I heard the first wood frogs chortling across the field last night and couldn’t help but make a stellar association. It was 10 o’clock and Arcturus flickered in the east in the same direction as the pond. Who hasn’t looked at the sky and connected the dots to make a personal constellation? It seemed right to make my own, but instead of using faint stars between the main figures to create a new pattern – a ploy of 17th and 18th century mapmakers and astronomers – I co-opted a familiar constellation and gave it a new identity.
Of course I know this is perfectly silly, but it struck me how Bootes the Herdsman could just as easily be re-visioned as a frog. And to keep everything on the up and up, a fitting name with ancient roots was required. That’s where Latin came in handy. “Frog” in the ancient Roman tongue is “rana” and “ver” or “veris” is spring. Put them together and you’ve got Rana Veris or the Frog of Spring. Notice how the frog’s legs splay out like the stars below Arcturus, and the shape of the head nearly matches the 3-star triangle at the constellation’s north end. Perfect.
I’m not expecting anyone to recognize this old-new constellation, but only to see my use of poetic license as another example of the pattern-seeking species we are. Hey, I’m only human. After all, that’s how the real constellations got there in the first place. They were probably used as an easy way to keep track of cultural stories and myths.
By 4000 B.C. many of present day constellations were already well-established among the Sumerians of the Middle East. They drew their outlines on vases and game pieces. In particular, sky watchers back were very familiar with the stars of the zodiac, the path traveled by the sun, moon and planets. The presence of this important “heavenly highway” made these stars special. Scorpius, Leo, Taurus and Gemini – some of the oldest – go straight back to Sumeria.
The ancient Greeks recognized 48 constellations named for men, women and animals in their mythology but also borrowed from and shared by other civilizations in the Middle East. The first modern constellations were added in the late 16th century when European sailors explored the far reaches of the globe and saw southern hemisphere stars not visible from their homeland. Dutch navigators Pieter Dirksz Keyser and Frederick de Houtman constructed new constellations like Volans the Flying Fish and Tucana the Toucan to commemorate some of the amazing creatures discovered on their journeys.
Astronomers and mapmakers created lots of constellations during this era of discovery to as late as the 19th century. Many didn’t survive. My two favorite obsolete groups are Bufo the Toad (no surprise, eh?) and Noctua the Owl. Bufo was invented in the 18th century by physician John Hill; English amateur astronomer Alexander Jamieson pictured the owl on his 1822 Celestial Atlas.
We ended up with 88 constellations and precisely defined borders courtesy of the International Astronomical Union in 1930. I suppose that means my frog doesn’t stand a chance in the grand scheme of things, but at least I can share him with you.