Ancient Greek
Star Lore

Part 1


The Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda inspired hundreds of plays, poems, novels, operas, songs and paintings. It is believed to be the origin of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon and it unites no less than seven classic Greek constellations: Andromeda, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Pisces, Cetus and Pegasus (eight including the now obsolete Caput Medusae).

In Greek mythology, Aethiopian princess was the daughter of king Cepheus and queen Cassiopeia. One day, vain Cassiopeia boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids. The Nereids, the god-like spirits of the Aegean Sea took offense on Cassiopeia's statement and asked Poseidon to punish her for her arrogance.

Poseidon's response is swift. First, he floods the Aethiopian coast (ancient Aethiopia should not be confused with today's land-locked Ethiopia). Then, he sends the sea monster Cetus to further torment the Aethipians.

In despair, king Cepheus questions the Oracle of Ammon and is told that the only way to appease the monster is to sacrifice his daughter. So, Andromeda, who had no part in the whole ordeal is chained to a rock by the sea near Jaffa, the ancient port of what is today Tel Aviv and Cassiopeia can only helplessly watch the scene unfolding as the result of her vanity.

At the last minute, the savior arrives at the scene. Hero Perseus first mistakes Andromeda for a marble statue, but then notices her tears and deceits to save her - after he asked her parents for her hand in marriage.

Perseus had just returned from his battle with Medusa the evil Gorgon whos look could turn people into stone. Perseus still held Medusa's cut-off head in his hand. In the original version of the legend, Perseus fights Cetus using a magical Harpe Sword, the same one he used to kill Medusa. In later versions (dating back to the 2nd century AD, Perseus petrifies Cetus, using Medusa's head.

The head of the Medusa came in handy one more time. After the defeat of Cetus, the young couple still has to overcome one more obstacle: Andromeda had previously been engaged to her uncle Phineus. When Phineus showed up at Andromeda's and Perseus' wedding, claiming older rights, Perseus lets him look at Medusa's head, which turns Phineus into stone.

The couple has to live through some more adventures. Eventually, they settle down in Tiryns, where they raise seven sons and two daughters. After her death, the goddess Athena places Andromeda in the sky, together with Perseus (holding Medusa's head), Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Cetus.

Perseus liberates Andromeda
Apulian vase, ca. 425 BC; Source: Wikimedia

Chained Andromeda
Aberystwyth Folios 11th century AD; Wikimedia

Andromeda, Perseus and the slain Cetus
House of Poseidon, Zeugma,Turkey;
2nd-3rd century AD;

Two other constellations are also related to the story of Andromeda and Perseus.

Pisces, the fishes are sometimes seen as a symbol for Dictys, the brave and kind fisherman who recused princess Danaë and her infant son Perseus, after Danaë's father, king Acrisius of Argos abandoned them at sea in a wooden box.

Pegasus, the winged horse was born from the stump of Medusa's neck after Perseus had decapitated her.

Together, these eight constellations form the most complex celestial illustration of any Greek myth. The image to the right shows a section of Albrecht Dürer's engraving of the Northern Skies, displaying seven of the constellations. (Cetus is depicted in the engraving of the Southern Skies).

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Part of Albrecht Dürer's engraving of the Northern Skies
Nuremberg, 1515; Source: Ian Ridpath

The Nereids

In Greek mythology, the Nereids were female spirits of sea waters, called Nymphs.

The 50 sisters were the daughters of sea god Nereus and sea goddess Doris.

Unlike other famous sisters like the Pleiades or the Hyades, the Nereids are not associated with any object visible to the naked eye. But many of the sisters can be seen through telescopes. They can be found in the Asteroid Belt, in the orbit of Neptune and - most recently - the Kuiper Belt.

Given their close relationship with Poseidon (who in Roman mythology became Neptune, it is only fitting that one of Neptune's largest moons (discovered in 1949 by Gerard Kuiper) was named Nereid.

Nereid Monument, ca. 390 BC
Source: Wikipedia

Six of Neptune's other moons are named after Nereids: Galatea was discovered in 1989 on photographs taken by the Voyager 2 probe. Halimede, Laomedeia, Neso, Psamathe and Sao were discovered between 2002 and 2007, using large telescopes on Earth.

Galatea also gave her name to asteroid 74 Galatea, discovered in 1862 and the first object named after a Nereid. Other asteroids named after Nereids are 185 Eunike and 427 Galene. The Nereids' parents can also be found in the Asteroid Belt as 4660 Nereus and 48 Doris.

In 2006, Actaea a small natural satellite of Dwarf Planet candidate Salacia became the first Kuiper Belt object named after a Nereid.


The Greek picked up the concept of the flood maker, calling the constellation Hydrochoös (Ὑδροχόος), the Water-carrier, which later was Latinized as Aquarius.

In one Greek myth, Aquarius is associated with Deucalion, the son of Prometheus.

In a legend similar to the Biblical flood, Zeus detested the human race which, after Prometheus had given given them the fire of the Gods had grown too powerful and disrespect for the gods.

When Zeus planned to send a flood to wipe out humanity, Prometheus warned Deucalion, who, together with his wife Pyrrha built a ship and sailed the flood for nine days before washing ashore on Mount Parnassus.

However, after the flood, Zeus recognized that Deucalion and his wife were just and loving people and thus decided to help them repopulate the Earth. He told them, to throw the bones of their mother over their shoulders.

Deucalion and Pyrrha by Virgil Solis, 1481
Source: Wikipedia

Deucalion and Pyrrha solved the riddle acknowledging Mother Earth as their mother. They threw stones over their shoulders and humans, as strong as stone sprang up where the stones fell.

The gods rewarded Deucalion by placing him among the stars, where, as the Water Poorer, he urges the people to respect the gods or the floods might come again.

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Burns

In another legend, Aquarius is identified with beautiful Ganymede, a youth in Greek mythology and the son of Trojan king Tros, who was taken to Mount Olympus by Zeus to act as cup-carrier to the gods.

Neighboring Aquila represents the eagle, under Zeus' command, that snatched the young boy.

The Abduction of Ganymede
Eustache Le Sueur, ca. 1650
Source: Wikipedia

Some versions of the myth indicate that the eagle was in fact Zeus transformed. An alternative version of the tale recounts Ganymede's kidnapping by the goddess of the dawn, Eos, motivated by her affection for young men; Zeus then stole him from Eos and employed him as cup-bearer.

Yet another figure associated with the water bearer is Cecrops I, a king of Athens who sacrificed water instead of wine to the gods.

An old Meyer's Encyclopedia actually depicts Cecrops I with a fish or snake tail.

Source: Wikipedia
Cecrops I; Wikipedia
Ian Ridpath adds, that "... star maps show Aquarius as a young man pouring water from a jar or amphora, although Ovid, in his Fasti, says the liquid is a mixture of water and nectar, the drink of the gods."

Source: Ian Ridpath
The water jar is marked by a Y-shaped asterism consisting of γ, π, η and ζ Aquarii.

The jar's grommet is λ Aquarii, which bears the traditional (unapproved by the IAU) name Hydor (Ὕδωρ), meaning Water; a name given to the star by 5th century Greek philosopher Proclus Lycius.

Another ancient Greek name for the star was Ekkhysis (εκχυσις) meaning "outpouring."

The jar pours water into a stream of more than 20 stars terminating with Fomalhaut (α PsA), main star of the Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish.

Sources: Wikipedia, R.H. Allen
Aquarius in the 1753 edition of Atlas Coelestis
Atlas Coelestis

The water bearer's head is represented by faint 25 Aquarii while his left shoulder is Sadalsuud (β Aqu); his right shoulder and forearm are represented by Sadalmelik (α Aqu) and Sadachbia (γ Aqu), respectively.

Sources: Wikipedia, R.H. Allen


In Greek, The constellation’s name was Ἀετός (Aetos), meaning eagle.

Aquila is often held to represent the eagle which held Zeus's thunderbolts in Greek mythology. In addition, Ian Ridpath tells two stories related to the Eagle:

"According to one story, Aquila is the eagle that snatched up the beautiful Trojan boy Ganymede, son of King Tros, to become the cup-bearer of the gods on Olympus. Authorities such as the Roman poet Ovid say that Zeus turned himself into an eagle, whereas others say that the eagle was simply sent by Zeus. Ganymede himself is represented by the neighbouring constellation of Aquarius, and star charts show Aquila swooping down towards Aquarius. Germanicus Caesar says that the eagle is guarding the arrow of Eros (neighbouring Sagitta) which made Zeus love struck."

Source:Ian Ridpath

Aquila and Sagitta
"Leiden Aratea," 816
Source: Wikimedia

In another Greek story, ... "Zeus fell in love with the goddess Nemesis but, when she resisted his advances, he turned himself into a swan and had Aphrodite pretend to pursue him in the form of an eagle. Nemesis gave refuge to the escaping swan, only to find herself in the embrace of Zeus. To commemorate this successful trick, Zeus placed the images of swan and eagle in the sky as the constellations Cygnus and Aquila."

Source:Ian Ridpath

In 132, Roman Emperor Hadrian created a separate constellation Antinous out of the southern stars of Aquila. Ptolemy adopted the concept and the now-obsolete constellation was visualized on some maps as a young man being held in the eagle’s claws. With the definition of the 88 IAU constellations, Aquila and Antinous were re-merged.

Source: Ian Ridpath

Aquila and Antinous
Urania's Mirror, 1825
Source: Wikipedia


The first Greek astronomer to recognize Ara as a constellation was Aratus in 270 BC. Aratus called the constellation Thyterion (θυτήριον), which is short for Thymiaterion (θυμιατήριον) and means censer or incense burner.

400 years later, Ara became one of the southernmost constellations described by Ptolemy. Ptolemy used the name Thymiaterion, which was later Latinized to Ara, the Altar.

In Greek mythology, the stars of Ara, just above the horizon were seen as the altar where the gods - Zeus, Poseidon and Hades formed their alliance to defeat the Titans. After their victory in the epic battle called Titanomachy, Zeus placed the altar in the sky.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Colored version of Ara taken from J. Bayer's
Uranometria, first published 1603

Aratus reported that ancient Greek sailors used the constellation to predict storms at sea. If the altar was visible while other stars were covered by cloud, sailors expected southerly gales.

Sources: Ian Ridpath

Argo Navis

In Greek mythology, the constellation represented the argo, the ship that took Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis at the eastern shores of the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece.

The heroic adventures of Jason and the Argonauts are one of the oldest legends in Mediterranean mythology. The BBC reported that "... an excavation of the 1920s and 30s, at Boghaz Koy, in central Turkey, uncovered Indo-European tablets from a Hittite civilization dating to the 14th century BC. One of these has an account on it of a story similar to that of Jason and Medea, and may reveal the prehistory of the myth.

It is not known at what date the Greeks borrowed it, but it very possibly happened in the ninth or eighth century BC. This was the time when many themes were taken from the east and incorporated into Greek poetry."

The best written Greek account of the legend is the epic poem Argonautica, written by Apollonius Rhodius in the 3rd century BC.

The ship was named after its builder, Argus. The goddess Athena supported Argus in the design and the building of the ship. Athena fitted an oak beam from the oracle of Dodona into the ship's prow. The oak was able to speak and to tell oracles with a human voice.

The rest of the ship was build using wood from Mount Pelion, the area where Jason was raised by his foster-father, the centaur Chiron (represented in the night sky by the constellation Centaurus).

Jason was the rightful heir to the throne of Iolcus, but his father Aeson was overthrown by his half-brother Pelias. When Jason claimed the throne, his uncle challenged him to first bring back the golden fleece from Colchis, the home of King Aeëtes and his daughter Medea. Pelias, of course, was hoping that Jason would perish during the 2,000 miles journey.

The Argo left the port of Pagasae, its 50 oars manned by the 50 Argonauts, which included, Jason, Argus, Heracles (represented by the constellation Hercules and the twins Castor and Pollux (represented by the constellation Gemini).

Helmsman of the ship was Tiphys whom Athena had taught the usage of sails.

Argo Navis on a globe manufactured
by Gerardus Mercator in 1551

The Argo on a 4th Century BC coin
Iolcos, Greece; Source: Wikipedia

Argo Navis in a colored version of
Bode's Uranometia, 1641

The crew was under special protection by the goddess Hera who Jason once helped when she appeared to him in the disguise of an old woman.

When Jason and the Argonauts arrived in Colchis, Medea fell in love with Jason and helped him steel the Golden Fleece using her witchcraft.

(In Greek astronomy, the Golden Fleece is represented by the constellation Aries).

After the Argonauts returned to Iolcus, the ship was dedicated to the Gods, who transferred it into the sky. Before Jason returned the Golden Fleece to temple of Zeus at Orchomenus, he and Medea used it to cover their wedding bed. Their love story, however did not have a happy ending. Jason abandoned Medea for Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea later poisoned Glauce and according to Euripides, Jason was killed by a beam from the top of the Argo, that fell from the sky and hit him in his sleep.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath, BBC History,,

The Argo
painting by Konstantinos Volonakis

The Argo's missing Prow

The original constellation consisted of three easily distinguishable part, the hull (or the keel), the poop deck and the sails. The front part of the ship disappears in the mist of the Milky Way.

Early depictions, like the Leiden Aratea or Poeticon Astronomicon (see right) simply showed half a ship.

Later, more elaborate illustrations (see above) showed the prow obscured either by clouds (representing the Milky Way) or by a pair of rocks - the Symplegades. These were clashing rocks, crushing any ship attempting to cross the Bosphorus. Rowed by the mighty Argonauts and pushed by the goddess Athena, the Argo was the first ship to survive the passage, which put the rocks into a steadfast place.

Source: Ian Ridpath

Argo without prow
Erhard Ratdolt, 1482


In Greek, the constellation is called Krios (Κριός)

Wikipedia tells us that Aries "..."is associated with the golden ram of Greek mythology that rescued Phrixus and Helle on orders from Hermes, taking Phrixus to the land of Colchis.

Phrixos and Helle were the son and daughter of King Athamas and his first wife Nephele. The king's second wife, Ino, was jealous and wished to kill his children. To accomplish this, she induced a famine in Boeotia, then falsified a message from the Oracle of Delphi that said Phrixos must be sacrificed to end the famine.

Athamas was about to sacrifice his son atop Mount Laphystium when Aries, sent by Nephele, arrived. Helle fell off of Aries's back in flight and drowned in the Dardanelles, also called the Hellespont in her honor. After arriving, Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the Fleece to Aeëtes of Colchis, who rewarded him with an engagement to his daughter Chalciope. Aeëtes hung its skin in a sacred place where it became known as the Golden Fleece and was guarded by a dragon."

Source: Wikipedia

Phrixos and Helle in a Roman fresco found in Pompeii
Source: Wikipedia

In a later myth, this Golden Fleece was stolen by Jason and the Argonauts. Ian Ridpath tell us the story:
"After Phrixus died, his cousin Pelias seized the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. The true successor to the throne was Jason. Pelias promised to give up the throne to Jason if he brought home the golden fleece from Colchis. This was the challenge that led to the epic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts.

When he reached Colchis, Jason first asked King Aeëtes politely for the fleece, but he was rejected. The king’s daughter, Medea, fell in love with Jason and offered to help him steal the fleece.

At night the two crept into the wood where the golden fleece hung, shining like a cloud lit by the rising Sun. Medea bewitched the serpent so that it slept while Jason snatched the fleece. According to Apollonius Rhodius, the fleece was as large as the hide of a young cow, and when Jason slung it over his shoulder it reached his feet. The ground shone from its glittering golden wool as Jason and Medea escaped with it.

Once free of the pursuing forces of King Aeëtes, Jason and Medea used the fleece to cover their wedding bed. The final resting place of the fleece was in the temple of Zeus at Orchomenus, where Jason hung it on his return to Greece.

Source: Ian Ridpath
Jason returns with the Golden Fleece
Apulian calyx crater, ca. 340 BC, Louvre, Paris
Source: Wikipedia
Julius D. W. Staal added another interpretation to the constellation, seeing Aries as the ram Odysseus used to escape the cave of cyclops Polyphemus.

On their way home from the Trojan War, Odysseus and his shipmates were captured by Polyphemus and held in a cave with the Cyclops' sheep. They escaped by blinding Polyphemus and hiding under the bellies of his sheep, when they flocked out of the cave in the morning.

Staal writes, "That Odysseus was brought by a ram from the dark cave to the light symbolizes that when the Sun is in Aries, the long, dark Winter months are over and Spring has begun."

Source: Julius D. W. Staal: New Patterns in the Sky
Odysseus underneath the ram
Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum


According to Ian Ridpath, the name Boötes (Greek: Βοώτης)
"... probably comes from a Greek word meaning ‘noisy’ or ‘clamorous’, referring to the herdsman’s shouts to his animals."

R.H. Allen identifies that Greek word as Boetes (Βοητής), meaning clamorous.

Boötes is one of the oldest Greek constellation names, already mentioned as a navigational aid in the Odyssey. Because of Boötes' proximity to Ursa Major, the Greek legends of both constellations are closely related.

One legend identifies Boötes as the hunter Arcas:

The nymph Callisto was once seduced by Zeus and gave birth to a son named Arcas.

Zeus' wife Hera punished Callisto by transforming her into a bear. Ian Ridpath tells us that "... for 15 years, Callisto roamed the woods in the shape of a bear, but still with a human mind. Once a huntress herself, she was now pursued by hunters. One day she came face to face with her son Arcas. Callisto recognized Arcas and tried to approach him, but he backed off in fear. He would have speared the bear, not knowing it was really his mother, had not Zeus intervened by sending a whirlwind that carried them up into heaven, where Zeus transformed Callisto into the constellation Ursa Major and Arcas into Boötes".

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Boötes in a colored version of Uranometria

Arcas Preparing to Kill his Mother, Changed into a Bear; François Boucher, 1590
Source: Wikimedia

Another early Greek myth, later retold by Hyginus in his Poeticon Astronomicon, identifies the constellation as Icarius of Athens.

In this tale, Dionysus had taught Icarius how to make wine. Icarius gave his wine to some shepherds, who rapidly became drunk. Not knowing what had happened to them, the suspected Icarius of poisoning them and killed him.

When Icarius' daughter Erigone and his dog Maera (see Canis Minor) discovered the slain Icarius, they both took their own lives where Icarius lay. Zeus places Icarius, Maera and Erigone in the stars as the constellations Boötes, Canis Minor and Virgo.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath

Greek poet Aratus, in his poem Phenomena called the constellation Ἀρκτοφύλαξ (Arctophylax) and described it as a man driving the bear around the pole.

Boötes in the Poeticon Astronomicon
Arctophylax translates to Bear Watcher, Bear Keeper, or Bear Guard, a name that was later adopted for the constellation's main star Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere.
Other interpretations of the word Boötes are the ancient Greek meanings Ox-driver, referring to Ursa Major being sometimes visualized as a cart pulled by oxen or cows - Greek boûs (βοῦς) and Plowman, referring to Ursa Major being seen as a plow.

The website The Manuchihr Globe translates the Greek word Βοώτης (see above) simply as "The Plowman."

Julius D.W. Staal writes that it was said that Boötes actually invented the plough and as such enabled nomadic humans to settle down as farmers, which pleased Demeter, the Goddess of Agriculture, so much that she asked Zeus to honor Boötes by placing him amongst the stars.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ian Ridpath, Constellation of Words, The Manuchihr Globe
Boötes in the Leiden Aratea
Greek Star Names

Arcturus (α Boo) took its name from Ἀρκτοφύλαξ (Arctophylax), the name given by Aratus to the entire constellation.

Source: Wikipedia

The name Alkalurops for μ1 Boötis is derived from the Greek καλαύροψ (kalaurops), meaning a herdsman's crook or staff, with the Arabic prefix attached.

Sources: Wikipedia, R.H. Allen

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