CC Spin: Constellation Myths

Constellation Myths, by Eratosthanes and Hyginus,  with Aratus' Phaenomena

When I was a kid, we had a copy of D'Aulaires Greek Myths that I read over and over.  It had beautiful illustrations, and if you've got kids, you need to give them this book.  Of course, I never thought about where the stories came from, or how they had been preserved and passed down.  Some of them come from Homer, Ovid, or Sophocles, but there are quite a few other tales as well -- and now I know where some of thems came from.

Eratosthenes is a well-known favorite ancient Greek (at least of mine, and he certainly ought to be of yours); he was the third librarian of Alexandria, and he figured out a way to estimate the circumference of the Earth -- he got it just about right, too.*   He also wrote down the enjoyable little stories people used to tell about the constellations and how they got that way, which are called catasterisms.   They're a little fuzzy; sometimes people said that Zeus or another god had set a person or creature in the stars, and sometimes only that he had set an image up there.  For the most part it was all seen as a fun game of appealing stories, and not as proper religious history.

Well, Eratosthenes' original Greek text was lost, despite its popularity, but this Latin fellow, Hyginus, had translated/rewritten the stories in Latin, adding his own commentary and turning it into a sort of textbooks, which was enormously popular and which we do still have.  Exactly how much is translation and how much is Hyginus is hard to know, since we can't compare.  But that's what we have here.

The book starts in the Arctic circle with the two Bears, and then follows the circles southward, saving a special section for the creatures of the zodiac.  And the stories are so old that not everything is quite as we now know it yet; the constellation we call Hercules is here known mostly as the Kneeler, with Hercules only one of several possible candidates.  Pegasus is a horse and doesn't yet have wings.  We imagine Sagittarius as a centaur archer, but here he is specifically a satyr (everyone knows that centaurs don't do archery).  And Scorpio, a giant constellation, is only just being divided into two -- Libra doesn't quite exist yet.

The list of constellations, each with its own story, is pretty exhaustive.  There are a lot that will be unfamiliar to most people, I think -- Corvus and Crater, things like that, which the Greeks saw as a whole scene.  There are several scenes in the sky -- the Andromeda/Perseus story, Orion and his dogs on the chase, and a centaur putting an animal on an altar for sacrifice.

It took me quite a while to read, even though it's not a long book at all; less than 200 pages.  But I found out that I could only do a few stories at a time.  Oh, it is so fun, though.  I'm really glad o read it so that I could find out this book exists!  It was neat to read Eratosthenes' stories about constellations that I mostly already knew, but only in a children's format.

From D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths
There is also a prose translation of Aratus' long poem, Phaenomena, included here.  It tells many of the same stories more quickly, but also adds a good deal of interesting material about seasons, weather signs, and so on.  The beginning of the poem reminds us (me, anyway) of how far we've moved away from paying much attention to natural signs and seasons (this translation is older and thus free on the web):
...always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly.

Just a really nice book to read.  Hooray for the Spin for giving me such a good title!
* Eratosthenes used stadia as his measurement, but unfortunately there were a couple of versions of the stadion and we don't know which he used.  He may have been as close as within 1%, or he may have gotten within 16%, which would still be pretty impressive.


  1. This sounds inviting, not a classic I knew was available, and good to know Oxford World's Classics have brought out an edition.

  2. Yeah! That was exactly what I thought too. :)

  3. I used to check out D'Aulaire's book over and over too! I was so excited when my kids were old enough to read them and bought a copy for our house. One of my childhood favorites!

  4. I knew nothing about this book until you mentioned it last month with the spin, but it sounds fascinating. I think I like the idea of pretty illustrations though - I need the visual to help me 'see' constellations.

  5. Illustrations are a must. The book itself only has a small star map with the constellations pictured on it, which is OK, but I was looking at it all the time and I should have just gotten a large star/constellation map to keep next to me. I mean, there's one sitting above my desk.

    Last night we went to the local observatory -- which is for ordinary folks like us -- and it was extra-fun to see what we could see!

  6. Another fan of the D'Aulaires' book here (also their Norse Myths). It's one of those books that is imprinted on my brain. i had no idea there was such an original-source version of the constellation stories; glad you had such fun with it!

  7. I love the Norse Myths one too! But I didn't have it as a kid -- it wasn't in print --so it's not as embedded into my brain. I wish it was. My own kids have it though, plus the trolls book!


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