars recognized as a pattern but not an official constellation.
Depending on where you live, most people can see more than half of them throughout the year. To easily locate any of the constellations, there are many free star apps for your devise that will not only point them out but tell you some of the myths associated with them.
Signs of the Zodiac
There are 12 astrological constellations of the zodiac, but there are 13 astronomical zodiac constellations: Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, and Ophiuchus (the extra one from astronomy). While the astronomical cycle of the zodiac was used by ancient cultures to determine the time of year, the astrological zodiac is currently used to determine personalities and compatibility with the opposite sex (“Hey baby, what’s your sign?). But how does it work?
Earth orbits our Sun once each year, and its axis wobbles like a Jeep with an alignment problem. From the point of view of the Earth (pretend here that the Earth doesn’t move), the Sun appears to trace a circular path through the sky. This path is called the plane of the ecliptic, and the constellations that make up what we know as the signs of the zodiac are the ones that overlap this plane of the ecliptic. The sun appears to pass through these constellations during the year, one zodiac constellation assigned for each month. One month, the sun appears in Gemini and next month, in Cancer, as it cycles through the year.
There’s one problem with this though. Because this calendar was defined around 2,500 years ago, the Earth was pointing in a slightly different direction at the time. To call yourself an Aries, you have to be born between March 21 and April 19, and that would be accurate 2,000 years ago when the sun was actually in the Aries constellation. However, because we’ve hitched our current calendar to the solstices and equinoxes and not to the Earth’s actual position in space and its axis wobble, each year, where the sun is relative the signs of the zodiac drifts a tiny amount. So, you might be an Aries on paper, the sun was actually in Pisces. At present, signs and constellations are about one calendar month off. In another two thousand years or so, they’ll be about two months off. Now you know why your horoscope is never right.
A Few Popular Constellations
There are 88 officially recognized constellations and learning them all would a cumbersome task. It is best to start with the ones that are the most popular and easily recognized.
Orion: “Orion’s Belt” is one of the most well known parts of a constellation, but the constellation Orion is much more than just a belt. Orion is the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and was considered a great hunter. He was killed by a scorpion (which then became the constellation of Scorpio). The earliest depiction of this constellation was found on a 35,000-year-old mammoth ivory carving discovered in a cave in Germany. Many Orion myths can be found in ancient cultures around the world.
Finding Orion: Look to the southwest sky for the three brightest stars which are for a straight line and are nearly equidistant apart from each other. That’s Orion’s Belt. The two brightest stars above are Orion’s shoulders, and his head is a bright star above those and slightly to the right. His feet are a mirror image to his shoulders below Orion’s Belt.
Ursa Major: Ursa Major means the Big Bear, and was part of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations he pointed out around 150 A.D. The bear is usually considered female, and has been an important constellation since the beginning of time, revered by hunting parties. In Roman mythology, Juno, jealous of her husband Jupiter’s attraction to Callisto, turns her into a bear so Jupiter would no longer be attracted to her. To keep Callisto’s son, Arcas, from accidentally killing the bear, Jupiter converts him to a bear, too. Callisto is Ursa Major, while Arcas is Ursa Minor.
Finding Ursa Major: If you can find the Big Dipper, you can find Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is in the northern sky, its three lowest stars form the back of the bear, while the stars that shape the head are to the lower right and the legs to the left and below the Big Dipper.
Leo: Leo is Latin for lion and it is one of the earliest recognized constellations, as the Mesopotamians had named it roughly 6,000 years ago. In Greek mythology, Leo was a lion, a vicious monster that lived in Nemea and had golden fur that was impervious to mortal weapons. As the first of the 12 labors (as atonement for killing his wife), Hercules was required to slay the Nemean Lion.
Finding Leo: Leo is a particularly distinctive constellation, as it has lots of bright stars that were easy to identify in ancient times. If you have found Ursa Major, look directly below and you will see Leo, a collection of nine stars, six of which form the reclining body while three form a hook shape that depicts the neck and head facing to the right.
Gemini: In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux were twins whose mother was Leda, while Tyndareus (mortal king of Sparta) was Castor’s father and Zeus was the father of Pollux. When Castor died (because it was mortal), Pollux begged Zeus to give Castor immortality, which he did by placing both of them among the stars.
Finding Gemini: Castor and Pollux also happen to be the names of the brightest stars in the constellation, and those stars represent the heads of the twins. Each star then has a line forming their bodies, giving the constellation a rough “U” shape. Using other stars, each of the twins look like stick figures. They are located near Orion and can best be seen during the winter.
Why Are Constellations Important?
It is well known that constellations have been around for centuries, as the first civilization to record them were the Mesopotamians around 4,000 B.C. Ptolemy wrote about constellations in 150 A.D., and he claimed to have used information from Babylonia 950 years earlier. Then, constellations were used as a giant clock that would tell farmers when to plant and when to harvest. Sailors followed specific constellations like a compass as they journeyed across vast oceans toward unknown lands.
But why are constellations important today? They’re not. We have infinitely precise clocks and calendars today to track the movement of time. Accurate compasses, well-defined maps, and GPS systems can point us in any direction toward any location on the planet. We don’t need constellations for these purposes, but the visible presence of the stars in the sky can still spark our imaginations. Beyond the mysteries of deep space and the adventures that lie therein for future generations, stars can be your own clouds in the sky. Never mind that most ancient constellations look nothing like the mythical beasts they pretend to be. Continue telling the myths, the legends, and the stories as they have been told for thousands of years.
… the names Ursa Major and Usa Minor … have been used to identify those star groupings since the Ice Age …
Sitting around the campfire after a day on the trail is the reward for a full day of immersing yourself in nature. Tilt back your head by the warmth of the fire. Gaze into a black sky speckled with the delicate twinkling light from far-off distant suns. Imagine what our ancient ancestors saw when they did the exact same thing. Find a few constellations, help the younger stargazers trace them out in the sky. Then share the myths, the legends, and the folklore of those olden times when the stars told the stories of gods and monsters.