Constellations and Mythologies
- 1. To develop a basic understanding that a constellation is an area of the
sky which is represented by a group of stars that make a dot-to-dot picture
of a person, animal, or thing.
- 2. To show the usefulness of knowing the constellations.
- A. They represented a source of entertainment for people who
lived in the past. They also were a source of religious inspiration
which has been passed down to the present through the practices of
- B. Today, constellations provide a means for locating objects in
the sky which are of interest to astronomers.
- 3. To create an awareness of the problems of light pollution and how it
affects our view of the nighttime sky, as witnessed in an urban setting
- 4. To introduce students to the beauty of the nighttime sky as observed
from a rural setting by identifying certain prominent constellations and star
groups. Students will be familiarized with these star patterns during the
orientation and planetarium program.
- A. Anytime: Big Dipper and Little Dipper, including how to find
the North Star.
- B. Fall: Cassiopeia the queen and/or Pegasus the flying horse
and/or Andromeda the chained princess, including the Andromeda galaxy.
- C. Winter: Orion the hunter, Taurus the bull, the Seven Sisters
or Pleiades and/or Canis Major, the big dog, including Sirius, the
dog star, and second brightest star in the sky.
- 5. To recite at least one mythology under the dome of the night sky in
the tradition of storytellers of years past (planetarium program).
- 6. To show students that the sky is "alive" with areas in which stars are
being born, have just been born, and are dying. Some of these areas can even
be observed from the city with binoculars (winter planetarium program).
Orientation Objective Suggestions: The majority of the class
should be able to recognize by verbal response the following bold-faced
Other Activities instructors may want to consider.
- 1. WHAT DO REAL STARS IN THE SKY LOOK LIKE? The stars that we see in
the nighttime sky appear to us as points of light and not as "star-shaped"
objects. A portion of the blackboard can be divided into a girls' and a boys'
section. Several students of each gender should be invited to come forward
and sketch, in their respective areas, what they believe to be a true
representation of a star in the real sky. After obtaining a popular
consensus as to which stars have been correctly sketched, the teacher will
draw the correct representation of a star on the blackboard and declare the
winner(s). Stars are really huge, hot, spheres of hydrogen and helium gas
which are producing their own energy. They are converting hydrogen into
helium deep within their interiors. Because of their great distances, stars
appear small and faint to the eye. The exception to this rule is, of course,
the sun which is only big and bright because of its close proximity to the
earth. If we lived on a planet in orbit around the closest star to our sun,
Alpha Centauri, our daystar would be visible from the countryside as an
easily observed luminary near the constellation of Cassiopeia.
- 2. WHAT IS A CONSTELLATION? A constellation is a region of the sky
which is represented by a group of stars that make a dot-to-dot picture of a
person, animal, or thing. Most constellations can only be seen on clear
nights away from the bright lights of a city, and many of these require a
great deal of imagination to be seen correctly.
Many of the constellations we view from the northern hemisphere were created
thousands of years ago by people who wished to bring a sense of order into
the heavens. These cultures were interested in monitoring the movements of
the sun, moon, and planets. The most important constellations of the ancient
world were those which formed the zodiac, the group of 12 star figures
through which the sun moved during the earth's yearly circuit around the sun.
If you know your birth sign, you know one of these 12 figures.
- 3. HOW MANY CONSTELLATIONS CAN YOU NAME? A sampling of some of the most
popular choices are the Big Dipper, Orion, Scorpius, Capricornus, Little
Dipper, Draco, Taurus, Perseus, Sagittarius, Gemini, and the Pleiades.
The Big and Little Dippers, and the Pleiades, however, are not constellations.
They are asterisms, groups of stars as famous as constellations but not
recognized by the International Astronomical Union, a worldwide body of
professional astronomers. The dippers are officially the bears, Ursa Major
and Ursa Minor, while the Pleiades are a star cluster found in the
constellation of Taurus, the bull. More about asterisms will be found in
- 4. HOW MANY CONSTELLATIONS ARE THERE? There are a total of 88 officially
recognized constellations in the sky.
- 5. WHY ARE THE CONSTELLATIONS SO DIFFICULT TO SEE? Light pollution,
mainly from street lights and illuminated outdoor advertisements, has been
the main culprit to why we are seeing fewer and fewer stars. Humans have
polluted their environment to the extent that seeing the stars at night has
become difficult. The type of pollution is not one which has received wide
recognition. Shielded lamps and better billboard illumination (directed
downwards rather than upwards) would be helpful as a start. The standardized
usage of low pressure sodium vapor lights (they appear deep yellow orange)
would also greatly enhance our ability to view the nighttime sky. By just
incorporating these three suggestions into a national outdoor lighting policy,
it would be possible to save several billion dollars in annual energy costs.
The result would be less electrical consumption for the same amount of
illumination. This would translate into lower prices for consumers and the
increased visibility of the heavens for all to enjoy. Everyone would win.
In Tucson, Arizona where light pollution ordinances have been in effect for
several decades to protect Kitt Peak National Observatory, it is now possible
to see the Milky Way galaxy from within the city limits. Kitt Peak is located
about 65 miles to the southwest of Tucson.
Incidentally, there is no valid statistical evidence that suggests that more
outdoor lighting deters criminal activity. In fact, just the opposite may be
true. There is some evidence which indicates criminals also like well-lit
areas to perform their misdeeds. After all, they need to see too!
Constellations are also difficult to visualize because they have lots of
missing parts which need to be filled in by the observer. However with
patience and practice, the nighttime sky can become as familiar to you as a
walk around your home neighborhood during the day.
- 6. WHAT WERE CONSTELLATIONS USED FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO? To the
average person who lived a long time ago, the constellations were a source of
entertainment, where heroes and villains did battle in the sky, and where
great stories were told about their deeds. Anyone can go outside on a clear,
moonless night and imagine pictures from the stars in the sky. It is almost
the same as creating pictures from the clouds, with the exception that the
clouds change shape minute by minute. Even though the stars are actually
moving hundreds of miles per second in their orbits around the Milky Way
galaxy, their huge distances from earth prevent us from easily observing
their motions for tens of thousands of years. One of the true beauties of
knowing some of the constellations is that you are looking at the same stars
and many of the same star patterns that people have been observing throughout
all of recorded history.
Constellations were also important in early religious beliefs. This was
especially true with the constellations in the swath of the sky known as the
zodiac. The zodiac (Greek for zoo) represented the succession of
constellations (mostly animals) which the sun, moon, and planets passed
through during their wanderings across the sky. The position of these bright
celestial objects, conceived to have been gods by ancient peoples, were
thought to have influential powers on nations and the human condition. These
misconceptions have continued to the present through the gullibility of the
public and the entrepreneurship of astrologers. The 12 constellations of the
zodiac are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius,
Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces.
- 7. WHY ARE CONSTELLATIONS STILL USEFUL TODAY? At present, constellations
represent an easy way of finding the general location of astronomical objects
in the sky. Constellations represent more than just the stars which compose
the picture. A constellation is an area of the sky with official boundaries,
just like countries or the states possess. There is no prescribed method for
connecting the stars to form the figure, so the pictures will often vary
slightly depending upon the personal preferences of the celestial cartographer.
To avoid the confusion of having the same constellation possessing different
boundaries or different constellations overlapping the same regions of the sky,
a special commission of the International Astronomical Union agreed in 1928
to the naming of 88 official constellations boundaries. Star patterns, such
as the Big Dipper, Great Square of Pegasus, and the Pleiades (Seven Sisters),
were not designated by the professional group as constellations because of
their varying cultural significance. These groupings of stars are called
asterisms. The Big Dipper is an American asterism which composes the
brightest portion of the constellation of Ursa Major, the great bear. To the
English, it is called the Plow, while the Germans refer to it as the Wagon.
The Pleiades are a nearby star cluster (Seven Sisters) which occupy a small
portion of the constellation of Taurus, the bull, while the Great Square of
Pegasus represents the horseís body. At present, there are literally millions
of objects of interest to astronomers. When locating their positions, the
constellation is often designated. Knowing the constellation in which a
particular object resides is like saying you live in Pennsylvania. Although
there are lots of persons dwelling within this state, it is certainly more
definitive than saying that you live somewhere in the United States or on the
continent of North America.
- DEMONSTRATION: Two teams will be chosen to participate in a
timed contest which will demonstrate this objective. A star
map will be projected onto a screen containing a star cluster
(a compact grouping of stars) which is to be located by one
of the teams. The first team will only be made aware of the
name of the object for which they are searching. The
procedure will be repeated with the second team using a
different map which includes a different object which needs
to be unearthed. This time, however, the name of the
constellation in which the object can be found will be
designated prior to the search. Normally the team with the
constellation information will locate the star cluster more
rapidly, thus providing a practical reason for still using
the constellations in the twentieth century.
- 1. YOU MAKE THE CONSTELLATIONS: Teachers will be provided a handout
containing a page of dots from which many imaginary constellations can be
drawn. Students can construct their own personal constellations from the
stars on this sheet and compare them with other pupils to see if similarities
exist. They should remember, however, that only the official star patterns
are recognized by astronomers and that usually only these will be referenced
in astronomy books. Taken a step farther, this exercise could be integrated
into a writing skills unit by having students write their own mythologies
associated with the constellations which they have created.
- 2. CLASH OF THE TITANS: This 1981, PG-rated, MGM release would be a good
way to introduce the concepts of a Hollywood version of the mythology of
Perseus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Pegasus to your class. It has heroes,
villains, monsters, and beautiful woman which should keep your children
fascinated throughout most of its entire 118 minute running time. It can be
rented from any video store. The PG rating is probably due to the monsters
which might be a bit too scary for the early elementary years. Three short
scenes which might "bare" editing are near the beginning when Perseus as a
baby is being suckled by his mother. This is followed immediately by a
silhouette of them walking unclothed on a beach. Near the end of the movie,
a naked Andromeda emerges from a bath to be quickly robed by attendants. The
scene shows Andromeda from the back. These parts could be fast-forwarded;
however, they are in no way offensive. Their loss would not detract from the
informational value and adventure of this movie. There certainly is no foul
language in this flick, just plenty of good entertaining action that kids
should enjoy and which would highlight one of the reasons why mythologies
still remain popular. Teachers may want to preview the movie to help their
students more easily distinguish the mortals from the immortals.
XENA: Wow!!! Here is mythology carried
into a twentieth century forum for TV audiences. The weekly episodes are carried in
syndication (locally, channels WPHL-17 out of Philadelphia, WTXF Fox 29 out
of Philadelphia, WPVI 11 out of New York, and WGBS 57 out of New Jersey) and
are told in modern language that kids should have no trouble understanding.
Hercules and Xena are portrayed as twentieth century people in Greek
trappings, who are trying to provide a fabric of morality to a primitive
society. They are two separate shows.
- 3. CONSTELLATIONS IN A CAN: Take the flip side of a soda can, pasting
or drawing the constellation of your choice onto its surface. With a hammer
and different sized nails (for the different brightnesses of the stars),
punch out holes for your constellation. Add a small flashlight shining into
the can from the pop top side, and a dark room with a white ceiling or screen,
and presto, you've got some nifty constellation projectors. This probably
would even work better using soup cans, but watch out for those sharp edges.
Large paper cups are also an option.
- 4. The varying sizes of the star dots on a constellation map are
representative of the stars' brightnesses. The larger the dot, the brighter
the star becomes. Maps are visual methods of conveying a great quantity of
information to a reader in a short amount of time. The seeable format of
maps allows for the assimilation of relationships and information which might
not be as easily interpreted through other forms of written communication.
To help with the rapid understanding of information, maps rely heavily upon
symbols. Star maps are no different.
If you use star maps with your students, ask them what the sizes of the star
dots might mean. The amount of inventive suggestions which you will receive
might astound you. Here are some of the better ones that have been heard:
- 1. The bigger the dot, the closer the star.
- 2. Different sized dots represent the different colors of the
- 3. Different sized dots stand for the temperature variations
among the stars.
- 4. Stars are different sizes. The bigger the dot, the larger the
- The constellations that we see from our part of the world are different
and more interesting than the constellations visible from the southern
hemisphere. Can you guess why?
Here are some examples:
- Northern Hemisphere
- Ursa Major, the big bear
- Ursa Minor, the little bear
- Draco, the dragon
- Cassiopeia, the queen
- Perseus, the hero
- Southern Hemisphere
- Horologium, the clock
- Carina, the keel (of a ship)
- Volans, the flying fish
- Pictor, the easel
- Crux, the cross
- ANSWER: The Greco-Roman tradition of naming constellations and creating
mythologies did not extend into the southern hemisphere. After Magellanís
circumnavigation of the world in 1521, many of the constellations were named
in the eighteenth century by mariners and scientists who traveled south of
the equator. Their minds were more fascinated by technology than the rich
traditions spawned by Greece and Rome. It should be noted that many
civilizations living in the southern hemisphere had their own cultural
beliefs and lore concerning the heavens which were not adopted by the