Patterns in the Sky

Feb 18, 2021

People have always looked to the sky and found patterns. These patterns aided navigation, timekeeping, and storytelling.

The constellations referenced today stem from the mythologies and discoveries of Greek and Roman culture. An Ancient Greek text written by Ptolemy almost 2,000 years ago lists a group of about 48 formations. Later, between the 16th and 18th centuries, further constellations were added with the advent of telescopes. Today, there are approximately 88 recognized constellations in the night sky.

Although constellations have largely outgrown their uses as navigation and time tools, they continue to serve as a link to the original people who looked to the sky and attempted to understand their universe.

In this exhibit, you will see the constellations as they were identified in the Western World and learn how the same stars were interpreted across the globe. We make an effort to include star stories from many different peoples but are aware that our list is not exhaustive. The Museum encourages its visitors to seek out the multitude of interpretations of the vastness of space and all its contents.

 

Sun and Moon

 

 Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde

Most Tribes in the Grand Ronde Community have an ikanum, or ancient story, about the Sun and Moon. In addition to bringing many resources to earth, the Sun and Moon play key roles in the visibility of all constellations.

The Clackamas Chinook tell a story about a person who travels to the Sky World and marries the daughter of the Sun. She comes to earth and her two children become stars that can only be seen at certain times. An ikanum from the Tualatin Kalapuya tells of a boy who goes to see Moon and Sun seeking water, which he brings back to earth.

Many Tribes see a human face in the Moon and tell stories of how the face appeared. The Tualatin Kalapuya ikanum talks of a misbehaving boy who was left outside, and the Moon scooped him up. Now the child can be seen, holding his bow, all the time, and is known as the boy who stands on the Moon.

The Clackamas and Shasta refer to multiple suns and moons. For the Shasta, each month brings a new and different moon.

Visit the Confederate Tribes of the Grand Ronde Home Page to learn more.

 

Orion, the Hunter

 

Greek

The constellation Orion represents a hunter and includes a body that wields a sword or club. The Greeks tell a myth that Orion fell in love with the Pleiades, but when he pursued them, Zeus placed the sisters in the sky for protection. Orion can still be seen chasing the sisters across the night sky.

Ancient Egyptian

Ancient Egyptians associated the Orion constellation with Osiris, god of death, afterlife, and rebirth. The appearance of Osiris was connected to the rise and fall of the Nile River. Detail of Temple of Dendur wall depicting Augustus (right) burning incense and pouring milk for the god Osiris (center) and the goddess Isis (left).

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Aztec

The Aztecs coordinated the appearance of Orion’s Belt, which they called Fire Drill, with the New Fire Ceremony. This ritual allowed fires throughout the empire to be relit without angering the god of fire, Huehueteotl.

Tswana

Many other ancient cultures depicted animals in the stars of Orion’s Belt. The Tswana people of modern-day South Africa and Botswana called the constellation dintsa le Dikolobe, which means “The Three Dogs are Chasing the Three Pigs.” Three stars in the sword represent the dogs, while the stars of Orion’s Belt represent the Pigs.

 

Taurus, The Pleiades, and The Seven Sisters

 

 

As it is the easiest star cluster to find in the night sky, cultures across the globe noticed the Pleiades and related their own myths and stories. Its influence continues today as the inspiration for the logo of Subaru, the Japanese automobile manufacturer.

The Taurus constellation and Pleiades star cluster appear as early as 15,000 B.C., in cave paintings found in Lascaux Cave, France. In Greek mythology, the stars represent the Seven Sisters and their parents, Pleione and the Titan Atlas.

 

Australian Aboriginal

Aboriginals in Australia have a variety of names for the Seven Sisters, an element that folds into the myth. The group of stars are Napaljarri sisters, and they are chased across land and sky by Jukurra-Jukurra, or the Morning Star. As they travel through the sky to escape their lustful pursuer, they switch languages and become known as the Kungkarangkalpa. The sisters use their powers to move from the sky to humanoid form where they are known as Minyipuru. They also shape-shift into rocks, trees, and flowers, and are ultimately successful in outwitting their antagonist.

Seven Sisters Dreaming Star Dreaming
David Wroth, Japingka Gallery, 2015

 

Namaquas

The Namaquas people in Namibia tell a story of the daughters of the sky god. Their husband went hunting and shot his arrow at three zebras. When his shot fell short, the husband dared not return home because he had killed no game, and he dared not retrieve his arrow because of a fierce lion which sat watching the zebras. He still sits in the sky, shivering and suffering from thirst and hunger.

 

 

Ursa Major, Great Bear

Ursa major is one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky. It contains one of the most popular asterisms (a group of stars, typically having a popular name but smaller than a constellation), the Big Dipper. While Ursa Major contains the Big Dipper, Ursa Minor contains the Little Dipper. This asterism is famous for marking the location of the north celestial pole by the star at the end of the Dipper’s handle.

Greek

The Greek myth is a story of love and jealousy. Zeus fell in love with a nymph named Callisto. Angered by his wandering eye, Zeus’s wife Hera, turned Callisto into a bear. To protect her from further harm, Zeus carried Callisto and their son, Arcas, into the heavens.

Wasco

In a Wasco story, stars in the handle and bowl in the Big Dipper represent wolves and bears. One night the wolves went to the sky with Coyote in search of meat. Coyote and the Wolves encountered Grizzlies and they just stared at each other. Coyote looked at the two groups and, liking what he saw, made them into a picture that the people on earth would see.

 

Ursa Minor, Great Bear

 

 

While Ursa Major contains the Big Dipper, Ursa Minor contains the Little Dipper. This asterism is famous for marking the location of the north celestial pole by the star at the end of the Dipper’s handle.

 

Star Stories: The Star That Does Not Move

 

 

Auriga, The Charioteer

 

 

Greek

In Greek Mythology, Auriga is associated with various stories. Some say the constellation represents Hephaestus, the god born with physical disabilities, who built the chariot so he could travel wherever or whenever he wanted without difficulty.

Hawaiian

In the Hawaiian wayfinding tradition, the same stars form the constellation Hoku-lei, or Star-Wreath. The top point of Hoku-lei is the star that points north, or ‘akau.

 

Gemini, the Twins

Greek

For the Greeks, these stars represented the brothers Castor and Pollux. When Castor perished in a fight for love, Pollux asked Zeus to share his immortality with his dead brother. Zeus placed them in the sky, where they remain inseparable as the constellation we know as Gemini.

Hindu

In the Hindu tradition, the constellation represents a pair of a different sort. Rather than thought of as brothers, Soma and Vishnu represent a story similar to Adam and Eve and suggest other important pairs such as sun and moon, day and night, heaven and earth.

 

Family Drama

 

Greek

The Greek mythology surrounding Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Perseus puts any soap opera to shame.

Queen Cassiopeia angered the sea nymphs when she boasted that she was more beautiful. The sea nymphs complained to Poseidon who sent Cetus, a sea monster, to ravage her husband Cepheus’s kingdom. To end their suffering, Cassiopeia and Cepheus sacrificed their daughter Andromeda to Cetus. Andromeda was rescued by Perseus and the two were married.

But that wasn’t the end of it!

Amidst a duel between Andromeda’s other suitors, Perseus mistakenly killed Cassiopeia and Cepheus when he removed Medusa’s head.

The goddess Athena commemorated Andromeda by placing her image among the stars, next to the constellations representing her husband Perseus and mother Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia was condemned to circle the celestial pole forever and spends half the year upside down in the sky as punishment for her vanity. Zeus placed Cepheus in the sky after his tragic death because he was descended from one of Zeus’ loves, the nymph Io.

 

 

Draco, the Dragon

 

 

Chinese

In Chinese astronomy, constellations are much smaller and more numerous than in Western traditions. There are four mythological creatures that guard the world called Four Symbols, or Si Xiang.

The Four Symbols are the Azure Dragon, White Tiger, Black Tortoise, and Vermillion Bird. As the dragon is considered the noblest of animals, the Azure Dragon is the head of the four symbols. It is also the symbol of the emperor.

In Chinese mythology, the dragon is a fearsome and mighty creature. Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese dragons are believed to be just, benevolent, and bringers of wealth and fortune.

 The Dunhuang Star Chart is the earliest known manuscript of the night sky. Produced in central China around 700 AD, it shows more than 1,300 stars.

Photo: British Library

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