Throughout time, people have looked up at the night stars with imagination and awe. In the past, our ancestors thought that the patterns in the stars were designs that reflected some of their heroes, gods and goddesses and even stories that they passed from one generation to another. They identified the star patterns with their own life cycles and it was reassuring that their guardians were watching over them. Today, we call those star clusters and patterns, constellations.
As we developed better and better telescopes, and societies progressed, astronomers realized that the mythical creatures and gods were actually just groups of stars. While they kept the original names, they developed a fine art of studying these constellations. By 1925, an organization called The International Astronomical Union established 88 constellations that would be officially recognized by all astronomers.
If you look at some of the constellations, you might have a problem trying to figure out what our ancestors actually thought they were. Don’t feel bad, because most people have the same trouble. The idea of the constellations was close to a connect-the-dots concept, and even then, the shapes are often not close to what the people in the past thought they saw. They are drawn with an imaginary ‘boundary’ or outline and that is used to help identify each constellation.
Constellations are groups of stars in a particular pattern, as seen from earth. If you went to another planet, you wouldn’t see the same constellations, in fact you would see totally different patterns and groups of stars.
The star patterns that we see also doesn’t mean that these are stars that are all in one place. The stars are actually at a lot of distances from each other from a three-dimensional standpoint, it just looks to us like they are all lined up.
Since the earth is moving around the sun, we will see the constellations in the sky at various points. People in the past used this information as part of their plan to know when the seasons would change, when to plant their crops and when winter would turn to spring. Many used the constellations as a kind of ‘map’ and built structures around the world to observe the movement of the constellations. In some cases, these buildings would include areas that gave them a view of specific constellations during times of the year and alert them to the coming seasonal changes. When the constellation lined up in their view, they knew that it was time for spring or winter. Almost every advanced culture around the world used the constellations for some form of prediction.
When we started navigating the oceans, constellations were used to help guide ships from one location to another. The people on the ships knew how to ‘read’ the constellations so that they could change course based on the pattern of the stars and where they were in the sky.
You might be familiar with some of the most popular constellations such as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, but because we all live in various parts of the planet, we may each see the constellations in different places in the sky.
We have kept many of the names of the constellations from the past, simply because they were already established as a tradition and because they were easier to remember that way.