Birds, Whales and Tortoises in the skies


I’m on a constellation binge. They crept into a short story I’m writing, and the resulting research has filled my head with ideas, not always a good thing. Hopefully soon, my dear fan, I will veer into another subject and leave my mythological obsession behind.

Monsters, as I wrote I last week, were given a hard time by the ancients. Most that made it into the stars were murdered, by either gods or heroes, who were descended from the gods. In one tale Draco, the dragon, was slaughtered by Minerva, who threw him into the sky where he froze into the twisted, tortuous constellation he is today. Draco was of the Gigantes race, who strove to rule the cosmos, and thus fought a sustained war with the gods. Guess who won?

Heracles, who was renamed Hercules by the Romans, killed many monsters as he ticked off his list of Twelve Labors. Among them were the Hydra of Lerna, a multi-headed water snake with poisonously bad breath, the Nemean Lion, Stimphalian Birds, and Erymanthian Boar


Cetus (ketos) was killed by Perseus, who rivaled Bellerophon in murdering monsters. Perseus was also related in a rather complicated way to Heracles. Cetus was a sea monster who we now like to think of as a whale. The citizens of Mesopotamia believed he (or she) was a whale. But to the Greeks, who greatly admired their flawed heroes, Cetus was a sea monster of enormous proportion with the head of either a lion or a snake, depending on who is telling the story. Poseidon sent the beast to Ethiopia, where Andromeda was waiting to be sacrificed for boasting about her beauty—by her own mother, no less.

Stimphalian bird

Admittedly, I never heard of the Stimphalian birds. They were nasty, frightful and large, with beaks of bronze and metal feathers that could be lethal when thrown. Heracles was tasked with killing them because they were eating everything in sight and attacking mortals.Heracles was given this Labor because the birds’ nests were surrounded by marshland, and King Eurystheus was hoping the hero would sink and die. But Heracles shot most of them with poison arrows after flushing them out using a divine rattle.

Cetus, Hydra, and Draco all earned constellations, but the bronze birds didn’t. A little over half of the recognized (in the West) star imagery where established by the Greeks.

the Black Tortoise

The Chinese keep their own designations—part of our Cetus is their Black Tortoise.

The African Night Sky

For tribes dwelling in Southern Africa, the Pleiades rising in the sky signaled “digging time”, the time to plant seeds.

The skies here have been steel gray all day here. It’s not likely I’ll be seeing stars tonight, so I’ll have to settle for the myths.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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