Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mythology, Legend and Folklore of the Sky - Part Three - The Stars

Long ago there lived a man and his three sons.  The man was fond of smoking tobacco in his pikka pipe.  As his sons grew, the man found them wives.  One day, the eldest son was invited by his wi'fe's parents to a wedding.  As he was their first son-in-law, he was treated like royalty and a feast was laid before him.  His wife's sister prepared a pikka for him only, being mischievous as she was, she filled it with salt instead of tobacco.  When the man blew into the pikka the salt crackled and caught fire and sparks flew into the air.  The son and his wife's family were awed and surprised.  They had never seen anything so beautiful.  The man continued to blow into the pikka and blew so hard that the sparks flew into the sky.  And here they stuck forever, becoming the stars.
        How the Stars Came Into Being - An Indian Folktale

Lake Mocan Stars
Photograph by Lincoln Harrison

While the Sun and Moon have their leading roles in the myths and legengs of the cosmos, the stars have fascinated people for generations and have their place in the part of many folktales and stories.  Often appearing as deities, the stars appear as the heavens, the home of the gods, or as a path between the earth and another world.

The Milky Way

The Mayans beleved that the Milky Way was a path for the spirits to follow into the Underworld.  The Cherokee of Native America have the following legend which relates how the Milky Way was created.

     Long ago, there were not many stars.  It was a time when the people depended on corn for their food.  The people would place the corn inside a hollow stup and pount it with a long wooden pestle to make cornmeal, which they stored in large baskets.  Corn meal meant the people could still eat in the winter.
     One day an old man and his wife went to their basket for some cornmeal but the cornmeal was gone.  It had been stolen.  They noticed cornmeal scattered on the ground and, in the middle of the scattered cornmeal were giant dog prints, so large that the couple knew they couldn't possibly belong to an ordinary dog.  They alerted the other people of the village and it was decided that this must be a spirit dog, come from another world.  And the people decided they didn't want the spirit dog in their village.  So they gathered their drums and turtle shell rattles, and that night they hid to wait for the spirit dog to arrive.
     Late in the night the people heard a whirring sound, like the wings of many birds.  Looking up they saw a giant dog swooping down from the sky and watched as it landed amongst the baskets of cornmeal, which it proceeded to eat in great mouthfuls.  The people jumped up, beating their drums and shaking their rattles, making so much noise that it sounded like thunder.  The spirit dog turned and began to run, with the people close behind still making as much noise as they could.  The great dog ran to the top of a hill, where it leaped into the sky with cornmeal spilling from its mouth.  It ran across the night sky until it disappeared from sight.  However, the spilled cornmeal made a path across the sky, with each grain of cornmeal becoming a star.  The Cherokees call this pattern gi li; un sun stan un'yi, meaning 'the place where the dog ran'.
     And this is how the Milky Way came to be

The Origin of the MilkyWay
by Jacopo Tintoretto
Probably inspired by Greek mythology

Another myth about the creation of the Milky Way comes from the Navajo people of Southwest America.

     When the world was new, the Holy People gathered around Black God to place the stars in the sky.  But progress was slow and Coyote became annoyed.  In irritation, he placed the red star Ma'iio, meaning 'the one who roams', in the south, hoping it would speed up the progress of the Holy People.  This star only appears for a short time in the year and symbolises trouble to the Navajo.  However, progress remained slow and Coyote grew more and more displeased.  Eventually he threw a bag of stars over his head and this became the Milky Way.

The Milky Way above a fir forest

The Pleiades

The Pleiades is a name for a cluster of stars within the constellation of Taurus and has an extensive amount of mythology associated wth them.  Throughout the world they are known by many names.  In Japan the Pleiades are known as Subaru, in China they're called Kimah.  The Aztecs called them Tianquiztli, meaning market or gathering place.and the Navajo called the Pleiades the 'Sparkling Suns; or the 'Delyahey', the home of the 'Black God'.  However, probably their most well known name comes from Greece, who called these stars the Seven Sisters, who are as follows:

The Pleiades (1895) by Elihu Vedder

Maia was the eldest of the seven Pleiades and the mother of Hermes by Zeus.
Electra was the mother of Dardanus and Iasiaon by Zeus.
Taygete was the mother of Lacedaemon, again by Zeus.
Alcyone was the mother of Hyrieus by Poseidon.
Celaeno was the mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon.
Sterope (or Asterope) was the mother of Oenomais by Ares.
Merope, the youngest of the seven Pleiades.  In some myths she was wooed by Orion and in others she married Sisyphus, becoming mortal and, after giving Sisyphus several sons, faded away.

(C) Copyright Anglo-Australian Observatory / Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.
Permission required for use. Photography by David Malin.

After Zeus condemned Atlas to carry the Heavens upon his shoulders, Pleione and her seven daughters were travelling when they met Orion.  Orion fell in love with Pleione and her daughters.  In an effort to win their affections, he spent a great deal of time chasing them.  Years passed and still Orion chased them, until Zeus finally intervened by transforming the seven sisters into doves to give them the chance to escape Orion's advances.  The seven doves flew into the sky and here they transformed in the the cluster of stars which we call the Pleiades.

The Australian Aborigines also have a myth about the Seven Sisters, although it is vastly different from its Greek couterpart.

The Story of the Seven Sisters 
by Reggie Sultan

The Story of the Seven Sisters and the Faithful Lovers

     'In the dream time, many ages ago, the cluster of stars which we now know as the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, were seven beautiful ice maidens. Their parents were a great rugged mountain whose dark head was hidden in the clouds, and an ice-cold stream that flowed from the snow-clad hills. The Seven Sisters wandered across the land, with their long hair flying behind them like storm clouds before the breeze. Their cheeks were flushed with the kiss of the sun, and in their eyes was hidden the soft, grey light of the dawn. So entrancing was their beauty, that all men loved them, but the maidens' affections were as cold as the stream which gave them birth, and they never turned aside in their wanderings to gladden the hearts of men.
     One day a man named Wurrunnah, by a cunning device, captured two of the maidens, and forced them to live with him, while their five sisters travelled to their home in the sky. When Wurrunnah discovered that the sisters whom he had captured were ice-maidens, whose beautiful tresses were like the icicles that drooped from the trees in winter time, he was disappointed. So he took them to a camp fire, and endeavored to melt the cold crystals from their beautiful limbs. But, as the ice melted, the water quenched the fire, and he succeeded only in dimming their icy brightness.
     The two sisters were very lonely and sad in their captivity, and longed for their home in the clear blue sky. When the shadow of night was over the land, they could see their five sisters beckoning to them as they twinkled afar off. One day Wurrunnah told them to gather pine-bark in the forest. After a short journey, they came to a great pine tree, and commenced to strip the bark from it. As they did so, the pine tree (which belonged to the same totem as the maidens) extended itself to the sky. The maidens took advantage of this friendly act, and climbed to the home of their sisters. But they never regained their original brightness, and that is the reason why there are five bright stars and two dim ones in the group of the Pleiades. The Seven Sisters have not forgotten the earth folk. When the snow falls softly they loose their wonderful tresses to the caress of the breeze, to remind us of their journey across our land.
     When the Seven Sisters were on earth, of all the men who loved them the Berai Berai, or two brothers, were the most faithful. When they hunted in the forest, or waited in the tall reeds for the wild ducks, they always brought the choicest morsels of the chase as an offering to the Sisters. When the maidens wandered far across the mountains, the Berai Berai followed them, but their love was not favored.
     When the maidens set out on their long journey to the sky, the Berai Berai were grieved, and said: "Long have we loved you and followed in your foot steps, O maidens of the dawn, and, when you have left us' we will hunt no more." And they laid aside their weapons and mourned for the maidens until the dark shadow of death fell upon them. When they died, the fairies pitied them, and placed them in the sky, where they could hear the Sisters singing. Thus were they happily rewarded for their constancy. On a starry night, you will see them listening to the song of the Seven Sisters. We call them Orion's Sword and Belt, but it is a happier thought to remember them as the faithful lovers who have listened to the song of the stars from the birth of time.'

The Big Dipper

The seven stars of the Ursa Major, also known as the Bug Dipper, are among the oldest recognized patterns in the sky.  To different cultures, they represent a variety of different things - a plow, wagon, camel, coffin, skunk and canoe amongst other things - and stories concerning this constellation are thought to date back to the Ice Age.  One of the most famous names for Ursa Major is the Great Bear; a name which may have originated 50,000 years ago during the existence of a Paleolithic bear cult.
The Great Bear is a well known term for Ursa Major and appears in many myths from around the world.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor

One such tale, called The Eternal Hunt, is shared by the Nova Scotian Micmac Indians and the St. Lawrence Iroquois Indians.  According to this tale, the quadrangle represents the bear which is being chased by seven hunters, with the three closest hunters being the handle of the dipper.  As autumn nears, the four furthest hunters disappear below the horizon, abandoning the hunt while the three closest hunters continue their pursuit.  The closest hunter is Robin, the second is Chickadee, who is said to carry the pot in which to cook the bear, and the third is Moose Bird.  During the autumn, the bear attempts to stand on two legs and Robin manages to wound the bear with an arrow.  The blood of the bear makes the leaves of the forest red and stains Robin, who is called Robin Redbreast from then on.  The bear is eaten and its skeleton continues to move through the sky on its back throughout winter until spring arrives, when a new bear leaves its den to resume to eternal hunt once more.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses is the story of Callisto and Arcus which has been attributed the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor:

Plate 19

     Jupiter, god of the skies, once fell in love with a beautiful forest nymph called Callisto.  One day Jupiter's wife, Juno heard that Callisto had given Jupiter a son, Arcus, and she flew into a jealous rage.  The angry goddess came down from Mount Olympus and found Callisto as she played beneath the trees with a child.  When Callisto saw Juno, she cried out in fear for all knew of the rage of Juno.
'So you are the one to capitvate my husband.  Well, let us see how he likes you like this!' Juno shouted and, as Callisto begged for forgiveness, her skin grew a thick covering of fur and her hands and feet transformed into paws with sharp claws.  Her mouth was soon filled with huge, sharp teeth and her voice became a deep growl.  The beautiful Callisto had become a ferocious looking bear.
     But this transformation didn't change the love she had for her son.  Unfortunately, he was terrified of her and the nymphs of the forest took him away to keep him safe.  All feared the bear Callisto and she was hunted by man and his dogs.  She was forced to run and hide from man and beast for not only did she not know how to fight, she had no desire to learn how.  She tried to stay close to her son and, as Arcus walked in the woods, the great bear was never far behind.  But as time went on, she was hunted more and more and was forced deep into the forest, far away from her son.
     Many years into the future, Callisto came upon a hunter in the woods and, when he turned, she realized that this was her son, Arcus, grown into a man.  But Arcus still feared this great bear and he raised his bow intending to shoot the bear.  At that moment, Jupiter looked down from Mount Olympus and saw what was about to happen.  He swept down from the mountain, picked up Callisto and threw her into the sky.  Then he picked up Arcus and threw him into the sky where he transformed into a small bear beside his mother.
     And thereafter they became stars known as Great Bear and Little Bear.  But Juno was not pleased, and commanded Nepture, god of the sea, to forbid the bears from descending into the ocean as the other stars were want to do.  And this is why Great Bear and Little Bear are the only two constellations that never set below the horizon.



Perhaps one of the most famous constellations is that of Orion the hunter, known in Celtic mythology as Cernunnos.  Orion is probably best known in Greek mythology, which tells us of how and why he became stars.  Orion bragged that he was so skilled that he would hunt down all the beasts of earth.  But Mother Earth wasn't pleased and sent the giant scorpion to destroy him.  In death both Orion and the scorpion were placed as stars on opposite sides of the sky where they cannot bother one another.  Even today Orion and the scorpion are never seen together in the night sky.  But just in case the scorpion decides to roam, the archer Sagittarius has his arrow on Antare, the heart of the scorpion.

The Scorpion

The Zodiac and the Stars

“Pallas (Minerva) watches over the Woolbearer (Aries);
Cytherea (Venus) over Taurus;
Phoebus (Apollo) the shapely Gemini;
You, Cyllenius (Mercury), over Cancer;
and Jupiter, you yourself rule Leo with the Mother of the Gods;
Virgo who bears ears of grain belongs to Ceres;
and the forged scales to Vulcan;
quarrelsome Scorpio clings to Mars;
Diana cherishes the hunting man part horse (Sagittarius);
and Vesta the contracted stars of Capricorn;
opposite Jupiter is Aquarius, the star of Juno;
and Neptune acknowledges his own Pisces in the upper air.”
- Manilius

 The Constellations with Astrological Signs of the Zodiac, Atlas Coelestis, 1660. Andreas Cellarius. British Museum, Creative Commons.

The signs of the zodiac (derived from the Greek word meaning 'circle of animals') were developed between 3,200 and 500BC in Mesopotamia and were taken over by the Greeks in aournd 500BC.  As we know them today, the zodiac comprises of 12 signs: Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, Leo the Lion, Virgo the Maiden, Libra the Scales, Scorpio the Scorpion, Sagittarius the Centaur or Archer, Capricorn the 'Goat-horned' or the Sea Goat, Aquarius the Water Bearer and Pisces the Fish.  Early astrologers discovered that it took 12 lunar cycles or months for the sun to get back to its original position and identified 12 constellations which they linked with the progression of the seasons.  In Greece, each of these constellations has its own myth.  Here I'll give you the very basics of the myths which are linked to the zodiac signs but, if you want more information, this website is really helpful and perhaps I'll look at the Greek zodiac more closely in a future post.

  • The first sign of the Greek zodiac is Aries, the Ram (March 21 - April 20) which is linked with the story of the Golden Ram who rescued two children, brother and sister, from being sacrificed to the gods. 
  • Next comes Taurus, the Bull (April 21 - May 21), who is associated with the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.
  • Taurus is followed by Germini, the Twins (May 22 - June 21), which has been linked to the story of Castor and Polydeuces.
  • Cancer, the Crab (June 22 - July 23) follows and is linked with the second labor of Hercules when he was tasked with killing Lerna Hydra, a water snake with 100 heads.
  • The fifth is Leo, the Lion (July 24 - August 23), who is attributed to the first labor of Hercules, who had to capture the Nemean Lion.
  • Virgo, the Maiden (August 24 - September 23) is associated with the tale of Demeter and her daughter Persephone.
  • The stars of Libra, the Scales (September 24 - October 23) signifies justice, equity and balance.
  • The eighth constellation of Scorpio, the Scorpion (October 24 - November 22) is linked with the story of Orion and the Scorpion which you can find above.
  • Sagittarius, the Centaur or Archer is linked with the myth of Centaur who is named after Cheiron, the famous king of the centaurs.
  • Capricorn, the 'goat-horned' or Sea Goat (December 22 - January 20) is linked with the birth of Zeus, father of the gods.
  • The constellation of Aquarius, the Water Bearer is believed to be associated with the story of Ganymede.
  • The final constellation of Pisces is thought to have been inspired by the story of Aphrodite.

While the Greek zodiac is the most well known, it is not the only zodiac.  The Chinese zodiac is believed to be a mixture of geomancy, horoscopes, astronomy and astrology.  Their lunar calendar dates from 2637BC and includes five cycles of twelve years, with a complete cycle lasting sixty years.  This website is an excellent source of information on the Chinese zodiac.  The Chinese also have a legend which tells us why the rat was the first animal of the years in the Chinese zodiac.

 Chinese Zodiac Cycle - InternChina

The Order of the Animals

     The Jade Emperor deemed that animals should be designated as calendar signs and the first twelve to arrive would be the chosen ones.  At the time, the cat and the rat were good friends. When news of the Emperor's decision reached them, cat told rat that they should arrive early to sign up but the cat was always late to rise.  The rat promised to wake his friend so they could go together.
     But on the morning of the choosing, the rat was too excited to remember his promise and went straight to the gathering place, forgetting to wake the cat.  On the way, the rat encountered many other animals which were much faster than him.  He didn't want to fall behind, so rat devised a cunning plan and made the ox carry him on the condition that he would sing to the ox.  So the ox carried the rat on his back and they were lucky enough to arrive first.  The ox was pleased, thinking he would be the first sign of the years.  But the sneaky rat slid in front of him and became the first animal of the Chinese zodiac.
     Unfortunately, the cat was so late that by the time he arrived, the selection was already over.  And that is why all animals appear behind the rat and also why the cat hates the rate so much that he will chase and try to kill it whenever their paths cross.

That's it for now.  Part four is about the mythology, folklore and legend of the weather.  Until next time.

Useful Resources
Favorite Greek Myths by Mary Pope Osborne
Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of Earth, Sea and Sky by Tamra Andrews
Some Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines by W. J. Thomas

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