Ah, the constellations! Not the heavenly bodies of Kate Moss and her ilk, but the true heavenly bodies. These alignments of stars in recognizable forms gave order to the chaos of so many pinpoints of light within the sky, and so in turn spawned further study of the skies. From this came astronomy, the pseudo-science of astrology, navigation, trigonometry, and even mathematics.
Let's review the history of some of the constellations, for their history is oft as beautiful as the heavenly bodies themselves. One of the more famous is the big dipper or the plough, if you're British. This was known, amongst others, as a dipper to African Americans, for instance, during the time of slavery and, as it was a northerly body of stars, marked the way to the free north for brave slaves. The news of the dipper of freedom would be sung in codified songs with words leading the way to liberation.
While this star group is well known in itself, the constellation is also a part of a larger conglomeration of stars known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear. This moniker was given by ancients living in Europe and Asia (the Greeks, notably), after Callisto, a maiden that went awry of the goddess Artemis' good will. Interestingly, numerous Native American tribes also considered this cluster to represent a bear, possibly due to how far north it is found, a place where few animals but a bear could survive.
Next we have The Big Bear's little brother (or son, from the Greek legend of Arcas), Ursa Minor. Within the Little Bear is Polaris, the North Star. This star grouping has been known about since at least 600 BC and was known to Thales, reputedly the first western philosopher.
Dog lovers rejoice, as Canis Major is for them. Leading the pack of this star grouping is the bright star of Sirius, The Dog Star. Both this star and its constellation have a long history of myth within the ancient world. Sirius has been associated with death and famine, the coming of the new year, and now in modern pop culture, with aliens.
A truly interesting story about Sirius goes like this: Sirius, it was confirmed in 1862, is a "devil star" -that is, a binary star. A smaller star, completely invisible to the naked eye circles the dog. However, in anthropological literature it has been found that the Dogon, a tribe in Northwestern Africa, believed Sirius to be binary centuries before modern science could confirm this.
Crux, or the Southern Cross, is the smallest of constellations, having once been a part of Centaurus, but later associated on its own for religious purposes. Crux was originally just visible over the horizon though drifted down over time, only to be rediscovered by explorers who found the stellar icon both inspiring and useful to navigation.
Probably the most famous of all constellations is Orion. An equatorial asterism, his belt is extremely easy to identify. Just to the left of the belt of the mighty archer is the famous Horsehead Nebula and above this, forming Orion's armpit is Betelgeuse (which actually means "armpit"). Below and to the right of Betelgeuse is Rigel (which every fan of Star Trek will recognize).
This list is hardly exhaustive, and merely hints at some of the better-known constellations. Learning about these heavenly bodies can lead to a goodly knowledge of mythology and history, veritable stars in their own right.
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