Notes on Star Hikes
Onteora Scout Reservation

Prepared by Bill Donald
Typed by Doug Donald

A constellation is a group or cluster of stars which is based on a mythological fantasy. Constellations are figments of man's imagination. They don't really exist. In fact, constellations were created and used by the ancients as an aid to map the sky. Of course different constellations with their own unique mythology were developed by different peoples in far flung geological areas. The most striking constellations are those of Greek and Roman origin. Of the 88 constellations commonly used today, many were mentioned in the writings of Homer and Hesoid. In only a few instances, constellations resemble actual objects: the Great or Big Dipper of Ursa Major (the Big Bear), the Northern Cross of Cygnus (the Swan), the Great Squaw of Pegasus (the Winged Horse), and the Sickle of Leo (the Lion).

On a clear night, Ursa Major can be found by facing North and looking for a Big Dipper. Besides being called the Big Bear or the Big Dipper in the U.S., Ursa Major is known as the plow or the Wagon in Britain. In actuality, the Big Dipper is only one fourth of the entire constellation, which is made up of fainter stars. Mizor and Alcor, double stars, can be found in the handle of the Dipper. Supposedly they were used as an eyesight test in the Army, and the French Foreign Legion before 1940.

The Big and Little Bear place prominently in the legends of the American Indian tribes. Manitu supposedly put the Bear constellations into the skies to tell bears when to go into hibernation When these constellations reach a certain position in the night skies around Polaris (which represents their cave), all bears would know when to go Into hibernation .

An Iroquois legend relates that once a Great Bear ravaged their village. For many winter months, this beast had prevented the braves from hunting and thus had left the village facing destitution and famine. Then, on a clear, crisp night, the three sons of the village chiefs had the same dream: they would slay the Great Bear. Embarking on this task the following day, the three chased the Great Bear to the four corners of the Earth, which the Indians thought was shaped like a giant tortoise shell. Finally the bear ,jumped off followed by the three braves. Consequently the four stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper represent the Great Bear and the three in the handle represent the Indian braves.

As a circumpolar constellation, Ursa Major is an important guide to other groups of stars. Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) is also a circumpolar constellation which resembles an old-style cream ladle or gravy spoon. At the tip of the handle of Ursa Minor, you can find Polaris. Polaris, the North Star, is almost 50 light years away. Contrary to common opinion, Polaris is not directly centered on the Earth's axis. However, it's only half a degree off true north. Moreover, the North Star is commonly used by navigators , to determine direction. The outer stars in the bowl of Ursa Minor are often referred to as the guardians of the pole or simply, the guards.

Ursa Minor also has a place in Indian legends. The Indian thought that the Little Bear's tail was too long for any self-respecting bear. It was said that Manitu placed the Little Bear in the sky slung by its tail. As time passed, its tail stretched.


Draco, the dragon, is another circumpolar constellation. Consisting of over 80 stars, this constellation curves between the two dippers and ends as a group of four stars which form the dragon's head. Thuban, a star near the tip of Draco's tail was the pole star used by the Egyptians 4,000 years ago to orient the pyramids. Surprisingly, Thuban  is one of the few Egyptian named stars which have lasted to our time. Most star names are of Greek or Latin origin.

Draco is steeped in the legends of ancient Greece. It was the dragon that Hercules slayed in order to steal the golden apples in the gardens of the Hesperides.


No other constellations are so well illustrated in Greek mythology as the ones involving Perseus, the king and queen of Ethiopia and their daughter Andromeda.  According to this legend, Cassiopeia, the wife of Cepheus the king of Ethiopia, lived happily until she dared to compare her own beauty-to that of the Nephrides, the Sea Nymphs. Insulted, the Nephrides went to Neptune to demand vengeance. The god of the sea went and sent Cetus (the Sea Monster) to ravage the Ethiopian coast. To appease the gods and end the ruin of their country. Cassiopeia and Cepheus would have to chain their daughter Andromeda (the Maid) to a rock on the coast as a sacrifice to Cetus. Just as the Sea Monster appeared, so did the hero Perseus (the Son of Jupiter). He was returning on winged sandals after killing Medusa. Seeing Andromeda in danger, Perseus slew Cetus and later married Andromeda. However. the Nephrides were to be revenged. Neptune later flung Pereseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Cepheus into the sky to remain as constellations for all eternity.

Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation which is also known as the Lady in the Chair. This group of five stars is shaped like a stretched out W or an elongated M, representing the Queen of Ethiopia in her chair. Such a lopsided chair would indeed be a torture for a woman who had to sit in it for all eternity.

Cepheus, another circumpolar constellation, is quite near Cassiopeia in the heavens. At one corner of this house shaped constellation is a group of three stars known as Delta. Cephei, the first variable star to be discovered, was found in Cepheus. This variable star changes in magnitude every 5 and 1/3rd days.

Lyra (the Lyre or Harp) is an important circumpolar constellation because it contains Vega, the 4th brightest star in the heavens, and is situated about 24 light years away from the earth. Just as stars change in relation to the earth, Thuban was replaced by Polaris as the North star. In several thousand years it is calculated that Vega will replace Polaris.

Early Greek mythology pictured Lyra as being an eagle, vulture or a tortoise. This description was based on the legend that Mercury (the Messenger of the gods) invented the first lyre by placing several strings across the back of a tortoise shell. In its most primitive form the Lyre has three or four strings. In its most complex state, there are up to 16. In addition, the Lyre was the symbol of Apollo.

The constellation Cygnus is known as the swan or the Northern Cross and contains two important - stars: Deneb and Albireo. Deneb is a white, first magnitude star, 625 light years away. Moreover, it is 10,000 times as luminous as our Sun. On the other hand, Albireo is interesting because it as an orange-red double star. According to legend Hercules once launched an arrow (sagitta) toward Cygnus and Aquila (the Eagle) and missed. This goes to prove what an utterly rotten shot Hercules was.

Bootes is known as the Herdsman, the Bear Driver, or the Plowman. In Bootes, Arcturus is a first magnitude red-orange star which was used to open a world's fair in the 1930's. A photometer was aligned with the star and opened the fair when Arcturus reached a certain position in the sky. Moreover Arcturus is the 6th brightest star in the heavens and the 3rd brightest in the Northern Hemisphere.

The constellation Canes Venatici is associated with the Greek legends about Bootes. Canes Venatici represent the two hunting dogs of Bootes which are yelping on the heels of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. This modern constellation was discovered by the astronomer Hevelius and is made up of two stars: Car and Carols (the Head of Charles).

If you strain your eyes, you can just barely make out the faint, elongated constellation of Lynx just below Ursa Major. Supposedly while Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs of Bootes, chase after Ursa Major, the Big bear, Lynx scampers from under the Bear's paws.

In Greek legend, Orion (the Giant or the Hunter) boasted that he was the strongest man in the universe and that none could destroy him. Zeus, hearing this foolish prattle, sent Scorpius (the Scorpion) to test Orion's boast. Finally, Scorpius killed Orion by simply biting his heel, where he was vulnerable. Moreover, Sagittarius (the Centaur archer), a close friend of Orion, sought revenge and killed Scorpius with one of his arrows. All three were eventually placed in the summer sky by the gods: Orion in the winter sky and Sagittarius and Scorpius in the summer sky.

Sagittarius is a constellation shaped like a small milk dipper and is found close to the horizon.

In Scorpius the first magnitude star Antares can be found easily. A red star, Antares is sometimes mistaken for the planet Mars since they both have a reddish color. However, there are differences between them. Star light is so faint that the movements of the earth's upper atmosphere bend it and thus cause stars to "twinkle." Because of their closeness to earth, planets reflected light is so bright  that the atmosphere can't entirely bend all of It. Consequently planet light appears to be uniform and does not twinkle.

Circumpolar constellations are those which revolve around the north star and are visible in our area all year round.

A star's Magnitude is a measure of its brightness.

A Light Year is an astronomical measure of distance, almost 6,000, 000,000,000 miles.

Menzel, Donald, A Field Guide to the Stars and Planet, Boston, Houghton Mifflin co., 1964. Peterson Field Guide.

Zim, Herbert, Stars, New York, Golden Press, 1956.