Naming the Constellations

Constellations are groups of stars close together that appear to form shapes. When discovered they were given names suggestive of their shapes. It takes keen eyes indeed to see what they saw and not everyone is that adept. But that didn’t stop ancient astronomers and interested sky watchers from voicing their opinions and it shouldn’t deter today’s star gazer from searching out the bears, fishes and lions making heaven their home. The Latin name is a holdover from the times of the Roman Empire. The more modern discoveries are different and show the relevance to these times.


Aquarius means water bearer. It’s one of the most ancient of constellations and is one of the twelve zodiac signs. Aquarius, named in honor of the mythological Ganymede, a beautiful Trojan lad and cupbearer to the gods, was the inspiration for this group, according to The Dictionary of Classical Mythology by J.E. Zimmerman.  Legend has it an eagle of Zeus carried him to Mt. Olympus to serve the gods. (Different cultures have adapted the name, and often the legends to their language.)Aquarius is talked about written about made into song lyrics but is not often seen; it is dim. Aquarius is a happy constellation; its name represents luck or good fortune.

Cancer, the crab

The Chaldeans are credited with naming a star shape looking like a crab, Cancer. In the time of Hippocrates, cancer, the destructive disease, was seen as a bunch of tissue cells resembling a crab and thus the crab look in the sky became Cancer. Their reasoning is that the crab which walks backward is typical of the sun’s behavior when in this area of the sky. And in context of today’s confusion over cancer and its relationship with too much sun, that name is not far-fetched at all!  “We refer to the 23.5 N latitude as the Tropic of Cancer as it marks the northernmost point at which the sun is directly overhead at noon.”

SiriusWH6PDSirius is a dog. Its name is Canis Major, The great dog. Supposedly, this faithful dog follows his master Orion across the skies. Sirius is the brightest star at night and according to the sketch on the online site Stardate, this star is just below the neckline and slightly above the right shoulder area of the imaginary dog. Its first sighting in August signals the beginning of ‘dog days’.


Orion is a hunter. In winter, find this star group in the south-southwestern sky; look for a “large rectangle. Why is it thought to resemble a hunter? It takes an imaginative eye to see this as a hunter but star gazers often see what they want to see when naming stars. They figure their guess is as good as that of another. Somehow this image appeared to them as a hunter with a sword. How to find this grouping? After you’ve found the rectangle, look for the two bright stars at opposite horizontal corners. Stars Betelgeuse and Bellatrix form the upper part of the triangle; Bellartrix is slightly lower to the right.  

At the lower edge of the triangle diagonally shines Bellatrix, another bright star. According to the fanciful astronomer that named this constellation, this is where Orion, the Great Hunter, flexes his knee. This star is Regel. (Better still, check out the diagram and see how the constellation is laid out.) It’s a fascinating sketch and suggests a hunter readying himself to fling something or other at an enemy. Here readers may take their pick, David with his slingshot, or a primitive hunter-gatherer throwing a spear.

Orion, according to Greek Mythology is a story that has many legends attached; yet all show him with his dog Sirius. Whoever named this particular constellation was well versed in the art of hunting.

In all there are 88 constellations and twelve of them make up the Zodiac, a word meaning a circle of animals. And the animals are Ares, a ram; Taurus, a bull, Gemini, twins, Cancer, a crab, Leo, a lion, Virgo, a virgin, Scorpio, a scorpion; Sagittarius, an archer; Capricornus, a goat; Aquarius, a water bearer; Pisces, fish. Libra is not an animal but the word means balance.

Don’t be dismayed when contradictory descriptions are given as to the origins of the names. Different ages and different geological areas had their own way of explaining and naming the stars. This is understandable since the heavens have been mysterious since time eternal. And people, being people, have always been fascinated by what they don’t know. Error often creeps in when dealing with astrology—which makes up a great part of the rhetoric about the constellations—and since it cannot be proved or disproved, it remains.  Astronomy, however, disputes their claims and treats the twelve zodiac constellations the same as all others. They attempt to get at the truth of the fact of the matter of the stars and as ever, they often find this a near impossibility.