Constellations: what the night sky tells us about our history

The modern sky charts show a total of 88 constellations that one can see in the night sky (in both hemispheres). A closer look at the names of different constellations reveals an interesting fact: the constellations at the northern and the southern hemispheres follow different patterns when it comes to their names. How is that?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the names are related mostly to the Mediterranean: we see hunting scenes (like Orion the hunter; Canis Major the hunting dog and Lepus the hare), and mythical heroes and beasts (like Perseus; Hercules and Centaurus the centaur). This comes as no surprise since most of these constellations were named by the Ancient Greeks (Ptolemy, Almagest) who projected their own stories and lifestyle on the night stars.

In the Southern Hemisphere (largely unknown to Greeks), the story is different. The constellations’ names are related to navigation, scientific instruments, and exotic animals and birds, because they were named mostly in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries either by travelers and explorers or by European scientists and academics. The names simply reflect the spirit of that time and the related vision of the world, combining a celebration of science and a sense of amazement by the discovery of new and exotic worlds.

For examples, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille gave names to 14 constellations in the 18th century, mostly naming them after scientific and/or navigation instruments: Telescopium (The Telescope); Microscopium (The Microscope); Horologium (The Pendulum Clock); Circinus (The Compass); Octans (The Octant); Fornax (The Chemical Furnace); Norma (The Level); etc.

Earlier in the 17th century, Johann Bayer introduced some 12 constellations -created by Dutch explorers Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman- named after exotic animals and birds: Tucana (The Toucan); Chamaeleon (The Chameleon); Apus (The Bird of Paradise); Volans (The Flying Fish); Grus (The Crane); Pavo (The Peacock); etc.

The Greek mythology is not totally absent from the southern hemisphere, but when present, it has to do with seafaring, since navigation was a main theme. So, we have the Argo Navis (Ship of the Argonauts) which is divided -by Lacaille- into the following constellations: Carina (The Keel); Puppis (The Poop, or stern) and Vela (The Sails).

Interesting how we projected our own superstitions and myths unto the northern hemisphere stars and our progress and curiosity unto the southern hemisphere stars…and interesting how this does not correspond to our present-day perception of North vs. South! In both cases, we associated the distant stars with our intimate human life, and rightly so, because -as Carl Sagan once put it- we are star-stuff harvesting starlight.

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