Star Lore 4


It’s been quite a while since the last star lore blog. The previous blogs can be found here: star lore 1, star lore 2, star lore 3 and stone age art and constellations. In star lore 3, we took a look at Pisces, Taurus, Orion, Lepus, Canis Major, Canis Minor and Gemini where we discovered a rich variety of origin stories. Not only Greek ones but Native American, Australian Aboriginal, African, Polynesian and Inuit as well. My personal favourite was the Inuit story of Sikuliarsiujuittuq (Procyon in Canis Minor). We have now taken a look at 18 constellations and in this blog we add another 7 taking our total to 25 constellations of the 56 that can be seen from the UK.

We have also been adding to our navigational arsenal. Finding north using the pole star and aligning it with the Plough, Cassiopeia, the Square of Pegasus, and Auriga. We’ve discussed how the relative position of the constellations in comparison to our position can be used to help us orientate ourselves after having travelled a distance or in comparison to a landmark – remembering to bear in mind the 15 degree arc that they move every hour. We have also explored how the movement of stars through the sky during the night can be used to help indicate direction. The versatility of Orion is as a navigational tool indicating where the northern part of the sky is, and how we can use different stars in the constellation to find south, east and west is another method we have looked at. Also touched upon has been the use of zenith stars to navigate to known positions over long distances, such as the Polynesian use of Sirius to navigate to Tahiti from Hawaii. In this blog, the moon will be added to our navigational toolkit.

Moon as a navigational aid
There are a few ways in which the moon can be used to help you find direction. They range from a relatively easy and rough and ready direction finder, to a brain ache! So first, let’s cover the rough and ready but easy way.

The horns of the moon
We can use the ‘horns’ of the moon too indicate roughly were south is. Join up the ends of the shadow and imagine a straight line reaching the horizon and this will show you roughly where south is.

Horns of the moon
Horns of the moon.

There are a couple of problems with this method. The first is that it can be difficult to be accurate when the moon is at an acute angle. The line can be long and hard to imagine exactly where it is reaching the horizon. Another issue is when there is either a full or new moon and you cannot find any horns.

The reason this works is because both the sun and moon move in an east to west direction so the sun is always either east or west of the moon, except at a new moon when they are not aligned (hence no light face to the moon). The line you draw is therefore at right angles to the direction of the sun which indicates a north or south line and as we are in the northern hemisphere it will be south.

The shadow stick
This works pretty much the same way as the sun stick method of finding direction, except instead of using the sun we use the moon – which means a late night. It works because both the moon and the sun arc through the sky in an easterly to westerly direction and when either of them reach their highest point in the sky, they will be south of your position in the northern hemisphere (north in the southern hemisphere). As they are at the highest point in the sky, any shadow cast from them will be smaller than at any other time and we can utilise this to find direction. So the line from the shadow stick to the marker stick placed when the shadow is shortest is a north-south line.

Shadow stick
Shadow stick.

The bearing of the moon
There is already an excellent 2-part Woodland Ways blog on how to find out the bearing of the moon that can be read here for part 1, and here for part 2. They also explain in detail the mechanics of how and why it works. So, I will not go into it here except to give the essential information to allow you to try it yourself.

The bearing of the moon = the bearing of the sun – (12.2 x phase of the moon)

Obviously if you can see the moon it is unlikely you can see the sun but we can use the principle of the earth rotating 360 degrees in 24 hours (i.e. 1hr is 15 degrees of rotation) to find out the bearing of the sun even if we cannot see it. Assuming we are using GMT you know that the sun will be:

12am – 0 degrees 12pm – 180 degrees
3am – 45 degrees 3pm – 225 degrees
6am – 90 degrees 6pm – 270 degrees
9am – 135 degrees 9pm – 315 degrees

Please remember that when we are in BST you will need to make an hour adjustment i.e. midnight is 1am and midday is 1pm.

The moon goes from a new moon to a full moon over 29.53 days. Here is a ready reckoner to help determine which phase we are in.

Phases of the moon
Phases of the moon.

Please be aware that the orientation of the shadow is unlikely to be the same as in this diagram – it will depend on the direction of the moon. In this diagram it would be towards the south.

A word of warning. When you try this method and test it against a compass you may find there is a margin of error of up to 10 degrees. There are a number of contributing factors to explain this, but it can be attributed largely to the fact that there are 29.53 days in a lunar cycle which makes the exact selection of the phase of the moon a little tricky. This leads us to choose the best day for the phase rather than using a decimal point! Part 2 of the blog mentioned earlier describes these factors in great detail.

Below we have our updated map. It’s getting quite busy now with us having now built up a knowledge of 19 constellations. In this blog we have another 7 constellations to learn about.


Aries is visible from March to February and is best seen in autumn and winter. It is not the easiest to locate because it is quite small and does not have any very bright stars. I find it by first locating Orion, then follow a rough line from the bottom left star (Saiph) through the last star in his belt (Mintaka) till I find Aldebaran in Taurus. Then take a line past the Pleiades and carry on until you find Hamal which is the brightest star in Aries. Another way to find it in the winter is to first find the Great Square of Pegasus and look below the ‘body’ of Andromeda. You’ll probably only see two stars (Hamal and Shera).


The Greek origin myth includes the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The King of Thessaly, Athamas, had two children, Phrixus and Helle. The king had a crush on another woman called Ino who he made his second wife, which made his first wife (and mother of this two children) jealous. So, she left him and the land suffered a drought. Ino, his new wife, hated the children and plotted to kill them. She persuaded Athamas that the only way to relieve the land of the drought would be to sacrifice his son, Phrixus. Hermes felt sorry for them, so he sent a flying ram called Chrysomallos with a golden fleece to help them escape.

As the ram flew off with the children on its back one of them, Helle, fell off and drowned in the sea between Asia and Europe, historically known as the Hellespont but now called the Dardanelles. Phrixus survived and was taken to Colchis by the golden ram, where the ram instructed Phrixus to sacrifice him to the gods and put the golden fleece in an oak grove dedicated to Ares the god of war. The back story is that Chrysomallos, the ram, was actually the offspring of Poseidon following a tryst with Thessalin princess so when he was sacrificed, Poseidon placed him in the stars. The golden fleece stayed in the oak grove guarded by a dragon that never slept until Jason and his Argonauts arrived after a long journey. In a nutshell, after Jason had ploughed land with fire breathing oxen, sowed a field with teeth that grew into soldiers and drugged the dragon that didn’t sleep, he got hold of the golden fleece.

It is a very old constellation. While in Greek mythology it is often associated with the golden fleeced ram, it goes back a lot further. Even further than the 1,000BC Babylonian records that we often find linked to the constellations. In the Babylonian records, Aries seems to originally have been depicted as a farm worker but sometime during that period it became associated as the ram of a shepherd called Dumuzi. But in fact, there seems to be evidence that Aries was known as a ram as far back as 10,000BC. A temple site in modern day Turkey called Gobekli Tepe includes a set of carved stone pillars that include a number of constellations inscribed on them, including Aries depicted as a ram.

Cygnus is a large and prominent constellation in the northern sky which also technically contains the asterism called the northern cross. I say technically, because while most people, including me, consider the northern cross and Cygnus to be the same, there are officially a few more stars in the Cygnus constellation than in the northern cross, it’s just that they are hard to see! It contains a bright star, Daneb which comes from the Arabic dhaneb, meaning “tail”, from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajājah, which means ‘the tail of the hen’. In the northern hemisphere it is most visible in the evening from the early summer to mid-autumn.


In Greek mythology, Cygnus has been identified with several different legendary swans. Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce the Spartan queen Leda. After he ravished her, she also went to bed with her husband. She then laid two eggs. When they hatched, the twins Castor and Pollux (Gemini) emerged from one egg, and Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra from the other.

The Greeks also associated this constellation with the tragic story of Phaethon, the son of Helios the sun god, who demanded to ride his father’s sun chariot for a day. Phaethon, however, was unable to control the reins, forcing Zeus to destroy the chariot (and Phaethon) with a thunderbolt, causing it to plummet to the earth into the river Eridanus. According to the myth, Phaethon’s close friend or lover, Cygnus, grieved bitterly and spent many days diving into the river to collect Phaethon’s bones to give him a proper burial. The gods were so touched by Cygnus’s devotion that they turned him into a swan and placed him among the stars.

Navigationally, Cygnus can be used as a pointer to the Pole star in a similar way as the Plough and Cassiopeia. If you drawn an imaginary line from the end of the right wing through Daneb (the star at the short end of the cross shape) – which is at the tail end of the swan- and carry on in a straight line, you will find it leads to Polaris.

Cygnus used for navigation
Cygnus used for navigation.

It was used by the Polynesians for navigational purposes too. Cygnus formed part of a star line called Manaiakalani with Daneb being called Pira’etea (White sea swallow).

Aquila can be easily viewed from July through to December. Aquila which is Latin for eagle, is easy to spot, flying opposite Cygnus, with its bright star Altair being the southern tip of the Summer Triangle. Altair, is the 12th brightest star in the sky, and its name is derived from the Arabic an-nasr at-ta’ir which translates as ‘flying eagle’.


Aquila is usually associated with the eagle that carried Zeus’ thunderbolts and who was once sent by the god to bring Ganymede, a young shepherd boy, to Olympus to serve as cupbearer to the gods. As we will see later, Ganymede is represented in the sky by the neighbouring constellation Aquarius. But, there are a few myths in which Zeus transforms himself into an eagle and my favourite is one that helps cement the position of the constellations in my memory. I have already told part of the story when describing an origin story for Cygnus. When Zeus feel in love with Leda, queen of the Spartans he tried a ruse to get her to feel pity for him. He asked Aphrodite to turn herself into an eagle and pretend to pursue him so that Queen Leda would be moved to protect him, and he could have his wicked way with her. Another, similar, story is that it was Nemesis that Zeus was pursuing as a love interest. She did not reciprocate and thought if she turned herself into a swan he would lose interest. Undeterred Zeus promptly followed suit and impregnated her. Another, unrelated, possibility is that Aquila represents the eagle that was sent daily to tear out the liver of Prometheus as he was chained to the rock in punishment for giving mankind fire.

In Japanese mythology, Altair represents Hikoboshi a herdsman that fell in love and married princess Orihime (Vega), who wove beautiful clothes. They lived on opposite sides of the heavenly river (the Milky Way) but were introduced by her father who was the king of the heavens when his daughter despaired of ever finding a husband. They fell so in love that they neglected their duties. The herds wandered all over the heavens and the princess stopped weaving clothes. Princess Orhime’s father was so angry that he forbade them to see each other. Orihime pleaded with him to change his mind and as he loved his daughter, he said that that they could meet once a year as long as Orihime returned to her weaving. On the first day they were to be reunited, they found the river (Milky Way) to be too difficult to cross. Orihime became so tearful that a flock of magpies came and made a bridge for her. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies will not come, and they have to wait another year to be reunited. In Japan, this is celebrated by the festival of Tanabata and wishes are made, written on paper and tied to trees.

Lyra is a small constellation with a big star. It can be found between Cygnus and Hercules and is easily seen between May and November. The bright star that makes it easy to identify is called Vega and it is the fifth brightest in the sky but the second brightest in the northern hemisphere.


Lyra represents a lyre, originally created by Hermes. Hermes stole some cattle belonging to Apollo and hid them in a cave. While there, he found a tortoise and hollowed out the shell, attached some intestines and began to make music. Apollo tracked Hermes and his cattle to the cave and confronted him in front of Zeus who ordered them to reconcile. Hermes gave Apollo the lyre and in return, Apollo gave Hermes his staff and cattle.

Apollo met Orpheus, the son of a Thracian king and the muse Calliope, when Orpheus was young, and not only gave him his lyre but also taught him to play it. It was said that Orpheus could make the trees dance and charm stones with his music. Jason, of the Argonauts, was told that his journey would fail without Orpheus and so he was recruited to find the golden fleece of Chrysomallos. As the Argonauts sailed near to the island of the sirens, the sirens began to sing in the hope of luring them to their death. Instead, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and made music louder and more beautiful than the sirens songs and so they were able to sail safely past them and carry on with their quest.

Another element of the lyre story includes Orpheus and his wife Eurydice. While walking in the meadows during their wedding, Eurydice was set upon by a satyr. Trying to escape, Eurydice fell into a pit of vipers and was fatally bitten. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief, played such sad and mournful songs on his lyre that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus travelled to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they had both left Hades’ realm. Orpheus set off with Eurydice following. However, upon seeing the sun as he reached the upper world, he immediately turned to look at her to share his delight, forgetting in his eagerness that both of them needed to be out of Hades’ realm for the condition to be met. As Eurydice had not yet crossed into the upper world, she vanished for the second time, this time forever.

Orpheus was later killed by the women of Thrace. The manner of his death often varies depending on the source, but one account states that they were Maenads urged by Dionysus to tear him to pieces in a Bacchic orgy because he preferred the worship of the rival god Apollo. His head, still singing, with his lyre, floated down a river until it reached Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established. It is said that Zeus sent an eagle to fetch the lyre and placed his instrument in the sky.

The Summer Triangle is an asterism formed by Vega, Altair and Deneb, the brightest stars of the northern constellations Lyra, Aquila and Cygnus. It is visible for most of the year for northern observers, but it is particularly prominent during the summer months, when it rises high overhead in the evening. Once called the Navigator’s Triangle, the Summer Triangle was used by navigators for orientation before GPS systems and other navigational equipment were invented. It was used as an indicator for finding south. The tip of the triangle, at Altair, points to the south. It is not dead south though so don’t use it as a compass bearing of 180o.

Summer Triangle
Summer Triangle.

Manaiakalani, has already been mentioned as being a useful navigational aid for the Polynesians. Its name can be translated as “The Chief’s fishing line” and it includes the navigators triangle (Huinakolu) or the summer triangle as we know it. Manaiakalani is the name of the demi-god Māui’s fishhook, which he used to pull up a giant fish at the bottom of the ocean. Māui’s greatest feat was his work in creating the Hawaiian Islands. One version of this myth begins with Māui fishing alongside his older brothers. Their mother has asked for food and they were not to return empty handed. Māui, seeking to impress his brothers, boasts that he will catch a famous giant fish. Māui was confident because his father had given him the sacred fishhook Manaiakalani. Māui sure enough got a bite. He pulled mightily but the massive fish did not budge. Māui yelled to his brothers to help by paddling the boat but tells them that they must not look back or else the line will break. They paddle and Māui slowly reels in the fish. As Māui has the fish within reach, the brothers look back, the line snaps and the giant beast is released. The snapping of the line, however, breaks the massive fish into several pieces that had now turned into islands. These lush, fertile islands were the perfect catch for which to supply his mother with an abundance of food. The fishhook part of the star line also includes Scorpius.


Hercules can be best seen from spring until autumn in our northern latitudes but can be seen on the north-western horizon in early evening into November. It is located between Draco and Ophiuchus with Lyra as its neighbour. It is a large constellation, the 5th biggest, but it does not have any bright stars and I find it a bit difficult to see from where I live… not least because Vega (the bright star in Lyra) shines bright in that part of the sky causing its own light pollution.


The son of a mortal mother, Alcmene, and Zeus, Hercules is possibly one of the best-known Greek heroes. Famous for his tremendous strength. When he was a child, Zeus snuck him onto Hera’s breast while she was sleeping and once he had taken her milk, he became immortal. Hera, the long-suffering wife of Zeus, was somewhat peeved by this and tried to kill the baby Hercules by sending serpents to kill him. He strangled them! When he had grown up and had children, she cast a spell that made him lose his mind and he killed them. Once he regained his senses and understood what he had done, he went to the Oracle at Delphi for penance. The Oracle sent him to serve the king of Mycenae, for 12 years. The king gave Hercules a series of 12 tasks, known as the labours, to win his freedom. These labours of Hercules fill Greek mythology and of course he succeeded in them all.

If you look at the constellation it looks like Hercules has his foot on the head of Draco. His 11th labour was to kill the dragon Ladon who guarded the garden of Hesperides, so it also possible to associate Draco with the dragon Ladon and it would fit nicely with a tale that helped the Greeks – and now us – read the sky.

After completing the twelve labours, Hercules married the daughter of a king. While the two were travelling, they came to a river where a centaur ferried people across. Hercules swam across the river, but his wife needed to be ferried. The centaur, who offered to do it, tried to ravage her, so Hercules shot the centaur with an arrow that was tipped in the Hydra’s poison. However, before he died, the centaur gave her some of his blood, saying that it could be used as a love charm. Later, she became worried that Hercules’ attention was wandering to another woman and she gave him clothing smeared with the poisoned blood. It started burning his flesh and, once he realised that he was dying, so he built himself a pyre and lay down on it, ready to meet his end. The fire burned the part of him that was mortal, and the immortal part joined the gods on Mount Olympus where Zeus placed him the sky.

Aquarius the 10th largest constellation in the sky, is located in the southern hemisphere. The constellation’s name means ‘the water-bearer’ (or ‘cup-bearer’) in Latin. It lies in the region of the sky which is sometimes referred to as the Sea, because it contains a number of other constellations with names associated with water: Pisces (the fish), Eridanus (the celestial river), Delphinus (the dolphin), Piscis Austrinus (the southern fish) and Cetus (the whale or sea monster).


Aquarius is depicted as a young man pouring water (or alternatively, nectar) from an amphora into the mouth of the Southern Fish, represented by the constellation Piscis Austrinus. As already mentioned, in Greek mythology it is usually associated with Ganymede, the beautiful son of the king of Troy, who was looking after sheep when he caught Zeus’ eye. The god disguised himself as an eagle and carried him off to Olympus where he granted Ganymede eternal youth and immortality as well as the job of being the cupbearer to the gods.

Capricornus is difficult to see. Not only is it faint, but it also small and lies low on the southern horizon. It is best viewed at between 9-10pm when it reaches its highest point in the sky in August and September. It also is a little indistinct, looking more like a pair of speedos than a goat! Capricornus can be found using the bright stars of the constellations Pegasus, Aquila, and Sagittarius as reference points, but since it is very faint, it requires exceptionally good conditions to be seen.


Capricornus means ‘horned goat’ in Latin. It seems to have two main Greek origin myths associated with it. The first is that it represents Amalthea, a goat that acted as a nurse maid to Zeus. His mother hid him in a cave on the island of Crete because his father Chronos wanted to eat him. Here he was fed by a goat, Amalthea, who in some versions of the story used her broken horn to feed him flowers and honey – the horn is the cornucopia of Greek legend and in my mind Capricornus looks more like a horn of plenty than a goat.

The constellation’s other possible origin myth is that it represents Pan, god of the wild places, shepherds and flocks and known for his music and erotic ways. He is usually depicted as having the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat. This seems at odds with the usual depiction of Capricornus as a sea-goat, a goat upper body and a fish tail lower body. There is however one story in which during the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans, Pan saved the gods by warning them of an attack by a monster called Typhon. The gods escaped and Pan eluded the monster by jumping into the Nile where his lower half turned into a fish. As is often the case, prior to the Greek period, the Babylonians and Sumerians recognised the constellation as a goat-fish so that is probably where the depiction originated.

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