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What Is Constellation Mythology?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Constellation mythology typically refers to stories created or told about the arrangements of stars in the sky as visible from Earth’s surface. Many of these stories are based on other mythological tales, often with the heroes or other characters eventually being represented in the sky by some mythical force, such as a deity. This means that the story behind a constellation is often related to an existing myth. Constellation mythology can also refer to stories that come about in the opposite order, beginning with shapes recognized in the stars and then evolving into a story.

Much like other types of mythology, constellation mythology often involves deities and heroes who are larger than life and perform remarkable deeds. The constellation Orion, for example, is named after a great hunter from various Greek myths. This name is based on the shape of the arrangement of stars as seen from Earth that make up the constellation, which resembles a fairly human figure holding a bow or the body of a hunted animal. There are a number of myths around the character Orion, including one tale that states that the goddess Artemis was tricked into killing Orion; after realizing what she had done, she placed his body in the sky in honor of his death.

The Orion Nebula.
The Orion Nebula.

There are many different types of constellation mythology that can arise in various cultures, often based on the shapes of the constellations seen in the sky. Many of the constellation names that remain in the Western world are based on Greek myths and legends. Other cultures, however, have other types of constellation mythology for various constellations.

The constellation known as Ursa major, for example, has been seen as many different shapes, but both the Greeks and Navajo saw it as a bear. In Navajo mythology, there is the story of a woman who took a bear as her husband. After her siblings told her father about this, he killed the bear and the woman took revenge upon her brothers who became the stars in the sky that form the shape of the bear.

Constellation mythology can also form as constellations are seen in the sky and tales are told to support why these shapes might exist in the stars. Though certain established constellations are often well known, anyone can look up at the night sky and see various shapes and create stories that explain these shapes. As time passes, it may be difficult to determine if ancient cultures used this approach in creating constellation mythology, or if the myths were made to fit into what was seen in the sky.

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    • The Orion Nebula.
      The Orion Nebula.