Draco the Dragon and Ursa Major the Great Bear are constellations of the northern sky (hemisphere boreal). My watercolour painting is inspired both by the beauty of the night skies and the imagery of traditional astrology, naming the constellations after mythological figures, animals and other interesting things!
Nearby are the constellations of Camelopardalis the Giraffe, the (self explanatory!) Lynx, Ursa Minor the little bear, Corona Borealis the Northern Crown, Boötes the ploughman, Canes Venatici the hunting dogs and Lyra – the lyre.
This is one of a series of studies for a more ambitious painting showing all the constellations of the northern sky.
In Latin, Draco simply means dragon and could represent various dragons in Greek mythology. Traditional Arabic astronomy doesn’t see Draco as a dragon at all, but calls it the Mother Camels, depicting four camels protecting a baby camel from two hyenas! In northern latitudes, Draco never sets and can be seen all year round.
Ursa Major and Ursa Minor
Latin for great bear and little bear, the image of Ursa Major as a bear is thought to stretch back more than 13,000 years and been used many civilisations. The Greeks saw the two bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor as representing Callisto and her son Acas.
One version of this story is that Zeus disguised himself as Artemis (aka Diana) in order to force himself on Calisto, one of her nymphs. When Artemis/Diana found out, she was so angry that she turned Calisto into a bear! When Arcas was born as a result of his liaison with Calisto, Zeus put them both into the sky. In cultures all over the world Ursa Major is a symbol of the north.
The first known appearance of Ursa Minor in Greek texts was when philosopher Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BC pointed out that it was a more accurate guide to finding true north than Ursa Major. The Phoenicians seem to have been the first to realise this and Ursa Minor has traditionally been important for navigation, as its brightest star is the North Star, Polaris.
Meaning giraffe in Latin, this constellation seems only to have been seen as a giraffe since 1613 when Petrus Plancius named it after the animal that Rebecca rode in the bible to her wedding with Isaac. A faint constellation, its name is sometimes spelt Camelopardus.
A ‘newbie’ constellation named by Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century, allegedly just because he wanted to fill the gap between Ursa Major and Auriga. He chose the name as he reckoned it was so faint that only people with the amazing eyes of a lynx would be able to see it!
The name was first used by Homer in his Odyssey. It means means ox-driver, herdsman or ploughman and nobody seems sure who in Greek mythology it refers to. It seems likely to be Demeter’s son Philomenus, who along with his twin brother Plutus, drove the oxen in the constellation Ursa Major. (The ancient Greeks saw the part of Ursus Major now called the Plough as a cart with oxen.) Boötes contains an unusually high number of 29 stars that can usually be seen easily with the naked eye.
Latin for hunting dogs, the constellation is often seen as the dogs of Boötes the ploughman/herdsman (see above), but this may result from a mistranslation in medieval times. Some of Boötes’s stars were traditionally described as representing his club. Whether they’re dogs or a club, Canes Venatici is another constellation that’s not easy to see!
In Greek mythology, Corona Borealis is usually seen as the crown given by the god Dionysus to princess Ariadne, which he placed in the sky. Greek gods seem to have liked doing that! The constellation’s brightest stars form an arc like a crown, reflected in its Latin name, which means northern crown.
Latin for the musical instrument, the lyre, this constellation represents the first ever lyre from Greek mythology. Apollo fashioned it from a turtle shell for Orpheus, whose music could enchant even inanimate objects such as trees, streams and rocks. In the epic poem Argonautica, Orpheus uses his music to save Jason and the Argonauts, from the deadly song of the Sirens. In Wales, Lyra is sometimes referred to as King Arthur’s Harp or King David’s harp. Vega, Lyra’s brightest star is one of the brightest in the whole sky.