NON-astronomers are often puzzled by the concept of a disused constellation – surely, a constellation is either there or it isn’t. However, the patterns we see in the stars are purely a product of human imagination, so humans are free to amend the patterns as they choose – and astronomers did so at will during the heyday of celestial mapping in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The constellations described in this section are a selection of those that, for one reason or another, are no longer recognized by astronomers, although they will be found on old maps. I have described only those constellations that achieved at least some degree of currency, for constellations invented by one astronomer, either in an attempt to make his own name or to flatter his patrons, could be introduced at will and be completely ignored by everyone else. For example, in 1754 the English naturalist John Hill (1714–75) published 15 new constellations in his dictionary of astronomy called Urania: or, A Compleat View of the Heavens. These were tucked into spaces between existing figures and represented various unappealing creatures including a toad (Bufo), a leech (Hirudo), a spider (Aranea), an earthworm (Lumbricus), and a slug (Limax). Hill was a noted satirist and he may have been attempting to perpetrate a joke on astronomers – a joke that never caught on. (Incidentally, Deborah Jean Warner, in her classic book The Sky Explored, gives the total of Hill’s constellations as 13, but she misses out Anguilla, the eel, and Patella, the limpet.)
Several constellations were introduced for mercenary reasons by astronomers wishing to immortalize their kings or governments, usually in the hope that such a gesture would advance their career, as it often did. In 1627 a German astronomer, Julius Schiller (c.1580–1627) of Augsburg, attempted to populate the sky entirely with Biblical characters in his atlas called Coelum Stellatum Christianum. For example, the familiar constellations of the zodiac were changed to represent the 12 apostles. These attempts to politicize and Christianize the sky were rejected by other astronomers.
The following table lists two dozen obsolete constellations described and illustrated on these pages. Click on a name to go to that entry.