10 Greek Myths Behind the Constellations
Sometimes, astronomy and mythology go hand in hand. In fact, if you ever study even a little astronomy, you’ll notice many things are often given Greek (or Roman) names, whether it be a planet, a moon, a galaxy, or of course, a constellation.
The ancients believed many interesting things about the stars; Greek myth is riddled with stories of the gods granting immortality among the stars in the form of constellations (or, you know, punishing them for all eternity.) Chances are you how to find the big dipper, or Orion’s belt, or maybe even your zodiac, but do you know the legends behind the stars?
There are more than the handful I’ll name here, but here are ten constellations with stories from Greek mythology.
1 & 2. The Big and Little Dippers
More officially known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor*, which mean “great bear” and “lesser bear,” the story behind these constellations is, as with the Greek myth norm, at least somewhat of a tragedy. It would probably surprise no one to learn that a mortal is subjected to tragic events because of the whims and wiles of the gods.
In this case the mortal was a beautiful young maiden named Callisto, daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia and favored huntress to the goddess Artemis. As often happens with beautiful young women in Greek mythology, someone is either jealous enough to try to ruin her life, or she catches the eye of Zeus—in this case the latter, and unfortunately, once Zeus notices you, you’re toast.
He disguised himself as Artemis in order to approach Callisto, and even more unfortunately for her, Zeus doesn’t like to take no for an answer; since the huntresses of Artemis make a vow of chastity, Callisto didn’t tell Artemis what Zeus did. The encounter left her with child, and eventually it became apparent; when Callisto’s pregnancy was discovered by Artemis, she was angry—and not at Zeus, but at Callisto.
Artemis kicked Callisto out of her hunter group, which left the poor girl without the goddess’s protection. She was left to wander on her own, and the story varies in its telling from here. Callisto gave birth to a son, Arcas, and Callisto was turned into a she-bear, but there’s no consensus on whether it was by Artemis (as punishment for breaking her vow), by Zeus (to try to hide his misdeed), or by Hera (because she always punished Zeus’s lovers, whether they were willing or not.)
Most seem to prefer Hera though, and in his Metamorphoses, Ovid depicts her rather violent revenge. After this, Zeus sent Hermes to take Arcas to be raised elsewhere; this part of the story has a couple versions as well, but we’ll just go the most common version here.
Callisto wandered the woods as a bear for many years while Arcas grew up and eventually took Lycaon’s place as king of Arcadia. He was a skilled hunter, like his mother, and wound up in Callisto’s woods (likely through Hera’s vengeful guidance), eventually coming across her. Callisto recognized her son, and so she walked toward him, but he only saw a bear and an easy kill; Zeus saw all of this and stayed Arcas’ arrow before he could kill his mother, placing them both in the sky as constellations so mother and son could be together.
Hera was angered by this, so she asked Poseidon to make sure the bears never descended into the sea like other stars, which is why the Great Bear and her son never dip below the horizon.
*For those wondering why the dippers don’t look like bears, it’s because they don’t. The dippers are actually only the rear half of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, not the full constellation.
Orion was a skilled and famous hunter in Greek myth, known for his gigantic stature and good looks. There are several varying stories about him, especially his death, so again I’ll go with what’s most common.
In many versions of Orion’s tale, he was a favorite of the goddess Artemis, and hunted with her on the island of Crete. There are three popular versions of his death, all revolving around Artemis—and in two of them she is actually the one to kill him.
In one version, Orion was actually a douchebag and tried to rape Artemis; she conjured a scorpion from the earth to sting him, and he died. In a different version, it was actually Gaea who conjured the scorpion to kill him because Orion became over-enthusiastic about hunting and decided he wanted to kill every animal on earth, which she considered disrespectful.
And finally, there’s a version in which Orion falls in love with Artemis. She loved him too, though she was a maiden by choice, so they were never lovers; regardless, her brother Apollo didn’t approve of this relationship, so he came up with a trick.
One day, Orion decided to go for a swim in a lake. At the same time, as the twins were both archers, Apollo challenged his sister’s archery skills, and pointed out a target in the distance; unknown to Artemis, the target was Orion’s head, which could barely be seen above the water. Unsurprisingly, she hit her target.
Whatever the case, he was placed in the sky as a constellation, along with the scorpion that killed him (the Scorpio constellation.) Who placed him there may depend on who killed him; for instance, in some versions, Zeus placed him there at the request of Artemis. In the Gaea version, she placed both Orion and the scorpion in the sky, as reminders to be respectful of the earth and its creatures, and to beware boastfulness. Oh, and also so the scorpion could chase Orion forever. (Ironically there’s also a story about Orion chasing the Pleiades forever.)
Today, Orion (or just his belt) is one of the most easily recognizable constellations, after the big and little dippers. And interestingly, in astronomy, Orion and Scorpio are never in the sky at the same time, as they are on opposite horizons; legend may say this is because they are enemies.
The Gemini (latin for “twins”) constellation comes from the story of Castor and Pollux (sometimes known as Polydeuces), the Dioscouri, which means “sons of Zeus.” This is misleading though, since despite being identical twins, Zeus was only the father of Pollux.
How does that work, you ask? Well, basically Zeus was up to his old tricks. He seduced Leda, wife to King Tyndareus, disguised as a swan. (Don’t ask me how that works.) The same day, Leda slept with her husband. As with many birth myths (especially if it involves a god), the story of the twins’ birth is a unique one.
Leda gave birth to four eggs. (Because of Swan Zeus I guess.) In two of the eggs were Pollux and Helen, the children of Zeus, who were immortal. (Yes, fun fact, this is the Helen that becomes Helen of Troy.) In the other two eggs are Castor and Clytemnestra, children of Tyndareus, who were mortal.
So, technically Castor and Pollux were half-brothers, but they were also identical twins. The two were inseparable, going on many adventures together—including joining the quest to retrieve the golden fleece. Castor was known to be great horseman and swordsman, while Pollux was known for his boxing skills.
During their stint as Argonauts, they were so essential to the quest that they even became known as the patron saints of sailors. It’s told Poseidon gave them the power to rescue shipwrecked sailors, even if he had shipwrecked them himself.
Unfortunately their adventures would come to an end while sailing with the Argo. They got into a fight with another set of twins over a couple women, and Castor was killed. Unable to bear being separated from his brother, Pollux asked his father if he could share his immortality with Castor; Zeus complied, placing them both among the stars together.
Perseus was a demigod hero, a son of Zeus, and I feel like he often gets confused with Heracles (Hercules.) A lot of ancient heroes also seem to have a “total jerk” side to them, but I think Perseus was a genuinely good dude.
His mother was Danaë, who Zeus impregnated by falling into her lap as a golden rain. Her father, King Acrisius, had been told by an oracle he would be killed by his grandson, so he shipped mother and son out to sea locked in a chest. Through Zeus’s guidance, the chest landed on the island of Seriphos, and they were found by a kind fisherman named Dictys, who became Perseus’ adoptive father.
Dictys’ brother, King Polydectes, wanted to marry Danaë himself, but he needed Perseus out of the way, so he sent him to bring him back the head of the mortal gorgon, Medusa. He thought he would be sending Perseus to his death, but Perseus was gifted a bronze shield by Athena, a helmet to make him invisible by Hades, a diamond sword by Hephaestus, and winged sandals by Hermes to help him on his quest. It’s said he used the helmet to sneak up on the sisters (the three gorgons) while they slept, the reflection in the shield to see Medusa without looking directly at her, and the sword to cut off her head. At the end of all his adventures, Medusa’s head was gifted to Athena, who put it on her shield, Aegis.
Perseus had a few adventures on the way back to Seriphos (including rescuing the princess Andromeda, but we’ll get there) and once there, he used Medusa’s head to turn cruel King Polydectes to stone, naming Dictys king of Seriphos. Perseus and his mother went to Greece with Andromeda (whom he married), where in true fairytale fashion, they lived happily ever after.
Oh, and Perseus did inadvertently kill Acrisius; he accidentally hit him with a discus during an athletic contest where Acrisius was a spectator.
I assume Perseus was given a place in the sky upon his death in order honor him. The constellation of Perseus appears to be holding his sword in one hand, and the head of Medusa in the other.
It all begins with Cassiopeia. She was a queen, wife to Cepheus of Ethiopia, and a very beautiful woman. They had a daughter, Andromeda, who was also very beautiful. (Remember what I said about beautiful women in Greek mythology?) But we’ll get to Andromeda in a second.
Cassiopeia was very vain, and one day, she boasted of her beauty a little too much, claiming she was more beautiful than the Nereids (sea nymphs), the 50 daughters of Nereus, a sea god (or titan).
This angered Nereus, and he asked Poseidon, whose wife, Amphitrite, was a Nereid, to punish Cassiopeia. Poseidon sent the sea monster Cetus to ravage the coast of Ethiopia; eventually Cepheus went to an oracle, who told him that to stop the monster, they must sacrifice their daughter.
I’m going to pause the story there, because what happens next is part of Andromeda’s story.
As mentioned in Perseus’ story, he marries Andromeda. At their wedding, a former suitor of Andromeda’s showed up with his own personal army and tried to fight Perseus for her; outnumbered, Perseus used his ace in the hole—the severed head of Medusa. They were all turned to stone the moment they looked at it, but unfortunately, Cepheus and Cassiopeia didn’t look away in time, and they turned to stone as well.
Poseidon placed them both in the sky, Cassiopeia still sitting on her throne; the constellation is upside down for half the year as Cassiopeia moves across the hemisphere, and legend says this is in punishment for her vanity. The Cassiopeia constellation also points to the Andromeda galaxy.
So obviously, Andromeda lived, but we paused her story at the point when her parents found out they’d have to sacrifice her to the sea monster. Why was this the answer? I don’t know, but in some versions of the story, Cassiopeia boasts that Andromeda is the one more beautiful than the Nereids. Anyway, they didn’t want to sacrifice her, of course, but having no choice they decided to…chain her to a rock.
Yep. She was bait for Cetus to find. Enter Perseus, who, luckily for Andromeda, was passing through Ethiopia not long after defeating Medusa. He saw a beautiful princess chained to a rock, and when he learned why, slayed the monster and freed her; depending on the story he either used his sword, or used Medusa’s head to turn Cetus to stone.
So they got married, and other than accidentally turning her parents to stone, they live happily ever after and had, like, six kids (many of whom are well known in Greek myth as well.) According to myth, to honor Andromeda, Athena placed her among the stars with her husband and her mother.
(Fun fact: There is actually also a Cetus constellation.)
Most people are familiar with the white winged horse. Contrary to Disney’s Hercules, Pegasus was not Heracles’ horse. If anything he was Bellepheron’s horse, but I don’t think he really belonged to anyone.
He was born from Medusa’s gorgon blood when Perseus cut her head off, springing from her neck along with his brother Chrysaor, the warrior. Technically his father is Poseidon.
Pegasus actually had quite a few adventures, and among them he is known for creating the the Hippocrene, a fountain on Mount Helicon where the muses live, by striking his hoof into the earth. Legend says the fountain grants the gift of poetry writing to those who drink from it.
He was eventually befriended by the hero Bellepheron (or given to him by Poseidon, or tamed by him using a golden bridle, depending on the version), and with Pegasus’ help, Bellepheron defeated the monster known as the Chimaera. But eventually victory went to Bellepheron’s head, and he began to think he deserved a place on Olympus with the gods, so he asked Pegasus if he would fly him up to Olympus.
Pegasus agreed (or just did as he was told), and he flew the arrogant hero toward Olympus; the gods, however, were angry at Bellepheron’s audacity. Zeus threw a lightning bolt at him, knocking him from Pegasus’ back, and he fell to his death.
Pegasus made it to Olympus though, and spent the remainder of his days in the stables there, helping Zeus carry his thunder and lighting. “Pegasus found shelter in the heavenly stalls of Olympus where the steeds of Zeus were cared for. Of them all he was foremost…” (Hamilton.)
Zeus rewarded him for is loyalty and bravery by placing him in the sky as a constellation. Fun fact: Pegasus is actually one of the largest constellations.
9. Northern Crown
The Northern Crown, or Corona Borealis, is the crown of Ariadne. I’ll keep this one short and sweet, as I’ll be talking about Ariadne in an upcoming post.
Ariadne was the princess of Crete who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur in the labyrinth. She escaped Crete with him, but was later abandoned by him on the island of Naxos, where she was rescued by the god Dionysus.
She gets a happy ending here, because Dionysus takes her back to Olympus and marries her. At their wedding, Zeus takes her wedding crown and places it in the sky in her honor.
Lyra means “lyre,” (or a harp) a stringed musical instrument often used in ancient times. In this case, the lyre in question is the lyre of Ancient Greece’s most gifted musician, Orpheus. I’ve talked before about Orpheus’ trip to the underworld, but he had many other adventures as well.
Namely, he was on the quest with the Argonauts to find the golden fleece. It’s because of his music the Argonauts could get past the Sirens, as his songs drowned out the sound of their singing. He was pretty handy, because he could charm anything and anyone with his music.
After his failed rescue attempt to get his wife back from Hades, however, Orpheus was a grieving and bitter man. Eventually, he failed to honor the god Dionysus, for which some Maenads in Thrace literally ripped him apart and threw him in a river. Ick.
But his lyre went down the river with him, and depending on the version, either Zeus sends an eagle to grab it and puts it in the sky, or it’s carried to Olympus by the muses (I prefer the latter, because Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, was Orpheus’s mother.) In this version, they also find all the pieces of his body, and bury them together at the bottom of Olympus.
And there you have it—ten constellation legends for your mythological and astronomical pleasure. As mentioned, there a lot of constellations with Greek mythology stories, so if you’re interested in further research and more information on the astronomy side of things, I recommend this constellation guide.
Classical Mythology (Ninth Edition) by Mark P.O. Morford, Robert J. Lenardon, & Michael Sham
Mythology by Edith Hamilton