Constellation names –like the names of stars, come from a variety of sources and each has a different story and meaning behind it.
As such most of the constellations created more recently were named after scientific instruments and exotic animals.
The 88 constellation names and their meanings are listed below.
Constellation names that come from Greek mythology, including the names of the zodiac constellations, are the ones that are best known.
These constellations were first catalogued by the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. Ptolemy did not name these constellations, but simply documented them in his Almagest. The constellations were well known to observers long before his time.
Names associated with figures from mythology were given to several prominent constellations:
(Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cetus, Cepheus, Pegasus, and Auriga), Hercules family (Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Cygnus, Hydra, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, and Ara), Orion family (Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Lepus, Monoceros), Zodiac family (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces), and Ursa Major family (Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Canes Venatici, Boötes, and Corona Borealis).
Most of the modern constellations that were not catalogued by Ptolemy were created between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Many of them were unknown to the Greeks because they lie in the far southern sky and are invisible from mid-northern latitudes.
They were named after the animals the explorers encountered on their journeys. These constellations were first depicted on a celestial globe designed by the Dutch-Flemish astronomer Petrus Plancius in 1597/1598. They include:
Seven of these are still in use:
Lacaille named most of his constellations after scientific instruments. He made his observations from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and his constellations are largely invisible to most northern observers. They include:
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Andromeda – The Chained Maiden
Andromeda is one of the Greek constellations. It was named after Andromeda, the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus in Greek mythology. Andromeda was chained and left for the sea monster Cetus to eat, and then saved by Perseus, whom she later married.
Andromeda was sacrificed to Cetus to appease the gods and stop the monster from ravaging her land. Cetus was sent by the god Poseidon after Cassiopeia had boasted that she was more beautiful than the nymphs.
Antlia – The Air Pump
Antlia is one of the constellations created by the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in the 18th century. Lacaille originally named the constellation Antlia Pneumatica, or Machine Pneumatique in French, in honour of French physicist Denis Papin’s invention, the air pump. The name was later shortened to Antlia.
Apus – The Bird of Paradise
Apus represents the bird of paradise. The constellation’s name means “no feet” in Greek, referring to a western misconception of the bird of paradise not having feet. The constellation was created and named by the Dutch astronomer and cartographer Petrus Plancius in the late 16th century.
Aquarius – The Water Bearer
Aquarius is one of the 48 Greek constellations. It is associated with Ganymede, the cup-bearer to the Olympian gods. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was the son of King Tros, known for giving the city of Troy its name. Ganymede was the most beautiful boy alive and Zeus was so infatuated with him that he took the form of an eagle and abducted the boy.
In some versions of the myth, Zeus sent an eagle, represented by the constellation Aquila, to fetch Ganymede and bring him to Olympus.
Aquila – The Eagle
Aquila constellation is associated with the eagle that held Zeus’ thunderbolts in Greek mythology, as well as with the eagle that abducted Ganymede and brought him to Olympus.
Ara – The Altar
Ara represents the altar on which the gods formed an alliance before going to war with the Titans in Greek mythology. The gods were led by Zeus and the Titans by Atlas. It is said that Zeus placed the altar in the sky in honour of the gods’ victory. In various depictions of the constellation, the Milky Way represents the smoke rising from the altar.
Aries – The Ram
Aries is identified as the mythical winged ram. Specifically with golden fleece that was sent by the nymph Nephele to save her son Phrixus. This is because his father, King Athamas of Boeotia, had been given a false prophecy that he had to sacrifice his son to ward off famine.
In the myth, Phrixus and his sister Helle climbed on the ram and were carried toward Colchis on the shore of the Black Sea. Helle lost her grip and fell into the Dardanelles on the way.
The Greeks named the channel separating Europe and Asia the Hellerospont in her memory. The Golden Fleece was later the object of the Argonauts’ quest to Colchis.
Auriga – The Charioteer
Auriga, the Charioteer, was said to have been placed in the sky by Zeus himself. As an honour of the charioteer and inventor Erichthonius of Athens. Erichthonius was the son of the god Hephaestus and he was raised by Athena, who taught him many skills.
He was the first person to harness four horses to a chariot. Specifically is credited as the inventor of the the quadriga, the four-horse chariot. His chariot was said to have been made in the image of the Sun god’s chariot.
Boötes – The Herdsman
Boötes is one of the ancient Greek constellations. The constellation’s name means “the oxen-driver” and Boötes is usually identified as the ploughman who drove the oxen represented by Ursa Major. The constellation is also sometimes associated with Arctophylax, or the Bear Keeper, also referring to Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
In another myth, Boötes represents Arcas, the son of Zeus and Callisto.
In the myth, Callisto’s father King Lycaon decides to test Zeus to see if the god is really who he says he is and serves him his son Arcas for dinner.
Seeing what Lycaon has done, Zeus does away with the king’s sons and turns Lycaon into a wolf. In that end he then collects the parts of his own son and makes him whole again. In the meantime, Arcas’ mother Callisto is turned into a bear, either by Zeus to disguise her and protect her from Hera’s revenge, or by the jealous Hera herself.
When Arcas grows up, he comes face to face with his mother in the woods and does not recognize her. He starts to chase the bear and Zeus intervenes to prevent a tragedy, turning the mother and son into the constellations Ursa Major (Callisto) and Boötes (Arcas).
Boötes constellation is also sometimes associated with another mythical figure:
Icarius, the wine maker. Icarius was taught how to make wine by the god Dionysus. As such when he offered some to a group of shepherds, they had a little too much of it and thought Icarius had poisoned them. The misunderstanding cost Icarius his life. Zeus placed the wine maker in the sky as the constellation Boötes.
Caelum – The Chisel
Caelum is one of the constellations created by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille. Lacaille originally named the constellation Caelum Scalptorium (or les Burins in French), which is Latin for “the engraver’s chisel.”
Camelopardalis – The Giraffe
The Latin word camelopardalis means “the giraffe.” It is a combination of the Greek words for the camel and the leopard. The Greeks came up with the word because the giraffe had spots like a leopard and a long neck like a camel.
Cancer – The Crab
Cancer represents Karkinos, a crab sent by Hera to distract Heracles when he was fighting the Lemean Hydra. This was as part of his Twelve Labours. In the myth, Heracles kicked the crab so hard that it flew all the way into the sky, where it became a constellation. In a different version of the myth, Heracles crushed the crab underfoot and Hera placed it into the sky.
Canes Venatici – The Hunting Dogs
Genitive: Canum Venaticorum
The constellation Canes Venatici was created by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century. It represents two hunting dogs led by Boötes, the Herdsman, following the Great Bear (Ursa Major).
Canis Major – The Great Dog
Genitive: Canis Majoris
Canis Major is one of the Greek constellations. It represents the bigger dog following the mythical hunter Orion in pursuit of a hare, represented by the constellation Lepus. The constellation is also sometimes associated with Laelaps, the fastest dog in the world, given to Europa by Zeus as a present.
Canis Minor – The Small Dog
Genitive: Canis Minoris
Canis Minor represents the smaller dog following Orion. The constellation is also sometimes associated with Maera, the dog that belonged to Icarius. He was the unlucky wine-maker who met his end at the hands of a group of shepherds who believed that he had poisoned them. Icarius is represented by the constellation Boötes. The dog was said to have jumped off a cliff out of grief.
Capricornus – The Sea Goat
Capricornus is one of the ancient constellations first catalogued by Ptolemy. The constellation’s name means “the goat.” Capricornus is usually taken to represent the Greek forest deity Pan, who had the horns and legs of a goat. The constellation is also sometimes identified as Amalthea, the goat that nursed the infant Zeus.
Carina – The Keel of Argo Navis
Carina was one of the three constellations that formed Argo Navis. In that end it is a large constellation that represented the ship Argo, on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Colchis to get the Golden Fleece. Argo Navis was divided into smaller constellations – Carina (the Keel), Puppis (the Stern) and Vela (the Sails) by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille in the 18th century.
Cassiopeia – The Queen
Cassiopeia constellation represents the boastful queen Cassiopeia, wife of Cepheus and mother of Andromeda in Greek mythology. In the myth, Cassiopeia claimed that she was more beautiful than the Nereids.
The nymphs asked the sea god Poseidon to punish the queen for her vanity. Poseidon sent the sea monster Cetus to ravage the queen’s land. King Cepheus asked an oracle for help and was told that he had to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to appease Poseidon.
The king and queen left their daughter chained to a rock, but Andromeda was saved from the monster by Perseus. Cassiopeia and Cepheus were placed into the sky by Poseidon. It is said that Cassiopeia spends six months every year upside down in the sky as punishment for her boastfulness.
Centaurus – The Centaur
Centaurus constellation represents the half-man, half-horse hybrid creature from Greek mythology. It is usually associated with Chiron, the wise centaur who mentored Heracles, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, and other famous Greek heroes.
Cepheus – The King
Cepheus constellation represents King Cepheus of Aethiopia (a region that contained parts of present-day Egypt, Jordan and Israel). The husband of Cassiopeia and father of Andromeda. The constellations representing Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Perseus (who rescued Andromeda from the sea monster) lie in the same region of the sky.
Cetus – The Whale
Cetus constellation represents the sea monster sent by Poseidon to ravage King Cepheus’ land after his wife Cassiopeia had boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids.
Chamaeleon – The Chameleon
Chamaeleon constellation was created by Dutch explorers in the 16th century. It was named after the chameleon, a type of lizard that can change colour to match the environment.
Circinus – The Drafting Compass
Circinus is one of the constellations created by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille in the 18th century. Lacaille named the constellation after the drafting tool used for drawing circles. The constellation is usually depicted as a pair of dividing compasses used to measure distances. It should not be confused with Pyxis, which represents the mariner’s compass.
Columba – The Dove
Columba constellation represents the dove. It was introduced by the Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius in the 16th century. Plancius originally named the constellation Columba Noachi, Noah’s Dove, in reference to the dove that signalled to Noah that the Great Flood was receding.
Coma Berenices – Berenice’s Hair
Genitive: Comae Berenices
Coma Berenices constellation was named after Queen Berenice II of Egypt (c. 266 – 221 BCE). Berenice swore to Aphrodite that she would cut off her long blonde hair. On the condition that if the goddess brought her husband, Ptolemy III Euergetes, back home safely from a dangerous mission against the Seleucids. When Ptolemy returned, the queen fulfilled her promise and placed her hair in Aphrodite’s temple. The hair disappeared the next day, which made the king angry. To calm him down, Conon, the court astronomer, told him that the goddess was so pleased with Berenice’s hair that she placed it into the sky.
Corona Australis – The Southern Crown
Genitive: Coronae Australis
Corona Australis is one of the Greek constellations. The Greeks saw it not as a crown, but as a wreath associated with the centaur represented by the constellation Sagittarius. The constellation is also sometimes associated with the crown that Dionysus placed in the sky after freeing his mother Semele from Hades.
Corona Borealis – The Northern Crown
Genitive: Coronae Borealis
Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, represents the crown worn by the Cretan princess Ariadne at her wedding. After helping Theseus defeat the Minotaur and find his way out of the labyrinth. In that event Ariadne sailed off with the hero, but was abandoned by him on the island of Naxos. Dionysus saw her weeping and fell in love. The two were later married. At the wedding, Ariadne wore a crown made by the god Hephaestus, and threw it into the sky after the ceremony. It is said that the jewels turned into stars which now form the constellation Corona Borealis.
Corvus – The Crow
Corvus is another Greek constellation. It represents the crow (or raven), the sacred bird of the god Apollo. In the myth, Apollo tells the raven to watch over his lover Coronis. After a while, Coronis loses interest in the god and falls in love with a human man. When the bird reports this to Apollo, the god becomes so angry that he curses it, scorching the raven’s feathers and turning them black. (The bird had originally had white feathers.) Coronis’ son, the healer Asclepius, is represented by Ophiuchus constellation.
In a different tale, Apollo sends the raven to fetch him some water in a cup. Specifically represented by Crater constellation and the bird gets distracted by a fig tree and stops to feast. Later, the raven blames its tardiness on a water snake (represented by Hydra constellation), but the god is so angry that he casts all three – the raven, the water snake, and the cup (Crater) – into the sky. Apollo also casts a curse on the bird, turning its feathers black, and making the raven eternally thirsty. This, according to the tale, is why ravens and crows have such raspy voices.
Crater – The Cup
Crater represents the cup of Apollo, usually drawn as a two-handed chalice.
Crux – The Southern Cross
Crux constellation is associated with many myths and stories across different cultures. Greeks could see the constellation before it dropped below the horizon for most of the northern hemisphere, and some saw significance in the celestial cross disappearing from the sky and linked it to the crucifixion of Christ. By the year 400 AD, the cross could not be seen from most of Europe, and Europeans did not rediscover the constellation until the late 15th century.
Cygnus – The Swan
Cygnus constellation is most commonly associated with the myth of Leda. She was the Spartan queen who gave birth to two sets of twins – the mortal Clytemnestra and Castor and the immortal Pollux and Helen – after being seduced by Zeus, who came to her in the form of a swan. The mortal children were fathered by Leda’s husband Tyndareus and the immortal ones by Zeus. Castor and Pollux are associated with Gemini constellation.
Dorado – The Dolphinfish
Draco – The Dragon
Equuleus – The Little Horse (Foal)
Eridanus – The River
Fornax – The Furnace
Gemini – The Twins
Grus – The Crane
Horologium – The Pendulum Clock
Hydra – The Water Serpent
Hydrus – The (Male) Water Snake
Indus – The Indian
Lacerta – The Lizard
Leo – The Lion
Leo Minor – The Little Lion
Lepus – The Hare
Libra – The Scales
Lupus – The Wolf
Lynx – The Lynx
Lyra – The Harp
Mensa – Table Mountain
Microscopium – The Microscope
Monoceros – The Unicorn
Musca – The Fly
Norma – The Level
Octans – The Octant
Ophiuchus – The Serpent Bearer
Orion – The Hunter
Delphinus is one of the Greek constellations. It is associated with Poseidon’s messenger. He was the dolphin that helped the god find the nymph Amphitrite, whom he later married. In a different myth, Delphinus is the dolphin that saved the life of the poet Arion. The god Apollo placed it into the sky next to Lyra constellation, which in this version of the myth represents Arion’s lyre.
Dorado is one of the constellations created by Dutch explorers in the 16th century. It represents the dolphinfish.
Draco constellation represents the dragon Ladon, the mythical creature with a hundred heads that guarded the gardens of the Hesperides in Greek mythology. Heracles defeated the dragon with his poisoned arrows as part of his Twelve Labours. In Roman legend, Draco is associated with one of the Giant Titans who warred with Zeus and other Olympian gods for a decade. The Titan met his end at the hands of Minerva in battle and was thrown into the sky, where it froze around the North Pole.
Equuleus constellation is usually associated with Hippe, the daughter of the centaur Chiron. Hippe was seduced by Aeolus and became pregnant with his child, but was too ashamed to tell her father about the pregnancy. She hid from Chiron in the mountains and, when he came looking for her. However she prayed to the gods that he didn’t find her. The gods granted her wish and turned her into a mare, represented by Equuleus constellation. Hippe is said to still be hiding from Chiron, with only her head showing behind Pegasus constellation.
Eridanus is the ancient Greek name for the river Po in Italy. In mythology, Eridanus is usually associated with the story of Phaëton. He was the son of the Sun god Helios who begged his father to let him drive his chariot across the sky. Helios agreed to this and Phaëton mounted the chariot. However, since he was an inexperienced driver, he soon lost control of the horses and the chariot plunged close to Earth. Resulting in setting lands on fire and turning Libya into a desert. Zeus had to prevent further tragedy and he struck the young man down with a thunderbolt. Phaëton fell into the river Eridanus and his father did not drive his chariot for days after his son’s passing, leaving the world in darkness.
Fornax is one of the southern constellations created by Lacaille in the 18th century. It was originally named Fornax Chemica, after the chemical furnace, a small heater used in chemical experiments.
Gemini constellation was named after the mythical twins Castor and Polydeuces. Two of the constellation’s brightest stars carry the twins’ names.
Grus constellation was introduced by the Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius in the late 16th century. It is one of the constellations named after exotic animals, created by Dutch navigators during their expedition to the East Indies. The constellation represents the crane.
Hercules constellation was named after Heracles, the legendary hero from Greek mythology. It is one of the oldest constellations in the sky, dating back to Sumerian times.
Horologium is another one of Lacaille’s constellations. Its original name was Horologium Oscillitorium, or “the pendulum clock.” Lacaille named the constellation after the pendulum clock to honour its inventor, Christiaan Huygens.
The largest of the 88 constellations was named after the Lernaean Hydra, the monster from the myth of Heracles’ Twelve Labours. It is one of the Greek constellations, first documented by Ptolemy in the 2nd century.
Hydrus is not associated with any myths. It is one of the constellations introduced by Petrus Plancius in the late 16th century. It represents the sea snakes that Dutch explorers would have seen on their journeys to the East Indies.
Indus is another constellation introduced by Plancius. It represents the Indian. Since Dutch explorers encountered many indigenous peoples on their expeditions, it is unclear if the constellation’s name refers to a native of the East Indies, Madagascar, or South Africa.
Lacerta is one of the constellations created by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century. It is not associated with any myths.
Leo constellation is associated with the Nemean lion in Greek mythology, the beast that was one of Heracles’ Twelve Labours.
Genitive: Leonis Minoris
Leo Minor is one of the constellations introduced by Hevelius in the 17th century. There are no stories associated with it.
Lepus is one of the Greek constellations, first catalogued by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. It is not associated with any particular stories from Greek mythology, but is often depicted as a hare chased by the hunter Orion and his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor.
The name Libra means “the weighing scales” in Latin, and the constellation represents the scales of justice held by Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, associated with Virgo constellation.
Lupus is a very old constellation, first catalogued by Ptolemy. It was not associated with the wolf until the Renaissance times. The Greeks called the constellation Therium, which means “wild animal,”. However the Romans knew it as Bestia, the beast. The stars of Lupus used to be part of Centaurus constellation, and they represented an animal sacrificed by the centaur. The centaur was holding the animal toward an altar, represented by Ara constellation.
Lynx is one of the constellations introduced by Johannes Hevelius. It represents the lynx. Hevelius gave it this name because it is a faint constellation and it takes the eyesight of a lynx to see it.
Lyra constellation represents the lyre of Orpheus, the Greek poet and musician who met his end at the hands of the Bacchantes.
The name Mensa means “the table” in Latin. The constellation was created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in the 18th century. He originally named it Mons Mensae, which is the Latin name for Table Mountain in South Africa. Lacaille spent a couple of years there mapping the southern skies.
Microscopium is one of Lacaille’s constellations. He named it after an early type of compound microscope, one that was widely used in the 18th century.
The name Monoceros means “the unicorn” in Latin. The constellation was created by the Dutch astronomer, cartographer, and clergyman Petrus Plancius in 1612. He named it after the unicorn because the mythical animal appears several times in the Old Testament.
Musca is one of the constellations introduced by Dutch explorers in the 16th century. It represents the fly.
Norma constellation represents the draughtsman’s set-square and rule, or a carpenter’s square, one used by carpenters on exploratory vessels. It was created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in the 18th century.
Octans constellation represents the reflecting octant, the precursor to the modern sextant. It was created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1752.
Ophiuchus is another Greek constellation. It represents Asclepius, the famous healer in Greek mythology, and is usually depicted as a man holding a serpent, represented by the constellation Serpens. Asclepius is said to have learned how to bring people back to life when he saw one snake bringing healing herbs to another.