C is for Constellations

Ever since humans started looking up at the sky it has been a common practice to clump various stars together in connect-the-dots stick-figure patterns. The grouping of stars into constellations is arbitrary, and the stars that get grouped together are usually not even physically related to one another. From our vantage point they look close together but are in actuality, vast distances apart.

Archaeologists have identified what might be drawings of the night sky in caves that may be as old some 17,000 years old! But the ancient Greeks were the first to describe about half of the constellation that became part of the official 88 we recognize today as early as 350 BC. Later, between the 16th and 17th century European astronomers added new ones after beginning to explore the southern hemisphere.

By Bestla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Bestla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Different cultures have had different constellations, although a few of the more obvious ones tend to recur frequently, e.g., Orion and Scorpius. We made up stories and gave names to the patterns we saw and those names and stories became the constellations we recognize now.

List of the current 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union, and their meanings:

Andromeda, The Chained Lady Circinus, compass Lacerta, lizard Piscis Austrinus, southern fish
Antlia, air pump Columba, dove Leo, lion Puppis, poop deck
Apus, Bird of Paradise Coma BerenicesBerenice‘s hair Leo Minor, lesser lion Pyxis, mariner’s compass
Aquarius, water-bearer Corona Australis, southern crown Lepus, hare Reticulum, eyepiece graticule
Aquila, eagle Corona Borealis, nothern crown Libra, balance Sagitta, arrow
Ara, alter Corvus, crown Lupus, wolf Sagittarius, archer
Aries, ram Crater, cup Lynx, lynx Scorpius, scorpion
Auriga, charioteer Crux, southern cross Lyra, harp Sculptor, sculptor
Boötes, herdsman Cygnus, swan or northern cross MensaTable Mountain (South Africa) Scutum, shield
Caelum, chisle Delphinus, dolphin Microscopium, microscope Serpens, snake
Camelopardalis, giraffe Dorado, goldfish Monoceros, unicorn Sextans, sextant
Cancer, crab Draco, dragon Musca, fly Taurus, bull
Canes Venatici, hunting dogs Equuleus, pony Norma, carpenter’s level Telescopium, telescope
Canis Major, greater dog Eridanus, river Eridanus Octans, octant Triangulum, triangle
Canis Minor, lesser dog Fornax, chemical furnace Ophiuchus, serpent-bearer Triangulum Australe, southern triangle
Capricornus, sea goat Gemini, twins Orion, the mythical character Tucana, toucan
Carina, keel Grus, crane Pavo, peacock Ursa Major, great bear
Cassiopeia, the mythical character Hercules, the mythical character Pegasus, the mythical winged horse Ursa Minor, lesser bear
Centaurus, centaur Horologium, pendulum clock Perseus, the mythical character Vela, sails
Cepheus, the mythical character Hydra, mythical creature Phoenix, pheonix Virgo, virgin or maiden
Cetus, sea monster or whale Hydrus, lesser water snake Pictor, easel Volans, flying fish
Chamaeleon, chameleon Indus, Indian (American indigenous) Pisces, fishes Vulpecula, fox

Originally the constellations were defined informally by the shapes made by their stars connect-the-dots pattern, but astronomers decided it would be helpful to have an official set of constellation boundaries. This way new stars, or any other objects, could be named according to which constellations boundaries they reside in.

As you may have noticed there are some patterns we all know that are not included in the list, such as the Big Dipper. Those patterns are known as asterisms. Historically, without an “official” list, there was really no difference between a constellation and an asterism. Anyone could arrange and name a grouping which might or might not be generally accepted.

By Rursus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rursus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Most constellations, when connected together, do not look much like what they are supposed to represent. For that reason may have been given nicknames when the lines are drawn differently. One example of this is the stars of Cassiopeia, which form a W, is often used as a nickname.

Other types of asterisms include names given to a portion of a constellation, one well known example being Orion’s Belt. Or are made up of stars from one constellation, but do not refer to the main figure, like the bow and arrow of the Archer that form a teapot. There is even a bit of nebulosity near the “spout” to serve as steam! There are even asterisms that form from more than one constellation.

By Sadalsuud (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Every morning when I leave for work I make sure to take a moment to look up at the at the dark sky and trying to make out the constellations. Living in the city makes it hard because of the light pollution but of the ones I can see my favorite is Orion. It was the first constellation I learned to recognize. The hunter is most visible here in the northern hemisphere in the winter months and can be found hanging out over the roof of my house in the mornings.


If you’d like to learn how to identify the constellations visible from where you are there a few phone apps. There’s Google Sky Map for Android, which I use, and love, and I’m sure there is something similar on iPhone. All I have to do is turn on my GPS and point my phone up at the sky and it shows me the positions of the various celestial objects. I especially like using it to point down at the ground to see what the night sky on the other side of the world looks like :)

Image: This false-color mosaic of the central region of the Coma cluster combines infrared and visible-light images to reveal thousands of faint objects (green). Follow-up observations showed that many of these objects, which appear here as faint green smudges, are dwarf galaxies belonging to the cluster. Two large elliptical galaxies, NGC 4889 and NGC 4874, dominate the cluster’s center. The mosaic combines visible-light data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (color coded blue) with long- and short-wavelength infrared views (red and green, respectively) from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


12 Replies to “C is for Constellations”

  1. Fascinating stuff. I do enjoy to gaze up at the sky and see if I can spot a constellation, though I’m not very good at it. I need more practice! I enjoy Greek mythology and the myth that Zeus turned Amalthea into the constellation Capricorn :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great info on the constellations. I was not familiar with the term asterism. Thanks for sharing! I can usually spot the most common ones in the Northern Hemisphere. My Southern Hemisphere ones are shaky :-) My first one was the Big Dipper, which I have always thought of as a constellation until now :-).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It has been a fun mini-game in Dragon Age Inquisition to connect-the-dots and make constellations from their world. You get the stars, then the artistic rendering, then the mythology of it… very well thought out :)

    It would be fun to re-do the constellations today, but that’s not likely, so to video games I guess we must turn!


  4. I love, love, love this theme. I can pick out a lot of constellations — been a stargazer my whole life, and I have a really amateur telescope that’s just powerful enough to see the rings of Saturn and the spot on Jupiter. My favorite is the Pleiades.

    Happy A to Z!


  5. Stopping by on my A to Z wanderings.

    Didn’t know a lot of this and am rubbish at spotting any of the constellations, live back in the city now but spent a great year living in a house with no light pollution for miles and miles, clear nights were often spent gazing upwards (even if I couldn’t name any of them!)

    Curling Stones for Lego People


  6. There is an app on iPhone; it’s called Star Walk, and it will show you where all of the constellations/planets/satellites are regardless of where you point your device. It’s awesome. I love it.

    Orion is also my favorite constellation. :)

    Alex Hurst, A Fantasy Author in Kyoto
    A-Z Blogging in April Participant


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