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The Origin of the Greek Constellations

The Origin of the Greek Constellations. This is an article up at the new issue of Scientific American. It is by Bradley E. Schaefer. The full-text of the article is not here unless you are a subscriber. There is only an abstract.

Was the Great Bear constellation named before hunter nomads first reached the Americas more than 13,000 years ago? This article claims this may be the case as Ursa Major does not really look like a bear yet communities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas call the constellation the great bear.

Hence, it is likely the constellation was named before settlers first arrived in North America. The article introduced me to the concept of Archaeoastronomy.

Wikipedia describes this as, “the study of ancient or traditional astronomies in their cultural context, utilising archaeological and anthropological evidence. The anthropological study of astronomical practices in contemporary societies is often called ethnoastronomy, although there is no consensus as to whether ethnoastronomy is a separate discipline or is a part of archaeoastronomy.

Archaeoastronomy is also closely associated with historical astronomy, the use of historical records of heavenly events to answer astronomical problems and the history of astronomy, which uses written records to evaluate past astronomical traditions.”

I had not really thought of ancient astronomy as a way to perhaps identify the movement of ideas before. I really enjoyed this article. If you do not subscribe to Scientific American and also do not want to pay for online access, I would recommend a visit to a local public library to check this out. From the article: My grandfather first taught me about the Great Bear constellation.

After that, I had fun wielding an old pair of binoculars and picking out other constellations in the wide sky over Colorado–or even inventing my own. At the time, of course, I gave no thought to the age or origin of the constellations, but the curious pictures in the sky present a fascinating scientific puzzle.

In 1922, when the International Astronomical Union officially defined 88 constellations, it drew the bulk of them from Ptolemy’s The Almagest, which was written around A.D. 150 and described the traditions widespread among the Greeks.

These traditions had been popularized in the “best-selling” poem The Phaenomena, by Aratus (275 B.C.). The great astronomer Hipparchus’s sole surviving book, The Commentary (147 B.C.), tells us that Aratus’s poem is for the most part a copy of a work with the same name by Eudoxus (366 B.C.), which no longer survives.

These books held the earliest descriptions of the Greek skies, and in them the constellations are already fully formed. But where did the Greek constellations come from?…