The mythological events concerning this constellation are said to have taken place around the Euphrates river, a strong indication that the Greeks inherited this constellation from the Babylonians. The story follows an early episode in Greek mythology, in which the gods of Olympus had defeated the Titans and the Giants in a power struggle. Mother Earth, also known as Gaia, had another nasty surprise in store for the gods. She coupled with Tartarus, the lowest region of the Underworld where Zeus had imprisoned the Titans, and from this unlikely union came Typhon, the most awful monster the world had ever seen.

According to Hesiod, Typhon had a hundred dragon’s heads from which black tongues flicked out. Fire blazed from the eyes in each of these heads, and from them came a cacophony of sound: sometimes ethereal voices which gods could understand, while at other times Typhon bellowed like a bull, roared like a lion, yelped like puppies or hissed like a nest of snakes.

Gaia sent this fearsome monster to attack the gods. Pan saw him coming and alerted the others with a shout. Pan himself jumped into the river and changed his form into a goat-fish, represented by the constellation Capricornus, also inherited from the Babylonians.

A cord joins the tails of Pisces, the two fish. From the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729).

Aphrodite and her son Eros took cover among the reeds on the banks of the Euphrates, but when the wind rustled the undergrowth Aphrodite became fearful. Holding Eros in her lap she called for help to the water nymphs and leapt into the river. In one version of the story, two fish swam up and carried Aphrodite and Eros to safety on their backs, although in another version the two refugees were themselves changed into fish. The mythologists said that because of this story the Syrians would not eat fish. An alternative story, given by Hyginus in the Fabulae, is that an egg fell into the Euphrates and was rolled to the shore by some fish. Doves sat on the egg and from it hatched Aphrodite who, in gratitude, put the fish in the sky. Eratosthenes wrote that the two fish represented by Pisces were offspring of the fish that is represented by the constellation Piscis Austrinus.

In the sky, the two fish of Pisces are represented swimming in opposite directions, their tails joined by a cord. The Greeks offered no good explanation for this cord, but according to the historian Paul Kunitzsch the Babylonians visualized a pair of fish joined by a cord in this area, so evidently the Greeks borrowed this idea although the significance of the cord was lost.

Pisces is a disappointingly faint constellation, its brightest stars being of only fourth magnitude. Alpha Piscium is called Alrescha, from the Arabic name meaning ‘the cord’. Ptolemy described this star as lying where the cords joining the two fish are knotted together. Pisces is notable because it contains the point at which the Sun crosses the celestial equator into the northern hemisphere each year. This point, called the vernal equinox, originally lay in Aries but it has now moved into Pisces because of a slow wobble of the Earth on its axis called precession.
Chinese associations
Chinese astronomers knew the line of seven stars from Alpha to Delta Piscium as Waiping, a fence to screen off the cesspit of Tianhun which lay south of it in Cetus. Five stars including Eta Piscium formed Yougeng, representing a livestock manager. A zig-zagging chain of five stars from Beta to Iota or Omega Piscium formed Pili, a thunderclap or thunderbolt; to its south, four stars including Lambda and Kappa Piscium formed Yunyu, cloud and rain (Leidian, representing thunder and lightning, lay over the border to the north in Pegasus, completing the stormy scene).

In the north of the constellation, seven stars including Chi, Phi, Upsilon and Tau Piscium formed the southern part of a loop-shaped figure called Kui, after which the 15th lunar mansion was named; the greater part of Kui lay within present-day Andromeda. A quadrilateral of four stars in southernmost Pisces (27, 29, 30 and 33 Piscium) marked the eastern end of the constellation Leibizhen, a chain of fortifications, which crossed Aquarius into Capricornus.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved