Civilizations come and go, some lasting only decades while others exist for several millennia. What rarely changes, at least on the human time scale, are the stars above us. Yet cultures of our past have interpreted different forms of the stars they saw at night—representing everything from creation myths to legendary figures and godlike animals, depending on the viewer.
Some of these cultural references date back thousands of years, possibly even older. They represent early examples of humanity’s preoccupation with symbolism in the world around us, and how many different cultures have interpreted similar things in the sky.
“Cultures around the world organize the stars into constellations or asterisms, and these groupings are often considered arbitrary and culture-specific,” write the authors of a recent paper published in Psychological science. “Yet there are striking similarities in asterisms across cultures, and groups such as Orion, Ursa Major, Pleiades and the Southern Cross are widely recognized in many different cultures.”
Unfortunately, many constellations that some ancient cultures recognized are still not well understood by modern scientists – although we have identified some of their names and their corresponding hieroglyphs or the role of these stars in calendar systems. Below are some examples of ancient constellations that we do well know also what they meant to the cultures that connected their astral points.
It is sometimes called the oldest named constellation, Taurus can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere during winter and early spring. The red giant star Aldebasran makes up one of the eyes of the bull.
Many ancient cultures interpreted this collection of stars as a bull. Some researchers even believe that cave paintings in France dating back 17,000 years may have constellation shown. IN Greek myth, the constellation recalls how Europa, the daughter of a Phoenician king, mounted the back of an imposing bull, which turned out to be Zeus. Zeus then flew to Crete with Europa on his back. Other older cultures in the Middle East also worshiped bulls – in places like ancient Babylon and Egypt. Among the ancient Sumerians, the constellation could be associated with Epic of Gilgameshwhere the titular character fights a bull that comes from the sky called the celestial bull.
(Credit: Savvapanf Photo/Shutterstock)
2. The Great Bear
One of the most widely recognized constellations in the night sky carries a number of different interpretations depending on the culture and time period you’re talking about. The Big Dipper is almost always above the horizon at night while you are north 35th parallel. Perhaps for this reason the constellation was used by sailors and other travelers to determine which way was north at night – the front lip of the bear points in a straight line to the Pole Star or North Star. The last star also forms the end of the handle of the Ursa Minor.
In ancient Greece and the Middle East, the stars that make up the Big Dipper were actually just part of a larger constellation known as Ursa Major or Ursa Major. The The Big Dipper was mentioned in The Old Testament and in Homer Iliad. But these stars are also interpreted similarly by several indigenous cultures in North America.
The idea of the Big Dipper may be somewhat more modern, at least in the way it is spoken of in North America, although the origins of this interpretation are uncertain. The constellation may have had a similar meaning in ancient China, where it was at least significant 2000 years agowhen it appears in threads.
(Credit: M Andy/Shutterstock)
Several ancient cultures knew this constellation of stars as the “Seven Sisters,” “The Seven Virgins,” or similar names. But while usually only six stars are visible to many people, the group actually has up to 12 visible with the naked eye in a very dark area. In ancient Greece, the name Pleiades refers to the seven daughters of Atlas, the Titan god. In Indian myths the seven stars represent important sages.
Regardless of interpretation, the constellation has also had a practical use in a number of cultures due to the fact that it rises at dawn in the spring in the Northern Hemisphere. This marks the beginning of sea travel and agriculture for some cultures. In some indigenous cultures of South America, the same word used for this star cluster means “year,” indicating the passage of the constellation in the sky, marked time.
(Credit: Masahiro Suzuki/Shutterstock)
Many European legends claim that the constellation Orion is a hunter with a bow. The red eye of Taurus actually faces Orion—legends in some cultures claim that the two fight. The name Orion comes from Greek legend. The ancient Egyptians believed that the three stars of Orion’s belt were where the soul of the god Osiris lived while the Arabs saw the whole constellation as a giant. Some theories even claim that the Egyptian pyramids at Giza are aligned with the placement of the stars in Orion’s belt, although most scientists are skeptical for this idea. In Spanish-speaking cultures, the three stars that make up the belt are often called the Three Marys, a biblical allusion.
5. The Milky Way
Although not exactly a constellation in our modern understanding, the section of ours barred spiral galaxy we see at night has been interpreted like other shapes in the sky for millennia by many different cultures.
One common theme is that The Milky Way is a heavenly river — in East Asia was a heavenly river, while the Greeks and Romans believed that the river flowed with milk from their goddesses. For the Inuit, the river was snowy rather than water, to the ancient Egyptians it was made of wheat. Among the Navajo, the Milky Way was coyote mischief at a time when the stars were first placed in the heavens in creation myths.