Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A SourceBook, Containing the Contellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes and the Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus by Theony Condos, C. Julius Hyginus |, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook

Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook

by Theony Condos

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The nightly appearance of the stars, their arrangement in the sky, their regular risings and settings through the course of the year, have been a source of endless wonder and speculation. But where did the constellations come from and what are the myths associated with them?

Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans is the most comprehensive work ever


The nightly appearance of the stars, their arrangement in the sky, their regular risings and settings through the course of the year, have been a source of endless wonder and speculation. But where did the constellations come from and what are the myths associated with them?

Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans is the most comprehensive work ever published on the forty-eight classical constellations. Included in this handbook are the only surviving works on the constellation myths that have come down to us from antiquity: an epitome of The Constellations of Eratosthenes --never before translated into English -- and The Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus. Also provided are accurate and detailed commentaries on each constellation myth, and complete references for those who wish to dig deeper.

This book is a comprehensive sourcework for anyone interested in astronomy or mythology -- and an ideal resource for the occasional stargazer.

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Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans

A Sourcebook Containing The Constellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes and the Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus

By Theony Condos

Phanes Press

Copyright © 1997 Theony Condos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-678-4



The Constellations 17

Andromeda was placed among the stars by Athena to commemorate the feats of Perseus. Her arms are outstretched as when she lay exposed to the sea monster. After being rescued by Perseus, Andromeda, being nobly minded, chose not to return to her parents, but of her own accord followed Perseus to Argos. Euripides tells the story in detail in the play he wrote about her.

Andromeda has one bright star on the head [α]; one star on each shoulder [π, ε]; one on the right elbow [σ?]; one bright star at the edge of the hand [[iota?]; one on the left elbow [η]; one on the arm [ρ?]; one on the hand [o]; three on the belt [?, ?, ?]; four above the belt [β, μ, ν, ?]; one bright star on each knee [ν?, Θ]; two on the right foot [Θ Per, 51]; and one on the left foot [γ]. The total is twenty.

Poetic Astronomy 2.11

This figure was reportedly placed among the stars by Minerva because of Perseus's courage, for he saved Andromeda from danger when she was exposed to the sea monster. Nor did Perseus receive lesser consideration from Andromeda; for neither her father Cepheus nor her mother Cassiopeia could prevail upon her not to leave her country and follow Perseus. Euripides has written fully about her in his play of the same name.


As we noted earlier [2. 11], she has one bright star on the head; one on each shoulder; one on the right elbow; one in her hand; one on the left elbow; one on the arm; another in the other hand; three on her belt; four over the belt; one on each knee; two on her feet. Thus the total is twenty stars in all.


Andromeda was the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia and the innocent victim of her mother's arrogance. According to most accounts, after her rescue from the sea monster, Andromeda became the wife of her deliverer, Perseus. Perseus and Andromeda stayed with King Cepheus for a time, then went to Argos, leaving their first-born son, Perses, to succeed Cepheus, who had no sons. At Argos or Tiryns, Andromeda bore five more sons and a daughter.

The folk-motif of the maiden in distress who is rescued and marries her rescuer is widespread, as is that of the monster-slaying hero.

The origin of this constellation appears to be Phoenician. The name Andromeda itself is a part-translation, part-transliteration of the Phoenician name Adamath.

The number of stars comprising Andromeda is twenty according to Ps-Eratosthenes, Hyginus, and Hipparchus, twenty-three according to Ptolemy.


The Constellations 26

This figure is thought to have been named the Water-Pourer [Aquarius] because of the action he represents. The Water-Pourer stands holding a wine-jar, from which he is pouring a stream of liquid. Some find in this image sufficient proof that the figure represented is Ganymede, and they call Homer to witness, because the poet says that Ganymede, adjudged worthy by the gods, was carried away on account of his beauty to be cup-bearer to Zeus. Homer says, too, that Ganymede was granted immortality, which was yet unknown to men. The liquid being poured from the jar is said to resemble nectar, the drink of the gods, and this resemblance is interpreted as proof that the liquid is indeed the aforementioned drink of the gods.

Aquarius has two faint stars on the head [25, ?]; one star on each shoulder [α, β], both large stars; one on each elbow [γ, ν?]; one bright star at the edge of the right hand [π?]; one on each breast [[xi], ?]; one under the breast on either side [ε, ?]; one on the left hip [ι?]; one on each knee [τ, 66]; one on the right leg [δ]; one on each foot [68, ?]. The total is seventeen. The stream of water consists of thirty-one stars, of which two stars are bright [κ, α PsA].

Poetic Astronomy 2.29

Many say this is Ganymede who, on account of his beauty, was snatched away from his parents by Jupiter to be the cup-bearer of the gods. Thus he is represented as pouring water into some object.

Hegesianax, however, says the figure is Deucalion because, during his reign, such a quantity of water fell from heaven that a great flood reportedly occurred. Eubulus says the figure is Cecrops, citing the antiquity of his lineage and pointing out that Cecrops reigned before wine was invented, and that before wine was known to man, water was used in sacrificing to the gods.


The figure has two faint stars on the head; one bright star on each shoulder; one large star on the left elbow; one on the right; one on the front hand; one faint star on each breast; two under the breast; one on the inner thigh; one on each knee; one on the right leg; one on each foot. There are seventeen in all. The flow of water, including the water-jar, consists of thirty-one stars of which the first and northernmost are bright.


This constellation is generally associated with water, not only in Greek literature but also in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian records. The three figures identified with Aquarius by classical authors are the cup-bearer Ganymede; Deucalion, the hero of the Greek flood story; and Cecrops, an early king of Athens. The constellation may have been associated with water because of its appearance during the rainy season. Aquarius was the eleventh zodiacal sign in Euphratean records and coincided with the winter solstice at the time when the vernal equinox was in the constellation Taurus.

The story of Ganymede attributed by The Constellations to Homer is an accurate paraphrase of Iliad 20.231-35:

and to Tros in turn there were born three sons unfaulted, Ilos and Assarakos and godlike Ganymedes who was the loveliest born of the race of mortals, and therefore the gods caught him away to themselves, to be Zeus' wine-pourer for the sake of his beauty, so he might be among the immortals.

(tr. Lattimore)

In addition to the above traditional account of Ganymede's abduction, two other traditions speak of Ganymede's abduction by Tantalus or Minos. Some sources mention a gift—consisting either of horses or a golden vine fashioned by Hephaestus—presented to Tros by Zeus as compensation for the loss of Ganymede. The changing of Ganymede into a constellation is recounted only in late sources.

The constellation Aquarius is probably of Euphratean origin and may be represented on Babylonian boundary-stones as a man or boy pouring water from an urn. In Egypt, this sign was called "Water," and its hieroglyph ([??]) is still used as the symbol for Aquarius. In classical times, the figure was usually depicted in a standing position, holding a jar from which a stream of liquid poured forth.

According to Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus, the number of stars comprising Aquarius is forty-eight, of which seventeen comprise the figure of the man and thirty-one the liquid; Hipparchus counts eighteen stars, and Ptolemy forty-two.


The Constellations 30

This is the eagle which brought Ganymede to heaven to be the cupbearer of Zeus. The eagle is among the stars because earlier, when the gods were casting lots for the various birds, the eagle fell to Zeus. It is the only bird which flies toward the sun, not bowing to the sun's rays, and it holds first place among the birds. This constellation represents the eagle with wings outspread as if in downward flight. Aglaosthenes says in his Naxica that Zeus, after his birth on Crete, was sought out [by his father] and twice carried away. He was subsequently removed from Crete and brought to Naxos, where he was raised. When he came of age, he gained the overlordship of the gods. As he was leaving Naxos to go against the Titans, an eagle appeared at his side. Zeus accepted the omen and adopted the eagle as his own bird. For this reason, the eagle was deemed worthy of honor in the heavens.

The Eagle is comprised of four stars [α, β, ζ, τ] of which the central star [α] is bright.

Poetic Astronomy 2.16

This is the eagle said to have snatched up Ganymede and delivered him to his lover, Jupiter. Jupiter was said to have singled out this bird from all the race of birds. According to tradition, this is the only bird that tries to fly against the rays of the rising sun; it appears to be flying above Aquarius, for many identify that constellation with Ganymede.

Some say that there was a certain Merops, who reigned over the island of the Coans, and that he named the island Cos after his daughter, and its inhabitants Meropians, after himself. Merops had a wife, Ethemea, who was descended from the race of nymphs. When she ceased to worship Diana, Diana shot her with arrows, but she was carried away, still alive, by Proserpina to the Underworld. Merops, moved by longing for his wife, wished to kill himself, but Juno pitied him and placed him among the stars, transforming his body into an eagle—for if she had placed him there in the shape of a man, he would have retained his human memory and continued to long for his wife.

However, Aglaosthenes, who wrote the Naxica, says that Jupiter was spirited away from Crete and carried to Naxos where he was raised. Later, when he attained manhood and wished to destroy the Titans in war, an eagle appeared to him while he was sacrificing; he accepted this omen and placed the eagle among the stars. Some, however, say that Mercury—others claim it was Anaplades—struck by the beauty of Venus, fell in love with her and, when she would give him no chance, became dispirited, as if having been disgraced. Jupiter pitied him and, when Venus was bathing in the river Achelous, sent an eagle that carried away her sandal to Amythaonia in Egypt and handed it over to Mercury. Seeking her sandal, Venus came to the one who desired her, and he, on obtaining what he desired, placed the eagle in the firmament in exchange for the service rendered.

The figure has one star on the head [τ]; one on each wing [α, β]; one on the tail [ζ].


In both the Greek and Latin traditions, primary identification of this constellation is with the eagle of Zeus. Indeed, Ps-Eratosthenes devotes most of his narrative to how the eagle came to be associated with Zeus.

The connection of Aquila with the story of Ganymede may have been a later embellishment, influenced by the proximity of Aquila to the constellation Aquarius, which was identified with Ganymede. The earliest references to the story of Ganymede make no mention of an eagle. In Homer, for example, Ganymede is said to have been snatched away by the gods because of his beauty to be the cup-bearer of Zeus. The introduction of the eagle into the story dates from the fourth century B.C.E.

The association of the king of birds with the father of the gods is not surprising. The primacy of place among birds ascribed to the eagle by the Greeks and Romans parallels the status accorded to the lion among four-footed animals, and, in both instances, is cited by Ps-Eratosthenes to explain the origin of the relevant constellation.

Hyginus's account agrees with that of Ps-Eratosthenes, but offers, in addition, two alternative explanations for the constellation: in one, the eagle serves as the messenger of Zeus; the other is remarkable in that it omits any connection between the eagle and Zeus, attributing the origin of the constellation to Juno.

During the reign of the emperor Hadrian, an attempt was made to form a constellation out of six or seven stars in the lower part of the constellation Aquila (δ, η, θ, ι, κ, λ, ν Aql). The new constellation was to be called Antinous, in honor of the emperor's favorite who had recently drowned in the Nile River. Ptolemy, who compiled his star-catalogue twenty to thirty years after the reign of Hadrian, lists six stars of Antinous among the "unformed" stars of Aquila. The constellation Antinous persisted into modern times, appearing in star tables until the late eighteenth century, but its stars are now included among those of Aquila.

The constellation of the Eagle may be of Euphratean origin. A Mesopotamian cylinder seal, believed to illustrate an episode from the Gilgamesh Epic, depicts a figure ascending to heaven on the back of an eagle.

The Eagle consists of four stars according to Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus, five according to Hipparchus, and nine according to Ptolemy.


The Constellations 39

This figure is the altar upon which the gods first swore their allegiance, at the time when Zeus waged his campaign against Cronus. The altar was constructed by the Cyclopes and had a cover over the flame so that the strength of the lightning bolt might not be visible [to Cronus]. When Zeus and the gods emerged as victors, they introduced altars among men so that those swearing allegiance to one another might sacrifice upon them. In athletic contests and in [...], those wishing to pledge a most sacred trust touch the altar with their right hand, considering this to be a sign of good will. Likewise, seers sacrifice upon an altar when they wish to see most clearly.

The Altar [Ara] has two stars on the altar-pan [α, β] and two on the base [α, [thetea]]. The total is four.

Poetic Astronomy 2.39

On this altar, the gods were believed to have first made offering and taken oaths, when they were about to fight against the Titans. The altar was made by the Cyclopes. Men were said to have adopted this custom, so that when they have in mind a plan of action, they offer sacrifice before undertaking it.


There are two stars at the top of the incense-pan and two at the bottom, four altogether.


The principal textual sources for the battle of the Olympian gods against the Titans (Titanomachia) are Hesiod, Apollodorus, and Claudian. Few and often incomplete as they are, these sources provide no allusion to the pact of the gods mentioned by Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus. Thus, it appears that the author of The Constellations either drew his information from a source no longer extant, or, faced with an Eastern constellation figure for which no appropriate Greek myth could be found, resorted to his own imaginative powers.

This constellation, which is always identified as an altar or a censer in classical literature, is explained in three different ways: as the altar on which the gods swore their pact, as the altar upon which Centaurus is sacrificing, or as the altar used at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. The references to the constellation in classical literature as both an altar (thyterion) and a censer (thymiaterion, turibulum) suggest that the prototype of the constellation figure was an altar-censer of the type which has been found in the Near East. Excavations in Greece have produced altars and censers with firepans (i.e., metal layers of the same shape as the top of the altar which received the sacrificial fire and protected the altar from the flame), but not with covers.

The origin of the Greek constellation Ara is probably to be found in the Euphratean altar-constellation. However, the position of the Greek constellation did not correspond to that of its Euphratean counterpart, since the latter was located in the Claws of the Scorpion (Libra).

The Altar is comprised of four stars according to Ps-Eratosthenes, Hyginus, and Hipparchus, seven according to Ptolemy.


The Constellations 35

The Argo was placed among the stars at the wish of Athena, as a clear example to later generations of men. It was the first ship to be built and to cross the as yet untraversed sea. It was also endowed with speech. Its image was not placed among the stars in its entirety; the helm is visible up to the mast, along with the steering-oars, so that those at sea who look upon it may be encouraged to labor, and so that its glory might be ageless, as it is among the gods.

The Argo has four stars on the stern [11, ρ, π, ?]; five on one steering-oar [η Col, ? Pup, ? , ?, ?] and four on the other [α, τ Pup, ?, ?]; three on the edge of the stern-mast [α Pyx, β Pyx, γ Pyx]; five on the deck [f Pup, BSC2961, c Pup, b Pub, ζ Pup]; six close together under the keel [χ, o Vel, δ Vel, f, K Vel, N Vel]. The total is twenty-seven.

Poetic Astronomy 2.37

Some say this ship was called Argo ["swift"] by the Greeks because of its speed, others because Argus was its builder. Many say that this was the first ship to sail the seas and that it came to be represented among the stars principally for the following reason. Pindar says this ship was built in the town of Magnesia called Demetrias; Callimachus says it was built in that same region, in the place called Pagasae—pagasai ["entrance"] in Greek, because the Argo was first fitted together there—near the temple of Apollo Actius, past which the Argonauts sailed as they were setting out. Homer locates Pagasae in Thessaly. Aeschylus and others, however, say that a speaking plank was added to the ship by Minerva. The ship's form is not entirely visible among the stars: it is represented from stem to mast, signaling that men should not be greatly afraid when their ships are tom asunder.

Excerpted from Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans by Theony Condos. Copyright © 1997 Theony Condos. Excerpted by permission of Phanes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Theony Condos, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in classics from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation included the translation of the Greek text which appears in this volume.

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