Have you ever looked up at the starry night sky and thought of it as being a giant picture book? There are millions of stars scattered across the sky, and some of them seem to be in groups. People in ancient times imagined that these groups formed pictures, rather like dot-to-dot puzzles. Today we call these imaginary star groups constellations, and we still repeat the stories the ancients told about them. Here are some interesting stories and facts about a few of the constellations that can be seen in the northern hemisphere.
These are probably the best known constellations because the seven brightest stars in each group form the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. People around the world have called these two star groups by many different names. In England, the Big Dipper was the “Plough.” Welsh and Irish people called it the “Chariot of King Arthur.” The Pawnee thought it looked like a sick man lying on a travois; the last star on the dipper’s handle was a medicine man following the travois.
The Iroquois, the Finns, and the ancient Greeks all thought that the two sparkling groups looked like a big bear and a little bear slowly prowling around the northern heavens.
As the earth rotates, most constellations seem to rise in the east and set in the west. Because they are above the earth’s northern pole, however, the two bears circle endlessly without ever setting. Polaris, the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper is also known as the North Star because it is almost directly above the pole and doesn’t appear to move at all. These constellations can be seen year round in the northern sky.
According to Greek mythology, Cassiopeia was the queen of Ethiopia. You can see her all year long on her throne in the northern sky. Circling with the bears, she sits upright part of the year and spends the rest of the time on her head. You will recognize her as a lopsided W or M.
A Greek myth tells about a great hunter named Orion, who often travelled with Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of hunting. Her twin brother, Apollo, became very jealous. He tricked Artemis into shooting Orion with an arrow. Grief stricken, she carried Orion into the sky, where he would shine forever.
Orion is one of the brightest constellations in the sky. You can spot him easily by the row of three bright stars that are his belt. He can be seen in the southern sky November through April.
Taurus roams the southern skies from October through April, always staying just beyond Orion’s reach. High on his back is a star group known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, although most people can see only six of the several hundred stars in the group. The Pleiades look like a miniature dipper and are so far away that their light needs 350 years to reach the earth.
Some constellations can be seen only from the northern half of the world, and some only from the southern half. People, animals, and monsters from ancient myths “live” forever in the night sky, hiding among the stars. Get a good book from the library and read up on the constellations. Then go outside on a clear night and see how many of them you can find.