Constellations: What’s the story behind the stars?

Constellations: What’s the story behind the stars?

We’ve at all times had a fascination with the celebs, brilliant beacons of sunshine that come alive when the sky darkens. They’ve been revered as gods, used to mark adjustments within the seasons, and as a technique to navigate the globe. It’s troublesome to hint again when precisely folks began trying up and paying attention to acquainted patterns that had been shaped by these factors of sunshine, however some suggest that 17,000-year-old cave work in Lascaux, France, depict the constellations we as we speak know as Taurus and Orion.

Historical cultures internationally noticed these patterns in numerous methods, usually linking them to legends that had been instructed amongst their folks or the native fauna and flora, or creating new myths from the shapes they noticed. The constellations that make up the Zodiac — the celebs that observe the ecliptic — are a number of the oldest recorded, and stay primarily the identical as we speak as historic Babylonian astronomers recorded them within the sixth century B.C. 

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Though there are older data from many various locations and cultures that inform their very own tales, it’s the historic Greeks that made a long-lasting impression on astronomy. Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer who lived within the metropolis of Alexandria within the 2nd century A.D., made a complete checklist of 1,022 stars, illustrating them as members of 48 constellations, lots of which adopted imagery from Greek myths and legends and older Babylonian concepts. This historic textual content, known as Almagest, grew to become the idea of what we acknowledge within the sky as we speak.

About 800 years after Ptolemy recorded his data of the heavens, a Persian astronomer, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, translated his Greek into Arabic, bringing his stellar tales to a different a part of the globe. As Ptolemy had by no means named the person stars in his work, al-Sufi included Arabic names. His observations had been so superior that his work, the “E-book of Mounted Stars,” traveled throughout Europe, his star names being accepted together with the constellations they had been woven into.

After the invention of the telescope, increasingly stars had been found and named, with many various influences. To keep away from confusion, in 1922 a bunch of astronomers from around the globe determined it was time to correctly map the celebs, placing official boundaries between the constellations to make it simpler to navigate the sky and find particular objects. Now divided into 88 official constellations, drawing closely from Ptolemy and al-Sufi’s works, subsequent time you gaze up at them, take into consideration the numerous tales which have been instructed about each throughout the ages.

Canis Majoris

At this time we all know stars are dense balls of gasoline, however our ancestors might solely think about the supply of their gentle. (Picture credit score: NASA, ESA, and R. Humphreys (College of Minnesota), and J. Olmsted (STScI))

What did different cultures see within the stars?

At this time we all know of trillions of stars, and even different galaxies. We now have classifications for various stellar sorts, and may work out a star’s mass, density and composition from many light-years away. We all know that stars are dense balls of gasoline which can be fusing hydrogen to energy themselves, creating gentle as they do. However earlier than the fashionable age of science, folks might solely guess at what these brilliant lights within the night time had been. Listed here are a number of the oldest interpretations, and what the celebs meant to those historic observers.

Scorpion or fishhook?

scorpius constellation

The constellation of Scorpius charts the define of a scorpion. (Picture credit score: Wikimedia Commons)

A part of the Zodiac, this constellation is formally dubbed Scorpius, the Scorpion. However for tons of of years Polynesians have seen its inverted tail as a fishhook—one belonging to a demigod of legend: Maui. Maui possessed a magical fishhook, Manaiakalani, which might catch something. He and his brothers got down to sea, the place Maui solid his line. Tricking them into pondering he had caught an enormous fish, Maui bought his brothers to paddle the canoe as quick as they might to reel in his line, pulling up islands from the ocean for people to stay on.

Sirius, the Nile Star 

Sopdet goddess

The Egyptian goddess, Sopdet.  (Picture credit score: Wikimedia Commons/ Jean-Pierre Dalbera)

Sirius was crucial to the traditional Egyptians. Annually in mid-August, it will be the primary brilliant star to rise within the predawn sky, often known as a heliacal rising. The timing coincided with the annual flooding of the River Nile, alerting individuals who lived close to its banks that it was time to maneuver inland to security. A second calendar was created to measure the time till its return. They knew the star as Sopdet, the personification of a goddess related to the fertility that the flooding delivered to the land.

Maya star monitoring

Mayan calendar

The Mayan Aztec calendar. (Picture credit score: Getty Pictures)

Mayans had been eager astronomers, monitoring the solar, moon, planets, and Milky Approach throughout the heavens, and setting up extremely correct calendars for the time utilizing their data. They constructed many constructions and buildings to align with sure stars, and there’s proof they’d a 13-star Zodiac that took the shapes of the native wildlife. Polaris was additionally identified to the Maya, although they knew it as Xaman Ek. It was generally related to the rain god who introduced the storms of winter.

The 4 symbols

Chinese constellations

Historical Chinese language astronomers selected 4 mythological creatures to protect the world.  (Picture credit score: Wikimedia Commons)

Historical Chinese language astronomers charted the night time sky into 4 areas, every of which was assigned one of many 4 Symbols: the Azure Dragon of the East, a dragon god; the Black Tortoise of the North, who symbolized longevity; the White Tiger of the West, the king of beasts; and the Vermillion Chook of the South, a chic fire-red hen. Seven constellations — or “mansions” — inside every of those symbols had been used as a technique to observe the moon’s movement throughout the sky, forming an early lunar calendar.

How the traditional Greeks wove lasting legends into the sky


In Greek mythology, Pegasus is a winged horse. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Although some constellations had been borrowed from the Babylonians — delivered to Greece by Eudoxus of Cnidus within the 4th century B.C. — historic Greek students thought-about astronomy to be a mathematic artwork, a approach to make use of geometry to foretell the movement of the heavens. 

Many historic Greek students mapped and wrote concerning the stars and their motions, however essentially the most well-known as we speak is Ptolemy’s e book Almagest. In it he recognized the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, 21 to the north of the ecliptic and 15 to the south, naming them after heroes and beasts  from well-known poems and myths, whose deeds had allowed them to be made immortal among the many stars and revered as semi-divine spirits.

Ursa Main (The Nice Bear)

Ursa Major

Ursa Main (the Nice Bear) is a constellation within the Northern Hemisphere. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Containing one of the vital well-known asterisms within the sky and pointing the best way to Polaris, Ursa Main had been seen as a bear by many primitive cultures earlier than the traditional Greeks. To the Greeks the bear was Callisto. Zeus had an affair with the huntress, which bore a son. When Zeus’ spouse came upon, she was so enraged that she turned Callisto right into a bear. Zeus later positioned her within the stars to maintain her secure. Callisto can also be the namesake of one in every of Jupiter’s moons.

Pisces (The Fishes)

Pisces constellation

A map of the Pisces constellation. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

An equatorial constellation, Pisces types the form of two fish related by a rope of stars. In an effort to flee a monster that had been despatched to assault Mount Olympus — the house of the gods — the goddess of affection, Aphrodite, and her son, Eros, remodeled themselves into fish as a way to flee into the Euphrates River. They tied their tails along with a wire in order that they’d not lose each other. Its brightest star was initially given the identify Kullat Nunu, which means “the wire of the fish” resulting from its place within the constellation.

Orion (The Hunter)

Orion constellation

Orion, which represents a hunter, is the twenty sixth largest constellation. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Seen within the Northern Hemisphere within the winter months, and simply acknowledged by his well-known belt of three brilliant stars, Orion, the Hunter, has been recognized in lots of cultures over hundreds of years as a hunter, shepherd, or warrior. 

In Greek mythology he was the demigod son of Poseidon, and an completed hunter. He proudly boasted to the goddess Artemis that he might hunt and kill any creature if he wished to. This made Gaia, the earth goddess, offended, and she or he despatched an enormous scorpion to kill him as punishment for his pleasure. Orion and Scorpius had been each positioned within the sky as a warning towards vanity and upsetting Gaia — although on reverse sides of the sky in order that they might keep away from one another.

Hercules (The Hero)

Hercules constellation

In Greek mythology, Hercules is known for his power. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Also referred to as Heracles, and a real icon in historic Greek mythology, Hercules was maybe the best-known hero within the tales of previous, with tales of his deeds spreading to historic Rome. 

A demigod with unbelievable power, Hercules was assigned 12 seemingly not possible duties to atone for a criminal offense he had dedicated. He used his energy, braveness, and ability to finish all 12 duties, and was immortalized within the stars as a prize. Lots of Hercules’ conquests have additionally been positioned among the many stars, corresponding to Leo, a fierce lion; Draco, an amazing dragon; and the Hydra, a sea monster. This constellation can also be identified for internet hosting the gorgeous Nice Globular Cluster, Messier 13. 

A complete solid of stars


The Cassiopeia constellation has the form of an M or W, relying on how its place within the sky. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

In Greek mythology, Cepheus and Cassiopeia had been the king and queen of historic Ethiopia — now they’re the King and Queen in our stars. They’d a lovely daughter, Andromeda. Cassiopeia was extremely useless, and boasted of her daughter’s magnificence, telling folks she was lovelier than even the Nereids, sea nymphs whose magnificence was famend. This self-importance angered the Nereids, who complained to the ocean god Poseidon concerning the useless queen’s phrases. To punish the queen for her vanity, Poseidon despatched floods and a sea monster, Cetus— although this constellation is usually known as the Whale in astronomy—to terrorize the coast of Ethiopia. 

Desirous to appease the gods and finish Poseidon’s wrath, the king and queen had been instructed that they have to sacrifice their daughter to the ocean monster. They chained the gorgeous maiden to a rock to await her destiny — therefore why the constellation of Andromeda is usually known as “the Chained Maiden” in fashionable instances. As luck would have it, the nice hero Perseus was flying again over Ethiopia on his winged horse, Pegasus, after slaying the Gorgon Medusa. Falling in love at first sight with the gorgeous damsel in misery beneath, Perseus saved her from her doom utilizing the severed head of Medusa as a weapon, and took Andromeda as his bride. All of those characters have been positioned into the celebs, with nearly all of them grouped collectively in a piece of sky within the Northern Hemisphere, whereas Cetus lurks additional south. 

When the celebs had been later given names by al-Sufi, the variable star Beta Persei was named Algol, which means the Demon’s Head. It’s mentioned to depict the attention of the severed head of Medusa within the constellation of Perseus— though gazing up at this explicit star gained’t flip you to stone. 

How the Age of Exploration found new constellations 

Old telescope

The invention of the telescope supplied astronomers with clearer entry to the celebs. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Nearly all of the traditional constellations lie within the Northern Hemisphere, as a result of that’s what the traditional cultures that mapped them might see from their positions on Earth. When European explorers started to sail additional south to analyze new elements of the ocean for potential commerce routes within the 1600s, they discovered that the star maps they used for navigation had been missing the additional they went. They quickly realized that the skies beneath the equator contained uncharted stars that shaped new patterns above them. 

Astronomers got down to map everything of the sky, classifying these newfound stars into constellations. A few of these constructed upon the legends of the northern constellations, whereas others had been based mostly on instruments that helped in astronomy and navigation, or thrilling new animals that had been found as new continents had been conquered. 

Vulpecula (The Little Fox)

Vulpecula constellation

The Vulpecula constellation was recognized within the seventeenth century. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Sitting within the sky in the midst of the Summer season Triangle, Vulpecula, Latin for “little fox,” was initially envisioned as a fox with a goose clamped in its jaws by Johannes Hevelius, with him dubbing it Vulpecula et Anser — the little fox and the goose. 

Although Hevelius didn’t see these two animals as separate constellations, the celebs had been later divided as such. Since then they’ve been merged into one constellation once more, although the goose is remembered within the identify of Vulpecula’s brightest star, known as Anser.

Triangulum Australe (The Southern Triangle)

The Southern Triangle

The Southern Triangle, identified in Latin as Triangulum Australe, is a small constellation. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

To not be confused with its northern counterpart Triangulum, the Southern Triangle moved across the sky somewhat earlier than it ended up the place we discover it as we speak. The earliest depiction was by Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius in 1589 on a celestial globe, although he incorrectly positioned the tiny triangle to the south of the a lot bigger constellation of Argo Navis. 

Plancius additionally initially listed the constellation as Triangulus Antarcticus. The German astronomer Johann Bayer later accurately depicted the constellation in his star atlas Uranometria in 1603, the place it was given its present identify of Triangulum Australe.

Scutum (The Defend)

Shield sketch

The Scutum constellation was named in 1684. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

An extended, slender diamond of stars mendacity near the ecliptic, Scutum was first categorized by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1684. He initially named it Scutum Sobiescianum — Defend of Sobieski — after King John III Sobieski to commemorate his victory within the 1683 Battle of Vienna. 

The king can also be mentioned to have helped Hevelius rebuild his observatory after a horrible hearth virtually destroyed it in 1679. The identify was later shortened, like so many names of constellations have been through the years, to make it simpler to reference. Scutum depicts a particular sort of curved, oblong-shaped protect that was utilized in historic Rome.

Columba (The Dove)

Dove drawing

Columba is taken into account a faint constellation. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

A small winter constellation within the Southern Hemisphere, Columba, the Dove, was first depicted on a planisphere by Petrus Plancius in 1592, the place he listed the celebs as Columba Noachi — Noah’s Dove. Not the one constellation to be named after a logo of Christianity, the dove within the story of Noah’s Ark was despatched out to seek for indicators of land after the nice flood. 

Returning with an olive department in its beak, doves grew to become a logo of hope and peace. The constellation is usually drawn carrying this department in its beak. Its brightest star is Phact, which derives from an Arabic phrase for ‘ring dove’.

Telescopium (The Telescope)

Telescope constellation drawing

The Telescopium constellation is greatest seen through the summer season within the Southern Hemisphere. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Though people had explored the celebs for a few years by the point telescopes got here to make use of, as their use unfold, astronomers might see extra stars than ever earlier than. The invention — which might be traced again to a patent by the Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey in 1608 — was really a revolution in observing the heavens. 

It’s no marvel that astronomers determined to honour the invention with a spot among the many stars. French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille first launched it as a constellation in round 1751 after observing and cataloging 10,000 southern stars and forming 14 new constellations.

Leo Minor (The Little Lion)

lion constellation

Leo Minor is north of the bigger constellation, Leo the Lion. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

One of many smallest constellations in all the sky, Leo Minor was assigned its leonine picture within the 1600s by astronomer pair Elisabeth and Johannes Hevelius to fill a darkish patch within the sky that Ptolemy had discovered unremarkable. 

This constellation neighbors Leo, so is usually depicted as a lion cub — the identify interprets from Latin as ‘little lion’. The sample of stars that makes up Leo Minor may be very comparable in form to a northern constellation, Delphinus, the Dolphin. Each are diamond shapes with a tail, trying somewhat bit like kites, however the two aren’t associated in any respect of their naming or story.

Musca (The Fly) 

Musca constellation drawing

The Musca constellation has six important stars. (Picture credit score: Alamy)

Although for round 200 years this constellation had a second identify — Apis, the Bee — Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius initially named it De Vlieghe, Dutch for the Fly, when he established 12 new southern constellations based mostly on observations by Dutch explorers who had sailed on a buying and selling expedition and famous the brand new patterns above them. 

It’s the solely constellation to be named for an insect. As a result of its closeness to Chamaeleon — named after the reptile first encountered by explorers of the time—they’re usually depicted collectively, with the Chameleon attempting to snack on the Fly.

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