Read | Who named the constellations?
by Paul Cornish
Header image credit: Masha Manapov, Paul Cornish, Evans & Sutherland's Digistar
Night sky image: Lee Pullen
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Families and adults
The sky is filled with dot-to-dot pictures in the stars. They’re called constellations and all you need to find them is a clear night and a good imagination.
We shared two constellations officially named Perseus and Andromeda, with some 'We the Curious' visitors. We then asked them to join the dots and create their very own constellations.
We received lots of fantastic creations, some of which are scattered throughout this article. But if constellations can be so many things to so many people, who came up with their “official” names?
Why is Perseus called Perseus and not "Moosus Major"?
Who named the official constellations?
In 1922 the International Astronomical Union drew up a list of 88 constellations. These are the constellations that are officially recognised by astronomers in the Western world today. Star patterns that don’t appear on this list are referred to as asterisms.
Sky Credit: Evans & Sutherland’s Digistar
Art Credit: Masha Manapov
48 of these “official” constellations were based on Ancient Greek star patterns recorded by an astronomer called Ptolemy in the 2nd Century. They’re all named after figures from Ancient Greek mythology. For example, Perseus was named after a legendary hero and Andromeda after his bride, a beautiful princess.
But Ptolemy by no means has the last word when it comes to naming constellations.
The Welsh story of Perseus and Andromeda
Since prehistoric times, lots of different people and civilisations have seen constellations. There are myths and legends from all over the world woven into the stars.
In Wales, Perseus has been linked with a legendary hero known as Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Andromeda is the beautiful Blodeuwedd. She was created by the wizard Gwydion from the flowers of the field as a bride for Lleu.
Unfortunately, nobody asked Blodeuwedd if she wanted to marry Lleu. She tried to kill her new husband, causing him to transform into an eagle.
Gwydion returned Lleu to the form of a man and punished Blodeuwedd by turning her into an owl. She would never set foot on the ground during daylight ever again.
Sky Credit: Evans & Sutherland’s Digistar
Art Credit: Masha Manapov & Paul Cornish
The Ojibwe story of Pegasus
The sky may be full of stories, but constellations aren’t always named after myths and legends.
For many cultures, the constellations represent life lessons about the world around them. These lessons have been handed down from generation to generation and are still taught today.
For example, the Ojibwe in North America use their constellations to illustrate the relationship between the land and the sky.
The Ojibwe see Pegasus – a constellation that shares a star with Andromeda - as the Great Moose. Lacerta the Lizard forms the antlers. The Great Moose gains power as it rises throughout the summer and loses power as it descends in the winter.
This reflects what happens with actual, real-life moose. When Pegasus is at its highest point in the sky during the Autumn, moose are at their most powerful and aggressive. This is the best time to hunt them. Then throughout the winter they get weaker and skinnier, and their antlers fall off. This is not a good time to hunt them.
At Hegman Lake in Minnesota there are Native American pictographs on the rocks that are thought to be between 500 and 1000 years old. One of them depicts a moose. Carl Gawboy, an Ojibwe elder has argued that this is a painting of the Great Moose constellation.
Photo Credit: Etphonehome, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sky Credit: Stellarium
Gawboy points out that the moose is a square-ish shape and has two blank spots on its chest that correspond with two stars that lie within the square of Pegasus in that exact spot.
That pictograph could be a centuries-old illustration of stories that are still taught by the Ojibwe today.
Patterns in infinity
The 88 “official” constellation names are important. They’re a useful, common reference point for astronomers in the Western world, and a link to Ancient Greek culture.
But the Ancient Greeks aren’t the only people to have named the constellations.
There’s so much more to find in the sky and so much to learn about the culture and beliefs of stargazers all around the world.
And there’s nothing stopping us from naming our own constellations. With a clear night and a good imagination, anyone can gaze up and find patterns in infinity.
Just like our visitors who recreated Perseus and Andromeda for us, you can find your own patterns, and tell your own stories.
Why not give it a try tonight?
If you’d like to discover the best place to start looking for constellations check out our article, Stargazing - Where Do I Start?
If you’d like to learn more about the history of constellations and their relationship with astrology, check out our article, Where can I find my star sign? — a great question to ask an astronomer.
Carl Gawboy’s discussion of the story of the Great Moose and the Hegman Lake pictographs can be found at NativeSkywatchers.com