Ancient cultures viewed Milky Way differently


The summer sky is crowned by the most beautiful and mysterious sight the universe has to offer. The glorious Milky Way, a great river of light, dominates the night. By late July and early August, it shimmers low in the east.

By 2 a.m. or so, it flows across the sky from horizon to horizon like a stream of glowing milk. By late summer, it stretches across the vault of heaven like the backbone of the night, as the Kung bushmen of the Kalahari Desert describe it.

Its name comes from Latin. “Via Lactea” does indeed mean “Milky Road” or “Milky Way,” if you will.

Its name hearkens back to an old Greek myth. The goddess Hera pushed the baby Hercules away from her breast, and a stream of her glowing breast milk gushed across the sky.

The Milky Way is our home galaxy. Its most starry parts are arranged in a flattened spiral with a bulge at its center. Look south, and you will see that bulge of light in the constellations Scorpius, Sagittarius and Ophiuchus.

Almost straight overhead is the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Therein lies the brightest part of the glowing river of light. Point even the simplest binoculars in that direction, and the glow will resolve into uncountable stars.

Up to 400 years ago, not a single human could determine Milky Way’s composition. It was certainly not made up of the goddess Hera’s spilled breast milk or an aboriginal celestial spine.

You’ll need dark, rural skies to see it in all its glory. The growth of city lighting has seen to that.

Our ancient forebears had one thing going for them that all our technological advances, ironically, have come to erase. The stain of light pollution did not mark their skies. They saw the Milky Way in all of its complex, mind-altering glory.

However, of its makeup, they had no clue. The mystery of its composition endured for thousands of years.

But they tried anyway.

The ancient Egyptian culture saw it as the work of the god Isis, who had spread an abundance of like-giving wheat across the sky. Across the world, the Incas, who were lovers of the beauty and wealth that gold produces, saw as a stream of gold dust.

The Inuit people of the Arctic believed they saw a snowy band. Inhabitants of Australia saw the ash of the campfires they had set against the cold and dark of the night.

Often, ancient people depicted rivers and great waters and the creatures that lived in them. Arabs who lived in arid deserts saw an unattainable river of water. Native Americans of the Great Lakes region saw a muddy creek stirred up by a giant mud turtle crawling across the sky.

Polynesians called the Milky Way a cloud-eating shark. Oriental anglers saw a school of fish frightened away by a fishhook, which they fancied to be the thin, crescent moon.

Ancient cultures often saw it as a road or path, quite literally a “way.” To travelers seeking the center of civilization of its time, it was the “Road to Rome.”

To some early Hindus of India, it was the path of their god Aryaman upward to his heavenly throne.

To those who lived on the banks of the Yellow River in China, it was a yellow road, their life-sustaining river extended into the heavens. The Celtic Welsh saw it as the path that their sly trickster and warrior Gwydion left as he pursued his fleeing wife.

In Norse mythology, the Milky Way is the road to Valhalla, the final home of brave warriors who died in battle. The Iroquois described it as the path to eternal life after death, the “Road of Souls.”

Ovid, perhaps the greatest of all Roman poets, describes it as the shining road to Olympus and from there to the palace of Zeus, the king of all the gods: “By this way,” he wrote, “the gods fare to the halls and royal dwelling of the mighty Thunderer.”

In western culture, even the most beautiful natural phenomena often arose out of the capriciousness and violence of the gods.

The ancient Greek story of Helios and Phaethon is a case in point. In the myth, the universal predominance of the gods began with an apocalyptic war between the gods and the Titans, the race of supernatural creatures that preceded them.

The gods were triumphant. They cast many of their Titanic enemies into the outer darkness.

They gave other Titans onerous tasks. They burdened Helios with the sweaty task of carrying the sun across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot.

Presumably, he took a long break at night. To him and the sea nymph Cymene was born Phaethon, a son. Phaethon’s playmates teased him relentlessly. They did not believe that his father was the solar charioteer.

He begged his father for some proof, and his father foolishly promised him anything he wanted. The boy insisted on driving the chariot for a day, but he could not control the solar steeds.

As he careened around the sky, he dislodged some of the stars. The Milky Way is the burn mark left by one of the dislodged stars or even the sun itself.

Perhaps the most instructive tale comes to us from the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Here you will find no scorch marks or violence. Flesh-eating monsters, yes. Scorch marks, no.

Look carefully at the central bulge of the Milky Way, and perhaps you will see a celestial canoe.

Long ago, no stars lit up the night. The darkness was complete. Danger lurked there in the form of the Tani-wah.

The Tani-wah were the guardians of the natural world. It was their job to protect nature from the excesses of humanity.

During the day, they hid in caves and pools of water. At night, they lurked in the darkness and waited for human prey to eat.

A brave warrior named Tami-reriti lived among the Maori people. One fine day, he decided to go fishing on the lake near where he lived.

As he finished a successful day fishing, he decided to head toward home. But he felt weary and decided to take a nap in his boat first.

Big mistake. When Tami-reriti awoke, he realized that the hour was late, and his boat had drifted to the far end of the lake.

He might not be able to reach home by nightfall — when the fierce Tani-wah would rise from the lake and make a midnight snack of him.

He would need all his strength and courage to travel across the great lake before the sky grew dark, but Tami-reriti felt weak from hunger because he had not eaten all day.

Despite the growing twilight, he built a fire, cooked a fish, and ate it. As he ate, he saw the pebbles on the beach glisten in the growing dark.

At once, he knew what to do. As the light from his fire faded, he gathered as many of the glowing pebbles as his canoe would carry. Instead of sailing across the lake, he decided to sail across the sky.

He began his journey along the dark river that emptied into the lake.

As twilight deepened into complete darkness, Tami-reriti steered his canoe upward into the sky. To light the way, he scattered the glowing pebbles into the great dark, and they became stars.

As many stargazers do today, he realized that the light from the stars was sufficient for him to see.

But there was more. As Tami-reriti’s canoe slid through the dark river, his canoe’s wake left a glowing trail that today we call the Milky Way.

When he finally returned home, Ranginui, the god of the sky, was there to meet him.

Tami-reriti was afraid. He had sullied the perfect darkness of the night by filling it with stars.

But Ranginui was joyous, not angry. By his actions, Tami-reriti had banished the demons. He had made the night a little safer and adorned the sky with thousands of shimmering stars.

Ranginui placed Tami-reriti’s canoe in the sky to commemorate the moment that Tami-reriti changed the world.

And we see his canoe to this very day as the bulge of the Milky Way centered around the constellations Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Ophiuchus.

We can learn much from the story of Tami-reriti. Granted, we make our journey toward safety not on a dark river but an information superhighway.

Despite it — or perhaps because of it — we live in a world of growing darkness, plagued with demons of misinformation, pseudoscience, and outright lies.

The fire dies. Its light grows dim. As Carl Sagan so presciently put it over a quarter of a century ago, “Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.” They gather strength and consume the hearts and minds of more and more people.

But many glimmering pebbles of truth remain. Scatter them well, my friends. Scatter them with all your strength.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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