Figures in the Sky

How cultures across the World have seen their myths and legends in the stars

No matter where you are on Earth, we all look up to the same sky during the dark nights. You might see a different section of it depending on your exact location, time & season, nevertheless the stars have fascinated humans across time and continents.

Our own creativity combined with stories about local legends and myths have created a diverse set of different constellations. And even though the stars don't change, people have found many different shapes in the same sky. From humans, to animals, to objects, and even abstract concepts.

The same sky, different figures

Let's compare 28 different "sky cultures" to see differences and similarities in the shapes they've seen in the night sky. Ranging from the so-called "Modern" or Western constellations, to Chinese, Maori and even a few shapes from historical cultures such as the Aztecs.

Take the star Betelgeuse. This red supergiant is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. In proper darkness, you can even see that it shines in a distinctly red color. It's part of one of the easiest to distinguish modern constellations known as Orion, named after a gigantic, supernaturally strong hunter from Greek mythology.

The visualization below shows how Betelgeuse has been used by 17 cultures (out of the 28) to form constellations, each represented by a different color. The main shape of a long rectangle that is "tightened by a belt" in the center is clearly visible, with many lines of different constellations appearing side by side. These bright stars thus seem to form a distinctive figure. However, there are some fascinating alternates in there too; mostly humanoid shapes by the Egyptians, Navajo and Tupi.

The separate constellation shapes of each culture can be found in a ring around the main circle. Click on any of the smaller circles to make it appear in the center. To get back to the default view showing all constellations simultaneously, click on the central star map.

Sirius, said to literally mean "scorching", is quite an appropriate name

However, if we instead focus on Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, no clear shape is shared across cultures. In Western culture it belongs to Canis Major, i.e. the Large Dog, and a dog shape can indeed be recognized. But other cultures have seen Sirius as part of an Eagle, Wolf and several more animals.

Click on the sky map of Sirius below if you want to see it visualized in a bigger sky map with all of the separate constellations around it.

The Big Dipper is actually part of a larger Western constellation known as Ursa Major, or Big Bear

Perhaps the most universally recognized figure across all cultures is the first one that many people learn as a kid; the Big Dipper. Roughly 17 out of the 20 constellations that use Dubhe, the top right star, share practically the same "cooking pan" shape. And even though the shapes are almost the same, the actual figures that were seen differ quite a lot. From an Elk, a Caribou, to Carts, and even a "Group of organized thieves" by the Macedonians.

Click on the sky map of Dubhe below if you want to see it visualized in a bigger sky map with all of the separate constellations around it.

Below are several more famous or bright stars & constellations. For some of them, roughly the same shapes have been seen by cultures across the World, such as the half circle of the Corona Borealis constellation around Alphekka. Whereas others show quite the "chaos" of lines, see Mirphak for example.

As with the previous two maps, you can click on each of the stars below to see it visualized in a bigger sky map that pops up.

Brightness doesn't determine all

Let's look at all 2168 unique stars that are included in at least one constellation across all sky cultures. The chart below shows the stars according to their brightness from left to right, and the number of constellations the star appears in from top to bottom. A general trend is visible: The brighter the star, the more constellations it's included in. This makes sense, since brighter stars just stand out more.

Another thing that most likely plays a role is "good placement" around the ecliptic so it's visible in many regions of the Earth

However, some stars stand out because they "rise" from the general mass; they are included in constellations more often than you'd expect based on their brightness. The main reason appears to be that they are often part of an easy to recognize "shape" of stars, such as Orion's belt, the Pleiades, and the Corona Borealis and Taurus constellations.

And vice versa, several other stars are used less often than expected for their brightness. In these cases the star is often a bit of a loner. There is no group of close-by stars to form an easy to recognize shape with, such as Sirius and Canopus all the way on the right.

NOTE | Star colors, based on their actual visible colors, have been exaggerated/saturated for better visibility. The sizes of the stars are (not-linearly) scaled to the actual brightness of the stars (called absolute magnitude); how bright they would be if they were all placed the same distance from Earth. Because stars are all at widely different distances from the Earth, how bright a star appears to us is called the apparent magnitude.

Sirius is about 25 times more luminous than the Sun, but Canopus is ~10,000 times more luminous!

Take Sirius, the brightest star, it appears almost twice as bright to us as Canopus, the next brightest star. However, compared to the other stars we see at night it's actually not exceptionally bright. The reason it appears so bright to us, is because it's one of our closest neighboring stars (at 8.6 light-years).

The full sky, different for each culture

Try moving the sky horizontally...

To get a sense of the different cultures, we can also look at all (still known) constellations of each. The Sky Map below shows almost the entire sky, only excluding a thin strip around both the poles. Right now it's revealing the Hawaiian (Starlines) constellations, but you can see a different set of shapes by selecting any of the other cultures below the Sky Map.

Constellations in the night sky as seen by Hawaiian (Starlines) culture

Number of Constellations — 13

Average number of ✩ per constellation — 7

Sky Cultures

The constellation information for the cultures come from Stellarium, a free and extremely popular planetarium.

There are 28 cultures included in these analyses and visuals. Especially for the more ancient cultures, only a few constellations are still known today. You can read a little more about each culture by hovering over the blocks. It's also possible to see all the constellations of the culture at once in the Sky Map above by clicking on a culture's name.

Arabic

Constellations 49

Avg. ✩ per constellation 11

The shapes of these constellations were greatly influenced by Greek astronomy. Particularly by the work of the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, which was translated into Arabic in the 9th century.

Arabic (Moon Stations)

Constellations 28

Avg. ✩ per constellation 3.5

The Arabic Moon stations describe the 28 sky areas chosen in ancient Arabia to define the daily location of the moon during its lunar month trip around the sky. Each station is recognized by a star or a group of stars.

Aztec

Constellations 5

Avg. ✩ per constellation 8.5

For the ancient Aztecs, the knowledge of the night skies and stars movement had great importance for their calendars, agriculture and religious cycles. Sadly, a great part of this knowledge was lost as consequence of the Spanish conquest.

Belarusian

Constellations 20

Avg. ✩ per constellation 6

The folk constellations found in Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe. People in the villages have preserved their traditional knowledge about the stars and related beliefs through to the present time.

Boorong

Constellations 28

Avg. ✩ per constellation 8

The Boorong tribe from Australia pride themselves upon knowing more of Astronomy than any other tribe.

Chinese

Constellations 318

Avg. ✩ per constellation 4.5

Chinese constellations, known as "Xingguan", are typically smaller than the modern ones, but there are many many more.

Dakota

Constellations 13

Avg. ✩ per constellation 8.5

Dakota, Lakota and Nakota (also known as Sioux) are one of the groups of indigenous people of north-central United States and Canada.

Egyptian

Constellations 28

Avg. ✩ per constellation 9

Late Egyptian astronomy / astrology follows that of Greco / Roman culture. However there are differences in names.

Hawaiian (Starlines)

Constellations 13

Avg. ✩ per constellation 7

A recent adaptation based on the teachings of a Polynesian master navigator, it divides the sky into four evenly sized star lines.

Indian Vedic

Constellations 28

Avg. ✩ per constellation 2.5

In Hindu tradition the ecliptic is divided into 27 parts, which correspond with 27 asterisms known as the nakṣatra-s.

Inuit

Constellations 11

Avg. ✩ per constellation 3.5

The constellations of the arctic universe, although the specifics of Inuit constellations might differ from tribe to tribe.

Japanese (Moon Stations)

Constellations 28

Avg. ✩ per constellation 5

Most astronomical observation in Japan until the Meiji Restoration was closely tied to astrological purposes.

Kamilaroi

Constellations 13

Avg. ✩ per constellation 1

The Kamilaroi (also known as Gomeroi) and Euahlayi peoples are Australian Aboriginal cultural groups located in the northern part of New South Wales.

Korean

Constellations 272

Avg. ✩ per constellation 4.5

These constellations are based on the Cheon-Sang-Yeol-Cha-Bun-Ya-Zi-Do, the Korean Constellation map, which was carved on the stone in 1395.

Macedonian

Constellations 19

Avg. ✩ per constellation 4

These constellations are reconstructed based on the descriptions known to elderly inhabitants of Macedonian villages.

Maori

Constellations 6

Avg. ✩ per constellation 5.5

The Maori (New Zealand) constellations are similar to the Polynesian. Maritime themes are central to the Maori constellations and were used extensively in nautical navigation.

Mongolian

Constellations 4

Avg. ✩ per constellation 6.5

Mongolian constellations were inherited from contact with Alexander the Great and was largely influenced by Chinese civilization and Buddhist religion.

Norse

Constellations 6

Avg. ✩ per constellation 6

Very few native Norse constellations have survived to this day. Being a seafaring nation, they probably had many.

Ojibwe

Constellations 10

Avg. ✩ per constellation 9.5

Ojibwe are one of the largest groups of indigenous people of North America (United States and Canada).

Romanian

Constellations 39

Avg. ✩ per constellation 9.5

Part of the Romanian constellations function as an "agrarian clock" for specific activities and tools used.

Sami

Constellations 10

Avg. ✩ per constellation 3.5

The Sami people are considered to be the native population of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and West Russia (the Kola Peninsula).

Sardinian

Constellations 11

Avg. ✩ per constellation 6.5

The constellations of the ancient Sardinian cultures, from the Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Siberian

Constellations 3

Avg. ✩ per constellation 6.5

A few constellations that are typical for the whole of Siberia.

Tongan

Constellations 11

Avg. ✩ per constellation 4.5

As in all Polynesian star lore, Tongan constellations descend from the practical application of nautical navigation.

Tukano

Constellations 11

Avg. ✩ per constellation 17

Tukano is the common name for a group of indigenous tribes who live around the northwestern region of Brazil, near Colombia and Venezuela.

Tupi

Constellations 7

Avg. ✩ per constellation 21.5

Tupi-Guarani is a name given to a family of languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Brazil and other South American countries.

Western | Modern

Constellations 88

Avg. ✩ per constellation 8

Western constellations are used internationally by modern astronomers. It has historical roots in Ancient Greek astronomy, with influences from Islamic astronomy (most of the traditional Western star names came from Arabic).

The endless sky, binding us together

The earliest written evidence for the existence of constellations comes from inscribed stones and clay writing tablets dating back to 3000 BC

It is innately human to see and use the figures in the night sky. To dream, to tell stories, to navigate, and more. Some groups of relatively bright stars are so distinct that cultures from around the world, separated by vast oceans, have connected them into a constellation in almost the same way. It's our human imagination and cultural history that ascribes wildly different figures and meaning to the shapes though. From kings, to legendary & important animals to mythical gods and beings.

So the next time you're outside during a dark but nice warm summer night, lie down in a patch of fluffy grass, look up and imagine your own shapes & figures from the pinpricks of twinkling lights above. You'll probably end up recognizing more shapes than you would've thought.

If you enjoyed this project, please pass it on to others by sharing it on Twitter LinkedIn Facebook or elsewhere

Created with by astronomer & dataviz lover Nadieh Bremer

See more of her personal & professional works on Visual Cinnamon

The data about the stars comes from the HYG star database. The constellation data comes from Stellarium, a free and open source planetarium + a lot of data cleaning, preparation & analysis to create this final piece.

Go to the datasketches' May month to read an in-depth write-up about the data preparation, design, coding & more.