Big Dipper

Before artificial light was invented, our ancestors could see a lot more stars in the night sky than most of us can today. They also had a lot more time to spend gazing skyward, and since they lived so closely with animals, a lot of what their imaginations found hidden in the stars revolved around critters.

Starting today, the planet Venus will pass directly between the sun and the earth — a very rare event that will not take place again until 2117. Inspired by this special cosmic moment, we decided to take a look at some equally unique animal-themed celestial legends.

Animals Above Us

Of the 88 constellations officially recognized by Western astronomy, 40 are animals — or 43, if you count the mythical ones. These include the goat, fish, ram, bull, crab, lion and scorpion, which should be familiar to most from the zodiac of astrology. But there’s also an eagle, dolphin, chameleon, crow, swan, crane, two water snakes, a generic lizard, hare, wolf, lynx, peacock, fox, toucan, flying fish and even a fly.

The Big Dipper is part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major, or the Great Bear. Some North American Indian peoples also see a bear in the Big Dipper, but those residing in the polar regions of North America call it a caribou, reindeer or moose. Across the Bering Sea in Russia, the Chukchi say that the reindeer is tethered to a post, and if you observe the sky at night, you can watch the reindeer pacing around it.

People all over the world see animals familiar to them in the night sky. The ancient Maya saw Pleiades as a rattlesnake’s tail, as well as constellations of a jaguar, shark, turtle and peccary. Some Australian natives see the Southern Cross as the foot of a wedge-tail eagle. And the Chinese traditionally saw four animals in the sky at the four points of the compass: a dragon in the east, a bird in the south, a white tiger in the west and, in the north, a tortoise who was sometimes depicted with a snake.

Legends also associate the Milky Way with animals. Its name in Estonian means “bird pathway,” and it was believed to be the route that birds used for seasonal migrations. It turns out that there was some truth to it: We now know that birds who migrate at night do indeed use the stars as a navigation aid. Scientists figured this out by putting some indigo buntings in a planetarium, where they could control the stars that the birds saw. The verdict: To determine which way was north, the birds zeroed in on the rotation of the constellations.

Celestial Critter Creations

Animals have even been credited with designing elements of the night sky. A Cherokee tale recounts the story of a dog who was caught stealing from a mill. When he ran away with cornmeal spilling from his mouth, the trail formed the Milky Way.

There are also various Native American tales in which the coyote created the constellations, and, in some, he’s to blame for the fact that they don’t really resemble what they should — the impatient canine carelessly tossed the stars up into the sky, instead of placing them carefully in the right pattern.

The Finnish name for the aurora borealis means “fox fires,” which derives from a legend that the Northern Lights are created by the tail of a magical fox sweeping snow up into the sky. And one group of Eskimos believed that the aurora was caused by the dancing spirits of deer, seals, salmon and beluga whales.

Laika Space Dog

Cosmos Movers and Shakers

Mythology also attributes the movements of the sun, moon, and planets to animals. One common legend among cultures as diverse as the ancient Babylonians and Hindus is that the earth was carried through the cosmos on the back of an animal, such as a turtle. The lore in China and India is that the world balances on the back of a three-legged frog.

The sun and its movements have animal ties, as well. According to a Mayan myth, when the sun sets, it turns into a jaguar for a nighttime journey through the underworld, where it battles with the gods of death before it can rise again in the morning. In Siberia, a heavenly reindeer steals the sun, which explains why it’s dark for half the year in the Arctic regions. A mythical hunter, sometimes a bear, has to kill the reindeer to let the light shine again.

The movements of the earth, moon and sun sometimes cause eclipses, which animals have a hand in too. Instead of a man in the moon, the Chinese see a toad, who sometimes causes lunar eclipses while trying to swallow the orb. Vikings told a tale about two wolves who chase after the sun and moon: If one of them catches their prey, it causes an eclipse. The Pomo Indians had a more complicated story involving a bear — they believed that the bear used the Milky Way as a path, and when the bear encountered the sun or the moon along the way, they’d get into a fight, resulting in an eclipse.

Final Frontier: Animals in Space

Although we haven’t found any real animals in outer space yet, we have sent some out there. In fact, animals went into space before humans, including Albert, a rhesus monkey who was launched in 1948. Sadly, early tests hadn’t actually worked out how to return the animal safely to earth, so Albert didn’t live to enjoy his fame.

The Soviets used dogs for testing instead, including a canine named Laika who’s well known today for sacrificing her life as the first dog in earth orbit. And it was the French who sent the first cat, Felix, into space in 1963.

Later space flights have carried a wide range of other species — rats, fish, rabbits and jellyfish, among others — for experiments on long-range health effects in space, tissue development and, interestingly, mating in a zero-g environment. Tests also determined that spiders could spin webs in zero gravity.

Space flight is still risky, which is why we’ve gotten more careful about sending fellow creatures into these dangerous situations: When some students launched an animal into the stratosphere to probe a solar storm in March, they chose a rubber chicken.

Linda Lombardi is a former zookeeper, college professor and the author of Animals Behaving Badly, a new book that grew from her blog of the same name.