The constellation of Taurus is one of the oldest to have been labelled as such in human history. Evidence suggests people have been associating this patch of sky with the image of a bull for upwards of 10,000 years. Babylonian astronomers called it The Bull of Heaven, and it was the first constellation in their zodiac.
Taurus is elevated in humanities cultural mythos so because of a few special astronomical equalities. It is the only constellation crossed by the galactic equator, the celestial equator and the ecliptic plane. The ecliptic a special name for the path of the Sun across the sky throughout the year – this passes through Taurus many times. Although it is not, as the ancients probably thought, the Sun that moves around Earth but the other way around.
Epics and Equinoxes
Taurus is mentioned by name in the oldest surviving work of human literature – The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the story, the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh is attacked by a raging bull after rejecting a proposition from the goddess Ishtar. He and his companion, Enkidu, slayed the bull and tossed its head and horns into the heavens. Thus, the constellation of Taurus was born. Many Babylonians may have identified the neighbouring constellation of Orion, the Hunter, with either Enkidu or Gilgamesh.
Many thousands of years later, the Egyptian and Greek civilisations of the classical world would also come to identify Taurus with legends of bulls. During the bronze age of history, the Sun would rise into the constellation during the Spring Equinox. Thus, the bull would disappear behind the Sun – which was seen as a form of sacrifice before the new life of Spring.
In Greek mythology Taurus was associated with the story of Zeus and Europa, in which the chief deity took on the form of a majestic white bull before kidnapping the Phoenician princess. Greek astrologers suggested this is why only half of Taurus is visible in the sky, as he was still swimming across the Aegean Sea towards Europa.
Taurus may have also informed the myths of the Cretan Bull. This legendary bovine fathered the Minotaur and was subdued by Heracles (Hercules) in one of his 12 labours.
Taurus is also known as a bull across the world – in Chinese astrology, by Buddhists, Innuits and many more groups of people.
In Astronomy, Taurus is known as the location of the Pleaides star cluster. They are the most obviously visible cluster of stars to the naked eye viewer from Earth. The constellation is also home to the Crab Nebula, a remnant of the massive supernova explosion that occurred in 1054. This explosion was so bright, it could be seen on Earth during daylight hours – despite being over 6.5 light years, or 60 trillion kilometres, away.
This incredibly bright ‘guest star’ (as it was called by Chinese observers) may have influenced the mythology surrounding Taurus, as many people identify such stellar phenomena as signs or portents of future events.