The Ancient Greek Constellations

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The Ancient Greeks, like many other civilisations, looked up at the night sky and saw patterns in the stars. They identified 48 'constellations'. Because we inherited much of the learning of the Greeks, we still use almost all of these constellations today.

The Greek philosopher1 Hipparchos, in the 2nd century BC, decided to catalogue the stars, dividing them up into constellations, and making a note of the brightness of each star. His original catalogue is lost, but we have two other records of the stars from ancient times which appear to be based on it.

The oldest map of the constellations that has yet been found is the Farnese Atlas, a statue of the mythological giant, Atlas, who was forced to hold the heavens on his shoulders. This is now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. On this particular statue, the heavens were represented by a globe, which is carved with pictures of the constellations – the individual stars are not marked on the globe. Unfortunately, scholars can't agree on the exact date of the statue - some say it is based on Hipparchos's star catalogue, others deny this.

More useful is the star catalogue by Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy, published in about 150 AD in his book The Almagest. This lists about 1,000 stars, giving their exact positions and brightnesses. This appears to be based on Hipparchos's work, but has been expanded to include some stars that are visible from Ptolemy's location of Alexandria which would not be visible by Hipparchos.

Ptolemy describes the 48 constellations, but many of the fainter stars are not included in any constellation. They lie outside the constellations. Although the catalogue does not include any pictures, it describes each star carefully in terms of its position in the constellation: the lower forearm, behind the head etc.

Ptolemy only described stars that were visible from Alexandria at the time. This included about 93% of the night sky, but there was about 7% which was not visible2 due to being too far south.

All of Ptolemy's constellations except one are still used today, although some have different names. The one exception is the constellation Argo, which was considered too big by modern astronomers, so it was split into three (or possibly four) new constellations.

Here's the list. They're presented in the order Ptolemy listed them in his catalogue, starting at the north ecliptic pole and working down to the south ecliptic pole. All the Greek names are in genitive form, as they each had the word 'asterismos' (constellation) after them, for example 'Taurou asterismos', the constellation of the bull. Unfortunately I don't speak ancient Greek so I can't deduce the nominative form from this.

[Note: the transliteration of the ancient Greek into Roman letters is pretty self-evident. ê is eta and ô is omega.]

  Ptolemy's NameMeaningOur NameDescription/Comments
1 Arktou mikrasSmall BearUrsa MinorShown with a long tail.
2 Arktou megalêsBig BearUrsa MajorShown with a long tail
3 DrakontosDragonDraco 
4 KêpheôsCepheus, a person's nameCepheusCepheus wears a tiara - the conical hat with a rounded top of a Persian king.
5 BoôtouHerdsmanBoötesThe herdsman carried a club.
6 Stephanou boreiouNorthern CrownCorona Borealis
7 Tou en gonasinFigure on its KneesHerculesThe figure was not specifically identified as Hercules.
8 LyrasLyreLyraThe lyre is made from a turtle shell.
9 OrnithosBirdCygnusPtolemy doesn't specify that this is a swan, just a bird, but it is a bird with a very long neck.
10 KassiepeiasCassiopeia, a person's nameCassiopeia
11 PerseôsPerseus, a person's namePerseusPerseus holds the head of the Gorgon in his hand.
12 HêniochouCharioteerAurigaThe charioteer carries a female goat and two kids.
13 OphiouchouSnake CarrierOphiuchus
14 Ophêos OphiouchouSnake of the Snake CarrierSerpens
15 OistouArrowSagitta
16 AetouEagleAquila
17 DelphinosDolphinDelphinus
18 Hippou protomêsFront of a HorseEquuleus
19 HippouHorsePegasusAlthough this constellation is called 'Horse', it is decribed as having wings, so it clearly is Pegasus, the mythical winged horse.
20 AndromedasAndromeda, a person's nameAndromeda
21 TrigônouTriangleTriangulum
23*TaurouBullTaurusThe constellation is only the front half of a bull.
28*ChêlônClaws (of the Scorpion)LibraAlthough Ptolemy lists this as 'The Claws (of Scorpius)', he uses the term Zygos (meaning Libra) in some parts of the catalogue.
30*ToxotouArcherSagittariusThe archer is shown as a centaur.
31*AigokerôGoat Sea AnimalCapricornusThis creature has horns, front legs and a fish's tail.
32*HydrochoouWater CarrierAquarius
33*IchthyônFishesPiscesThe fishes are shown caught on two fishing lines which are tied together with a knot.
34 KêtousLarge Sea Animal, WhaleCetus
35 ÔriônosOrion, a person's nameOrion
36 PotamouRiverEridanusThe river is un-named.
37 LagôouHareLepus
38 KynosDogCanis MajorThe name 'Dog' applies both to the constellation and to the brightest star.
39 ProkynosPre-DogCanis MinorThis constellation had only two stars in it. It was called 'pre-dog' because it rose before the 'Dog'. The main star in the constellation had the same name as the constellation, Prokyon, and still bears this name. The description of the two stars talks about a neck and a back, so it is perhaps intended to represent another dog, as in the modern constellation.
40 ArgousArgoVela, Carina and PuppisThe Argo was the ship of Jason which sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. From Greece, this constellation would never have risen high above the horizon, so it might have looked like a ship hovering over the sea. On the other hand, only the back half of a ship is depicted.
41 HydrouWater SnakeHydraThe ancient water snake was male rather than female. Nowadays we have another male water snake, Hydrus, in a part of the sky not visible from Greece.
42 KratêrosBowl for mixing wine with waterCrater
43 KorakosCrowCorvus
44 KentaurosCentaurCentaurusThe centaur was shown carrying a thyrsis, a stick with olive leaves on it which was a symbol of Dionysus. He also had a cloak with epaulets which are shown streaming back in the wind.
45 ThêriouBeastLupusLupus is not identified as a wolf, just as a beast.
46 ThymiatêriouIncense BurnerAraThe modern Ara is an altar. The ancient one was just the incense burner from the altar.
47 Stephanou notiouSouthern CrownCorona Australis
48 Ichthyos notiouSouthern fishPiscis Austrinus

* Constellation of the Zodiac

Pinkish entries are ones where the Greek constellation is not the exact equivalent of the modern one.

Some stars were shared between two different constellations. The star we now call Beta Tauri, for example, was considered to be part of both Auriga and Taurus and was listed in the catalogue twice. There are quite a few such shared stars. The most notable other one was the star we call Alpha Andromedae, which was considered to be a part of both Andromeda and Pegasus.

Named Stars

Ptolemy's Almagest is mainly concerned with calculating the positions of the sun, moon and stars. He shows little interest in the fixed stars. Some feel that his star catalogue was not even based on his own observations but was just reproduced from some other astronomer, probably Hipparchos.

Very few stars are given names in the catalogue. In fact, only 11 individual stars are named. This doesn't even include all the first magnitude stars, of which there are 21, all of them visible from Alexandria. In the following table, I've classified the names into ones which are the same as the modern name, one where our modern name is a translation into Latin of Ptoemy's Greek name, and ones where the modern name is different. Note that for some of the "same" names, the spelling is slightly different.

Ptolemy's NameMeaningOur NameTypeDescription/Comments
ArktourosBear watcherArcturusSameGuards the sky against the Great Bear
AntarêsAgainst AresAntaresSameThe red colour of this star rivals the planet Ares (Mars)
ProkyônPre-dogProcyonSameAlthough further east than 'the Dog', it normally rises slightly earlier due to being further north.
AixNanny-goatCapellaTranslationCapella is the literal translation into Latin of Aix
BasiliskosLittle KingRegulusTranslation
ProtrygêtêrBringer of vintageVindemiatrixTranslation
StachysEar of cornSpicaTranslation
LyraThe LyreVegaDifferentOur name comes from Arabic and means 'The Swooping (Eagle)'
AetosEagleAltairDifferentThis was just called the Eagle. The Arabs later introduced a second eagle, so this became known as 'Al Tair', the 'Flying One'.
KyônDogSiriusDifferentThe star was sometimes called 'Kyôn Seirios', the scorching dog. Our name Sirius comes from this.
1Literally, 'lover of knowledge'. Greek philosophers had interests ranging over the whole of science as well as what we would today call philosophy.2If you find the figure of 7% incredibly small, you're welcome to do your own calculations. I've checked mine twice.

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