A constellation is a grouping of stars that is used to help identify a region of the sky. The individual stars within a constellation generally have no physical relationship, as they are at a varying distances from our observation point on the Earth. Different cultures developed their own groupings of stars, as they each had their own stories to tell in the night sky. For example, the constellation of Ursa Major has variously been identified as:

  • An Ox and his handler (by the Egyptians, as recorded in paintings found in the tomb of Seti I);
  • The tail of a Great Bear (by the Greeks and Native Americans); and
  • A celestial bureaucrat carried on a cloud (by the Chinese).

In 1933, the International Astronomical Union specified a definitive set of 88 constellations, based on the groupings introduced by:

  • Ptolemy: 48 constellations described in his great work, The Almagest, in the 2nd century AD. These constellations originally came from a variety of sources including the myths and legends of Mesopotamia, Babylon, Egypt and Greece. Ptolemy’s constellations were primarily in the northern hemisphere, as parts of the southern sky were never visible from Greece. One of the largest of these constellations, Argo Navis, was split into 4 smaller constellations Carina (the Keel), Puppis (the Stern), Vela (the Sails) and Pyxis (the Ship’s Compass) by Lacaille in the 1750s.
  • 12 constellations were added around 1600 by Johann Bayer in his star atlas, Uranometria, including Dorado (the Swordfish), Musca (the Fly) and Volans (the Flying Fish). These new constellations were not invented by Bayer, but adapted from other sources;
  • Jakob Bartsch added a further 3 in 1624: Camelopardalis (the Giraffe), Columba (the Dove, also attributed to Bayer) and Monoceros (the Unicorn);
  • Johannes Hevelius devised 7 new constellations late in the 17th century, including Lacerta (the Lizard), Leo Minor (the Small Lion) and Scutum (the Shield);
  • Finally, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille devised 14 southern hemisphern constellations in c.1750, including Fornax (the Furnace), Horologium (the Clock) and Teloscopium (the Telescope).

The modern constellations contain a mixture of mythological characters (e.g. Perseus, Andromeda, Orion), animals (e.g. Taurus, Scorpius, Canis Major), scientific apparatus (e.g. Microscopium, Sextans and Caelum the chisel) and everyday objects (e.g. Crater the cup and Scutum the shield). Twelve of the most well-known constellations are the zodiacal constellations that lie along the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun through the sky.

The 88 Constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union

Constellation Description Type Source
1 Andromeda And Daughter of Queen Cassiopeia Myth/Legend Almagest
2 Antlia Ant Robert Boyle’s Air Pump Scientific Lacaille
3 Apus Aps Bird of Paradise Animal Bayer
4 Aquarius Aqr The Water Carrier Zodiac Almagest
5 Aquila Aql The Eagle Myth/Legend Almagest
6 Ara Ara The Altar Myth/Legend Almagest
7 Aries Ari The Ram Zodiac Almagest
8 Auriga Aur The Charioteer Myth/Legend Almagest
9 Bootes Boo The Herdsman Myth/Legend Almagest
10 Caelum Cae The Chisel Scientific Lacaille
11 Camelopardalis Cam The Giraffe Animal Bartsch
12 Cancer Cnc The Crab Zodiac Almagest
13 Canes Venatici CVn The Hunting Dogs Animal Hevelius
14 Canis Major CMa The Greater Dog (companion of Orion) Myth/Legend Almagest
15 Canis Minor CMi The Lesser Dog (companion of Orion) Myth/Legend Almagest
16 Capricornius Cap The Sea Goat Zodiac Almagest
17 Carina Car The Keel (part of Argo Navis) Myth/Legend Lacaille
18 Cassiopeia Cas The Queen of Ethiopia Myth/Legend Almagest
19 Centaurus Cen The Centaur Myth/Legend Almagest
20 Cepheus Cep King Cepheus of Ethiopia Myth/Legend Almagest
21 Cetus Cet The Whale (or sea monster) Myth/Legend Almagest
22 Chamaeleon Cha The Chamaeleon Animal Bayer
23 Circinus Cir The Compasses Scientific Lacaille
24 Columba Col The Dove Animal Bartsch/Bayer
25 Coma Berenices Com Queen Berenice of Egypt’s hair Myth/Legend
26 Corona Australis CrA The Southern Crown Myth/Legend Almagest
27 Corona Borealis CrB The Northern Crown Myth/Legend Almagest
28 Corvus Crv The Crow Myth/Legend Almagest
29 Crater Crt The Cup (the goblet of Apollo) Myth/Legend Almagest
30 Crux Cru The Southern Cross Misc
31 Cygnus Cyg The Swan Myth/Legend Almagest
32 Delphinius Del The Dolphin Myth/Legend Almagest
33 Dorado Dor The Goldfish/The Swordfish Animal Bayer
34 Draco Dra The Dragon Myth/Legend Almagest
35 Equuleus Equ The Little Horse Myth/Legend Almagest
36 Eridanus Eri The River Myth/Legend Almagest
37 Fornax For The Furnace Scientific Lacaille
38 Gemini Gem The Twins Zodiac Almagest
39 Grus Gru The Crane Animal Bayer
40 Hercules Her Hercules Myth/Legend Almagest
41 Horologium Hor The Pendulum Clock Scientific Lacaille
42 Hydra Hya The Water Snake Myth/Legend Almagest
43 Hydrus Hyi The Lesser Water Snake Animal Bayer
44 Indus Ind The Native American Indian Misc Bayer
45 Lacerta Lac The Lizard Animal Hevelius
46 Leo Leo The Lion Zodiac Almagest
47 Leo Minor LMi The Lesser Lion Animal Hevelius
48 Lepus Lep The Hare Myth/Legend Almagest
49 Libra Lib The Scales Zodiac Almagest
50 Lupus Lup The Wolf Myth/Legend Almagest
51 Lynx Lyn The Lynx Animal Hevelius
52 Lyra Lyr The Lyre (given by Apollo to Orpheus) Myth/Legend Almagest
53 Mensa Men The Table Mountain (Cape of Good Hope) Misc Lacaille
54 Microscopium Mic The Microscope Scientific Lacaille
55 Monoceros Mon The Unicorn Myth/Legend Bartsch
56 Musca Mus The Fly Animal Bayer
57 Norma Nor The Level Scientific Lacaille
58 Octans Oct The Octant Scientific Lacaille
59 Ophiuchus Oph The Serpent Holder Myth/Legend Almagest
60 Orion Ori The Hunter Myth/Legend Almagest
61 Pavo Pav The Peacock Animal Bayer
62 Pegasus Peg Pegasus, the winged horse Myth/Legend Almagest
63 Perseus Per Perseus (rescued Andromeda from Cetus) Myth/Legend Almagest
64 Phoenix Phe The Phoenix Myth/Legend Bayer
65 Pictor Pic The Painter’s Easel Scientific Lacaille
66 Pisces Psc The Fishes Zodiac Almagest
67 Piscus Austrinus PsA The Southern Fish Myth/Legend Almagest
68 Puppis Pup The Stern (of Argo Navis) Myth/Legend Lacaille
69 Pyxis Pyx The Ships’s Compass (or Argo Navis) Myth/Legend Lacaille
70 Reticulum Ret The Net Scientific Lacaille
71 Sagitta Sge The Arrow Myth/Legend Almagest
72 Sagittarius Sgr The Archer Zodiac Almagest
73 Scorpius Sco The Scorpion Zodiac Almagest
74 Sculptor Scl The Sculptor’s Workshop Scientific Lacaille
75 Scutum Sct The Shield (of King John Sobieski III) Misc Hevelius
76 Serpens Ser The Serpent (carried by Ophiuchus) Myth/Legend Almagest
77 Sextans Sex The Sextant Scientific Hevelius
78 Taurus Tau The Bull Zodiac Almagest
79 Telescopium Tel The Telescope Scientific Lacaille
80 Triangulum Tri The Triangle Misc Almagest
81 Triangulum Australe TrA The Southern Triangle Misc Bayer
82 Tucuna Tuc The Toucan Animal Bayer
83 Ursa Major UMa The Great Bear Myth/Legend Almagest
84 Ursa Minor UMi The Lesser Bear Myth/Legend Almagest
85 Vela Vel The Sails (of Argo Navis) Myth/Legend Lacaille
86 Virgo Vir The Virgin Zodiac Almagest
87 Volans Vol The Flying Fish Animal Bayer
88 Vulpecula Vul The Fox Animal Hevelius

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