When we peer into the night sky we see stars, planets, the Moon, meteors and other beautiful heavenly bodies. And with a little imagination, we can also "see" a variety of animate and inanimate objects as constellations formed by imaginary lines between some of the brighter stars.
The practice of creating imaginary figures from the stars goes back unknown thousands of years, and has likely been done by many, if not most, peoples of the world. What was seen, of course, reflected the life and experiences of those whose imaginations made them up. Where the Greeks saw a hunter, the Maya saw a Maize God-bearing turtle and the hearthstones of creation. And for all we know, Africans might have seen a zebra, South Americans a snake, Asians a temple, or Australians a kangaroo.
Since 1930, the International Astronomical Union has recognized 88 official constellations, 48 of which come from antiquity. Some likely came from the Sumerians who might have handed them down to the Babylonians, who, in turn, bequeathed them to the Greeks., and eventually to us. And who knows what sky lore and knowledge the Sumerians might have inherited from their ancestors. Since these civilizations lived in the Northern Hemisphere, the constellations they invented were only in the parts of the night sky they could see.
The remainder of today’s constellations, mostly those seen from deep within the Southern Hemisphere, were created by Europeans when they began exploring previously unknown (to them) parts of the world. When they saw new stars, they invented European-oriented constellations, like a telescope, microscope, compass, and clock.
How I wish they had been less ethnocentric and inquired of the indigenous populations they encountered what they saw in the sky. Our knowledge of this aspect of other ancient cultures, including Native Americans, is quite limited. Imagine how much richer our night sky lore and imagery would be if we also knew how others from around the world had seen the night sky.
Even so, no one with any imagination should find the night sky boring as it is filled with people, animals, mythical creatures, and inanimate objects. Among the people are Andromeda the Princess, Aquarius the Water Carrier, Auriga the Charioteer, Bootes the Herdsman, Cassiopeia the Queen, Cepheus the King, Gemini the Twins (Pollux and Castor), Hercules the Strongman, Indus the American Indian, Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer, Orion the Hunter, Perseus the Hero, and Virgo the Virgin.
Non-human animals include many kinds of birds, several dogs and fish, three snakes, two lions, two bears, a ram, giraffe, crab, chameleon, dolphin, lizard, rabbit, wolf, lynx, scorpion, bull, colt, fox, and even a fly. Mythical critters include two centaurs, a dragon, seagoat, unicorn, sea monster, and a flying horse.
The plethora of inanimate objects could make for the mother of all garage sales. They include an air pump, alter, engraving tool, drawing compasses, two crowns, cup, cross, furnace, clock, scales, musical lyre, microscope, carpenter’s square, octant, painter’s easel, mariner’s compass, reticle, arrow, sculptor’s tool, shield, sextant, telescope, and two triangles. And if that’s not enough, there’s the long beautiful hair of Queen Berenices, several parts of the great ship Argo on which Jason and the Argonauts had their adventures, and a river and a mountain.
With that much company, how could anyone ever be lonesome or bored under the night sky. But if that’s not enough, I encourage you to create your own constellations. Surely you can be just as creative as the Greeks, Babylonians, Sumerians, and others of yesteryear.