How the Constellations got their Names

Constellations are the 88 recognized collections of stars with mostly Latin names that occupy a particular section of the celestial sphere.  There are some constellations that were named by modern astronomers, although most were derived from classical Greek civilization.  The constellations appear almost as pinholes poked in the fabric of the darkness in the night sky, and when viewed from a certain perspective, they are arranged by the human eye to resemble men, women, birds, and animals.  The word constellation is also derived from the Latin word meaning “with the stars”

The most well-known constellation is Ursa Major, which means the “Great Bear”.  This group of stars is in the home to the “Big Dipper”, which Native Americans believed represented three hunters chasing after the big bear.  Ursa Minor means the “Lesser Bear”, and is the smaller companion constellation to Ursa Major.

Aquila is the eagle with wings extended on both sides, the way the ancient stargazers viewed this constellation from Earth with the naked eye.  The brightest star in Aquila is the giant Altair.

Taurus is the oldest constellation named by mankind, and its animal symbol of the bull was one of the most important to the classical Greeks.  The legend of both Europe and Jupiter feature a god as the main character appearing as a bull.  The Taurus constellation contains Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters, which is a well-known formation that illuminates the night sky.

Lyra is named after the stringed harp-like musical instrument popular in classical Greece known as the lyre.  In Arabic the constellation is regarded as an eagle swooping, and the brightest star in Lyra is Vega, which means “falling eagle”.

Leo was named after the king of all the beasts, the mighty lion.  This constellation always seemed to rise and set with our own Sun in the heavens, and was believed to bring about the power and wonder of the Sun returning for a new day to give light to the Earth.  Ancient Egyptians, Arabs, and Babylonians all regarded this constellation as a lion.  Leo contains Regulus, which is a star a hundred times more powerful than the Sun.

Cygnus is a northern constellation that is named after a swan, which ancient civilizations believed it resembles and it contains the Veil Nebula.  Its brightest star Deneb, from the Arabic word for tail, forms the tail of the swan.

Andromeda, Perseus, and Cassiopeia are all characters from classical Greek mythology and literature.  These constellations all border each other, with the Milky Way shining right through the center of Perseus.

Scorpius is the constellation Egyptians, Arabs, and all other ancient stargazers agreed appears like a picture of a Scorpion in the night sky.  The Greeks named this constellation based on the legend of the hunter Orion who was killed by a scorpion’s poison sting.  The largest star in this constellation is the red giant Antares, which is 450 times the size of the Sun.

Virgo is the group of stars that appears as a woman in nearly all cultures, forming the second largest constellation currently known in the universe.  Each culture has a different name for the woman, such as the Egyptians referring to the constellation as Isis, and the Babylonians calling her Ishtar, but the outline of a woman remains constant.  The name Virgo means the virgin, which describes the woman appearing as a maiden.

Piscis Austrinus means the “Southern Fish” because it appears in what appears to be the southern portion of the cosmos, and its largest star is Formalhut, which means “mouth of the Southern fish”.

The ancient world did not have such modern luxuries as television, computers, the internet, and motion pictures, so gazing into the night sky and connecting the twinkling lights into a dazzling picture of an animal, person, or even a god was the equivalent of prime-time entertainment.  The legends and mythology that emerged out of the views of the cosmos seen through the eyes of the people of ancient civilizations are one of the enduring legacies of mankind’s existence on planet Earth.