Stories under the Stars is about switching off the television, taking some blankets outside and gazing up at the stars, lighting a bonfire and trying some delicious recipes or spotting the creatures that come out at night. It’s about asking ‘Why not tonight?’ and giving each other your undivided attention.
This week, we’re showing you how you and your family can spot the stories in the stars, with an easy constellation guide and an explanation of the myths and tales behind some of the characters people spotted in the skies thousands of years ago.
Find the North Star
Choose a clear night and an outdoor space away from tall buildings and bright lights. Your own back garden or the local park will work, but outside your Center Parcs lodge on a family break is ideal, because the tranquil forest setting away from noise and light pollution make the stars stand out brightly.
The North Star, or Polaris, is positioned directly above the North Pole, which is handy because it appears to stay still in the sky and will always show you which way is north.
The easiest way to find it is to look for the Plough, which is seven stars in the shape of a ladle. Follow the ‘spoon’ of the Plough and you will find the North Star – it will be brighter than the stars around it. Directly beneath the North Star is due north, east is to your right, west is to your left and south is behind you.
Once you’ve found the Plough and the North Star, you can look for all the other major constellations in this part of the sky. The handle of the Plough is also the tail of the Big Bear, so that’s a good place to start.
The Big Bear (or Ursa Major) is thought to have been named this way because, as the stars shift, it ‘moves’ from standing on four feet to two, and in Ancient times bears were the only known animals who could do this.
Another version of the story tells of two bears that the Ancient Greek God Zeus saved from his angry father, who wanted to kill them, by hiding them in the sky. He swung them around by their tails and launched them into the stars where they would live forever. That’s why they both have such long tails – Zeus stretched them!
Perseus was one of the greatest heroes in Ancient mythology. He defeated Medusa, the Gorgon who had snakes for hair and whose gaze turned people to stone. The Gods lent Perseus a magical helmet which made him invisible, sandals that allowed him to fly and a mirrored shield he could use to see where the monster was without looking at her.
When he died years later, the Gods immortalised Perseus for his heroic acts as a constellation. He holds his sword in one hand and the head of Medusa in the other.
Aries is a ram and one of the 12 signs of the zodiac. He was the sheep with a golden fleece that Ancient Greek hero Jason and his crew of loyal Argonauts were sent to find.
Whoever owned the golden fleece was a rightful king and could found their own kingdom. On his quest, Jason and his crew battled six-armed giants, harpies (half-woman, half-bird monsters) and huge rock cliffs that crashed together when any boats attempted to pass between them.
Draco the dragon wound up in the sky after being killed by the Ancient Greek king, Cadmus. Cadmus was on a long quest to rescue his sister who had been kidnapped. One day, he sent his attendants to find fresh water but before they could return, they were killed by a serpent with three rows of teeth, a three-forked tongue and flames flashing in his eyes.
When his companions didn’t return, Cadmus went in search of them, discovered the dragon and killed it with his spear.
Pegasus was a winged horse best known for assisting Hercules in his trials, but years before that he helped a hero named Bellerophon.
Bellerophon believed he could fly to the top of Mount Olympus, where the gods lived, on Pegasus’ back. Zeus was angry at Bellerophon’s arrogance so he sent a horsefly to bite Pegasus on the leg. Pegasus reared up, bucking Bellerophon off his back and causing him to fall back down to earth.
But Pegasus continued to fly alone and reached Olympus, where Zeus met him and took him into his stables. He lived among the gods on Mount Olympus forever, carrying thunderbolts for Zeus.
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