The Greek Mythology Behind Famous Constellations

The ancients, renowned for their rich pantheon of deities and epic tales, weaved Greek mythology together with the patterns of the night sky.

Dec 16, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

mythology behind famous constellations


Each constellation in the ancient Greek sky was associated with a specific mythological story, often featuring gods, heroes, or mythical creatures. These stories were woven into the fabric of Greek culture, shaping their religious beliefs, moral values, and societal norms. The constellations served as visual representations of Greek mythology, immortalizing the characters and their deeds in the stars for all eternity. They served, not only as waymarkers but also as sources of inspiration. The Greeks looked up at the stars and witnessed the presence of their deities, the exploits of their greatest heroes, and reminders of their moral teachings.


Greek Mythology and the Night Sky: Andromeda, Cassiopeia & Cepheus

Perseus and Andromeda, by Charles André van Loo, 1735-40, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington


Andromeda’s tragic story stems from the arrogance of her mother, Cassiopeia, who was known for boasting about her daughter’s beauty. She regrettably claimed that Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs.


This arrogance angered the sea god Poseidon, who sent a monstrous sea serpent, known as Cetus, to terrorize their kingdom. After consulting an oracle, King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia decided to appease Poseidon by offering their daughter to the sea monster. Consequently, she was chained to a rock to await her fate. Perseus, traveling home from his Gorgon-slaying journey, was captivated by her beauty and agreed to defeat the monster in exchange for Andromeda’s hand in marriage. The gods positioned Andromeda in the sky as a constellation, along with her parents and Perseus.



Perseus Beheading Medusa, by Francesco Maffei, 1650, via Gallerie Accademia Venezia


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The constellation of Perseus stands as a testament to the triumphs of this legendary hero, depicted with the head of Medusa in one hand and a sword in the other. He was born of the union between Zeus, the king of gods, and the mortal princess Danaë. Fearing a prophecy that his grandson would bring about his downfall, King Acrisius of Argos cast Danaë and the infant Perseus out to sea inside a wooden chest. Miraculously, they survived their journey, eventually reaching the island of Seriphos. As Perseus grew up, he embarked on numerous heroic quests but his most celebrated achievement was the slaying of the dreaded Gorgon, Medusa.


With her hair of serpents and the power to turn any who gazed upon her to stone, she was a formidable opponent. Assisted by the gods, Perseus successfully beheaded Medusa, utilizing a shield to catch her reflection and defeat her.


Throughout his perilous journey back home, Perseus accomplished many heroic deeds including the rescue of Andromeda from a sea monster. Utilizing the petrifying power of Medusa’s head, Perseus turned the creature into stone, saving the princess and ultimately marrying her. Returning to Argos, Perseus fulfilled the prophecy by inadvertently causing the death of his grandfather, King Acrisius. In recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments, the gods immortalized Perseus in the heavens as a constellation. Residing in the northern sphere, the Perseus constellation stands alongside the neighboring constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Pegasus.


Ursa Major & Minor

“Ursa Major” in Urania’s Mirror, by Sidney Hall, 1825, via Wikimedia Commons


The mythology behind the Ursa Major and Minor constellations stems from the story of Callisto, a nymph devoted to Artemis, who caught the attention of Zeus. Zeus enchanted by the nymph, cunningly, assumed the form of Artemis. Deceived by the disguise, Callisto was seduced by Zeus and became pregnant with his child, Arcas. When Artemis discovered Callisto’s pregnancy, she was furious and expelled the nymph from her group.


Zeus’ wife, Hera also learned of the affair and, in her jealousy, transformed the nymph into a bear. Years later, Arcas grew up to be a skilled hunter and in a coincidental encounter faced the very bear that was once his mother.  Zeus, recognizing the impending tragedy and wishing to reunite mother and son, intervened. He transformed Arcas into a bear and placed them both in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear), forever united in the heavens.


Orion, Scorpius, & The Pleiades

Orion Constellation, by Johann Bayer, 1661, via Wikimedia Commons


The Orion constellation is one of the most recognizable and prominent constellations in the night sky. Orion, a mighty hunter of gigantic stature and skill, was born from the union of the Gorgon Euryale and Poseidon, the god of the sea. One myth surrounding Orion recounts his audacious claim of being capable of slaying any creature on Earth, a boast that caused the wrath of Gaia.


In her anger, Gaia sent a scorpion to punish Orion. A ferocious battle ensued, ultimately leading to the demise of both participants. In recognition of their epic struggle, Zeus immortalized them as constellations in the night sky. Orion, with his grand figure, became the eponymous constellation while the scorpion took its place as Scorpius, situated on the opposite side of the night sky.


Another myth associated with Orion revolves around his pursuit of the Pleiades, seven sisters who were the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Determined to capture them, Orion chased the Pleiades across the heavens. The sisters sought divine protection and were transformed into doves. In these forms, they were placed among the stars as the Pleiades star cluster.



The Apotheosis of Hercules, by Giandomenico Tiepolo, 1731-1736, via Thyseen-Bornemisza Museo Nacional


Named after the infamous Greek hero, the Heracles constellation is characterized by its distinctive shape, a figure kneeling with a club in his hand. Heracles’ birth was the result of Zeus’ infidelity, as he took the form of Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, in order to bed her. His divine lineage gifted him with extraordinary abilities but also caused many hardships. In a fit of madness induced by Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, Heracles murdered his own wife and children.


Thus, a series of tasks, the legendary Twelve Labours, was imposed on him as punishment for this heinous act. The Twelve Labours included the slaying of the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, and the Stymphalian birds. He was also tasked with capturing the hind of Artemis, the Erymanthian boar, and the Cretan bull. The fifth task was cleaning the stables of Augean. Then Heracles also had to steal the mares of Diomedes, the girdle of Hippolyta, the cattle of the monster Geryon, and the apples of Hesperides. His final task involved the capture of Cerberus, the three-headed gigantic dog that guarded the underworld. Through these triumphs, he demonstrated his ability to overcome seemingly impossible challenges, redeem himself, and earn his place among the stars.


Leo (The Lion)

Hercules and the Leon of Nemea, by Peter Paul Rubens, 16-early 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons


The Leo constellation is associated with the Nemean Lion, a fearsome beast that was ultimately slain by the hero Hercules. Sent by the gods to terrorize the region of Nemea, the lion had an impenetrable golden hide, making it invulnerable to mortal weapons. Heracles’ first task was to slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its hide. In his encounter with the creature, realizing his weapons were useless, he strangled the lion with his bare hands eventually defeating it. He wore its impenetrable skin as a protective cloak, which became an iconic symbol of his triumph. The constellation represents the majestic figure of a lion and is easily identifiable due to its distinctive shape, including a backward question mark that outlines the lion’s head.


The Hydra 

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, by Gustave Moreau, 1875-1876, via


The largest of the 88 modern constellations, the Hydra constellation is based upon the myth of a terrifying serpent with multiple heads. This creature had a regenerative ability for if one of its heads was severed, two new heads would grow in its place, making it a seemingly invincible adversary. Its poisonous breath and venomous bites were also said to be deadly. The slaying of the Hydra was tasked to Heracles as the second of his Twelve Labours. With the help of his nephew Iolaus, Heracles devised a strategy to defeat the creature. As Heracles attacked the Hydra, cutting off its heads, Iolaus used a burning torch to cauterize the stumps, preventing new heads from regenerating.


Aquarius (The Water Bearer)

Ganymede, by Gabriel Ferrier, 1874, via Wikimedia Commons


The Aquarius constellation is associated with Ganymede who enthralled Zeus with his breathtaking beauty. Taking the form of an eagle, Zeus swooped down from Mount Olympus and abducted Ganymede, taking him away to the realm of the gods. There, Ganymede was appointed as the divine cupbearer, entrusted with the task of pouring ambrosia for the gods. The image of a figure pouring liquid from a vessel can be outlined when observing the Aquarius constellation.


Gemini (The Twins)

Caster and Pollux, 3rd century CE, via Italianartsociety


The constellation Gemini is said to be connected to the myth of Castor and Pollux, twin brothers, born to different fathers. Castor was the mortal son of King Tyndareus of Sparta, while Pollux was the divine son of Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan to seduce their mother, Leda.


The twins became renowned for their bravery and combative talents, often engaging in heroic adventures. Tragedy struck, however, when Castor was killed in a conflict. Devastated by his brother’s death, Pollux pleaded with his father Zeus to allow them to be reunited. Zeus, moved by Pollux’s grief, granted his request. As a result, the twins were immortalized in the stars as the constellation Gemini.


Greek Mythology and Pisces (The Fish)

A Statue of Aphrodite and Eros, 100-160 BCE, via the British Museum


The escape of Aphrodite and Eros from the monstrous Typhon is linked to the Pisces constellation. Typhon, a fearsome creature that was said to have a hundred dragon heads, had been sent by Gaia to attack the gods. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and Eros, her son, transformed into these fish to escape the danger.  The constellation can be outlined to see two fish swimming in opposite directions, it can be observed during autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern hemisphere.

Author Image

By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!