We return to the history of constellations, this time moving away from the twelve zodiac signs and into other popular constellations. You can look here to catch up on the first part. Without further ado, let’s get back into the stars.
Pegasus the winged horse represents one of the most recognisable mythological creatures in the world. Pegasus was born from the blood of the decapitated Gorgon Medusa after her death at the hands of the hero Perseus, alongside his brother, the giant Chrysaor. He later aided Bellerophon against the Chimaera, helping the hero defeat the beast. During their partnership, it is said that Bellerophon attempted to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus, during which he fell after Zeus sent a gadfly to bite the horse. Afterwards, Zeus transformed Pegasus into the constellation, much like the origins of many other constellations. The brightest star is Enif.
Draco the dragon has a fairly self–explanatory name origin, being named after the legendary winged reptile creature present in almost every mythology to date. In Greek mythology, one story names Draco as Ladon, the guardian of the golden apples that Heracles was tasked with stealing. After its defeat or possible death, Hera placed it among the stars. Another origin is that it was one of the Gigantes, powerful beings that battled the Olympian gods during the Gigantomachia. This particular one was battled by Athena, who, upon killing it, tossed its body into the sky. It twisted around itself and froze into place, taking its serpentine shape as depicted in the constellation. The brightest star is Eltanin.
Andromeda the chained woman is a name also quite widely known, more so for the spiral galaxy (pictured above) than the constellation itself. Babylonian mythology named Andromeda as The Lady of Heaven, possibly referring to Inanna/Ishtar, but also linked to the primordial goddess of Chaos, Tiamat. Her many godly children, fathered by the primordial being Abzu, murdered their father, and Tiamat, enraged, spawned demons as children to battle the gods and avenge Abzu. After her death at the hands of the god Marduk, he formed the heavens, constellations, and earth from her body.
In Greek mythology, Andromeda is the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, rulers of the ancient region Aethiopia. Cassiopeia boasted that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids, beautiful sea-nymphs, who then asked Poseidon to punish her for her insolence. The god then sends the sea monster Cetus (not the Kraken, as certain media might tell it) to attack their city. An oracle tells the King to sacrifice only Andromeda to save them all, who is chained to a rock by the sea to appease the beast. Perseus, recently having slain Medusa, sees and falls in love with Andromeda, and upon securing the promise of marriage with her from King Cepheus, slays Cetus. Much later in their lives, Athena places Andromeda, Perseus, Cepheus and Cassiopeia among the stars – although Cepheus is the only constellation not near the other three. The brightest star is Alpheratz.
Cygnus the swan has several origins within Greek mythology alone, but unlike many of the original 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy, does not have roots in Babylonian culture. There are numerous characters named Cygnus, who incidentally were usually transformed into swans. One story is that the great musician Orpheus, after his murder, was turned into a swan and placed alongside his lyre as Cygnus and Lyra. Another tale is of Zeus’ transformation into a swan when he seduces Leda, fathering the Gemini twins and Helen of Troy.
In a more interesting story, the son of Helios the sun-god, Phaethon, asked to ride his father’s chariot. After much argument that he would not be able to control the horses, he did it anyway, and while losing control and changing the environments of the earth, Zeus struck him with a lightning bolt. He was killed and fell to earth, his burning body falling into a river later considered the constellation Eridanus. His lover, named Cygnus, stayed by his body for days, mourning him and spending days collecting his remains from the river to give him a proper burial. The gods were touched by his devotion to Phaethon and transformed him into a swan – known for mourning their mates for several days after they die. He was then raised into the heavens, as per usual. The brightest star is Deneb.
Phoenix the, well, phoenix, has quite unclear origins. Most often associated with the Greeks, the phoenix is a legendary bird that is reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. However, Herodotus noted that he had never seen the rare bird except in pictures, due to it only arriving in Egypt once every 500 years. In recent centuries, scholars discovered that Egyptians honoured a similar creature called the Bennu, a deity with many similarities to the phoenix – thus beliefs in either one could have been influenced by the other. Strangely enough, the creature itself doesn’t have a specific story attached to it, only its longevity and rebirth are described in ancient texts. The word Phoenician seems to share its roots with Phoenix, leading some to believe it was simply a colourful bird from the region of Phoenicia. The brightest star of the constellation is Ankaa.
Orion the hunter is possibly the most well–known constellation outside of the twelve along the zodiac, and the most easily identified constellation in the night sky. With an absolutely massive history among almost every culture that studied the stars and found meaning in them, the first recognition of Orion was a mammoth ivory carving found within a cave in Germany – dating back to the prehistoric age, roughly 35,000 years ago. With far too many mythological stories to look through, it’s best to focus on the Greek origin.
Orion was born from the gorgon Euryale and the god Poseidon, had a giant form and was renowned as a great hunter wielding a bronze club. It is said he walked on top of the sea to the island of Chios, where he got drunk and assaulted the princess Merope. Her father, as retribution, blinded Orion and cast him out. Orion came upon Hephaestus the smith-god in Lemnos, whose servant guided Orion to Helios, who healed his sight. With his sight regained, he hunted alongside Artemis and her mother Leto, and then proclaimed he would hunt every beast on earth. Either an angered Gaia or Apollo then sent the giant scorpion (represented by Scorpius) to kill him. After his death, Artemis and Leto asked Zeus to raise the hunter into the stars, to which he agreed, alongside the scorpion. The brightest star is Rigel.
Finally, we come to Ophiuchus the serpent-bearer. Sometimes considered as the 13th zodiac, Ophiuchus is sometimes connected with Orion – giving the hunter an antidote after his fateful encounter with the giant scorpion. One Greek depiction states that it represents Apollo battling the snake that protects the Oracle of Delphi. Another tale, one that I much prefer, names the serpent-bearer as Asclepius, the god of medicine and son of Apollo. Being born from the mortal woman Coronis, Apollo raised their son to have great knowledge of medicine, being taught also by the centaur Chiron. At some point, after a gesture of kindness, a snake taught Asclepius knowledge of healing, unbeknownst to other mortals.
After much practice, Asclepius became a greater healer than either his father or his teacher, wielding a rod entwined with sacred snakes – still a symbol of medicine used to this day. His ability became so proficient he himself could avoid death and resurrect those that had died. When he had stopped too many from dying, Zeus took it into his own hands to execute him to maintain the balance of the mortal population. An angered Apollo killed the Cyclops who crafted Zeus’ thunderbolts and was then banished from Olympus for a year. Zeus honoured the great healer by making him the constellation Ophiuchus, but at Apollo’s request, revived him as a god rather than a mortal. The brightest star is Rasalhague.
If you enjoyed the second part of these, let me know in the comments and I may just make a third part!