A constellation is a recognisable picture, shape, or pattern which is formed by the stars in the night sky! When many stars cluster together, they can resemble symbols, animals, or mythological creatures and are given names to identify them.
There are 88 major star constellations, 36 of these constellations lie in the Northern celestial hemisphere, while the other 52 are found in the Southern sky.
What are they used for
Constellations have been used in navigation, farming, mythology, storytelling and astronomy by many cultures for thousands of years. Constellations have helped us to form a map of the vast night sky. If you can spot one constellation, it is much easier to find another one that you know is nearby. After all, a cluster of stars is much easier to spot and identify than a single star! Navigators such as sailors and pilots generally have knowledge of which constellations are visible in the different hemispheres to determine what direction they are heading after the Sun sets. The ancient Greeks also used constellations to tell stories about mythical creatures, gods, and goddesses.
How Constellations Connect to the Zodiacs
The most commonly known constellations relate to the 12 zodiac signs in Western astrology. These form a pattern in the sky, making it easier to know where to find each constellation over the course of the year. When lit up at the same time, they would form the shape of a circle. 'Zodiac' loosely translates to 'circle of life' or 'circle of animals' in Greek.
The twelve constellations of the zodiac lie along the plane of the ecliptic. This is a path that the Sun follows across the sky, which forms a circle when viewed from here on Earth. The Sun appears to pass through each zodiac constellation throughout the course of the year, making it a useful way for ancient cultures to track what time of year it was.
At the beginning of the year, in January, this constellation is highly visible to us. Sagittarius is referred to as ‘The Archer’, this is because the Greeks thought it looked like the Centaur, a creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse. Others thought it resembled a man shooting a bow and arrow. The Sagittarius constellation contains seventeen named stars.
Capricorn is also highly visible in January, but towards the end of the month. It is referred to as 'The Goat' or ‘The Sea Goat’. The ancient Greeks thought it resembled a goat, but with a fishtail instead of hind legs. Capricorn is a cardinal constellation, marking the beginning of a new season. The Capricorn constellation contains five named stars.
Thought to resemble an old man pouring water from a pitcher, the Aquarius constellation is at its most visible in February. Aquarius is called ‘The Water Bearer’ and the ancient Babylonians associated this sign with being the bringer of rain. Aquarius is also one of the oldest constellations, lying in the Southern sky between Capricorn and Pisces. The constellation contains eleven named stars.
The Pisces constellation is seen predominantly in March, referred to as ‘The Fishes’. Pisces is said to represent Venus, a Roman goddess who was said to have the ability to turn into a fish to escape an evil monster. The Pisces constellation contains nine named stars.
Aries is seen up in the sky in April, identified with ‘The Golden Ram’ in Greek mythology. Located in the Northern Hemisphere, Aries is also a cardinal constellation, marking the beginning of a new season. The Aries constellation contains six formally named stars.
Named for the Roman God Jupiter, who could turn himself into a ‘Bull’ when he swam, many cultures identify this zodiac constellation as a Bull. With a history dating back to the Bronze Age, this constellation was useful for marking the Suns location during the Spring Equinox. The Taurus constellation is visible in May and contains seventeen formally named stars.
Most evident in July, The constellation of Cancer is the faintest of the zodiac constellations. In Greek mythology, this constellation is associated with the ‘crab’ sent by Hera to defeat Heracles. Cancer is a cardinal constellation, marking the beginning of a new season. Cancer contains ten named stars.
Visible to the naked eye in August, the Leo constellation is among the largest in the sky. Resembling a ‘Lion’ and often associated with the Nemean lion in Greek mythology. The Leo constellation contains thirteen named stars.
Symbolising ‘The Maiden’ and seen in September, the Virgo constellation is the second largest constellation in the sky. Commonly associated with the Greek goddess of justice, Dike. The constellation Virgo contains fifteen named stars.
Symbolised by ‘The Scales’ and visible in October, when the days and nights are roughly balanced in time. Libra is the only zodiac constellation that represents an object rather than an animal or mythological character. Located in the Southern sky, Libra is a cardinal constellation, marking the beginning of a new season. Libra contains four formally named stars.
Visible in the sky in November, the Scorpio constellation is located near the center of the Milky Way. As the name suggests, this constellation resembles a ‘scorpion’ and is associated with the story of Orion in Greek mythology. The constellation Scorpius contains eighteen named stars.