Classical Greek mythology is as rich and varied as the culture that created it. In addition to the abbreviated versions of the stories in this guide, you will want to
explore the vast amount of literature available on the Greek constellations and the
many myths associated with each of them. For more details on the stories found here, consult Percy M. Proctor’s excellent book, Star Myths and Stories, from Exposition Press, Inc., Hicksville, NY.
Andromeda, the Princess
Daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. She is seen stretched out at full length and chained by her ankles and wrists to a rocky island where she is being offered as a sacrifice to Cetus, the Sea Monster.
Aquarius, the Water Bearer
Aquarius was the constellation in which the sun was located during the rainy season of the year. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to represent Aquarius as a giant holding a huge upturned urn or jar from which poured an unending stream of water. All the rivers owed their waters to this downpour and floods occurred when, from time to time, the water cascaded down from the urn faster than it could be emptied into the seas.
Aquila, the Eagle
The eagle was Jupiter’s favorite bird and was given many difficult tasks to do. The
most difficult task was when he had to fly back to Mount Olympus burdened by the weight of a young man, Ganymede, whom he had been sent to find. Ganymede
would become the new cupbearer of the Gods.
Aries, the Ram
Aries is a small constellation. It requires a vivid imagination to find the three main stars that form the ram. It is, however, one of the most famous of the zodiac constellations. Long ago, before there were calendars to keep track of the progress of the year, watchers of the sky learned to rely on the stars to track the passage of time. From 2100 BC to 100 AD, it was the stars of Aries that announced the spring equinox.
Auriga, the Charioteer
In pictures that show what Auriga is supposed to represent, no chariot is ever found, but grasped in his right hand are the reins which a chariot driver would be holding. Auriga is also shown holding a goat over his left shoulder and two little kids in his left hand. This picture tells a mixed-up story about a charioteer and a goat herder. The rising of Capella, the bright star in Auriga, was a welcome sign for shepherds for it foretold the coming of the rainy season upon which they relied for renewed growth of pasture land. On the other hand, the rising of Capella was a most unwelcome sign for sailors for it signaled the beginning of the stormy season. The kids were regarded as mad stars by sailors’ wives, who feared for the well-being of their men at sea during the stormy season.
Bootes, the Herdsman
Bootes and his two hunting dogs, Canes and Venatici, were put in the heavens to keep watch over the Big Bear and make certain that it stayed forever in its proper place, endlessly circling the North Star.
Cancer, the Crab
Legend tells us that Juno sent Cancer to annoy Hercules as he fought his desperate battle with the many-headed Hydra, the water snake. Hercules was the son of one of the many mortal women whom Jupiter married, each time arousing the jealous anger of his goddess wife Juno. Juno took a special dislike to Hercules and tried to make his life miserable. Hercules easily crushed the crab with his foot, but Juno who realized the creature had done its best in trying to serve her, rewarded it by placing it as a constellation in the sky.
Canis Major, the Big Dog
Canis Major is the largest of the hunting dogs that had been Orion’s faithful companions on Earth. He was placed at Orion’s feet in the sky so that he could continue to have his help as he chased Taurus the Bull across the heavens.
Canis Minor, the Little Dog
Canis Minor is the second and smaller of the two hunting dogs placed in the sky to
keep Orion company. This little dog is less fierce — more like a house pet.
Capricornus, the Sea Goat
Capricornus appears in the sky at the time of the winter solstice when the sun stopped dropping and began to climb higher and higher in the sky day by day. The figure of a goat, the animal most famous for his climbing ability, was chosen to represent the constellation in which the sun was found at this time. The goat of the heavens is half goat and half fish, thus a creature not only able to climb, but also at home in the rains and floods of the winter season.
Cassiopeia, the Queen
Cassiopeia was a beautiful woman who was fond of boasting about her beauty. The maidens who attended King Neptune in his underwater kingdom learned that she boasted of being more beautiful than any of them. They demanded Neptune punish
her. Neptune sent a monster sea serpent, Cetus, to terrify all who lived along the coast of the country ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. The Serpent snatched women and children whom he found on the shore. Troubled by this problem in his kingdom, King Cepheus went to an oracle to find out how he could rid his kingdom of this horrible monster. The oracle’s answer was that only if he sacrificed his daughter, Andromeda, to the serpent would the maidens feel they had been avenged for the way Cassiopeia had insulted them and ask Neptune to recall the serpent.
Cassiopeia was placed in the heavens to be punished rather than honored. She swings every half night around the North Star. She is upside down in the chair in which she is seated, hanging on for dear life in a position most humiliating for a queen of old who was so proud of her beauty.
Centaurus, the Centaur
A fabulous creature with the head, trunk, and arms of a human being, joined to the
Cepheus is a rather faint and inconspicuous constellation. This is fitting as King
Cepheus always played second fiddle to his wife, Queen Cassiopeia, who ruled the
Cetus, the Sea Monster
Cetus is the sea monster that Neptune sent to devour Andromeda and thus punish
Queen Cassiopeia. Cetus had the forked tail of a dolphin, paws of an animal, head
of a greyhound with short tusks and long, scaly neck. Cetus was said to be 40 feet in length, with ribs six feet long.
Corona Borealis, Northern Crown
As a wedding gift to his bride, Bacchus presented Ariadne with a golden crown set
with seven glittering diamonds. Not long after their marriage, Ariadne died and Bacchus, in his grief, resolved to throw away the crown which she had worn so happily because it reminded him of his lost love. Up into the sky he tossed it, and higher and higher it rose until his friends among the gods caught it and hung it high in the sky where its seven diamonds formed the Northern Crown.
Corvus, the Crow
Legend tells us that the crow once had silver white feathers and a beautiful singing
voice. One morning the god Apollo sent the crow to fetch a cup of water. Having
spied some half-ripened figs, the crow lingered at the spring waiting for them to
ripen. He had quite a feast, but soon realized he was due for a scolding from Apollo for his tardiness. The crow lied to Apollo about his whereabouts but Apollo could easily tell the crow was lying. He angrily punished him by changing the color of his feathers to black and condemning him to be known in the future for his croak instead of his song.
Crater, the Cup
This represents the cup that Corvus, the Crow was sent to fill at a spring and bring
back to Apollo.
Cygnus, the Swan
Cygnus was the best friend of Phaeton, son of Apollo. After wildly driving Apollo’s chariot across the skies, Phaeton was struck by lightning bolts and fell into the river Eridanus. In those days, it was believed that the soul of a dead person must roam the world forever as a ghost unless his body was properly buried. Cygnus dove into the river over and over again in search of Phaeton’s body. Jupiter was so moved by the love and devotion that Cygnus showed for Phaeton that he turned Cygnus into a swan so he could dive more easily. Finally after Cygnus gave up in despair of ever finding the body of Phaeton, Jupiter placed him in the heavens as a swan.
Apollo placed this constellation in the sky to honor a dolphin that saved the life of
Arion, a famous musician. Arion was returning home by boat to Corinth with a great sum of money after a successful concert tour in Italy. The ship’s crew, knowing of this money, seized Arion and was about to throw him overboard when he begged to play one last song on his harp. So beautiful was his last song that Apollo, the god of music, summoned a dolphin to rescue Arion. The dolphin carried Arion safely to Corinth where he summoned the police to set a trap for the incoming sailors. Arion had a small statue of the dolphin made and placed a shrine in a temple. Later, Apollo took it and placed it among the stars so it would be an eternal memorial to a brave and friendly fish.
Draco, the Dragon*
Draco is the dragon sent by Juno to guard the golden apples which she had given Jupiter as her wedding present to him. The dragon was a monster with poisonous, fiery breath and an enchanted hide that no arrow could pierce. Ever watchful, he coiled around the tree on which the golden apples hung and would allow no one to come close except Atlas, the giant who held the world on his shoulders.
To get the apples away from the dragon was one of the labors Hercules had to accomplish. He went to Atlas for help and Atlas agreed to get the apples if Hercules would take over the task of holding up the world in the meantime. Atlas enjoyed his freedom so much; he ran away with the apples and left Hercules supporting the Earth. Hercules was clever, however, and he asked Atlas to relieve him long enough to place a pad on his shoulder. Atlas fell for the trick and Hercules ran off with the golden apples.
To punish the dragon for its failure, Juno placed it as one of the circumpolar constellations where, in the northern heaven, it would never set and would always remain on guard.
*5000 years ago, the fourth magnitude star, Thuban, close to the end of Draco’s tail, was the Pole Star around which the entire northern heavens seemed to revolve, just as they now appear to revolve around the North Star. This change in the Pole Star has occurred because the Earth is wobbling in the same way that a slowing-down top wobbles. Hence, the Earth’s axis does not continue to point toward the same spot in the northern sky, but slowly traces out a circle among the stars there. Only after thousands of years has it become apparent that a new North Star has taken the place of the one toward which the Earth’s axis had been pointing.
Equuleus, the Colt
Equuleus was a horse that figured in a contest waged by Neptune, god of the seas, and Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom, to decide who would become patron of an ancient Greek city. Under the terms of the contest, Neptune and Athene were each to make a gift to the city, and a jury of twelve gods was to decide who had the more useful gift. Neptune struck a rock with his trident and a horse appeared. Athene caused an olive tree to sprout out of the rocky top of the hill. The jury of gods had the power to look far into the future and realize what the cultivation of that tree would mean to the future prosperity of Greece and declared Athene the winner. The city was named Athens to honor Athene.
Eridanus, the River
Eridanus, or the river of the heavens, can be traced from where it starts close to Rigel at the foot of Orion, to where it winds down and disappears below the southern horizon. It stretches more than 60º in its long course and is outlined by a host of faint stars. All over the world, this curving line of stars was considered a river, often named after the country’s main river: the Nile in Egypt, the Euphrates in Babylonia, and the Po in Italy.
The Po River figures in the most familiar old story. It was the river in which the body of Phaeton plunged after he was struck down by Jupiter’s thunderbolt, ending his foolish drive across the sky in Apollo’s chariot. Apollo was so saddened by the fate of his son that he placed the river in the sky as a constellation to be an eternal memorial to his courageous but headstrong son.
Gemini, the Twins
Castor and Pollux were twin brothers so devoted to each other that they were inseparable. Pollux was immortal like his father Jupiter, but Castor was mortal like his mother Leda. When Castor died in battle, Pollux begged Jupiter to take away his immortality so he too could die. Jupiter was so impressed by this demonstration of love that he arranged for Pollux to spend half of each day with Castor in Hades, and Castor could spend the other half with Pollux on Mount Olympus among the Gods. Eventually Jupiter honored the twins by changing them into stars and placing them in the heavens to be a memorial to brotherly love at its finest.
Hercules, the Kneeler
Hercules was the son of Jupiter and one of his mortal wives. His birth made Jupiter’s goddess wife, Juno, so jealous that she decided to make Hercules’ life miserable. While he was still a baby, she sent two huge snakes to kill him, but Hercules strangled both of them. When he had grown to manhood, Juno caused Hercules to become insane for a brief period during which he murdered his family. To atone for that dreadful deed, he was bound out as a slave and had to earn his freedom by successfully completing 12 heroic tasks, the labors of Hercules. The twelve tasks were:
• killing the Nemean lion
• battling Hydra the water snake
• capturing the wild boar of Arcadia
• capturing a deer with horns of gold and hoofs of brass
• shooting a flock of man-eating birds with beaks of brass and feathers like arrows
• cleaning out 3000 cattle stables with years of accumulated filth
• capturing the Cretan bull that snorted fire
• killing the man-eating horses of King Poinedes
• seizing the jeweled belt of the Queen of the Amazons
• capturing a herd of oxen guarded by a giant with 3 heads, 6 hands, 3 bodies
• bringing back Cerberus, the fierce 3-headed dog that guarded Pluto’s kingdom
• getting the golden apples of Hesperides
Hydra, the Water Snake
Hydra is one of the longest constellations, stretching out for 100º across a full quarter of the sky. Halfway down its long, snaky coils are the two small constellations of Corvus, the Crow and Crater, the Cup. Hydra is the water snake which the Crow tried to blame for delaying him so long in bringing back the cup of water (Crater) to Apollo.
Leo, the Lion
The majestic head and mane of Leo, the Lion are formed by the curving line of stars known as the Sickle. Leo’s main star, Regulus, is the faintest of the so-called first magnitude stars. It was always a star of great importance to ancient astronomers, however, who considered it to be the ruler over all other stars. Its duty was to keep them all in order and in their proper places in the sky.
Leo was the constellation in front of which the sun was found in midsummer. To the ancient peoples, the explanation of why the sun became so overpowering in summer must have been that the stars of Leo were adding greatly to the heat of the sun. It was natural, therefore, to compare these stars to the most powerful animal known, the Lion, King of Beasts.
Lepus, the Hare
Lepus is located at the foot of Orion, the Hunter. Orion, who was so busy chasing
Taurus the Bull, allowed the hare to remain unnoticed as long as he stayed absolutely quiet. Another thought is that the hare stayed below Orion in hopes that he would remain unnoticed by Sirius, the Big Dog who was swiftly pursuing him.
Libra, the Scales
Of the 12 zodiac constellations, Libra is the only one that does not represent something alive. An early astronomer assigned the task of reforming the calendar, decided to honor Julius Caesar by combining the claw stars of the Scorpion to form the figure of Caesar holding a pair of old-fashioned balance scales. The constellation was meant to be an eternal memorial in the heavens to the infinite wisdom and justice of Caesar. After Caesar’s death, however, his figure was dropped out of the constellation picture and only the scales were retained.
2000 years ago at the time of the calendar reform, the stars used to form Libra were
among the stars in front of which the sun was found at the time of the autumnal equinox, when days and nights are equal or balanced.
Lyra, the Lyre
The lyre was one of the first stringed instruments used in Greece. Mercury made the first lyre and presented it to Apollo, who in turn gave it to his son Orpheus. Orpheus learned to play such sweet music on it that birds came to listen, wild beasts were tamed and sea monsters charmed by the music’s spell.
Orpheus married Eurydice, but shortly after their wedding she was bitten and killed
by a poisonous snake. Orpheus was so grieved he went to see Pluto, ruler of the underworld, to try to use his music to soften Pluto’s heart and thereby, rescue Eurydice.
He was able to overcome all the dangers on route to Hades, and when he reached Pluto, his music brought the underworld king under its spell. Pluto gave Orpheus permission to take Eurydice back to Earth but only if Orpheus went first and never turned back to see if she was following. He agreed to these conditions, but when they were almost at the end of their walk, Orpheus could no longer hear Eurydice’s footsteps. Fearing something had happened to her, he turned back to look. A great stone dropped down to block the path and hid Eurydice forever from his sight. For years Orpheus roamed the woods, playing only sad tunes. Many a maiden fell in love with him but he remained true to Eurydice’s memory.
Finally a group of maidens angered by his lack of attentiveness killed Orpheus
and tossed his lyre into the river. Jupiter sent a vulture to bring back the lyre and he
placed it in the heavens as a constellation. The vulture is represented by the bright
blue star Vega, which means “falling bird.”
Ophuichus, Serpent Holder
Ophuichus was said to represent the famous Greek physician, Aesculapius, who
discovered how to bring the dead back to life. He used a mysterious herb which he
discovered when he killed a snake one day. A second snake appeared and it thrust
bits of a mysterious herb into the mouth of its dead mate, bringing it back to life.
Aesculapius studied the herb and found it growing in his garden.
So successful was Aesculapius’s use of the herb that Pluto, ruler of the underworld, complained to Jupiter that he had no dead souls. His business was ruined. Jupiter, fearing that Aesculapius found the way to give immortality to every man, sent a deadly lightning bolt that killed the doctor. But in tribute to his great skills as a physician, Jupiter placed Aesculapius among the stars along with the snake.
Orion, the Hunter
Greek legend tells us that Diana, goddess of both the moon and hunting, fell in love with Orion, the bravest hunter of ancient times. She began to neglect her duty of driving the moon chariot across the sky at night which lit the sky so that she could go down to Earth to hunt with Orion.
When her brother Apollo heard of this neglect, he decided to do away with Orion. He shone his golden rays so blindingly on Orion one day while he was swimming, that he appeared only as a faint dot in the waves. He then challenged Diana to hit the tiny target with her bow and arrow. Diana, not knowing what the target was, shot so accurately that her arrow hit Orion and killed him. When she found his body on the shore that evening she realized what had happened. After trying in vain to bring Orion back to life, she put his body in her moon chariot and drove high across the sky where it was darkest. She put the body of her beloved Orion in the sky. Suddenly, the sky became bright with stars that outlined his body, jeweled belt and glittering sword. At his foot to keep him company, she placed his two favorite hunting dogs and marked each with a brilliant star- Procyon in the Little Dog (Canis Minor) and Sirius in the Big Dog (Canis Major).
Pegasus, the Winged Horse
The most famous of the myths about Pegasus describes it as the winged horse which carried Perseus through the sky as he returned the head of the Medusa. Neptune, who had loved Medusa when she was young and pretty, created Pegasus from white beach sand, rainbow-colored foam of breaking waves, and drops of blood from the severed head of Medusa. So perhaps the reason why Pegasus is shown with half a body may be to represent the newly created horse just rising out of the sea with half its body still hidden beneath the waves.
Pegasus was also the favorite steed of Jupiter, who sent all his thunderbolts via Pegasus. Jupiter presented Pegasus to the Muses on Mt. Helicon. One day, as he pranced about there, a casual kick of one hoof caused the famous spring of Hippocrene to gush forth on the mountain top. Its waters had the magic power of inspiring whoever drank them to gain the gift of writing poetry.
Perseus was known for two courageous acts. His first was bringing back the head of the Medusa, who had snakes for her hair and was so ugly that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. Armed with a highly polished shield from Minerva, winged sandals from Mercury, and a magic pouch and helmet from the nymphs of the north, Perseus set off to slay the Medusa.
His helmet allowed him to become invisible, the polished shield acted as a mirror so he could back in and watch the Medusa’s reflection. He struck a killing blow, scooped up the head and tucked it in the pouch, careful not to look at it. As he flew off, he met the winged horse Pegasus which Neptune had created. Perseus mounted the horse and was swiftly born across the sky.
As he flew he noticed a crowd of people gathered on the beach below him. As he guided Pegasus down he saw a maiden, Andromeda, chained to a rock and a terrible sea monster about to engulf her. Perseus dropped down like a shooting star, shouted for Andromeda to cover her face and raised the flap of his pouch just enough so the monster could see the Medusa’s head. The sea monster was instantly turned into stone. Perseus freed Andromeda and the people on the beach cheered.
Phoenix, the Mythical Bird
This mythical bird of glorious plumage was fabled to be the only one of its kind and thought to live five hundred years at a time in the Arabian Desert. It would burn itself on a funeral pyre and then emerge with renewed youth to begin another life cycle.
Pisces, the Fish
Venus and her son, Cupid, changed themselves into fishes to escape Typhon, a fire-breathing dragon. Typhon could survive only in flames and fire but not in water. Venus and Cupid tied themselves together with a long cord so that they would not be separated.
Pisces Australis, the Southern Fish
This constellation contains one first magnitude star called Fomalhaut, which means
“mouth of the fish.” This bright star marks the mouth of the Southern Fish which is
opened wide to catch the torrent of water pouring down from the upturned urn of
Aquarius, the Water Carrier, located above Pisces Australis.
Sagitta, the Arrow
Legend tells us that Jupiter punished Prometheus, who twice stole the gift of fire from Mount Olympus, by chaining him to a rock high in the Caucasasus Mountains. Every day he sent a vulture to eat at the liver of the chained victim. Each night the liver grew again so the dreadful torture never ceased. Finally, Prometheus was rescued from his agony by Hercules, who killed the vulture with his bow and arrow and freed Prometheus from his chains. According to myth, Sagitta is that arrow shot from Hercules bow.
Sagittarius, the Archer
Long ago a strange race of creatures, the Centaurs, half man and half horse, lived on Mount Pelion in Greece. They had the power and speed of a horse with the brains of a man. They were savage creatures, known for their evil ways.
One Centaur, Chiron, became known for his goodness and wisdom. He became a famous teacher to whom kings sent their sons to be educated. Chiron was immortal, but due to a painful wound, he begged Jupiter to allow him to die rather than to live in agony. Jupiter granted his request. Before Chiron died, he designed all the constellations to aid the navigators. He designed Sagittarius to honor himself since he was known as a great archer.
Scorpius, the Scorpion
Juno, wife of Jupiter, grew tired of hearing Orion boast that no animal could ever
harm him. She decided that she would show him how vain he was by having him
killed in a most humiliating way . . . from the sting of a tiny, insignificant animal, the scorpion.
The scorpion lay in ambush close to a trail that Orion liked to use on his daily hunting trips, stung him in the heel and caused his death. When Diana, the goddess of the moon, learned of her lover’s death, she begged Jupiter to place him as a constellation in the heavens. Juno demanded that Jupiter must also honor the Scorpion in the same way, so he placed them far apart in the sky-Orion in the winter sky and the Scorpion in the summer sky.
The latitude of Athens is about 39º North, and as one moves south, the whole Cross becomes visible at about 25º North. Therefore, the Greeks would never have seen the whole Cross, at least from their homeland. However, what they did see, including the Pointers (Alpha & Beta Centauri), they incorporated into the Centaur.
The first European to see and name the Southern Cross was the Portuguese navigator Cadamosto in 1445. His was part of the on-going expeditions sent out by Prince Henry the Navigator to find the way around Africa and hence to the riches of Asia. These voyages were also spiced with religious zeal to find a way to link up with the legendary Prester John (a rich Christian monarch thought to be in mid-Africa). On a lonely voyage into the unknown, the beautiful stars of the Cross seemed like a message from Divinity.
Taurus, the Bull
Jupiter, disguised as a snow-white bull, came down from Mount Olympus one day to where Europa, a beautiful maiden, was playing in the meadow. The bull was so gentle that Europa climbed on its back. Then off sped Jupiter to the seashore, where he plunged into the waves and swam with his captive Europa across to the island of Crete. There, Jupiter revealed himself as the king of the gods and won Europa as his bride.
Triangulum, the Triangle
This constellation represents the triangle-shaped island of Sicily in Italy and was
placed in the heavens by Jupiter at the request of Ceres, goddess of agriculture. Sicily was a land held in high esteem by Ceres because of the high quality of the crops raised there.
Ursa Major, the Big Bear
Jupiter is said to have come down from Mount Olympus on many occasions to marry a beautiful Earth maiden. This enraged his goddess wife, Juno. One such maiden was named Callisto. Juno decided to seek revenge on Callisto by taking away her beauty-she turned Callisto into a mangy bear.
Callisto had a son, Arcas. While Callisto roamed as a bear, Arcas grew to be a young man and a famous hunter. One day, while hunting in the woods, Arcas trailed a bear and was about to shoot it with an arrow , when Jupiter intervened. The bear was, of course, Callisto, his mother. Jupiter turned Arcas into a bear to join his mother. He grasped both bears by their short, stumpy tails and heaved them high up into the heavens where they landed near the North Pole. The bears were so heavy; the strain on their tails caused them to be stretched to the unusual lengths seen in their heavenly constellations.
As Juno saw the two bears shining brightly in the sky, she realized that Callisto was again beautiful. Enraged, she went to Neptune, ruler of the seas, and asked him to drive the stars of the Big Bear (the Big Dipper) away from his waters every time they dropped down near the sea, never letting them bathe in the waves.
Ursa Minor, the Little Bear
The Little Bear is better known as the Little Dipper. One of the stars in this constellation is Polaris, the North Star. It has been the guide star for those who sail their ships across the northern hemisphere and for those who travel across the land.
Virgo, the Virgin
The best-known myth about Virgo identifies her as Ceres, goddess of growing things, to whom farmers offered their prayers.
Ceres had a daughter, Proserpina, who was kidnapped by Pluto, ruler of the underworld. Ceres declared that nothing was to grow on Earth until Proserpina was returned. Jupiter ordered Pluto to return Proserpina to Earth, but Pluto said it was not possible because Proserpina had eaten seeds while below in the underworld. Faced with the problem of what to do because she had eaten these seeds, and torn by the wishes of Pluto and Ceres, Jupiter worked out a compromise. Proserpina would spend six months with her mother and six months with Pluto. Now when Proserpina spends 6 months with her mother, Ceres shines brightly over the fields and brings forth crops. But when Proserpina returns to Hades, Ceres is sad and lonely and allows the world to become cold and dreary.