The winter constellations are taking center stage in our night skies, distinct and dazzling with bright stars, many having names dating back 3,000 years or more.
As darkness descends, Orion the Hunter is hurdling over the eastern horizon on his side, and hours later standing erect over our southern horizon. Above him is the V-shape of stars that form the head and horns of Taurus the Bull. To the left of the bull and above Orion are the twin brother stars of Gemini.
All these star patterns have been interpreted as the same creatures by many civilizations dating back three millennial or more—a link we share in the 21st Century with ancient peoples.
Rising below Orion with his two dogs is the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. Venus and Jupiter are routinely brighter than Sirius (and sometimes Mars), and this blazing white star has been recognized as special throughout history, especially to ancient Egypt.
Located in Orion’s Big Dog, or Canis Major, Sirius is at the hunter’s feet. The Little Dog, constellation Canis Minor, is to Orion’s left and has another bright, white star, Procyon.
Egyptians called Sirius “Sothis,” and structured their calendar around its rising in mid-July before the Sun. The appearance of Sirius in the morning sky coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River, making the fields of crops fertile. Sirius was associated with the basis of life and wealth in the Egyptian empire.
Because Sirius was thought to provide extra heat when so near the Sun in the summertime, it was blamed for the “Dog Days” when weather was the hottest and was called the “Dog Star.” The star name is a derivative from the Greek “serios,” which translates to “scorching.”
Though one of the Sun’s closest stellar neighbors at almost 9 Light Years away, Sirius has no heat effect on Earth. But it can be so bright that it will cast a shadow under dark conditions.
The history of Procyon in the Little Dog is less dramatic. Its name is an Arabic interpretation of “watery eye,” as they thought of Canis Minor as a water dog.
Procyon and Sirius form a triangle with the bright, red star of Orion called Betelgeuse, translated from Arabic into “armpit of the giant.” This triangle pattern is called an “asterism,” not an official constellation and nicknamed the “Winter Triangle.” It is a beautiful starry sight!
The bright stars of Orion’s shoulders, knees and its bisecting belt are second only to the Big Dipper as the most recognized star pattern in the night sky. The mythology of Orion is dominating in many cultures. The Greeks saw him as an amazing hunter, who boasted of his prowess to kill anything. Alarmed at Orion’s savage intent, the Earth goddess, Gaea, sent a scorpion to kill him. Scorpius is on the opposite side of the sky, rising when Orion is setting, and setting when the hunter is rising. Thus, the symbolism of death and renewal was born between the two celestial creatures.
In Egypt, Orion represented the god of the dead and first king of the land, Osiris. It is said that five of the ancient pyramids of the Giza Plateau were aligned to represent Orion and its stars, and that the belt of three stars were markers in the pyramid shafts 5,000 years ago.
Those seven bright stars outline Orion all have names derived from Arabic. Betelgeuse (armpit) and Bellatrix (female warrior) are the shoulders, while Saiph (sword) and Orion’s brightest star, Rigel (the giant’s leg) make up the knees. The three belts stars, from left to right, are Alnitak (the girdle), Alnilam (string of pearls) and Mintaka (the belt).
The celestial bull motif for Taurus has been recognized since Babylonian records of 2,000 BC. The symbolism of a bull or cow permeates through cultures of Greece, Persia and China. Often the bull is snorting at the raised shield and sword of Orion, menacing him across the sky.
The brightest star of Taurus is the unmistakable red Aldebaran, translated “the follower.” That the star is following might be the cluster of famous stars in its shoulder, The Pleiades. Or Aldebaran is following the loosely scattered star cluster called The Hyades, whose components make up the giant “V” shape of stars that characterize the Bull’s face and horns. The brightest star of the two points is Elnath, or the “butting one.” The Hyades means the “raining ones,” relating to them rising in November and setting in May, traditional rainy months in Europe and the Middle East.
Taurus is one of the oldest of recognized constellations, a drawing of it being found on early cave walls. The Egyptians related the star pattern to Isis, the cow-goddess. The Romans saw this constellation as the god of wine, Bacchus, and during festivals a bull decorated with flowers was escorted through streets by pretty girls, symbolizing the Hyades and Pleiades
The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Little Sisters, are another sky feature recorded throughout antiquity. The spectacular cluster of seven or eight stars shaped like a tiny dipper are revealed in binoculars to be dozens of stars.
The final attraction of the winter evening is Gemini, whose two bright stars are thought to be related like brothers. The mythology of twins Romulus and Remis and Rome are enmeshed in this star pattern. But in true science, they couldn’t be any different.
Castor, the top, western-most star, is an amazing multiple star system with six “suns” orbiting each other—seen only in powerful telescopes. The slightly brighter Pollux is an orange giant star some 36 light years away, slightly closer than Castor. Spreading across the sky from each star in a parallel manner are equally bright stars that form the stick figure bodies of the brothers.
A major figure of the Zodiac, along with Taurus, Gemini was important to sea mariners as a celestial guide. In mythology, they are members of the Jason and the Argonauts’ crew. They have the same mother, Leda, but different fathers—Castor spawned from King Tyndareus of Sparta and Pollux from the loins of Zeus.
It doesn’t get much better than February and March for sky stories of ancient mythology and prominent constellations that everybody has heard about.
Enjoy this “prime time” for the winter wonders that tantalized so many civilizations for dozens of centuries.
And as you do look up, enjoy connecting with all ancient people who took the time, like you, to ponder the twinkling stars above.