Constellation Names and Meanings – All 88 Constellations Explained
We’ve all gazed up at the night sky, admiring stars forming familar shapes, dressed in lore of ancient cultures. But, where did all of these names come from, and what do they mean? Without further ado, Astronimate explains all 88 Constellation Names and Meanings!
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Andromeda – Royal sea monster bait
Andromeda is the daughter of Cassiopeia and Cepheus in Greek mythology. Unfortunately, appeasing the gods, she was chained and fed to sea monster, Cetus. However, Perseus finally rescued her!
Antlia – Air pump
Originally, named Antlia Pneumatica, or “Pneumatic Machine,” by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille. Actually, this unusual name honored French physicist Denis Papin’s invention of the air pump.
Apus – Bird of paradise
Greek for “no feet,” Apus is the official bird of paradise. Ironically, this name mocks western civilization’s misconception of the paradise bird not having feet. Who knew?!
Aquarius – Water bearer
Water carrier of the gods, Aquarius was the best looking boy in ancient Greece. In fact, Zeus became enthralled with Aquarius, morphed into an eagle, and abducted the boy!
Aquila – Thunderbolt eagle
Aquila was the majestic eagle who help Zeus’ thunderbolts. However, this meaning is often associated with the legendary eagle who abducted Aquarius (see Aquarius).
Ara – Altar
Ara was the altar in which Greek gods formed a pact, prior to battling the Titans. Led by Zeus, the gods overpowered the Titans, winning the legendary war. Ultimately, the altar was placed in the sky by Zeus. In fact, the Milky Way represents the smoke rising from Ara.
Aries – Ram
Aries was a legendary ram, yielding wings and golden fleece. Originally, sent by Nephele to rescue her son, Phrixus upon his father sacrificing him to ward off famine! Ultimately, both Phrixus and his sister, Helle boarded Aries, flying to safety on the Black Sea.
Auriga – Charioteer
Son of Athena, Auriga was the charioteer of the gods. Plus, created in the image of the Sun god’s chariot, Auriga invented the four-horse chariot.
Boötes – Herdsman
Greek for “oxen driver,” Boötes was the ploughman who corralled oxen, often represented by Ursa Major, the bear.
Caelum – Chisel
Also, named by French astronomer, Nicolas Lous de Lacaille, Caelum means “engraver’s chisel,” in latin.
Camelopardalis – Giraffe
Greek for “camel and leopard,” Camelopardalis was a Greek giraffe. Literally, ancient Greeks viewed giraffe’s long necks and spots as a combo of both animals!
Cancer – Crab
Cancer was a crab, sent to distract Heracles while battling an ancient hydra, or snake. In fact, such a battle was one of Heracles’ 12 labors. Ultimately, he kicked cancer so hard, it flew into our skies, forming the infamous constellation we know today!
Canes Venatici – Hunting dogs
Originally, named by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, Canes represents the hunting dogs, led by Boötes, the herdsman. In fact, the dogs and herder both follow the great bear, Ursa Major.
Canis Major – Big dog
Canis Major is the big dog, following legendary hunter, Orion. In fact, Orion hunts the rabbit, Lepus!
Canis Minor – Small dog
Similarly, Canis Minor, the small dog, also follows Orion whilst hunting the rabbit. Unfortunately, small dog jumped off of a cliff in despair over his owner’s death.
Capricornus – Sea goat
Literally, meaning “goat,” Capricornus represents a forest god, known for his horns and legs of a goat. In fact, some versions claim the goat tended to the infant god, Zeus!
Carina – Keel of Argo Navis
Carina was one of three pieces of a ship, used by Jason and the Argonauts to acquire the golden fleece. Accordingly, Carina represents the ship’s keel.
Cassiopeia – Vain queen
Queen Cassiopeia, a boatful royal, was wife of Cepheus and mother of Andromeda. Ultimately, while claiming to be more beautiful than anyone else, Poseidon sends a sea monster to kill Cassiopeia. Upon requesting help, Cepheus is told he must sacrifice his daughter to the monster. Finally, after leaving the daughter chained to a rock, Perseus saves her. Nice parenting!
Centaurus – Centaur
Half man, half horse, Centaurus was an ancient mythological creature. In fact, the beast mentored many gods, like Theseus, Jason and Heracles!
Cepheus – King
Husband of Cassiopeia, king Cepheus left daughter, Andromeda chained to rocks to be eaten by a sea monster. Fortunately, Perseus saves the girl!
Cetus – Whale
Famously, Cetus was a sea monster, sent by king and queens, Cepheus and Cassiopeia to devour their daughter, Andromeda.
Chamaeleon – Chameleon
Simply put, named after the color-changing lizard, the chameleon, by Dutch explorers in the 1500s.
Circinus – Compass
Originally, named for the drafting tool to draw circles, or measure distances.
Columba – Dove
Introduced in the 1500s, Circinus, represents the dove who informed Noah that the great biblical flood was receding!
Coma Berenices – Berenice’s hair
In ancient Egypt, queen Berenice swore to Aphrodite that she would cut off her long, beautiful blonde hair if she brought her husband, Ptolemy, home safely from dangerous battle! Finally, upon safely returning, the queen fulfilled her promise, chopping off the locks. In fact, she placed the hair in Aphrodite’s temple. However, the hair went missing the following day. Ultimately, Egyptian astronomer, Conon assured him the gods so loved the hair, they left it in the sky!
Corona Austrina – Southern crown
Seen by Greeks as a wreath from the wise centaur, Corona is the southern crown. However, some believe it represents the crown placed in the sky by Dionysus.
Corona Borealis – Northern crown
Corona Borealis, the northern crown, represents the crown worn by Cretan princess, Ariadne during her wedding. Upon helping Theseus defeat the minotaur, Ariadne sailed to Naxos with the hero, where he eventually left her broken-hearted. However, Dionysus fell in love. Ultimately, this paved the way to her happy marriage, and the northern crown.
Corvus – Raven
Representing a crow, or raven, Corvus was the sacred bird of god, Apollo. In fact, Apollo tells the raven to watch over his pregnant lover, Coronis. Ultimately, Coronis falls for another, human man, leaving Apollo. Finally, the god becomes to angry by the raven’s mismanagement, he scorches his wings, leaving them blackened!
Crater – Cup
Crater, represents the cup of god, Apollo. Typically, the cup is envisioned as a chalice, with two handles.
Crux – Southern cross
Although, seen in many different lights across multiple cultures, the cross most often represents a biblical significance, depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. Ultimately, the cross disappeared for many European cultures in the north. In fact, assuming the cross had disappeared, it was not rediscovered for hundreds of years.
Cygnus – Swan
Cygnus represents Leda, a Spartan queen who birthed two sets of twins. Eventually, in the form of a swan, Zeus seduces Leda. Finally, the two immortal twins, Castor and Pollux are fathered by Zeus, represented in Gemini.
Delphinus – Dolphin
Delphinus was Poseidon’s messenger, who ultimately helped him find his future wife, Amphitrite.
Dorado – Fish
Simply put, Dorado was named after a dolphin-like fish by Dutch explorers in the 1500s.
Draco – Dragon
Draco was named after Ladon, the hundred-headed dragon that guards the garden of Hesperides. In fact, Ladon the dragon was slayed by poison arrows in one of Heracles’ 12 labors.
Equuleus – Little horse
Equuleus represents Hippe, daughter of the centaur, Chiron. Hippe, seduced by Aeolus, becomes pregnant. However, afraid to tell her father, Hippe hides in the mountains. Eventually, Chiron comes looking for the scared girl. Hippe prays to the gods that her father never find her. Finally, granting her wish, the girl morphs into a horse, seen in Equuleus.
Eridanus – River
In mythology, Phaëton was son of Sun god, Helios. Phaëton begged his father to let him drive his chariot across the skies. Eventually, Helios agrees, and Phaëton mounts the chariot. However, being inexperienced, the boy loses control of the chariot, plummets toward Earth, causing catastrophic damage. Finally, to prevent further damage, Zeus strikes the boy down with a thunderbolt, plunging him into the river Eridanus.
Fornax – Furnace
Named after the invention of the chemical furnace, or “Fornax Chemica”, used in chemical experiments.
Gemini – Twins
Named after the immortal mythological twins, ultimately fathered by Apollo, Castor and Pollux.
Grus – Crane
Grus, the crane is one of many constellations named after exotic animals by Dutch explorers travelling to the East Indies.
Hercules – Strong man
Named after Heracles, legendary strong man and hero of Greek mythology. Actually, Hercules is one of the oldest constellations in our night sky, dating back to ancient Sumerian civilization.
Horologium – Pendulum clock
Another constellation named by French astronomer, Lacaille. Originally, named Horologium Oscillitorium, or “pendulum clock,” the constellation honors Christiaan Huygen’s invention of the pendulum clock.
Hydra – Water serpent
Officially, Hydra is the largest of the 88 recognized constellations. Lernaean Hydra was the mythological monster from Heracles’ 12 labors. Plus, Hydra is one of the ancient, original constellations, coined by Ptolemy in the 2nd century!
Hydrus – Water snake
Actually, Hydrus has no formal connection to any mythologies. In fact, coined by Dutch explorers, the constellation represents snakes seen on the explorer’s journey to the East Indies.
Indus – Indian
Representing the indigenous peoples met on the East Indies journeys, Indus was also coined by Dutch explorers in the 1500s. However, it remains unknown whether it represents East India, Madagascar or South Africa.
Lacerta – Lizard
Also, not associated with any mythologies, Lacerta was named by Polish astronomer, Johannes Hevelius in the 1600s.
Leo – Lion
Depicts the Nemean lion of greek mythology, slain by Heracles amidst his 12 labors.
Leo Minor – Little lion
Once again, named by Polish astronomer, Johannes Hevelius in the 1600s, Leo Minor, the little lion, holds no association to any mythologies.
Lepus – Hare/rabbit
Next, another oldie from Ptolemy in the 2nd century, Lepus depicts the hare or rabbit chased by Orion, the great hunter. Also, the hare was pursued by Orion’s two dogs, Canis Major and Minor.
Libra – Scales
Literally, meaning “weighing scales,” Libra represents the scales of justice, held by Dike, the Greek goddess of justice.
Lupus – Wolf
Lupus was named by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. However, it was not associated with a wolf until the Renaissance period. Plus, other cultures associated the constellation with beasts, wild animals and more. Often, the wolf was thought to be sacrificed by the centaur.
Lynx – Lynx
Another “newer” constellation by Polish astronomer, Hevelius. In fact, he named it after the lynx because it’s extremely faint, and requires the eyesight of a lynx to see!
Lyra – Harp
Representing the lyre, or harp of Orpheus, Lyra was a Greek poet and musician. Finally, the poet died at the hands of Bacchantes, the loyal female followers of Dionysus.
Mensa – Table Mountain
In Latin, Mensa means “table.” While mapping the skies in South Africa, French astronomer Lacaille named the constellation for Table Mountain in the country.
Microscopium – Microscope
Another French-born constellation by Lacaille. The astronomer named the constellation after the early compound microscopes, used widely in science of the 1800s.
Monoceros – Unicorn
Latin for “unicorn,” Monoceros depicts the mythological horse with a single majestic horn. In fact, Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius named the constellation for the unicorn appearing many times in the old testament of the Bible.
Musca – Fly
Simply put, Musca depicts the common fly, named by Dutch explorers of the 1500s.
Norma – Level
Named in the 1700s by French astronomer Lacaille, Norma represents the carpenter’s square, or level, often used by carpenters on explorer vessels.
Octans – Octant
Octans represents the reflecting octant, a predecessor of the modern sextant for exploration and navigation. Also, another constellation naming from French astronomer, Lacaille.
Ophiuchus – Serpent holder
Ophiuchus depicts the legendary Greek mythology healer, Asclepius. Actually, mythology says that Asclepius learned to bring people back from the dead while witnessing one snake bring herbs to another!
Orion – Hunter
Son of the sea god, Poseidon, Orion was the great Greek hunter. In fact, Orion is one of the night sky’s oldest constellations, dating back to ancient Sumerian lore of Gilgamesh.
Pavo – Peacock
Introduced in the 1500s, Pavo depicts the Java green peacock, likely seen by Dutch explorers while exploring the East Indies.
Pegasus – Winged horse
Pegasus was a white, majestic, winged horse of Greek mythology. In fact, the horse was said to have sprung from the head of Medusa when she was beheaded by Perseus.
Perseus – Greek hero
Dating back to Ptolemy in the 2nd century, Perseus was a true Greek hero. Not to mention, the hero has a whopping six constellations associated with his legend!
Phoenix – Firebird
Sacred to countless cultures and mythologies, Phoenix represents the firebird. Also, it was introduced by Dutch explorers of the 1500s.
Pictor – Painter’s ease
Latin for “painter,” Pictor was named by 17th century French astronomer, Lacaille. Indeed, the constellation was named to honor the palettes and easels of great painters of the time.
Pisces – Fishes
One of the zodiac constellations, Pisces represents Aphrodite and son, Eros turning into fish to escape the monster, Typhon. Also, this constellation was coined in the 2nd century by Ptolemy.
Piscis Austrinus – Southern fish
Piscis Austrinus dates back to Babylonian times. In fact, in Greek mythology, the fish is often depicted drinking the water of Aquarius.
Puppis – Stern of Argo Navis
Originally named for the Argonauts’ vessel, Argo Navis, in which they sailed aboard to retrieve the golden fleece. In fact, Argo Navis, the stern of the ship, was once represented by a single larger constellation. However, during the 1700s, the constellation broke into several smaller pieces, like the stern!
Pyxis – Compass
Pyxis, represents the mariner’s, or sailor’s compass. In fact, this was another 17th century constellation, named by Lacaille.
Reticulum – Reticle
Named for a reticle, or fibrous piece of a telescope or microscope’s eyepiece. French astronomer, Lacaille named the constellation to honor the reticle of his telescope, used during the 1700s to observe the South African skies.
Sagitta – Arrow
Sagitta depicts the Greek mythology arrow, used by Heracles to slay the eagle gnawing on Prometheus’ liver. Gross.
Sagittarius – Archer
Sagittarius depicts a centaur, aiming an arrow at Antares, the star of the scorpion’s heart (see Scorpius).
Scorpius – Scorpion
First named by Ptolemy, Scorpius represents the deadly scorpion that kills Orion, the hunter. In fact, it is thought that Orion still runs from the scorpion, as the two are never seen in the sky at the same time!
Sculptor – Sculptor
Representing the sculptor’s studio, Sculptor was named by French astronomer, Lacaille in the 1700s.
Scutum – Shield
Named by Hevelius in the 1600s, Scutum represents the shield of Polish King Jan III, worn in the victorious battle of Vienna in 1683.
Serpens – Serpent
Seprens represents the snake, held by Asclepius, the great Greek healer, depicted in the constellation Ophiuchus.
Sextans – Sextant
Another constellation named by Polish astronomer, Hevelius. Named after the astronomical sextant used to measure star positions.
Taurus – Bull
Taurus, the bull, is another ancient constellation, dating back to Ptolemy in the 2nd century. In Greek mythology, Zeus morphs into a bull to seduce and kidnap Europa, beautiful daughter of Phoenician King, Agenor.
Telescopium – Telescope
Yet another constellation named by French astronomer, Lacaille. In fact, it’s one of many constellations named after instruments and tools of the time, Telescopium depicts a type of refractor telescope.
Triangulum – Triangle
Another oldie from Ptolemy in the 2nd century, Triangulum simply depicts a triangle because of its geometric visual shape. Also, Greeks knew Triangulum as Deltoton, because it resembled their triangular letter, delta!
Triangulum Australe – Southern triangle
Named by Dutch astronomer, Plancius, Triangulum Australe is not associated with any mythologies. Basically, it represents the triangular configurations observed in the skies.
Tucana – Toucan
Tucana, the toucan, represents the exotic bird, likely seen during 16th century journeys of Dutch explorers.
Ursa Major – Big bear
One of the oldest constellations, Ursa Major, the big bear is widely known across many cultures and mythologies. In Greek mythology, Zeus falls in love with the nymph, Callisto. However, Zeus’ wife Hera turns the nymph into a bear.
Ursa Minor – Small bear
Ursa Minor represents Arcas, son of Zeus and nymph Callisto, Zeus’ affection. In fact, both characters morph into bears, hidden among the sky, protected from Zeus’ jelous wife, Hera.
Vela – Sails of Argo Navis
One of three constellations that forms the Argonaut’s sailing vessel, Argo Navis. Vela is the ship’s sails.
Virgo – Young maiden
Virgo represents the daughter of Zeus, Dike, who was Greek mythology’s goddess of justice. Most often, Virgo is depicted with majestic wings, holding the scales of justice, seen in constellation Libra.
Volans – Flying fish
Again, introduced by Dutch explorers of the 1500s, Volans represents a type of fish, able to bound from the water and appear to sail, or fly through the air!
Vulpecula – Little fox
Named by Polish astronomer, Johannes Hevelius, Vulpecula depicts a fox holding a goose in its teeth. In fact, Hevelius named the constellation after a fox bringing a goose to Cerberus, the dog guarding the entrance to Greek mythology’s underworld.