The constellations that we know today come to us from the ancient word. Their images and their names have been passed down to modern astronomers from Greek and Roman sources.
While each culture of the world had its own versions of images in the sky, the Greco-Roman constellations are some of the most enduring. Not only are they well-known to Western audiences today, but they endured for thousands of years before even the Greeks wrote about them.
The Greeks did not invent their constellations themselves, but instead adopted them from Near Eastern influences. Nearly all of the constellations we know today originated in ancient Babylon, not Greece.
While the Greeks adopted the images in the night sky, however, they did not adopt the stories that went with them. They came up with their own explanations for the shapes that the Babylonians had made out.
These stories did not always agree. The origins of the constellations was often a matter of local folklore rather than religious doctrine so there were many variations on these stories.
Some of the most well-known legends come from Athens, a result of that city’s literary and scientific prominence. One of these tells of a local hero named Icarius, his daughter Erigone, and the faithful dog who was loyal until death.
According to legend, Icarius of Athens was a founding hero of Attica. He settled on the outskirts of the city and established the town of Icaria.
When Dionysus began to travel through Greece, Icarius was one of the first people to recognize him as a god. Although others scorned the new Olympian and doubted whether he was truly divine, Icarius became an enthusiastic follower.
He became the first person in the region to be taught how to make wine. Icarius hoped to share the teachings of Dionysus with his neighbors and spread the joy that it brought him.
He first went out into the countryside around Athens and found the shepherds who tended to his flocks. He gave them a jug of wine, believing that they would become as fond of it as he was.
The shepherds, however, were not prepared for the disorienting effects of the alcohol. Believing that Icarius had poisoned them, they killed him in anger.
Icarius’s daughter Erigone worried when her father did not return home. She set out after him, accompanied by her faithful dog Maera.
Erigone soon found her father’s body after Maera followed his scent. Inconsolable, Erigone hanged herself on the site of her father’s death.
Maera was equally distraught, both at the death of Icarius and at that of Erigone. The faithful dog threw herself off a cliff.
When Dionysus learned what had happened to his first follower, he was enraged. He decided to punish all of Athens for denying his gifts.
Dionysus sent madness over the city, affecting every unmarried woman in it. One by one, the young women of Athens hanged themselves just as Erigone had.
The plague did not end even when the people of the city accepted the divinity of Dionysus and his gift of wine. The god only granted them a reprieve when they established honorific rites to memorialize Icarius and Erigone.
He also had the three martyrs to his cause placed in the sky so they would be remembered forever.
Icarius became the constellation known in Latin as Bootes, the herdsman. Erigone was honored as Virgo, the maiden.
Their faithful dog Maera was immortalized as well. She became Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Major.
Many stories in Greek mythology tell how the stars and constellations came to be formed. Most of these features were not original to Greek culture, however.
The general forms of most constellations had been established long before Classical Greece. By the time of some of the earliest written records in Babylon, many were recognizable.
The female figure of Virgo, for example, was represented in the Near East by the agricultural goddess Shala. Early Greek mythology similarly used Demeter for this form before the story of Erigone became popular in Athens.
Similarly, Bootes was originally shown as the Babylonian god Enlil, the head of the pantheon and the patron of farmers. Several explanations were given for the male form in Greece before the Athenian story of Icarius was told.
The two dog stars, Sirius and Procyon, were named for human characters in Babylon. In ancient Macedonia, however, they were known as the two wolves.
The myths given for the constellations in Greek mythology did not create entirely new forms. Instead, they provided explanations for the shapes that had already been seen for generations.
Most historians believe that the constellations and star clusters were introduced to Greek directly from Near Eastern sources. Although they are often thought of as very different parts of the world, they were closely linked in the ancient past.
Greek culture was heavily influenced by that of the Phoenicians, a Semitic group that lived primarily in what is now Lebanon.
The Phoenicians were one of the first major sea powers of the Mediterannean. The constellations would have been particularly important to them because of their use in navigation.
While some aspects of Phoenician religion entered into Greek culture, most of their contributions were cultural. They are best known for introducing the first alphabet into the region, which was adapted first by the Minoans and then by the Mycenaean Greeks.
The early introduction of the constellations into Greek culture led to a variety of local legends that explained their forms. Most centered around a heroic or tragic figure that was immortalized by the gods out of a sense of pity.
While there was still some variation in the forms in early Greek history, with sources from different cultures leading to slightly different shapes and explanations, the constellations became more standardized as the study of astronomy advanced. By the 4th century BC, the images in the stars were well-known.
The stories, however, continued to evolve and have local differences.
In Arcadia, for example, Bootes was said to be the image of Arcas, the murdered son of Zeus and Callisto for whom the region was named.
In many cases, the Athenian versions of these stories are the best preserved simply because of the number of writers and philosophers who came from that city. The stories from Athens were not necessarily the most well-known elsewhere in the Greek world, but because literature and the sciences thrived there there are more surviving writings.
The Athenian story of Icarius, Erigone, and Maera was not recorded until the Classical Era, and it is likely that it was unknown before then. The story was not a particularly ancient myth, but a local explanation for images that had been recognized for centuries.
According to an Athenian legend, Icarius was a local hero of Attica. He became the area’s first follower of Dionysus.
Icarius attempted to introduce the local people to his god’s new creation, wine. Unfamiliar with alcohol, the drunken shepherds believed that they had been poisoned and killed Icarius.
His daughter Erigone set out to find her missing father. Her dog Maera followed his scent and led him to the body.
The discovery was so heart-wrenching that Erigone hanged herself on the spot. Ever loyal, Maera threw herself off a cliff rather than live without her master and mistress.
Dionysus punished the city with a plague that caused unmarried women to kill themselves in the same way Erigone had. He only relented when they accepted him as a god and established rites in honor of Icarius and his daughter.
He also immortalized the three in the stars. Icarius became the constellation Bootes, Erigone was Virgo, and their dog Maera became one of the stars of Canis Major.
The forms of these constellations were established long before the Athenian legend emerged. In ancient Babylon, Bootes and Virgo had the same shapes.
The Greeks took the forms of the constellations from Near Eastern sources, but created their own legends surrounding them. There were many local variations to these tales; the story of Icarius, Erigone, and Maera is just one of many regional stories that connected the Babylonian constellations to the people and gods of Greece.