History of the Constellations

Stars and Constellations


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Contents of this page: | Description | Skylore | Modern Culture | Origin and History | Asterisms | Special Stars | Star Clusters | Nebulae | Submit new info... |

Images (at bottom of page): | Lyra Chart: (Figure 1) | Hyginus, 1482, page D3r: (Figure 2) | Hyginus, 1517, page E3r: (Figure 3) | Ptolemy, 1541-const, page Lyra: (Figure 4) | Bayer, 1661, page H: (Figure 5) | Bayer, 1697, page D4r: (Figure 6) | Bayer, 1697, page D4v: (Figure 7) | Bode, 1801, page l: (Figure 8) | Bode, 1801, page r: (Figure 9) | Aspin, 1825, page Lacerta: (Figure 10) | Images digitized by Hannah Magruder.

Constellation Data


The summer triangle consists of Deneb... Altair... and bluish Vega. Vega is the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere, closely rivaling Arcturus. Vega means Swooping Eagle in Arabic. It soars almost directly overhead in summer, while the bright stars of winter nights are hidden almost directly beneath our feet. Look for a small parallelogram of stars near Vega which forms the frame of the harp.

A slow wobble in the Earth’s daily rotation causes the Earth’s north pole to trace a circle among the stars every 26,000 years. Because of this motion, called precession, the star nearest the pole is not always the same. Architects of the great Egyptian pyramid used Thuban (TOO-bahn), a star in the constellation Draco the Dragon, for their north star.

Polaris, the tip of the Little Dipper’s handle (see Ursa Minor), currently lies within three-quarters of a degree from the polar point, and will reach its closest proximity--under half a degree--in the year 2102 AD. No matter where you are in the northern hemisphere, when you face Polaris you are facing north. Polaris now points northward more accurately than a magnetic compass.

In 14,000 years Vega will become the pole star. This extremely slow but steady cycle of precession was discovered around 150 B.C by the ancient astronomer Hipparchos. Hipparchos combined the qualitative geometrical systems of the Greeks with the quantitative astronomy of the Babylonians, whose ancient observations were etched on cuneiform tablets. This remarkable fusion of cultures, embodied in the achievements of Hipparchos, greatly benefited Ptolemy 300 years later.

Ptolemy advised his readers that to comprehend the great cycles of the stars provides serenity in the midst of continually changing earthly life: Above all things, astronomy can make men see clearly. From the constancy, order, symmetry and calm which are associated with the divine, astronomy makes its followers lovers of this divine beauty, accustoming them and reforming their natures, as it were, to a similar spiritual state.

Skylore and Literature

This is the lyre given by Apollo to Orpheus according to the Greeks, or to King Arthur according to English legend. Shakespeare tells us that when Orpheus would play his lyre:

everything that heard him play, | even the billows of the sea, | hung their heads, and then lay by.

Orpheus played the harp so well that he charmed Pluto and the guardians of the underworld. They enjoyed his music so much that they agreed to release his wife Eurydice, who had died of a snake bite. Orpheus was told to trust that Eurydice was behind him, and not to look back and check to see if she was there. He could not obey this comand, however, and he lost his wife forever. Later, Zeus places his harp among the stars.

Modern Culture

Origin and History

Lyra is included in the ancient star catalogs of Eudoxos of Knidos, Aratos of Soli, and Ptolemy.

Bode portrayed Lyra as a vulture.


Summer Triangle

Special Stars

The bright star Vega is a brilliant bluish-white, almost straight overhead on late summer evenings. Vega is 3 times larger than the sun and 27 light years away. Vega is the only single star to have an automobile named after it.

Star Clusters

M56 (Globular cluster), mag. 8.7.


M57, Ring Nubula (Planetary nebula), mag. 9.0.

In the late 18th century, Charles Messier (MESS-ee-ay) catalogued all the cloudy patches he could find in the sky so that he would not mistake them for comets. A cloudy patch in Lyra was the 57th nebula listed in his catalog. M57, now known as the Ring Nebula, appears like a little smoke ring peacefully wafting through the starry night. However, this doughnut of glowing hydrogen gas, speaks of the violent explosion of the outer layers of a once massive star. Near the center of the ring, only its hot bluish core remains intact.

Submit new info...

Many excellent websites provide a variety of information about constellations for amateur astronomers and telescope users (see sidebar links for a few of these). These constellation pages are not intended to duplicate those efforts, but are devoted to two aims: First, they are intended to assist the beginning skywatcher, including students in history of science survey courses, in becoming familiar with Basic Celestial Phenomena (BCP). Second, these pages are devoted to the history of the constellations and the history of astronomy. They are intended to serve as a repository for collaborative use and reference. Do you have additional historical information about the stars or constellation described on this page? Please submit additional information to kmagruder@ou.edu. Submissions will be attributed. Editors for historical information are Kerry Magruder, JoAnn Palmeri, Peter Barker, and Laura Gibbs.

Oklahoma History of Science exhibits: http://hos.ou.edu/exhibits/. Page revised 4/15/04

Bad links, misplaced images, or questions? Contact Kerry Magruder. Thank you.

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown. But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile." R. W. Emerson, Nature


Figure 1 Figure 1 - Return to Text

Lyr Chart
Figure 2 Figure 2 - Return to Text

Hyginus, 1482

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Hyginus, 1517

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Ptolemy, 1541-const

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Bayer, 1661

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Bayer, 1697

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Bayer, 1697

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Bode, 1801

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Bode, 1801

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Aspin, 1825

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Exhibit credit: Kerry Magruder.

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These teaching resources provided by the History of Science Department at the University of Oklahoma.

Unless otherwise indicated, all images courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries. Image Terms of Use.

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