The night sky can be a breathtaking spectacle once you leave the city lights behind. It is filled to the brim with stars, shooting stars, and a few planets too. Our ancestors, too, gazed upon the stars just like we do today, and among the stars, our ancestors found meaning and guidance. They created constellations: imaginary patterns between the brightest of the stars are usually in the form of some animal or an inanimate object.
They used these constellations to give substance to their myths and legends and guide themselves on long voyages. Our ancestors knew the night sky like the back of their hands.
So, if you, too, want to be able to gaze out into the night sky and see something more than just a jumble of dots, you should learn about some of the most famous constellations. Then, not only will you find something interesting among the stars, but you will be partaking in a tradition that has its roots in prehistory.
The IAU (International Astronomical Union) recognizes 88 constellations, a list in use since 1992. We will look at only a selected number of these. The most popular and easily recognized ones are listed below.
The Orion Constellation
Orion is one of the most famous and most prominent constellations you can see. It is visible all over the world and rests on the celestial equator line. This constellation got its name from a Greek hunter named Orion. In Greek mythology, Orion was a hunter that the god Zeus placed among the stars.
The brightest stars of this constellation are two supergiants: Rigel (blue-white color) and Betelgeuse (red color). Orion has roots in several other cultures, all of whom recognized its prominence and aid in navigation. This constellation consists of Orion’s Belt, a sword named Orion’s Sword, ahead, club, and shield.
The Big Dipper Asterism
You have probably already seen this one, even if you never realized what it was. Consisting of seven extremely bright stars, the Big Dipper is visible over many cities and towns. If you’re from the UK, though, you probably know it by its other name: The Plough.
The Big Dipper is not a constellation in itself but a part of the Ursa Major constellation, but it has been included because of its sheer prominence and recognizability. This asterism consists of four stars making up the bowl, with three stars making up the handle. The Big Dipper has been used to navigate the Northern Hemisphere due to its pointing towards the North Star.
The Ursa Minor Constellation
Ursa Minor, Latin for ‘Lesser Bear,’ is a famous constellation in the Northern skies. The bear of Ursa Minor has its tail called the Little Dipper, with seven stars making it up as well. Polaris, the North Star, is also a part of this constellation and has had a long history of being used for navigation by sailors.
An interesting factoid about the Ursa Minor, four of the stars in the constellation has been discovered to have planets orbiting them.
The Ursa Major Constellation
The Ursa Major, meaning ‘Great Bear,’ directly contrasts the Ursa Minor. Of the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU, the Ursa Major is the third largest. The Big Dipper asterism is the most prominent part of the Ursa Major, and because of which this constellation is so popular.
The Ursa Major covers 3.10% of the sky, making it hard to miss if it’s visible in your area. The Ursa Major has enjoyed a long history in human culture, being mentioned by famous poets and even discussed in religious texts. Its presence on the flag of Alaska further signifies its importance to cultures worldwide and the North in general.
The Draco Constellation
The Draco constellation is another one found in the Northern skies. The name Draco, Latin for ‘Dragon,’ may have been inspired by one of the dragons in Greek mythology. Turning to Greco-Roman legend, we learn that Draco was a dragon killed by the Goddess Minerva.
After its defeat, Draco was tossed into the sky by Minerva, and it froze there, remaining as it is today. Consisting of 14 stars, the Draco constellation snakes its way across the sky and ends at a head that somewhat resembles the Big Dipper’s and Little Dipper’s bowls.
The Leo Constellation
Leo, Latin for ‘Lion,’ is another popular constellation. Lying between the Cancer and Virgo constellations, Leo is one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac. In Greek mythology, Leo was the terrifying Nemean Lion killed by the hero Heracles (later known as Hercules by the ancient Romans).
The Leo constellation depicts a crouching lion and contains an asterism that looks like a mirrored question mark symbol that forms its head and chest.
The Canis Major Constellation
Latin for ‘Greater Dog’ and contrasting directly with Canis Minor, the Canis Major constellation is found in the Southern Celestial Hemisphere. Canis Major also contains the brightest star in our sky; Sirius, the ‘dog star.’ The Milky Way also passes through Canis Major and, depending on how clear the stars are, Canis Major, can represent a dog facing either above or below the ecliptic.
According to Greek mythology, Canis Major is one of Orion the hunter’s two hunting dogs, the other being Canis Minor.
The Scorpius Constellation
The Scorpius constellation is a fascinating one. Scorpius, Latin for ‘Scorpion,’ has been represented differently in some cultures due to its unique formation. In Indonesia, the Javanese people have called it ‘the brooded swan’ and the ‘leaning coconut tree.’
The Hawaiians thought of it as the demigod Maui’s fishhook. It is also one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac, and in Greek mythology, represents the scorpion that was able to kill Orion, the hunter. Zeus raised Scorpius, and later Orion as well, into the sky because of their legendary duel.
Greek mythology has certainly played a huge role in shaping up the constellations as they are known today. It’s a fascinating insight into how our ancestors deciphered natural phenomena around them.
If you still want to read up some more on constellations, we’ve got a post on the most important constellations for ancient navigators. Do you want to stargaze but live in a city? Here are some tips to get you started.