The Sciences

Interpreting 5 Ancient Constellations Across Cultures

For thousands of years, different civilizations have attached stories and symbolism to the same starry configurations in the night sky.

By Joshua Rapp LearnAug 4, 2022 10:00 AM
Ancient stone structure in  North Caucasus, Russia
(Credit: Sergey Tinyakov/Shutterstock)

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Civilizations come and go, with some lasting mere decades while others endure for millennia. But what rarely changes, at least on human timescales, are the stars above us. Nonetheless, past cultures have often connected the dots of various stars in different ways — representing everything from the myths of creation to legendary figures and godlike animals, depending on the viewer. 

Some of these cultural references go back thousands of years and are possibly even older. They represent early examples of humanity’s preoccupation with symbolism in the world around us and how vastly different cultures have sometimes interpreted the sky in similar ways. 

“Cultures around the world organize stars into constellations or asterisms, and these groupings are often considered to be arbitrary and culture-specific,” wrote the authors of a recent paper published in Psychological Science. “Yet there are striking similarities in asterisms across cultures, and groupings such as Orion, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades and the Southern Cross are widely recognized across many different cultures.” 

Unfortunately, many stellar groupings that some ancient cultures recognized are still not well understood by modern scholars — although we have identified some of their names and corresponding hieroglyphs or the role these stars played in calendar systems. Below are a few examples of ancient constellations and asterisms that we do know well, and what they meant to the cultures that connected their astral dots. 

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