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CONSTELLATION (from the Lat. constellatus, studded with stars; con, with, and stella, a star), in astronomy, the name given to certain groupings of stars. The partition of the stellar expanse into areas characterized by specified stars can be traced back to a very remote antiquity. It is believed that the ultimate origin of the constellation figures and names is to be found in the corresponding systems in vogue among the primitive civilizations of the Euphrates valley—the Sumerians, Accadians and Babylonians; that these were carried westward into ancient Greece by the Phoenicians, and to the lands of Asia Minor by the Hittites, and that Hellenic culture in its turn introduced them into Arabia, Persia and India. From the earliest times the star-groups known as constellations, the smaller groups (parts of constellations) known as asterisms, and also individual stars, have received names connoting some meteorological phenomena, or symbolizing religious or mythological beliefs. At one time it was held that the constellation names and myths were of Greek origin; this view has now been disproved, and an examination of the Hellenic myths associated with the stars and star-groups in the light of the records revealed by the decipherment of Euphratean cuneiforms leads to the conclusion that in many, if not all, cases the Greek myth has a Euphratean parallel, and so renders it probable that the Greek constellation system and the cognate legends are primarily of Semitic or even pre-Semitic origin.

The origin and development of the grouping of the stars into constellations is more a matter of archaeological than of astronomical interest. It demands a careful study of the myths and religious thought of primitive peoples; and the tracing of the names from one language to another belongs to comparative philology.

The Sumerians and Accadians, the non-Semitic inhabitants of the Euphrates valley prior to the Babylonians, described the stars collectively as a “heavenly flock”; the sun was the “old sheep”; the seven planets were the “old-sheep stars”; the whole of the stars had certain “shepherds,” and Sibzianna (which, according to Sayce and Bosanquet, is the modern Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern sky) was the “star of the shepherds of the heavenly herds.” The Accadians bequeathed their system to the Babylonians, and cuneiform tablets and cylinders, boundary stones, and Euphratean art generally, point to the existence of a well-defined system of star names in their early history. From a detailed study of such records, in their nature of rather speculative value, R. Brown, junr. (Primitive Constellations, 1899) has compiled a Euphratean planisphere, which he regards as the mother of all others. The tablets examined range in date from 3000-500 B.C., and hence the system must be anterior to the earlier date. Of great importance is the Creation Legend, a cuneiform compiled from older records during the reign of Assur-bani-pal, c. 650 B.C., in which there occurs a passage interpretable as pointing to the acceptance of 36 constellations: 12 northern, 12 zodiacal and 12 southern. These constellations were arranged in three 12 concentric annuli, the northern ones in an inner annulus subdivided into 60 degrees, the zodiacal ones into a medial annulus of 120 degrees, and the southern ones into an outer annulus of 240 degrees. Brown has suggested a correlation of the Euphratean names with those of the Greeks and moderns. His results may be exhibited in the following form:—the central line gives the modern equivalents of the names in the Euphratean zodiac; the upper line the modern equivalents of the northern paranatellons; and the lower line those of the southern paranatellons. The zodiacal constellations have an interest peculiarly their own; placed in or about the plane of the ecliptic, their rising and setting with the sun was observed with relation to weather changes and the more general subject of chronology, the twelve subdivisions of the year being correlated with the twelve divisions of the ecliptic (see Zodiac).


Northern Cassiopeia Auriga Cepheus Ursa minor Ursa major Boötes Serpentarius Hercules Lyra Aquila Pegasus Andromeda
Zodiacal Aries Taurus Gemini Cancer Leo Virgo Libra Scorpio Sagittarius Capricornus Aquarius Pisces
Southern Eridanus Orion Canis major Argo Hydra Crater Corvus Centaurus Lupus Ara ? Piscis australis Cetus


The Phoenicians—a race dominated by the spirit of commercial enterprise—appear to have studied the stars more especially with respect to their service to navigators; according to Homer “the stars were sent by Zeus as portents for mariners.” But all their truly astronomical writings are lost, and only by a somewhat speculative piecing together of scattered evidences can an estimate of their knowledge be formed. The inter-relations of the Phoenicians with the early Hellenes were frequent and far-reaching, and in the Greek presentation of the legends concerning constellations a distinct Phoenician, and in turn Euphratean, element appears. One of the earliest examples of Greek literature extant, the Theogonia of Hesiod (c. 800 B.C.), appears to be a curious blending of Hellenic and Phoenician thought. Although not an astronomical work, several constellation subjects are introduced. In the same author’s Works and Days, a treatise which is a sort of shepherd’s calendar, there are distinct references to the Pleiades, Hyades, Orion, Sirius and Arcturus. It cannot be argued, however, that these were the only stars and constellations named in his time; the omission proves nothing. The same is true of the Homeric epics wherein the Pleiades, Hyades, Ursa major, Orion and Boötes are mentioned, and also of the stars and constellations mentioned in Job. Further support is given to the view that, in the main, the constellations were transmitted to the Greeks by the Phoenicians from Euphratean sources in the fact that Thales, the earliest Greek astronomer of any note, was of Phoenician descent. According to Callimachus he taught the Greeks to steer by Ursa minor instead of Ursa major; and other astronomical observations are assigned to him. But his writings are lost, as is also the case with those of Phocus the Samian, and the history of astronomy by Eudemus, the pupil of Aristotle; hence the paucity of our knowledge of Thales’s astronomical learning.

From the 6th century B.C. onwards, legends concerning the constellation subjects were frequently treated by the historians and poets. Aglaosthenes or Agaosthenes, an early writer, knew Ursa minor as Κυνόσουρα, Cynosura, and recorded the translation of Aquila; Epimenides the Cretan (c. 600 B.C.) recorded the translation of Capricornus and the star Capella; Pherecydes of Athens (c. 500-450 B.C.) recorded the legend of Orion, and stated the astronomical fact that when Orion sets Scorpio rises; Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) and Hellanicus of Mytilene (c. 496-411 B.C.) narrate the legend of the seven Pleiades—the daughters of Atlas; and the latter states that the Hyades are named either from their orientation, which resembles υ (upsilon), “or because at their rising or setting Zeus rains”; and Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 470 B.C.) treated the legend of the Hydra.

In the 5th century B.C. the Athenian astronomer Euctemon, according to Geminus of Rhodes, compiled a weather calendar in which Aquarius, Aquila, Canis major, Corona, Cygnus, Delphinus, Lyra, Orion, Pegasus, Sagitta and the asterisms Hyades and Pleiades are mentioned, always, however, in relation to weather changes. The earliest Greek work which purported to treat the constellations qua constellations, of which we have certain knowledge, is the Φαινόμενα of Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 403-350 B.C.). The original is lost, but a versification by Aratus (c. 270 B.C.), a poet at the court of Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia, and an Έξήγησις or commentary by Hipparchus, are extant. In the Φαινόμενα of Aratus 44 constellations are enumerated, viz. 19 northern:—Ursa major, Ursa minor, Boötes, Draco, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, Triangulum, Pegasus, Delphinus, Auriga, Hercules, Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila, Sagitta, Corona and Serpentarius; 13 central or zodiacal:—Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and the Pleiades; and 12 southern:—Orion, Canis, Lepus, Argo, Cetus, Eridanus, Piscis australis, Ara, Centaurus, Hydra, Crater and Corvus. In this enumeration Serpens is included in Serpentarius and Lupus in Centaurus; these two constellations were separated by Hipparchus and, later, by Ptolemy. On the other hand, Aratus kept the Pleiades distinct from Taurus, but Hipparchus reduced these stars to an asterism. Aratus was no astronomer, while Hipparchus was; and from the fact that the latter adopted, with but trifling exceptions, the constellation system portrayed by Aratus, it may be concluded that the system was already familiar in Greek thought. And three hundred years after Hipparchus, the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy adopted a very similar scheme in his uranometria, which appears in the seventh and eighth books of his Almagest, the catalogue being styled the Εκθεσις κανονική or “accepted version.”

The Almagest has a dual interest: first, being the work of one primarily a commentator, it presents a crystallized epitome of all earlier knowledge; and secondly, it has served as a basis of subsequent star-catalogues.1 The Ptolemaic catalogue embraces only those stars which were visible at Rhodes in the time of Hipparchus (c. 150 B.C.), the results being corrected for precession “by increasing the longitudes by 2° 40’, and leaving the latitudes undisturbed” (Francis Baily, Mem. R.A.S., 1843). The names and orientation of the constellations therein adopted are, with but few exceptions, identical with those used at the present day; and as it cannot be doubted that Ptolemy made only very few modifications in the system of Hipparchus, the names were adopted at least three centuries before the Almagest was compiled. The names in which Ptolemy differs from modern usage are:—Hercules (ἐν γόνασιν), Cygnus (Όρνις), Eridanus (Πόταμος), Lupus (Θηρίον), Pegasus (Ίππος), Equuleus (Ίππου προτομή), Canis minor (Προκύων), and Libra (Χηλαί), although ξυγός is used for the same constellation in other parts of the Almagest). The following table gives the names of the constellations as they occur in (1) modern catalogues; (2) Ptolemy (A.D. 150); (3) Ulugh Beg (1437); (4) Tycho Brahe (1628); the last column gives the English equivalent of the modern name.

The reverence and authority which was accorded the famous compilation of the Alexandrian astronomer is well evidenced by the catalogue of the Tatar Ulugh Beg, the Arabian names there adopted being equivalent to the Ptolemaic names in nearly every case; this is also shown in the Latin translations given below. Tycho Brahe, when compiling his catalogue of stars, was unable to observe Lupus, Ara, Corona australis and Piscis australis, on account of the latitude of Uranienburg; and hence these constellations are omitted from his catalogue. He diverged from Ptolemy when he placed the asterisms Coma Berenices and Antinous upon the level of formal constellations, Ptolemy having 13 regarded these asterisms as unformed stars (ἀμόρφωτοι). The next innovator of moment was Johann Bayer, a German astronomer, who published a Uranometria in 1603, in which twelve constellations, all in the southern hemisphere, were added to Ptolemy’s forty-eight, viz. Apis (or Musca) (Bee), Avis Indica (Bird of Paradise), Chameleon, Dorado (Sword-fish), Grus (Crane), Hydrus (Water-snake), Indus (Indian), Pavo (Peacock), Phoenix, Piscis volans (Flying fish), Toucan, Triangulum australe. According to W. Lynn (Observatory, 1886, p. 255), Bayer adapted this part of his catalogue from the observations of the Dutch navigator Petrus Theodori (or Pieter Dirchsz Keyser), who died in 1596 off Java. The Coelum stellatum Christianum of Julius Schiller (1627) is noteworthy for the attempt made to replace the names connoting mythological and pagan ideas by the names of apostles, saints, popes, bishops, and other dignitaries of the church, &c. Aries became St Peter; Taurus, St Andrew; Andromeda, the Holy Sepulchre; Lyra, the Manger; Canis major, David; and so on. This innovation (with which the introduction of the twelve apostles into the solar zodiac by the Venerable Bede may be compared) was shortlived. According to Charles Hutton [Math. Dict. i. 328 (1795)] the editions published in 1654 and 1661 had reverted to the Greek names; on the other hand, Camille Flammarion (Popular Astronomy, p. 375) quotes an illuminated folio of 1661, which represents “the sky delivered from pagans and peopled with Christians.” A similar confusion was attempted by E. Weigelius, who sought to introduce a Coelum heraldicum, in which the constellations were figured as the arms or insignia of European dynasties, and by symbols of commerce.

Plate I.

Stelae Ursi minoris Ursa minor, Cynosura Little Bear
Ursa major ῎Αρκτου μεγάλης " " Ursi majoris Ursa major, Helice Great Bear
Draco Δράκοντος " " Draconis Draco Dragon
Cepheus Κηφέως " " Cephei Cepheus Cepheus
Boötes Βοώτου " " Vociferatoris Boötes, Arctophylax Ploughman
Corona borealis Στεφάνου βορείου " " Coronae or Phecca Corona borea Northern Crown
Hercules Τοῦ ἐν γόνασιν " " Incumbentis genubus Engonasi, Hercules Man kneeling
Lyra Λύρας " " τοῦ Shelyāk or Testudo Lyra, Vultur cadens Lyre
Cygnus ῎Ορνιθος " " Gallinae Olor, Cygnus Bird, Swan
Cassiopeia Κασσιεπείας " " Inthronatae Cassiopeia Cassiopeia
Perseus Περσέως " " Bershaush or Portans
Caput Larvae
Perseus Perseus
Auriga Ήνιόχου " " Tenentis habenas Auriga, Heniochus, Erichthonius Charioteer
Serpentarius Όφιούχου " " Serpentarii Ophiuchus, Serpentarius Serpent-holder
Serpens ῎ρεωςό φιούχου " " Serpentis Serpens ophiuchi Serpent
Sagitta Όιστοῦ " " Sagittae Sagitta or Telum Arrow
Aquila Άετοῦ " " Aquilae Aquila or Vultur volans Eagle
Delphinus Δελφῖνος " " Delphini Delphinus Dolphin
Equuleus ῎Ιππου προτομῆς " " Sectionis Equuleus, Equi sectio Colt
Pegasus ῎Ιππου " " Equi majoris Pegasus, Equus alatus Pegasus, Horse
Andromeda Άνδρομέδας " " Mulieris catenatae Andromeda Andromeda
Triangulum Τριγώνου " " Trianguli Triangulus, Deltoton Triangle
ations (12).
Aries Κριοῦ " " Arietis Aries Ram
Taurus Ταύρου " " Tauri Taurus Bull
Gemini Διδύμων " " Gemellorum Gemini Twins
Cancer Καρκίνου " " Cancri Cancer Crab
Leo Λέοντος " " Leonis Leo Lion
Virgo Παρθένου " " Virginis, Sumbela Virgo Virgin
Libra Χηλῶν " " Librae Libra Balance
Scorpio Σκορπίου " " Scorpionis Scorpius Scorpion
Sagittarius Τοξότου " " Sagittarii, Arcum Sagittarius Archer
Capricornus Αἰγόκερωτος " " Capricorni Capricornus Goat
Aquarius Ύδροχόου " " Effusoris aquae, Situla Aquarius Water-pourer
Pisces Ίχθύων " " Piscis Pisces Fishes
ations (15).
Cetus Κήτους " " Ceti Cete Sea-monster, Whale
Orion Ώρίονος " " Gigantis Orion Orion
Eridanus Ποταμοῦ " " Fluminis Eridanus fluvius River
Lepus Λαγῳοῦ " " Leporis Lepus Hare
Canis major Κυνὸς " " Canis majoris Canis major Great Dog
Canis minor Προκυνὸς " " Canis minoris Canis minor, Procyon Little Dog
Argo Άργοῦς " " Navis Argo navis Ship
Hydra ῎Υδρου " " Hydri Hydra Sea-serpent
Crater Κρατῆρος " " Craterae Crater Bowl
Corvus Κόρακος " " Corvi Corvus Crow
Centaurus Κενταύρου " " Centauri Centaurus, Chiron Centaur
Lupus Θηρίου " " Ferae   Wild beast
Ara Θυμιατηρίου " " Thuribuli   Censer, Altar
Corona australis Στεφάνου νοτίου " " Coronae australis   Southern Crown
Piscis australis Ίχθύος νοτίου " " Piscis australis   Southern Fish


In Edmund Halley’s southern catalogue (Catalogus stellarum australium), published in 1679 and incorporated in Flamsteed’s Historia coelestis (1725), the following constellations are named:—Piscis australis, Columba Noachi, Argo navis, Robur Caroli, Ara, Corona australis, Grus, Phoenix, Pavo, Apus or Avis Indica, Musca apis, Chameleon, Triangulum australe, Piscis volans, Dorado or Xiphias, Toucan or Anser Americanus, and Hydrus. Flamsteed’s maps also contained Mons Menelai. This list contains nothing new except Robur Caroli, since Columba Noachi (Noah’s dove) had been raised to the skies by Bartschius in 1624. The constellation Robur Caroli and also the star Cor Caroli (α Canum Venaticorum) were named by Halley in honour of Charles II. of England.

In 1690 two posthumous works of Johann Hevelius (1611-1687), the Firmamentum sobiescianum and Prodromus astronomiae, added several new constellations to the list, viz. Canes venatici (the Greyhounds), Lacerta (the Lizard), Leo minor (Little Lion), Lynx, Sextans Uraniae, Scutum or Clypeus Sobieskii (the shield of Sobieski), Vulpecula et Anser (Fox and Goose), Cerberus, Camelopardus (Giraffe), and Monoceros (Unicorn); the last two were originally due to Jacobus Bartschius. In 1679 Augustine Royer introduced the most interesting of the constellations of the southern hemisphere, the Crux australis or Southern Cross. He also suggested Nubes major, Nubes minor, and Lilium, and re-named Canes venatici the river 14 Jordan, and Vulpecula et Anser the river Tigris, but these innovations met with no approval. The Magellanic clouds, a collection of nebulae, stars and star-clusters in the neighbourhood of the south pole, were so named by Hevelius in honour of the navigator Ferdinand Magellan.

Many other star-groupings have been proposed from time to time; in some cases a separate name has been given to a part of an authoritatively accepted constellation, e.g. Ensis Orionis, the sword of Orion, or an ancient constellation may be subdivided, e.g. Argo (ship) into Argo, Malus (mast), Vela (sails), Puppis (stern), Carina (keel); and whereas some of the rearrangements, which have been mostly confined to the southern hemisphere, have been accepted, many, reflecting nothing but idiosyncrasies of the proposers, have deservedly dropped into oblivion. Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who made extended observations of the southern stars in 1751 and in the following years, and whose results were embodied in his posthumous Coelum australe stelliferum (1763), introduced the following new constellations:—Apparatus sculptoris (Sculptor’s workshop), Fornax chemica (Chemical furnace), Horologium (Clock), Reticulus rhomboidalis (Rhomboidal net), Caela sculptoris (Sculptor’s chisels), Equuleus pictoris (Painter’s easel), Pyxis nautica (Mariner’s compass), Antlia pneumatica (Air pump), Octans (Octant), Circinus (Compasses), Norma alias Quadra Euclidis (Square), Telescopium (Telescope), Microscopium (Microscope) and Mons Mensae (Table Mountain). Pierre Charles Lemonnier in 1776 introduced Tarandus (Reindeer), and Solitarius; J. J. L. de Lalande introduced Le Messier (after the astronomer Charles Messier) (1776), Quadrans muralis (Mural quadrant) (1795), Globus aerostaticus (Air balloon) (1798), and Felis (the Cat) (1799). Martin Poczobut introduced in 1777 Taurus Poniatovskii; Bode introduced the Honores Frederici (Honours of Frederick) (1786), Telescopium Herschelii (Telescope of Herschel) (1787), Machina electrica (Electrical machine) (1790), Officina typographica (Printing press) (1799), and Lochium funis (Log line); and M. Hell formed the Psalterium Georgianum (George’s lute).

The following list gives the names of the constellations now usually employed: they are divided into three groups:—north of the zodiac, in the zodiac, south of the zodiac. Those marked with an asterisk have separate articles.

Northern (28).
*Aquila*Coma BerenicesLacerta*Perseus
*Auriga*Corona borealis*Leo minor*Sagitta
*Canes venaticiDraco{ Ophiuchus*Ursa major
*CassiopeiaEquuleus{*Serpentarius*Ursa minor
   *Vulpecula et Anser
Zodiacal (12).
Southern (49).
Antlia (pneumatica)Corona australisLepusPictor (Equuleus pictoris)
ApusCorvus LupusPiscis australis
*AraCraterMons MensaeRecticulum
Caela sculptoris(Caelum)DoradoMicroscopiumSculptor (Apparatus sculptoris)
*Canis major*EridanusMonocerosScutum Sobieskii
Canis minorFornax chemicaMusca australisSextans
*Cetus*Hydra*OrionTriangulum australe
CircinusIndusPhoenixVolans (Piscis volans)
Columba Noachi   
(C. E.*)

1 The historical development of star-catalogues in general, regarded as statistics of the co-ordinates, &c., of stars, is given in the historical section of the article Astronomy. See also E. B. Knobel, “Chronology of Star Catalogues,” Mem. R.A.S. (1877).

Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected. They appear in the text like this, and the explanation will appear when the mouse pointer is moved over the marked passage. Sections in Greek will yield a transliteration when the pointer is moved over them, and words using diacritic characters in the Latin Extended Additional block, which may not display in some fonts or browsers, will display an unaccented version.

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