Ancient “Greek” Constellations

Ancient “Greek” Constellations[1]

The image above[2] is from the Akkadian Period (around 2300 BCE) in Babylonian and Assyrian astronomy. It represents what we, today, call the Big Dipper.

Enlil, the god of the northern constellations, rides his celestial Wagon (Margidda, our Big Dipper), pulled by a celestial griffin, probably Draco the Dragon. The image above is a drawing of the impression from a cylinder seal. The image at left shows the outline of the Big Dipper constellation (Ursa Major) containing the familiar Big Dipper itself.

The standard versions of our familiar constellations with their Greco-Roman mythologies that most astronomy students learn early in their starry pursuits aren’t half the story. The ancient Greeks gave us our 48 “classical” constellations, but many of these were already extremely old, inherited and adapted from very different societies long extinct. Modern scholarship has traced many of our Greek constellations to prototypes in cultures of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) that were about as distant in time from the ancient Greeks as we are from them. Some constellations date back at least to the origin of writing, which seems to have happened in Sumeria just north of the Persian Gulf, around 3200 BCE. This suggests that these constellations may be older still; literally prehistoric.

The Greek genius was in how they used the images and themes they inherited: they turned it all into poetry. Literally so, in the case of Aratos and his flowery enumeration of the classical 48. And that surely has helped preserve them ever since.

[1] See Craig Crossen, “Our Surprisingly Ancient ‘Greek’ Constellations,” Sky and Telescope (131, 5, May 2016, pp. 24-29)

[2] Published in Sky and Telescope (131, 5, May 2016, p. 25). The image credit belongs to W. H. Wart, The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia, Carnegie Institute, 1910


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