Star maps show Aquarius as a young man pouring water from a jar or amphora, although Ovid, in his Fasti, says the liquid is a mixture of water and nectar, the drink of the gods. The water jar is marked by a Y-shaped asterism of four stars centred on Zeta Aquarii, and the stream ends in the mouth of the Southern Fish, Piscis Austrinus. But who is this young man commemorated as Aquarius? The most popular identification is that he is Ganymede or Ganymedes, said to have been the most beautiful boy alive. He was the son of King Tros, who gave Troy its name. One day, while Ganymede was watching over his father’s sheep, Zeus became infatuated with the shepherd boy and swooped down on the Trojan plain in the form of an eagle, carrying Ganymede up to Olympus (or, according to an alternative version, sent an eagle to do it for him). The eagle is commemorated in the neighbouring constellation of Aquila.

In another version of the myth, Ganymede was first carried off by Eos, goddess of the dawn, who had a passion for young men, and Zeus then stole Ganymede from her. Ganymede became wine-waiter to the gods, dispensing nectar from his bowl, to the annoyance of Zeus’s wife Hera. Robert Graves tells us that this myth became highly popular in ancient Greece and Rome where it was regarded as signifying divine endorsement for homosexuality. The Latin translation of the name Ganymede gave rise to the word catamite.

Aquarius and his water jar, from the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729). The flow of water from the jar extends into the mouth of the southern fish, Piscis Austrinus.

If this myth seems insubstantial to us, it is perhaps a result of the Greeks imposing their own story on a constellation adopted from elsewhere. The constellation of the water pourer originally seems to have represented the Egyptian god of the Nile – but, as Robert Graves notes, the Greeks were not much interested in the Nile.

Germanicus Caesar identifies the constellation with Deucalion, son of Prometheus, one of the few men to escape the great flood. ‘Deucalion pours forth water, that hostile element he once fled, and in so doing draws attention to his small pitcher’, wrote Germanicus. Hyginus offers the additional identification of the constellation with Cecrops, an early king of Athens, seen making sacrifices to the gods using water, for he ruled in the days before wine was made.

Stars of Aquarius
Several stars in Aquarius have names beginning with ‘Sad’. In Arabic, sa’d means ‘luck’. Alpha Aquarii is called Sadalmelik, from sa’d al-malik, usually translated as ‘the lucky stars of the king’. Beta Aquarii is called Sadalsuud, from sa’d al-su’ud, possibly meaning ‘luckiest of the lucky’. Gamma Aquarii is Sadachbia, from sa’d al-akhbiya, possibly meaning ‘lucky stars of the tents’. The exact significance of these names has been lost even by the Arabs, according to the German expert on star names, Paul Kunitzsch.

In the Almagest, Ptolemy described Alpha, Beta and Gamma Aquarii as lying in the right shoulder, left shoulder, and the right forearm of Aquarius respectively. The head of Aquarius is marked by the relatively lowly 25 Aquarii, of 5th magnitude. Ptolemy listed 20 stars as lying in the flow of water from the jar, almost as many stars as in the main figure of Aquarius itself. He said that the flow of water ended at the star in the mouth of the southern fish, Piscis Austrinus, as can be seen in the star chart above. This is the star we now know as Fomalhaut, and is another example of stars being shared between constellations in the days before rigorous boundaries were established. Fomalhaut is now the exclusive property of the southern fish.
Chinese associations
Many ancient Chinese constellations, big and small, were to be found in the area of sky now occupied by Aquarius, including three after which lunar mansions were named. The 10th Chinese lunar mansion, (‘girl’), took its name from a group near the border with Aquila formed by Epsilon, Mu, 4 and 3 Aquarii, representing a maidservant. Beta Aquarii and Alpha Equulei formed Xu (‘emptiness’), the 11th lunar mansion, symbolizing a place of desolation and darkness connected with funerals and mourning.

The present-day Alpha Aquarii was joined with Theta and Epsilon Pegasi to form a V-shape, like the pitched roof of a building, called Wēi, ‘rooftop’. There are in fact three Chinese constellations whose names are Romanized as Wei, and each has a different meaning. This Wēi is the one after which the 12th lunar mansion is named. (The other two are in Aries and Scorpius.)

In the north of Aquarius, the Water Jar asterism consisting of Gamma, Pi, Zeta and Eta Aquarii was known as Fenmu, a burial place or tomb. South of it, a line of four stars including Kappa Aquarii formed Xuliang, representing a mausoleum, apparently for departed Emperors. Two other small constellations in this same area continued the theme of death and mourning, namely Qi, ‘weeping’, and Ku, ‘crying’, each consisting of two stars.

Crossing Aquarius from southern Pisces into Capricornus was the extensive constellation Leibizhen, a line of 12 stars including Phi, Lambda, Sigma and Iota Aquarii. This represented a chain of fortifications to protect the army camp or barracks to the south. The camp was the quarters for Yulinjun, the Imperial (or Royal) Guards, fearsome soldiers said to have been drafted from the northern territories. Yulinjun was a sprawling group of 45 stars, the greatest number of stars in any Chinese constellation, most of them in Aquarius but a handful farther south in Piscis Austrinus.

Straddling the border with Capricornus was Tianleicheng, a group of 13 stars including Xi and Nu Aquarii, representing a castle with earthwork ramparts (although some interpretations place Tianleicheng in Piscis Austrinus). Another figure whose location is disputed is Fuyue, an axe used for executions or for cutting crops. According to one interpretation this consisted of three stars near the border with Cetus but others have placed it not in Aquarius at all but farther south in Sculptor.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved