Taurus Constellation: History, Mythology & Facts

Out of the 88 officially recognized constellations, there is only a handful that looks anything like the object, person or creature they are supposed to represent. Taurus constellation, the Bull, is one of them.

Look upon any clear autumn or winter’s night and you’ll find it stampeding across the sky toward Orion, the Hunter. Orion has his club and shield raised high to defend himself. This is how the ancient Greeks first imagined the constellation, but they weren’t the first to identify its stars.

Known for at least seven thousand years (and possibly for seventeen), Taurus the bull constellations certainly dates back as far as the Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia. There it was associated with the Bull of Heaven, the mythical beast that was sent by the goddess Ishtar to kill the hero Gilgamesh.

The constellations Orion and Taurus.

Taurus constellation was the first constellation in the Babylonian zodiac, while the Egyptians believed the human race was created when the Sun had its vernal equinox here(that would put the creation of humanity no later than 4000 B.C.!). They associated the constellation with their god, Osiris, and his sister Isis.

But when most people think of the stars and mythology, they think of the Greeks. There are two surviving legends linked to the constellation and, perhaps not surprisingly, they both involve the god Zeus seducing a young maiden.

The best-known legend involves Europa, the beautiful daughter of King Agenor. She enjoyed visiting the beach with her friends and it was during one such visit that Zeus abducted her.

Transforming himself into a magnificent white bull, he hid among the grazing cattle that belonged to Europa’s father. Zeus then instructed his son, Hermes, to drive the cattle from their meadow and down toward the beach.

There, while gathering flowers, Europa saw the bull and was immediately captivated by it. She hung garlands of flowers around its neck and, sensing its strength and admiring its beauty, she climbed onto its back.

Still, in the form of a bull, Zeus seized his chance and headed toward the ocean. At first, he merely waded into the waves but then he ventured further and further from the shore. Europa became alarmed and, in fear of her life, clung on more tightly.

The bull continued to swim away from the beach and didn’t stop until he reached the shores of Crete. There Zeus revealed his true self and seduced her. She bore him three sons, the eldest of whom, Minos, then became the King of Crete and introduced the bull cult to the island.

Europa has since been immortalized as one of the four largest moons of planet Jupiter, which is, of course, the Roman name given to Zeus. Another of Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, was another conquest by Zeus that involved a bull.

In this version, Io was the daughter of Inachus, the first King of Argos, and priestess of Hera, Zeus’s wife.

Europa being carried away by the god Zeus in bull form.
Image credit: J. C. Andrä

Zeus became enamored of Io, but she rejected his advances. King Inachus, having heard what had happened, consulted with his oracles and then banned her from his house. By this time Hera had also heard of her husband’s adulterous intentions and so, to hide Io from his wife, Zeus transformed her into a heifer.

Hera was not so easily fooled and asked Zeus for the heifer as a gift. Zeus, not knowing that his wife knew the animal’s true identity and without a valid reason to refuse, agreed.

Hera then sent Argus, the giant with a hundred eyes, to watch over the heifer and to ensure that Zeus could not go near her. Zeus, in turn, again enlisted his son Hermes to distract Argus, thereby allowing the heifer to be freed.

This, of course, infuriated Hera, who continued the feud by sending a gadfly to irritate Io. The poor creature wandered the land but was unable to lose the fly, who continued to bother her. Eventually, she came to Mt Caucasus, where she encountered Prometheus.

Prometheus, the Titan who had stolen fire and given it to humanity, was chained to the mountain as punishment by Zeus. He told Io that one of her descendants, Hercules, would become a great hero and, after swimming across the sea to Egypt, Io was finally transformed back to human form by Zeus.

She bore the god two children, a son called Ephesus and a daughter named Keroessa, before eventually marrying King Telegonus of Egypt. The constellation Taurus was created to commemorate her journey. (Although there appears to be no explanation as to why Io was a heifer and Taurus is a bull!)

You can locate Aldebaran by following the three stars of Orion's belt.

We can find Taurus today the same way the ancients did. By following the three bright stars of Orion’s belt, we first come to Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation.

Aldebaran is the 14th brightest star in the sky, and like the Taurus constellation itself, has been known to various civilizations for thousands of years. It even has its own legends. The indigenous Seri of Mexico see the star as providing light to seven women giving birth (as represented by the Pleiades, see below.) They also named the lunar month associated with October for it.

Meanwhile, the aborigines of Australia associated the star with Karambal. After stealing another man’s wife, the husband found Karambal hiding in a tree and burned it down. The smoke that rose from the flames became the star Aldebaran.

Its name is derived from Al Dabaran, which is Arabic for “the follower.” Again, this refers to the Pleiades, as the star will always rise after that star cluster in the night sky.

Aldebaran appears to have a strong orange tint to the naked eye. No surprise then, that the Greeks saw it as representing the red eye of the Bull. In reality, it’s a red giant star, some 45 times larger than the Sun and about 500 times more luminous.

Look carefully and you’ll see that it lies on the edge of a V-shaped pattern of fainter stars. These stars, known as the Hyades, form the head of the Bull. It’s a true star cluster, some 150 light years away, but Aldebaran itself is not a member. At only 65 light years away, that star merely appears within the same line of sight.

The Hyades also have their own mythology. According to the Greeks, they were the daughters of Atlas and Aethra, the half-sisters of the Pleiades and entrusted by Zeus to raise the baby Bacchus.

Unless you happen to be looking at the Hyades during a moonlit night, you should have no problem identifying these stars as they’re an easy naked eyesight. They cover an area about ten times the size of the full Moon – although you’d probably never guess that to see them with your own eyes!

This means the cluster is too large to be appreciated with a telescope and is, in fact, one of the few sights better seen with binoculars. Most 10×50 binoculars will provide an outstanding view, with the entire cluster easily fitting within the field of view.

The Hyades also gives us the opportunity to see two pairs of binocular double stars within the cluster. To the south-east of Aldebaran is the pair known as Sigma 1 and Sigma 2, while Theta 1 and Theta 2 form a closer, brighter double to the west.

Hyades as seen through 10x50 binoculars.

It’s almost certainly the case that the Hyades would be the highlight of Taurus if it weren’t for another cluster to the north-west: the Pleiades. By continuing the line from Orion’s belt through Aldebaran, you’ll come to a small patch of tiny stars that’s easily visible, even from suburban skies.

The Pleiades have also been known for thousands of years. Cultures and civilizations from around the world have studied and recorded the group, with observations dating back to the bronze age and the ancient Chinese.

There they were worshipped by young maidens and known as the Seven Sisters of Industry. Further toward the west, the Hindus saw the cluster as a flame associated with Agni, their god of fire. The cluster is mentioned three times in the Bible and is known to the Japanese as the Subaru, meaning “to unite.”

(The Japanese car manufacturer of the same name has the six brightest stars of the cluster in its logo, as the company was formed from six separate companies.)

As for the Greeks, the sailors of ancient times used the cluster as an indication of when best to sail. From the stars rising in the pre-dawn sky in mid-spring to their setting with the Sun in late autumn, it was considered the best time to navigate the Mediterranean.

The Pleiades of Greek mythology.
Image credit: Elihu Vedder

Others associated the stars with the seven daughters of Pleione, wife of Atlas, grandmother to the god Hermes (the son of Zeus) and protector of sailors. If you recall, the Hyades and the Pleiades are all daughters of Atlas, but the sisters have different mothers. Both mothers were sea nymphs, but the Hyades were born to Aethra.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are no prominent Greek legends associated with the cluster, although one does state that Zeus placed the sisters in the sky to escape the amorous advances of Orion.

Despite commonly being known as the Seven Sisters, many observers can only see six stars with the naked eye. Over the years, this has caused some to wonder what happened to the seventh. If you’re familiar with the Big Dipper, you might also know the star Mizar.

This is the star that appears in the middle of the dipper’s curved handle. Look carefully and you’ll see a tiny star beside it. Known as Alcor, this tiny star is nicknamed “the lost Pleiad” – but in reality, the star is totally unrelated to the cluster!

There are few sights in the night sky that match the Pleiades. Like the Hyades, they’re best observed with binoculars or through a telescope at low magnification (about 35x or less.) The cluster has over a thousand stars and lies at about 450 light years from us.

These are young stars, perhaps only 100 million years old, and have yet to drift away from one another. Photographs will show the stars to be surrounded by beautiful blue nebulosity. It was once thought that this was the nebula from which the stars were born. More recent studies have shown it to be merely a chance encounter as the stars drift through space.

Whether you look to Taurus with a telescope, binoculars or merely your eyes, there’s no denying the fascination the constellation has held for thousands of years. From the red eye of Aldebaran to the V-shaped Hyades of its head and the seven sisters that ride its back, it’s a magnificent constellation. Orion is wise to be in awe of it!

Photographs reveal the blue nebulosity that surrounds the Pleiades.
Image credit: Giuseppe Donatiello

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