Our night sky is filled with stars, many of which connect together to form a constellation, and with each constellation comes the story of the life they lived before being placed in the sky.
These stories might be myth but are spectacular nonetheless. Through this blog I’ll help tell the amazing stories behind our night sky’s constellations and how you can spot them for yourself.
Our first constellation is Gemini ‘The Twins’. The constellation Gemini tells the tale of the twins Pollux and Castor, the sons of Leda, Queen of Sparta. In Greek mythology Castor was a mortal man like his father but Pollux, on the other hand, was the son of Zeus making him immortal. These two twins were best friends but one day it sadly came to an end. Zeus agreed to make Castor immortal after his death, so that he and Pollux would never be apart. Zeus then placed them in the sky to be together, forever.
To spot Gemini, look for Castor and Pollux which are the two brightest stars of Gemini. You can see them in the southeast at 8:30pm. It will be to the left of the constellation Orion.
Our next constellation is Canis Major ‘The Greater Dog’. Canis Major is said to be the guard dog of Orion the hunter. However some ancient Greek myths say that this dog is Laelaps, the fastest dog in the world, which always caught what it hunted. It’s believed that King Celphalus sent it after the Teumissian Fox, a mythical animal that can never be caught. This chase went on for years eventually ending with Zeus freezing them both and placing Laelaps in the sky as Canis Major.
Canis Major can be seen in the south near the horizon below the constellation Orion. It is best to look for this constellation any time past 9:30pm.
Another visible constellation is Taurus ‘The Bull’ also believed to be connected to Zeus – who disguised himself as a bull to win the affections of the Princess Europa. After Europa hopped onto the bull’s back, it swam across the Mediterranean Sea, all the way to the island of Crete. The Taurus constellation contains two asterisms, which are smaller constellations. The first is The Pleiades, a group of seven stars that are said to be sisters, which can be seen above Taurus. The second is The Hyades which are the five stars that make the V shape in the Taurus constellation. It is said that the Hyades are the half sisters of the Pleiades. It’s said that they passed from grief when their brother, Hyas, was killed, which is why they were placed in the sky.
The Taurus constellation can be seen in the southwest. The best way to find Taurus is to follow the angle on Orion’s belt and best seen any time past 8:30pm.
Leo ‘The Lion’ is one of the biggest constellations in the night sky. In Greek mythology this is the lion of Nemea, a giant beast that could not be killed by any weapon. Hercules was sent after the lion as his first task, but while fighting this enormous beast he found everything he used just bounced off its skin. Eventually Hercules managed to win this battle and created a cloak out of the lions skin to protect him during the other dangerous tasks he had been given.
The Leo constellation can be seen directly east but it is best to look for it from 9.00pm onwards. The best way to find this constellation is to look for the hook of stars that makes the lions head.
The next constellation is Aries ‘The Ram’. Aries is believed to be connected to the Greek myth of the golden ram, the story of a ram with a golden coat of wool who saves the young Prince Phrixus. His step mother wanted to be rid of Phrixus and his twin so she made people believe he should be sacrificed. However, before this could happen the golden ram rescued him and carried him to safety. Phrixus was so grateful for being saved that he sacrificed the ram to Zeus and hid the rams golden fleece to be treasured. Jason and the Argonauts found this fleece later on.
Aries can be seen in the southwest of our night sky and is to the right of the Taurus constellation. It is best seen at 8:30pm.
One of the most famous star constellations is Orion ‘The Hunter’, as it contains some of the brightest stars in the night sky, but not everyone knows the story behind it. Orion is believed to be the son of Euryale, daughter of the King of Crete, and Poseidon. Being a brilliant hunter, Orion boasted to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, that he could kill every animal on Earth. This rightly made Gaia, the earth goddess, incredibly angry. So much so that she sent a giant scorpion ‘Scorpius’ to fight him. The scorpion succeeded in its task, and both Orion and the scorpion were placed on opposite sides of the sky, so that when the constellation Scorpius rises in the sky, Orion flees from the scorpion in the west.
Orion can be seen in the south of the night sky and is easy to spot because of Orion’s belt. Orion is seen at any time of the night while being surrounded by the constellations Taurus, Gemini and Canis Major.
Ursa Major ‘The Great Bear’ is one of the most famous constellations as it contains the familiar asterism known as The Plough or The Big Dipper. In Greek mythology, Ursa Major is believed to be Callisto, the huntress who had a son with Zeus named Arcas. When Hera, Zeus’ wife, found out about this she became enraged and turned Callisto into a bear. Callisto spent her life walking through the forest, hiding from hunters until Zeus safely placed her in the night sky.
Ursa Major is always seen in the north as it sits near the north celestial pole. Currently it sits to the right of the star constellations Draco and Ursa Minor.
A lesser known constellation is Draco ‘The Dragon’ even with it being located by Ursa Major, a famous constellation. The story of Draco starts with Hera, wife of Zeus. Hera received a beautiful apple tree as a wedding gift when she married Zeus. The tree was so special to her that she had it guarded by a dangerous, snake like dragon named Ladon. It was special because the golden apples, when eaten, granted immortality. One day Hercules came to the tree as one of 12 tasks he’d been given. Hercules completed the task of stealing one of the apples by defeating the dragon with a poison arrow. Hera then placed the imagine of her dragon in the sky as the constellation Draco.
Draco’s tail goes in between the star constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major which are easier to find. The best way to find Draco is to look for the four stars making up the dragons head. This constellation can be seen at anytime of the night.
Ursa Minor ‘The Little Bear’ isn’t a very bright constellation but is still very important nonetheless with many cultures throughout history using it for navigation. This is because of the north star which is part of Ursa Minor. The north star or Polaris is the closest star to the northern celestial pole, which is why it can be used as a natural compass. If you can find The Little Bear then you know which way is north. The story of Ursa Minor is that the bear is Callisto’s son, Arcas, who became a hunter when he grew up. One day while out hunting Arcas found a bear, which turned out to be his mother. He was about to fire his arrow when Zeus suddenly turned him into a bear to save his mother and kept them both safe by placing them in the night sky.
The star constellations Draco and Ursa Major surrounds Ursa Minor which are all directly north. You can look for them at any time of the night. This constellation will be faint meaning it is best to look for it on a vey clear night.
Our night sky is ever-changing and there are many constellations we cannot currently see in the UK, but with time they will show, each with their own unique story. I hope you find time to enjoy the beauty of the night sky and the fun in stargazing. We have a stellar line up of many free events and activities for you to get involved in as part of our 2021 Dark Skies Festival.
Sam Cage is the Creative Content Assistant (Apprentice) for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, working in the Communications team.