The most beautiful — and mysterious — sight the universe has to offer us crowns the summer sky. The glorious Milky Way, a great river of light, dominates the night. During August’s early darkness, the silvery band rises high in the sky as it extends from the northeast to the southwest. It flows across the sky, as the ancient Greeks would have it, like a stream of glowing milk. It stretches across the vault of heaven, as ancient Australian people describe it, like the backbone of the night.
Up to about 400 years ago, no one could determine Milky Way’s composition. It was certainly not made up of the goddess Hera’s spilled milk or a celestial spine. However, the old stories still resonate because they represent the deep, inner qualities that make us most human.
You’ll need a dark, rural sky to see the Milky Way in all its glory. The growth of city lighting has seen to that. Our ancient forebears around the globe had one thing going for them that all our technological advances have sadly come to erase. Their skies were unmarked by the stain of light pollution caused by city lights. They saw the Milky Way in all of its complex, mind-altering grandeur.
However, the question of its composition and the mystery of its origin lasted thousands of years.
The story starts with the myths and legends that people told long ago. Many natural mysteries were explained — or explained away — by the capricious nature of our gods or by a culture’s concerns about their survival or success. The Milky Way is no exception.
Practically every culture on Earth tells such stories. The ancient Egyptian culture saw it as the work of the god Isis, who had spread an abundance of life-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. The 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. The Arabs who lived in the parched deserts saw an unattainable river of water. Native American 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. Fishers in the Orient saw a school of fish frightened away by a fishhook, which they fancied to be the thin, crescent moon.
Some of the most ancient stories about the stars come from China, the oldest continuously surviving civilization on Earth.
My wife, my daughter, and I are traveling through China right now. As a result, my mind turns to the stories that the ancient Chinese told as darkness fell and the Milky Way slowly materialized out of the encroaching night.
They believed that the Milky Way was the Huang Ho, the Yellow River, extended into the sky.
The Huang Ho is more than just a river to the Chinese. It is also called the River of Sorrow because it flows in some places very rapidly, changes its course frequently, and sometimes floods enormous areas and leaves the yellow sedimentation that gives it its name.
However, the river was seen as a symbol of the Chinese will to survive. They must bear the burden of its destructive sedimentation. They must adapt to the vicissitudes of its course changes. Above all, they must, like the River, ceaselessly continue to flow.
Around the banks of the celestial Huang Ho, immortalized as stars, are two characters from Chinese mythology, Cowherd and the Weaving Girl. Their story embodies much of what the ancient Chinese saw as the essential qualities of the river and themselves.
In Chinese astronomy, the Milky Way was Tianhe, the Celestial River, also translatable as River of Heaven. Nine stars in Cygnus, including Deneb, represented Tianjin, a ford across the river at a point where it appeared to be particularly shallow. The impression of shallowness comes about because a dark cloud of dust in the local spiral arm of our Galaxy called the Great Rift obscures part of the Milky Way in that region.
The story of the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl begins by a stream on Earth. The young cowherd tends his magical water buffalo when along come seven beautiful sisters from the Heavenly Land. The maidens bathe, and the water buffalo notices that the youngest is also the fairest. The maidens live in a celestial palace, where they weave cloth for the clothes of the gods. The buffalo tells the cowherd to steal the youngest maiden’s robe. She cannot return to her realm without it. And tradition decrees that if a man sees a woman without her clothes, then they must become husband and wife. Despite her embarrassment, the seventh sister faces the cowherd and asks for her clothes, and the two are married. The couple lives happily for three years. They are soon blessed with two children, a boy and a girl. At length, the gods notice the absence of the seventh sister. Her loom stands idle, and she is the best weaver among the maids. So her grandmother, the Queen Mother of the West, summons her. It is an order the maiden dare not refuse despite the heartbreak of her husband and children. At last, the buffalo, which got them in this predicament in the first place, says, “When I die, cut the hide from my body, and wrap yourselves in it. I will carry you to the Realm of Heaven where you can be reunited with the Weaving Maid.” A few days later, the buffalo dies and the cowherd places his children in buckets and lifts them on his shoulders with the help of a yoke. He drapes the buffalo’s skin on his shoulders, and they are transported to heaven. The family is reunited, but their happiness is short-lived. The weaving maid’s loom has again fallen silent, so the cowherd is unceremoniously returned to Earth. The Queen Mother of the West scratches a line in the sky with her silver hairpin. Into the gap flows the heavenly waters, the Milky Way, and the lovers are separated by the flood. The weaving maid, the star we call Vega, sits above the Milky Way in August and Altair, the cowherd, keeps a lonely vigil below. We see the children as the two dimmer stars in the constellation Lyra closest to their mother. The Cowherd wears his yoke and buckets as the two bright stars near Altair.
The grief of the lovers is so intense that even the stern King of Heaven takes pity. He decrees that once each year, on the seventh night of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the two may be briefly reunited. On that night in August, if the skies are clear, all the magpies on the Earth fly to heaven and build a bridge of their wings so that the lovers can cross the Milky Way. If skies are cloudy, the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd must wait and hope that next year the river of light shines brilliantly. We are small and insignificant compared to the power and grandeur cosmos, but we have a strength that is deeper and more unconquerable than the unfathomable void that surrounds us. It is our ability to love, to hold fast to each other despite all the powers in the universe that seem to keep us apart. We must show our children the stars and tell them the old stories. Thus, we honor the stars. But most of all, we honor what is best within ourselves.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.