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The Greek name for constellations, was katasterismoi. Of these the twelve signs whose risings intersected the sun's at dawn were known as the zodiakos ( zodiac) or zodiakos kyrklos (circle of little animals). The constellations, as they were described in Greek mythology, were mostly god-favoured (or cursed) heroes and beasts who received a place in the heavens in memorial of their deeds. They were regarded, as semi-divine spirits, living, concious entities who strode across the heavens.

The main source for Greek star myths were the lost works of Hesiod and Pherecydes, and the later works of Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Aratus and Hyginus. Translations of these are available online at Theoi.com.

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ATLAS & HEAVEN

REVOLUTIONS OF THE CONSTELLATIONS

For those unfamiliar with the basic visible mechanics of constellar movement, here is a brief outline, including Greek beliefs regarding the behaviour of the stars.

The constellations revolve round a central point in the northern sky known as the pole star, or heavenly axis (Greek polos). Because of its far northern location, most of the stars are seen to rise in the east and set in the west. Only those few closest to the pole - namely, Ursa Major and Minor (the Bears), and Draco (the Dragon) - appear to travel at night in an eternal circle around the pole.

Not all of the constellations are visible in the night sky throughout the year. The first appearance of a constellation in the sky, occurs on the western horizon just prior to dawn (its so-called heliacal rising). As the months progress it is seen to rise earlier and earlier in the night, and gradually assumes a higher position in the heavens prior to dawn, until one evening, it has reached the western horizon, before dissappearing completely from view (which is known as the constellation's astronomical setting).

The most important of the heliacal risings were those of the twelve constellations of the zodiac. They were said to rule the heavens for the period in which their position on the eastern horizon prior to dawn was replaced by the rising sun. So, for example, Gemini first rises above the eastern horizon in late May, appearing in the sky just prior to dawn, where its position is immediately replaced by the rising sun. As the constellation gradually rises earlier and earlier in the night, its place on the solar horizon at dawn is eventually replaced by the next constellation of the zodiac, namely Cancer, in mid June.

The Greeks imagined the heavens as a great, solid dome, which, some say, was forged of bronze, and upon which the heavenly constellations were fixed. The Titan Atlas, who stood either beneath the axis of heaven in the far north (in the land of the Hyperboreans), or at heaven's western rim in by the Atlas mountains in North Africa, was said to spin the dome around upon his shoulders, causing the stars to rise and set.

AION & ZODIAC

Part of the heavenly dome always lay beneath the horizon. Here the constellations were apparently believed to dwell deep beneath the earth in the misty pit of Tartaros, or else within the lands of the dead. When they rose up into the heavens, the constellations were first bathed in the purifying waters of the great earth-encircling river Okeano. Various myths describe the birth and death of the semi-immortal constellations: such as the Gemini twins, or Dioskouroi, who were said to divide their time equally between Heaven and Haides. Orion was also described by Homer both striding across the heavens and hunting wild beasts in the underworld.

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IMAGES OF THE CONSTELLATIONS

There are very few surviving depictions of the constellations in classical art: at most, a few Roman mosaics, and a partial depiction on the famous Farnese statue of the Titan Atlas.

The thumbnails, used here to illustrate the constellations here, are taken from a Renaissance-era ceiling fresco from the Villa Farnese in Caprarola, Italy, painted around 1573.
For larger images I reccomend the site: Stories of the Constellations (external link)

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ZODIAC MOSAIC

KEY TO INDIVIDUAL ENTRIES

HEADING The common English name for the constellation.

Latin : the Roman name of the constellation (usually the same as the one used in English today)
Greek : The Greek name of the constellation.
Akkadian & Sumerian : The old Eastern name for the constellation, predating the Greek. *

NAME A character associated with the constellation in surviving compilations of star myths.

* The form and arrangment of the heavenly constellations was adopted by the Greeks from the sea-trading Phoenicians of the East, who in turn had received them from the Assyrians, and they from their forefathers the ancient Sumerians. As a result the Greeks had a number of alternate myths describing each of the star groups, as the foreign traditions were translated in different ways by the various regions and poetical traditions of ancient Greece.

SUMERIAN & AKKADIAN CONSTELLATIONS

For a list of Sumerian and Akkadian constellation names see: The Star Catalogue (external link).

For a critique of the popularised identification of Sumerian constellations by John McHugh see Occidental Constellations (external link).

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CONSTELLATIONS & THE ADVENTURES OF HERACLES

Heracles, "glory of the air," had his labours represented amongst the stars of heaven. The formula was evidently adopted from eastern sources, in particular the star myths of the so-called "Phoenician Heracles," the hero-god of Lebanon, Melqart. A number of his labours, although missing from the late Greek constellar arrangements, are perhaps recognisable in their older Eastern forms.

The adventures of Heracles can be paired with the following constellations : (1) the Nemean Lion, constellation Leo ; (2) the Hydra and Crab, constellations Hydra and Cancer ; (3) the Stymphalian Birds, constellations Lyra and Cygnus ; (4) the Cretan Bull, constellation Taurus ; (5) the Hesperian Dragon, constellation Serpens ; (6) Herakles wrestling Apollon, constellation Gemini ; (7) Prometheus and the Caucasian Eagle, constellations Hercules and Aquilla ; (8) the centaur Cheiron or Pholus, constellation Saggitarius or Centaurus ; et. al.

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ANDROMEDA

ANDROMEDA, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Andromeda
Greek : Andromedê
Sumerian : LU.LIM (the Stag)
Akkadian : Lulimu (the Stag)

ANDROMEDA A Princess of Ethiopia, daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopea. Her mother offended the gods by boasting that the girl was more beautiful than the Nereids. Poseidon in wrath sent a sea-monster to devour the girl. When she was chained to the rocks, the hero Perseus spied her, slew the beast, and carried her off as his wife. The gods as a memorial, set the whole family amongst the stars as constellations. (Hyginus 2.11 ; Aratus 197)

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AQUARIUS

AQUARIUS, ZODIAC CONSTELLATION

Latin : Aquarius (Water Bearer)
Greek : Hydrokhoos (Water-Bearer)
Sumerian : GU.LA (the Great)

GANYMEDES A handsome Trojan prince. He was seized and carried off to heaven by an eagle sent down by Zeus, to become the cup-bearer of the gods. The eagle and boy were subsequently placed amongst the stars as the constellations Aquila and Aquarius. (Hyginus 2.16 and 2.29)

DEUCALION An early Greek king who managed to survive the great Deluge that was sent by Zeus to destroy mankind. Because so much rain fell during his reign he was represented amongst the stars as the Water-Pourer. (Hyginus 2.29 on Hegesianax)

CECROPS An early king of Athens who was the first to pour libations in honour of the gods. In memory of this he was placed in the heavens as the water-pourer Aquarius. (Hyginus 2.29 on Eubulus)

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AQUILA

AQUILA, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Aquila (the Eagle)
Greek : Aiêtos (the Eagle)
Akkadian : Erû (the Eagle)
Sumerian : Á.MUSHEN (the Eagle)

EAGLE APHRODITE When Zeus wished to seduce the goddess Nemesis, he transformed himself into a swan, and bade Aphrodite pursue him into her lap in the guise of an eagle. In this way he accomplished his seduction and in memorial placed an eagle and swan amongst the stars. (Hyginus 2.8)

EAGLE OF PROMETHEUS An eagle which was set by Zeus feed on the liver of the chained Titan Prometheus. When Heracles freed him from his chains, he slew the eagle with an arrow, and Zeus placed the pair amongst the stars as Aquila (eagle) and Sagitta (arrow). (Hyginus 2.15)

EAGLE OF ZEUS 1 The eagle which Zeus sent to snatch the handsome Trojan youth Ganymedes up to heaven. The boy and eagle were placed amongst the stars as the adjacent constellations Aquarius and Aquila. (Hyginus 2.16)

EAGLE OF ZEUS 2 An eagle which appeared to Zeus as a sign of good omen when he was sacrificing on an altar prior to the commencement of his war against the Titans. To commemorate the event he placed the eagle and altar amongst the stars as the constellations Aquila and Ara. (Hyginus 2.16)

EAGLE OF ZEUS 3 When Hermes was wooing the goddess Aphrodite she spurned his advances. Zeus, pitying his son, sent an eagle which snatched away her sandal and delivered it the god, which he used to barter for her favours. The eagle was rewarded with a place amonst the stars. (Hyginus 2.16)

MEROPES A King of Cos whose wife was killed by Artemis for spurning her worship. When he was about to commit suicide in his grief, Hera transformed Meropes into an eagle and placed him amongst the stars in the form of Aquila. (Hyginus 2.16 on Aglaosthenes)

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ARA, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Ara (the Altar)
Greek : Thytêrios (the Altar)

ALTAR OF ZEUS When Zeus had gathered allies for the Titan War, they made sacrifices on an atlar constructed by the Cyclopes to pledge their alliegance. In memorial the god placed it amongst the stars as the constellation Ara. The rising of its stars heralded the storms of late autumn. (Hyginus 2.39)

ALTAR OF PHOLUS The kindly centaur Pholus was set amongst the stars by Zeus for his skill in augury. He was depicted pouring libations at the atlar in the form of the three constellations Ara (the Altar), Crater (the Cup), and Centaurus (the Centaur). (Hyginus 2.38)

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ARGO

ARGO, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Argo
Greek : Argô (the Silver (Ship)

ARGO The ship of the hero Argonauts which was constructed by Argus and Athena, with a talking beam placed on its prow. After their voyage in search of the Golden Fleece, the ship was placed amongst the stars in memorial as the constellation Argo. Only half of the ship can be seen in the stars, the forepart from stern to mast. (Hyginus 2.37)

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ARIES

ARIES, ZODIAC CONSTELLATION

Latin : Aries (the Ram)
Greek : Krios (the Ram)
Akkadian : Argu (the Hired Man)
Sumerian : LÚ.HUN.GÁ (the Hired Man)

CHRYSOMALLUS A flying, golden-fleeced ram. It was sent by the cloud nymph Nephele to rescue her children, Phrixus and Helle, who were about to be sacrificed to the gods. The ram carried them across the seas, but Helle lost her grip and fell. Upon reaching Colchis the ram shed its golden fleece for Phrixus who hung it in a sacred grove, and flew up to the heavens to take a place amongst the stars as the dimly shining constellation Aries. (Hyginus 2.20 on Hesiod, Pherecydes and Eratosthenes)

RAM OF AMMON 1 When the god Dionysus led his armies into Africa and they were suffering in the desert, a ram appeared and guided him to the springs of Ammon. As a memorial the god set the creature amongst the stars as the constellation Aries, first of the twelve signs of the zodiac. {Hyginus 2.20 on Hermippus)

RAM OF AMMON 2 An Egyptian (god) named Hammon was the first to herd flocks of sheep. To honour his gift to mankind, a ram was set amongst the stars. (Hyginus 2.20 on Leon)

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AURIGA

AURIGA, CONSTELLATIONS

Latin : Auriga (the Charioteer)
Greek : Hêniokhos (the Charioteer)
Akkadian : Gamlu (the Crook)
Sumerian : GÀM (the Crook)

Latin : Capra (the Goat)
Greek : Aix Olenios (the Goat on the Left)

ERICHTHONIUS An early King of Athens who invented the four-horse chariot. As a reward for his gift to mankind Athena placed him amongst the stars as the constellation Auriga. (Hyginus 2.13 on Eratosthenes)

MYRTILUS The charioteer of King Oinomaos of Pisa, and a son of the god Hermes. When he was murdered by Pelops, his father set him in the heavens as the constellation Auriga. (Hyginus 2.13)

ORSILOCHUS An Argive man who in local legend was the inventor of the chariot. The gods placed him amongst the stars as Auriga in memorial. (Hyginus 2.13)

AEX OF HELIUS A goatish daughter of Helius the sun, who was hidden away in a cave by the Titan gods because of her fearsome face. When Zeus sought to overthrow these same Titans he was told by an oracle to make a goat-skin cape, and so he slew Aex and crafted the aegis. He then placed Aex among the stars as Capra. (Hyginus 2.13)

AEX OF PAN The goatish wife of the god Pan. Zeus coupled with her and she bore the god Aegipan. Because Zeus was fond of both he placed the pair amongst the stars as the constellations Capra and Capricorn. (Hyginus 2.13 from Euhemerus)

AMALTHEA & THE KIDS A she-goat which nursed the infant Zeus with milk on the Cretan Mount Ida. As a reward for its service the god placed the goat and its two kids amongst the stars about the constellation Auriga: Capra the goat sitting on his left shoulder, and the Kids in his left hand. (Hyginus 2.13 on Parmeniscus ; Aratus 161)

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BOOTES

BOOTES, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Bootes
Greek : Boôtes (the Wagon-Driver) or Arktophylax (the Bear-Watcher)
Akkadian : Niru (the Yoke)
Sumerian : SHUDUN (the Yoke)

ARCAS An early king of Arkadia. When he was about to kill his mother Callisto who had been transformed into a bear, Zeus raised the pair to heavens as the constellations Arctophylax (the Bear-Watcher) andUrsa (the Bear). (Hyginus 2.4)

BOOTES The inventor of the wagon or plough, a son of the goddess Demeter. As a reward for this service to mankind he was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Bootes. His oxen and plough were set alongside him as the Wain, i.e., the constellations Ursa Major and Minor. (Hyginus 2.4 on Hermippus and Petellides)

ICARIUS An Athenian devotee of Dionysus. He was instructed by the god in the art of winemaking, but was murdered by peasants who mistook the draught for poison. Dionysus then placed him, his daughter Erigone and their dog Maira, amongst the stars as the constellations Bootes, Virgo and Canis Major. (Hyginus 2.4 on Eratosthenes)

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CANCER

CANCER, ZODIAC CONSTELLATION

Latin : Cancer (the Crab)
Greek : Karkinos (the Crab)
Akkadian : Alluttu (the Crab)
Sumerian : AL.LUL (the Crab)

Latin : Aselli (the Asses)
Greek : Oinoi (the Asses)

CARCINUS A crab of the Lernaean swamp which assisted the Hydra in her battle with Heracles. The hero crushed it beneath his heel, and also despatched the serpent, but as a reward for their service Hera placed the pair amongst the stars in the form of the constellations Cancer and Hydra. (Hyginus 2.23)

ASSES OF DIONYSUS 1 The Asses were two stars set on the back of the constellation Cancer. They were a pair of donkeys who helped Dionysus cross a swamp when he was on his way to Dodona in search of a curse for the madness inflicted upon him by Hera. Upon recovering, the god awarded the pair with a place in the heavens as stars. (Hyginus 2.23)

ASSES OF DIONYSUS 2 The two asses of Cancer were also said to have been placed there as a reward for their service in the Giant War. For when Dionysus and Silenus rode into battle upon their backs, the strange sound of their braying put the Giants into a rout. (Hyginus 2.23)

ASS OF SILENUS The donkey mount of the old rustic god Silenus. The beast once entered into a contest with Priapus over the size of their erect members. The god won and killed the beast, but Dionysus in pity set it amongst the stars on the back of Cancer. (Hyginus 2.23)

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CANIS MAJOR

CANIS MAJOR, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Canis (the Dog)
Greek : Kyôn (the Dog)
Latin : Sirios
Greek : Seirios or Kyon Aster (the Dog-Star)

LAELAPS A magical dog which was destined never to surrender a chase. It was first bestowed on Europa by Zeus, who passed it to her son Minos, and from him to Procris and Cephalus. The last of these set it to hunt down the Teumessian fox, which was destined never to be caught. To resolve the contrary fates of the two animals, Zeus placed them amongst the stars as the constellations Canis Major and Minor to play out the chase unresolved for eternity. (Hyginus 2.35)

DOG OF ORION The dog of the giant hunter Orion who stands above it in the heavens. He leads it in the chase of the hare (Lepus) or the fox (Canis Minor). (Hyginus 2.35)

MAERA The dog of Icarius, a devotee of the god Dionysus. When his master was murdered, and his mistress committed suicide, the dog threw himself down a well. All three were then placed amongst the stars as Procyon (Canis Minor), Bootes and Virgo. (Hyginus 2.4 & 2.35)

SIRIUS The dog-star which crowns the head of the constellation Canis Major. Its rising in conjunction with the sun at dawn was thought to bring on the scorching heat of mid-summer. The Egyptians called it the star of Isis. (Hyginus 2.35)

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CANIS MINOR, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Canicula (the Little Dog)
Greek : Prokyôn (the Fore Dog)
Akkadian : Shelebu (the Fox)
Sumerian : KA.A (the Fox)

TEUMESSIAN FOX A monstrous fox which ravaged the Boeotian countryside. The hero Cephalus set the magical dog Laelaps to hunt it down. But because the pair had conflicting fates - one was destined never to be caught, and the other never to surrender the chase - Zeus transferred the pair to the heavens to play out their contest unresolved for all eternity. (Hyginus 2.35)

OTHER DOGS The dogs of Icarius and Orion were sometimes identified with Canis Minor instead of the usual Canis Major. (Hyginus 2.36)

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CAPRICORN

CAPRICORN, ZODIAC CONSTELLATION

Latin : Capricorn (the Goat Horn)
Greek : Aigokerôs (the Goat Horn)
Akkadian : Suhurmashû (the Goat-Fish)
Sumerian : SUHUR.MÁSH (the Goat-Fish)

AEGIPAN 1 A goatish sea god who came to the assistance of Zeus in the War of the Titans, and filled the enemy with panic. As thanks for his help the god set him amongst the stars as the goat-fish constellation Capricorn. (Hyginus on Eratosthenes 2.28)

AEGIPAN 2 When the monster Typhon attacked Olympus, the gods fled in a body to Egypt and hid themselves away in the form of animals. The god Pan transformed himself into a goat-fish and hid dived into a river. Later after Zeus had been disabled by the giant, Aegipan recovered his stolen sinews and so restored him. For this service he was awarded with a place amongst the stars as the constellation Capricorn. (Hyginus 2.28)

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CASSIOPEA

CASSIOPEA, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Cassiopea
Greek : Kassiepeia

CASSIOPEA A Queen of Ethiopia, mother of the lovely Andromeda. When she boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids, Poseidon sent a sea monster to devour the girl. She was rescued by Perseus, who slew the beast. As a memorial the whole family were placed amongst the stars, but Cassiopea because of her pride, was set to hang eternally upside down on her throne. (Hyginus 2.10 on Euripides and Sophocles)

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CENTAURUS

CENTAURUS, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Centaurus (the Centaur)
Greek : Kentauros (the Centaur)
Akkadian : Habasiranu
Sumerian : EN.TE.NA.BAR.HUM

CHIRON The wisest of the Centaurs, a son of the Titan Cronus. He once entertained Heracles, but when examining his poisonous arrows dropped one on his foot. Because of the unbearable pain of the wound, he surrendered his immortality and was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Centaurus. Others say he became Saggitarius. (Hyginus 2.38)

PHOLUS A centaur of Mount Pholoe in Arcadia who entertained Heracles in his cave. But when he opened the wine, the smell drew the other centaurs who attacked. Heracles slew them, but Pholus examining one of the poisonous arrows let it fall on his foot and died. The gods placed him amongst the stars as the constellation Centaurus, along with his drinking cup Crater. Some say Centaurus is depicted pouring a libation at the altar, Ara. (Hyginus 2.38)

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CEPHEUS

CEPHEUS, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Cepheus
Greek : Kêpheus

CEPHEUS A King of Aethiopia and father of the lovely Andromeda. He was forced to sacrifice his daughter to a sea monster because the boasts of his wife Cassiopea offended the gods. But the hero Perseus slew the beast and rescued her. As a memorial the whole family - Cepheus, Cassiopea, Andromeda and Perseus - were placed amongst the stars. (Hyginus 2.9)

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CETUS

CETUS, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Cetus (the Sea Monster or Whale)
Greek : Kêtos (the Sea Monster or Whale)

ETHIOPIAN CETUS A sea monster which was sent by Poseidon to ravage the land of Ethiopia to punish Queen Cassiopea for her prideful boasts comparing her daughter Andromeda to the Nereids. The girl was offered up as sacrifice to the monster, but was rescued by the hero Perseus. To commemorate the event, the monster was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Cetus, along with Perseus and Andromeda. (Hyginus 2.31)

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CORONA

CORONA, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Corona (the Crown)
Greek : Stephanos (the Crown)
Akkadian : A-nim (the Crown of Anu)
Sumerian : AGA (the Crown of Anu)

CROWN OF ARIADNE The crown of the Cretan princess Ariadne. She received from the gods as a wedding gift upon her marriage to the god Dionysus. After her death it was set amongst the stars as the constellation Corona. (Hyginus 2.5)

CROWN OF DIONYSUS The crown of the god of wine. He received it as a gift from Aphrodite and after his return from the underworld with his mother Semele he set it amongst the stars in memorial of the event. (Hyginus 2.5 on the Argolica)

CROWN OF THESEUS The crown of the Athenian hero Theseus which he received from the goddess Amphitrite as a mark of his divine paternity. He in turn gave it to Ariadne as reward for the assistance she provided him in navigating the passages of the Labyrinth. At her death it was placed amongst the stars. (Hyginus 2.5)

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CORVUS

CORVUS, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Corvus (the Crow)
Greek : Koronis (the Crow) or Korakos (the Raven)
Akkadian : Aribu (the Raven)
Sumerian : UGA-MUSHEN (the Raven)

CORONIS A Thessalian girl loved by the god Apollo. But she proved unfaithful and Artemis slew her with her arrows. The god then placed Coronis (literally, "the Crow") amongst the stars as the constellation Corvus. Her son by Apollo was Asclepius, the constellation Ophiochus. (Hyginus 2.40 on Istrus)

CROW OF APOLLO A crow which was sent by Apollo to fetch water for libations. It tarried in the task, and as punishment was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Corvus, along with the serpent Hydra, and the water-cup Crater. The serpent prevented the crow from drinking at the bowl leaving it eternally parched in the heavens. (Hyginus 2.40)

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CRATER

CRATER, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Crater (the Drinking Cup)
Greek : Krêtêr (the Drinking Cup)

CUP OF PHOLUS The drinking cup of the the centaur Pholos. It and its owner were placed amongst the stars as the adjacent constellations Crater and Centaurus. (Hyginus 2.38)

CUP OF APOLLO A cup placed amongst the stars by Apollo in form of the constellation Crater, next to Corvus the crow and Hydra the serpent. The serpent was set to guard the bowl, preventing the crow from drinking. (Hyginus 2.40)

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CYGNUS

CYGNUS, CONSTELLATION

Latin : Cygnus (the Swan)
Greek : Ornis (the Bird) or Kygnos (the Swan)

SWAN ZEUS When Zeus wanted to seduce the goddess Nemesis he transformed himself into a swan, and bade Aphrodite in the guise of an eagle pursue him into her lap. As a memorial of this successful ruse he placed an eagle and swan in the sky as the constellations Cygnus and Aquila. (Hyginus 2.8)


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