There Are a Lot of Amazing Things Happening in the Sky. Look Up!

In Stories in the Stars, Susanna Hislop reveals the enchanting legends behind the stars that decorate our night sky. Here, Sweet finds out about six little-known constellations.

Vulpecula

Most of us can likely spot the Big (and Little) Dipper in the sky. Orion's belt? Easy stuff. But did you know that there's a pair of King Charles Spaniels scampering among the stars? What about a microscope? Or an Ethiopian queen? Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations, a beautifully illustrated new book that is now on our gift wish list, shines a light on some of the more esoteric constellations in the night sky. Here, Sweet talks with Susanna Hislop, the London-based author (and actor, a background that might explain the wonderfully dramatic flair of her tales), about six constellations that you've probably never noticed before and the curious myths behind them. Your dinner party guests will thank you—trust.

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Camelopardalis

"Calvinist minister Petrus Plancius said that this constellation was a giraffe in 1612, but later, in 1624, the German astronomer Jacob Bartsch said that this collection of stars must be a camel. Plancius had decided it was a giraffe based off the observations of 16th-century explorers who went to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time and saw all these constellations they had never seen before, and put all the strange new creatures they saw into the sky. It wasn't until the 1930s that the International Astronomical Union made the official decision that this constellation is a giraffe."

Cassiopeia

"Cassiopeia is called the Ethiopian Queen. She was incredibly vain, the forerunner of the evil stepmother in Snow White. She spent her days looking into the mirror, boasting and bragging about her beauty. One day she took it too far, bragging that she was even more beautiful than Poseidon's daughters. This unleashed his rage, and he set a curse on her kingdom. In order to assuage the resulting plague, Cassiopeia has to chain her daughter, Andromeda, to a rock. Eventually, by a stroke of luck, Persius is flying on Pegasus overhead, and he saves her. This myth ties together most of the constellations and the way they move across the sky."

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Cetus

"Cetus is the great sea beast. Loads of different myths and legends have been attached to this sea monster. In classical legend, Cetus is the beast sent out to curse Cassiopeia after she insults Poseidon. In a sense, this giant whale was the forerunner for Moby Dick."

Corona Borealis

"Corona Borealis is the northern crown. Various stories from around the world have been attached to this constellation. In ancient Inuit legend, it is a polar bear's paw. In a Middle Eastern legend it is a beggar's dish. In Chinese astronomy it's a prison, and in Welsh astronomy it is the lady of the silver wheel."

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Microscopium

"This is a more modern constellation, one of a series of astronomical instruments that a philosopher called Lacaille added to the sky in the 18th century. He added a series of scientific instruments that don't have any legend attached to them: with the microscope, he was honoring scientific achievements. He was very much a philosopher of the Enlightenment and used the stars to honor the new religion of his day, which was science."

Canes Venatici

"There are several different dogs in the sky. You've got Canis Major and Minor, which are the classical ancient dogs. Hevelius, a Polish astronomer, decided to add these new dogs in the 17th century. They're little hunting dogs. They are said to be King Charles Spaniels, as those would have been the most common hunting dogs during Hevelius's time."

Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations (Penguin Random House), $30, thebookstall.com.

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