Passion of the People – 1.2.1

Myths and Legends Linked to the Stars

Most ancient cultures saw pictures in the stars of the night sky. The earliest known efforts to catalogue the stars are dating back roughly 6000 years. These remnants, found in the valley of the Euphrates River, suggest that the ancients observing the heavens saw the lion, the bull, and the scorpion in the stars. The constellations as we know them today are undoubtedly very different from those first few – our night sky is a compendium of images from a number of different societies, both ancient and modern. By far, though, we owe the greatest debt to the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The earliest references to the mythological significance of the Greek constellations may be found in the works of Homer, which probably date to the 7th century B.C. In the Iliad, for instance, Homer describes the creation of Achilleus’s shield by the craftsman god Hephaistos: “On it he made the earth, and sky, and sea, the weariless sun and the moon waxing full, and all the constellations that crown the heavens, Pleiades and Hyades, the mighty Orion and the Bear, which men also call by the name of Wain: she wheels round in the same place and watches for Orion, and is the only one not to bathe in Ocean” (from the Iliad).

At the time of Homer, however, most of the constellations were not associated with any particular myth, hero, or god. They were instead known simply as the objects or animals which they represented–the Lyre, for instance, or the Ram. By the 5th century B.C., however, most of the constellations had come to be associated with myths, and the Catasterismi of Eratosthenes completed the mythologization of the stars. “At this stage, the fusion between astronomy and mythology is so complete that no further distinction is made between them”–the stars were no longer merely identified with certain gods or heroes, but actually were perceived as divine.

Despite the many mentions of the stars in Greek and early Roman texts, by far the most thorough star catalogue from ancient times belongs to the Roman Ptolemy of Alexandria, who grouped 1022 stars into 48 constellations during the 2nd century A.D. Although Ptolemy’s Almagest does not include the constellations which may only be seen from the southern hemisphere, it forms the basis for the modern list of 88 constellations (cf. Stardust and eternity) officially designated by the International Astronomical Union. The influence of both the Greek and Roman cultures may be plainly seen; the myths behind the constellations date back to ancient Greece, but we use their Latin names.

The Major Constellations:

Andromeda | Aquarius | Aries | Cancer | Capricornus | Cassiopeia | Cepheus | Cetus | Corona Borealis | Cygnus | Draco | Eridanus | Gemini | Hercules | Hydra | Leo | Libra | Lyra | Orion | Perseus | Pisces | Sagittarius | Scorpius | Taurus | Ursa Major | Ursa Minor | Virgo

Mythology influenced the naming of many objects in the night sky, not just the constellations. The planets all bear names from Roman mythology which reflect their characteristics: Mercury, named for the speedy messenger god, revolves fastest around the sun; Venus, named for the goddess of love and beauty, shines most brightly; Mars, named for the god of war, appears blood-red; Jupiter, named for the single most important god, is the largest planet in our solar system. Even the names of the Galilean moons of Jupiter (the four largest, which may be seen with even a small telescope) are drawn from mythology. 

Kostenlose Illustrationen zum Thema Konstellationen

Constellations of the northern hemisphere – Image by Gerd Altmann –  Pixabay

Constellation – Image by Dorothe from Pixabay

Kostenlose Illustrationen zum Thema Sternbild

Gemini constellation – Image by Dorothe – Pixabay

Starlight – Image by TolacraftProducts from Pixabay

Kostenlose Illustrationen zum Thema Sternbild

Ursa Major – Image by Dorothe – Pixabay 

Further Resources

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This is a video about the Pleiades and theír stories and myths

 Star Myths: Discover the Constellations and the Greek Mythology Behind Them

 The “Great Beasts of Legends: Beasts in the Night Sky: The Constellation Myths of Greece and Rome”lecture by Dr. P. Glauthier, University of Pennsylvania

 A fine collection of videos about the star myths of the world

Le costellazioni: Orsa Minore – Stefano Tosi

Online Resources

Many pictures in Greek mythology linked to the stars.

Constellations among the stars, with their history.

Lists of names of stars and constellationsFrosty Drew Observatory and Science Center (Charleston / USA)

 South African star myths seen through the eyes of traditional South African societiesRoyal Museums Greenwich

Star myths and their origin.

 The major constellations and their myths.

Le Costellazioni: Storia, Miti e Leggende – Associazione Cernuschese Astrofili APS

I Segreti delle Stelle: Viaggio nella Mitologia Greca delle 88 Costellazioni – Mitologie del Mondo

Le stelle: storia, nascita, formazione e molto altro – Online Star Register

Timeline dell’astronomia antica, dalla preistoria al 1700 – VitAntica

Further Readings

 The Mythology of the Night Sky – an overview to the ancient Greek and Roman legends.

A collection of books on star myths and legends

 A German platform for astronomy lovers also offers a section with books about the myths of the stars

A collection of books related specifically to the myths of the stars – indigo


Teaching Material

 STARS – Explore the Universe This app is an outcome of a European ERASMUS+

Podcasts on Greek and Roman Myths about the stars and constellations.

A huge variety of e-books, audios, articles, podcasts – SCRIBD platform

Star Myths of the World

Star Wars movie and the myths – The British Council

I MITI DEL CIELO – Le costellazioni e la mitologia – Scuola secondaria di I grado “Cattaneo”

For Kids

How Stars were created – video

  Constellation Myths lesson for kids – video

Myth of Orion: Constellation Quest – Astronomy for Kids, FreeSchool video

Constellations: Connect the Dots in the Sky!

Stories in the stars – The Kid Museum

Astronomia per bambini: la leggenda della costellazione di Orione – Astronomitaly

Le costellazioni – La scienza di Ido