Zodiac Constellations

Each year the Sun moves eastward in a complete circle around the sky. The path followed by the Sun is called the ecliptic, and any constellation containing the ecliptic is called a zodiac constellation. The constellations of the zodiac are listed below, in order as the Sun moves eastwardly through them, starting from the constellation containing the Sun at the vernal equinox (thus it is visible overhead at night in the fall, six months later).

Zodiac Constellation

Mythological Identity

Appearance and Notes

Season in
Evening Sky

Pisces
(Pie-seez)

Two fish. Venus and her son Cupid escaped from Typhon by swimming through the sea as two fish.

Near Pegasus and Andromeda.
Red star TX Piscium varies in brightness.

Fall

Aries
(Air-eez)

Ram with Golden Fleece, could fly through the air.

A small constellation, with only two easily-visible stars.

Winter

Taurus
(Tore-us)

Bull. Babylonian constellation. Jupiter turned himself into a bull to carry off Europa, daughter of the King of Crete.

Reddish eye the star Aldebaran, one vertex of the Winter Hexagon, in a V-shaped grouping called the Hyades. Look at Pleiades, a jewel-box of stars, with binoculars.

Winter

Gemini
(Jem-eh-ni)

Twin brothers. Protectors of ships and sailors, who swore oaths by them: "By Jiminy!"

Look for the two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, which together form one vertex of the Winter Hexagon.

Winter

Cancer
(Kan-ser)

Crab, sent by Juno to kill Hercules, who squashed it with his foot.

Faint stars. Look with binoculars for the Beehive star cluster, faintly visible to the naked eye.

Spring

Leo
(Lee-oh)

Lion. Prehistoric constellation, often associated with royalty.

Look for sickle-shaped or backward-question-mark asterism. Bright star Regulus.

Spring

Virgo
(Vir-go)

Maiden, goddess of farms and harvest, holding a shock of wheat.

Second-largest constellation in sky. Bright star Spica. Cluster of galaxies. Bright quasar.

Spring

Libra
(Lee-brah)

Scales (balance), because the Sun was in Libra during the autumn equinox when the Romans chopped off the claws of Scorpius to create this constellation.

Two faint stars. Includes the traditional claws of Scorpius. Alpha-Librae is a double-star resolvable by binoculars.

Spring

Scorpius
(Scor-pee-us)

Scorpion sent by Gaia to kill Orion when Orion boasted he would slay all the animals of the Earth; now Orion and Scorpius circle each other on opposite sides of the sky.

Fish-hook to Polynesians; rises right out of water in the SE in the summer. Bright star Antares, the heart of the Scorpion, rivals Mars in its reddish tint.

Summer

Ophiuchus
(Oh-fee-uke-us)

The serpent holder, Oph. ("Gus" for short) represents Aesclepius the healer. Although not traditionally considered part of the zodiac, the sun now is actually within Oph. longer than it is in Scorpius.

Faint stars. Look for Ophiuchus holding the Serpent (Serpens) between Arcturus (Bootes; locate with Big Dipper) and Altair (Aquila; cf. Summer Triangle).

Summer

Sagittarius
(Saj-eh-tair-ee-us)

The Archer, a centaur (half man and half horse) archer named Chiron, shooting an arrow.

Look for teapot asterism. In direction of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, rich with many stars. Try binoculars.

Summer

Capricornus
(Kap-rih-corn-us)

Sea Goat. Pan only partly succeeded in turning himself from a goat into a fish.

Dim stars. Look for large laughing mouth.

Fall

Aquarius
(Ah-kwair-ee-us)

Water Carrier. Babylonian constellation.

Water jar asterism. Near Pegasus.

Fall

Study Questions

Mythological Identity Identify the four and a half human forms represented among the 12 constellations of the zodiac (not counting Ophiuchus).

  1. Zodiac literally means "circle of the animals." Which zodiac constellation does not represent a living thing?

Season in Evening Sky Which zodiac constellation would cross the meridian at midnight on Christmas Eve?

  1. When would Taurus be visible crossing the meridian at midnight?

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