While it may not be pleasant for most in the northern hemisphere to step outside on a chilly night to spend a few silent minutes contemplating the origin of the celestial formations that surround us, getting to know the night sky is always intriguing and is the only (mostly) unchanged map humans have had for centuries.
Not only is it interesting to gaze at the night sky when venturing far into the wild, but it will help you find your way back to civilization when you’ve ventured too far. This guide to the constellations applies to star gazers and navigators in the Northern Hemisphere.
Use the above sky chart between midnight and 1 AM in January, between 10 PM and 11 PM in February and between dusk and 9 PM in March.
Notable observations in the winter sky are:
Ursa Minor [Little Dipper] – Also known as Little Bear, this constellation is the starting point in any observation. The North Star (Polaris) is always hinged stationary in the sky while its “attached” constellation appears to spin about it and the rest of the night sky follows suit. This constellation is one of few that is visible all year round.
Look for 7 stars that appear in the shape of a small cooking pot. The “ladle” or “handle” of the pot is long and curved; at its very tip you find the North Star. Start heading in the direction of this star as if you’re following it, and you are walking north.
Ursa Major [Big Dipper] – The big brother constellation to Ursa Minor is Ursa Major or the Great Bear. It appears northeast of the little dipper. It is just above the northern horizon between midnight and 1 AM and looks similar to Ursa Minor but with a larger “container” and a longer, straighter handle.
Each constellation is associated with several legends, and Ursa Major is no exception. One legend says the Greek god Zeus seduced one of Artemis’ followers, Callisto. Callisto birthed Zeus a child, Arcas. Zeus’ wife Hera became jealous and transformed Callisto into a bear. When her son Arcas came upon bear Callisto he prepared to shoot her down. Zeus intervened and turned Arcas into a bear as well and threw them both in the sky by their tails before either was harmed, but doomed never to rest as their constellations are visible year-round, never falling beneath the horizon.
Draco – Draco means “dragon” in Latin. Look for a long string of stars forming a half-circle around the northern part of the Little Dipper and curving into a backward “S” shape back west to form the head of the dragon with four stars in an oblong trapezoid.
Legends abound of this dragon as the THE dragon slain in numerous myths, most often for the hero to reclaim control of a place or as a task to prove oneself. Hercules killed the dragon Ladon as one of his 12 labors, Cadmus killed the dragon when founding Thebes, Greece, Jason killed the dragon to attain the golden fleece, even Adam and Eve originally met the dragon before it become known as a serpent.
Cassiopeia – Look for an elongated, slanted “W” formed by five stars. Interlaced myths abound about this constellation and nearby constellations that make up Cassiopeia’s husband, daughter and her daughter’s saviors – explained below.
Cepheus – Cassiopeia’s husband and king of Ethiopia. His constellation is formed by a triangle and rectangle side-by-side. The shortest leg of the triangle makes up one side of the imperfect rectangle.
Perseus – Andromeda’s savior and future husband. It can be made up of almost 20 stars forming the shape of a man with a triangular hat who appears to be made out of children’s old wooden blocks. Look for a triangle connecting Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Perseus.
The legend of these constellations stems from the vanity of Cassiopeia, who bragged about her beauty and that of her daughters, angering Poseidon, the powerful god of the sea. He threatened to destroy Cassiopeia and Cepheus’ kingdom but Cepheus made a deal with him to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda if Poseidon would spare his kingdom. Andromeda was chained to a cliff awaiting death when Perseus fell in love with her when traveling by the coast and saved her from the monster that was to kill her.
Orion – Also known as the Hunter, Orion is one of the most easily visible constellations in the sky. He appears on the eastern horizon between midnight and 1 AM in October. Look for three bright stars in a row on a slant that make up his belt. The more bright stars above the belt (depending on your point of view) make up this body with broad shoulders.
Legend says he’s had his hand in a number of projects that shaped the appearance of the world like the Sicilian Straits, but he was also a figure in Homer’s Odyssey as a hunter in the underworld. One legend states that he was the son of sea god Poseidon, and another that he hunted with the huntress goddess Artemis.
Bootes – Pronounced Buh-Oh-Tayz, the star formation resembles a kite with short limbs for legs and an outstretched left hand (his left hand, so to our right). The constellation is large and easy to spot and contains the fourth brightest star in the sky, Arcturus, which makes up the bottom of Bootes’ “kite”.
There are many varying myths surrounding Bootes’ presence in the skies. Bootes means ox-driver, bear-driver or herdsman. One myth says he invented the plough which pleased the goddess of agriculture, Ceres (Roman mythology), who rewarded him by placing him in the stars. An alternate myth suggests Bootes is actually the son of Callisto (Ursa Major) and not Ursa Minor (or little bear). Related to that myth, Arcas (the son of Callisto) is raised by a mortal father, Lykaon, who kills him to feed to Zeus. Zeus notices and restores Arcas’ life and throws both the men in the stars, Lykaon as Bootes.
Gemini – Also known as the Twins, and appearing as two people standing next to each in embrace. Think stick people with a horizontal line crossing the two stick figures as the arms.
The twin brothers Castor and Pollux are said to be Leda’s offspring from the famous myth “Leda and the Swan” where Zeus transforms himself into a swan and seduces and impregnates Leda on the same night that she is impregnated by her husband King Tyndareus. Therefore, one son is mortal, one is immortal. Both were Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece and both played a part in retrieving their sister Helen during the Trojan War.
Hydra – It is the largest of the 88 modern constellations, it stretches across a quarter of the sky. It is elongated, connected by its roughly 14 zigzagging stars, and another 4 that make up its perceptively small head.
Egyptians equate this constellation to the river Nile. To the ancient Greeks, the Hydra was a relentlessly terrifying serpent with nine heads who guarded the Underworld. In The Twelve Labors of Hercules the Hyrda was terrorizing the village of Lerna and it was Hercules’ task to destroy the beast who only grew two more heads out of the place where one was cut off. It was put into the sky after Hercules slayed it.
Leo – Leo is the Latin name for “lion”. In between the Hydra and Ursa Major is the sideways standing lion, Leo. His front legs, mane and top of his head resemble a backward question mark. Coming out the left side of the backward question mark is his body and tail, made up by a shape that resembles a trapezoid (but with no parallel lines) and an oblique triangle, respectively.
Leo is thought to be another constellation placed in the sky after Hercules strangled the beast to death by hand following the myth that Leo’s coat was impenetrable by a weapon of any sort.
Canis Major – Latin for “Greater Dog”, usually pictorially represented as a canine. This is one of the easiest to find and notable constellations in the sky as Sirius, the brightest start in the sky, makes up what could be the head or nose of the dog.
By definition, a constellation is not merely a picture made up in the sky by connecting the dots on the stars. It is an entire slice of sky pieced by rectangles which contain the star formations mentioned above. Located within some of the constellations are other stellar phenomena. For example, below the three stars that make up Orion’s belt there seem to dangle three more stars as either a loose belt loop or sword that’s facing the ground. One of the stars is actually not a star, but the Orion nebula, a massive star formation or cloud of star dust. I highly recommend that you bring a telescope along to really blow your mind.