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Articles: Mythology, Astronomy and Ancient Folklore (Part 1)

By Grainne Kirwan

Two reasons led me to speak on mythological aspects of astronomy at a recent TAS meeting. The first was a complete lack of knowledge on all technical or scientific aspects of astronomy. The second was a wish to understand what the earliest astronomers thought of the sky, before we understood it the way we do now.

The earliest recorded beginnings of astronomy are 3000 BC, though stargazing probably began much earlier. But the different mythologies of various civilisations have different celestial priorities - some focus on the constellations, some on the sun, and others on the moon. These priorities also result in different calendar types - for example, the Egyptians noticed that the annual flood of the Nile occurred at the same time as the first appearance of the Star Sirius, and they used this to determine that a year was 365.25 days long. However, most civilisations share many similar themes - for example the fear of eclipses and comets.

While some constellations seem to have taken similar forms despite great distances, others were seen very differently by various societies. Greek and Latin literature describe the seven major stars in the constellation of the Great Bear as seven threshing oxen. However, several different civilisations have also pictured the constellation as a bear. A Greek legend tells how Callisto, a nymph and companion of the huntress Artemis, was beloved by the god Zeus. His wife Hera was jealous and he changed the nymph into a she-bear. Hera caused the bear to be killed by Artemis in the hunt, and Zeus placed the bear among the stars. Perseus was a Greek hero who cut off the head of the female monster Medusa, the sight of whose face turned the onlooker to stone. The Arabs, following the legend, called the constellation the Bearer of the Demon's Head, and one of its stars, Algol, was their Demon star. The original Arab from of the name was ra's al-ghul, from which our word 'ghoul' is derived. Cassiopeia is named after a legendary Greek queen, and the W shaped constellation is designated as her chair. She was the wife of Cepheus, and she boasted that she was more fair than even the beautiful sea nymphs. The nymphs then arranged it that when the queen was placed among the stars after her death, she sat in a chair which turned upside-down around the pole to teach her humility.

Cygnus (The Swan) is the transformed hero Orpheus, who enchanted men, beasts, trees and rocks with his harp, Lyra, which lies next to it. The ancient Persians knew Draco (the Dragon) as a man-eating serpent, and the Greeks termed it the Dragon. The Greeks saw the creature residing within the garden of the Hesperides, or daughters of the Evening. There the Dragon was guardian of the stars or golden apples which hung from the Pole Tree in the Garden of Darkness. In Egypt the constellation was Typhon or Set, ruler of darkness and the circumpolar stars, and enemy of the Sun. Aries (the Ram) was noted by Berossos, a Babylonian priest of 275 BC, who said that the world was created when the Sun was in the Ram. In Greece, the constellation was connected with the legend of the Golden Fleece. Taurus (the Bull) was the disguised god Zeus who had fallen in love with the beautiful princess Europa. Taking the form of a white bull, he carried her off to the island of Crete. Gemini (the Twins) were two Greek heroes - the immortal Pollux, son of Zeus (and the brighter star) and Castor a mortal. Castor was killed in battle and, at the request of Pollux, they remained together by spending their time alternating between the upper and lower worlds. When both stars appeared in the sky, they were considered bringers of fair weather, and when both could not be seen it meant storms. Cancer (the Crab) was in Greek legend the crab which seized the foot of Hercules when he fought a nine-headed monster. According to the Greeks, in that part of the sky lay the Gate of men through which souls descended into human bodies.

Virgo has been associated as with several female deities. The Romans saw it as Proserpina (Persephone) who was carried off into the underworld by Pluto to be his wife, but was later allowed to return to the ordinary world for two thirds of the year. Ancient star maps often depict Virgo as a winged woman holding stalks of wheat or corn in her left hand. In Egypt, the constellation was connected with the goddess Isis, who formed the Milky Way by dropping wheat across the sky. In India the constellation was known as the Maiden and in the valley of the Euphrates it was associated with the goddess Ishtar, daughter of heaven and queen of the stars. In Peru the constellation was the Magic Mother or Earth Mother, and in Assyria it was the Wife of Bel (Marduk). Sagittarius was depicted as the wise Centaur Chiron with his bow and arrow. He was struck accidentally by a poisoned arrow and was placed among the stars by Zeus. Capricornus was described by the Greeks as the Gate of the Gods, through which the souls of the dead passed into the other world, and as such the opposite to the Gate of Men in Cancer. Early images of Aquarius show a man or a boy pouring water from a jar into the mouth of a fish. In India Aquarius was called Water Jar and in Peru it was the Mother of Waters. In Greece it was the beautiful youth Ganymede, cupbearer to Zeus and responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. The Greeks identified the two fish of Pisces as Venus and Cupid, who took the form of fishes when they leaped into a river to escape from a giant. The Babylonians, Syrians, Persians and Turks also depicted this constellation as comprising two fish. They also figured in the Hebrew Zodiac and the Fishes was considered the national constellation of the Jews, a special conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn took place in it three years before the birth of Moses and again in 7 BC, a herald of the birth of Christ.

In Egyptian mythology the Goddess Nut was thought to be the Milky Way. They saw the form of the Milky Way was similar to a woman lying with her arms stretched over her head. This symbolism is related to the myth of Ra (sometimes known as Re) the sun God. When the sun set each day, Ra died. To be reborn the next dawn, Ra had to travel underground through the dark hours of the night, each hour's doorway being guarded by frightening demons which the god had to succeed in passing. Many parts of this journey are depicted on the walls in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. At the end of his journey, Re manifests as Khepri, the sacred beetle. He rests momentarily before being born as a disc from the Goddess Nut.

Texts inscribed on the monuments at Egypt, tell of the pharaoh joining the circumpolar stars, which neither rise nor set, and therefore live eternally. These texts also tell of the pharaoh's journey to the constellation Orion, identified by the Egyptians with Osiris, the eternally resurrected god. As if to show the way, the Great Pyramid of Cheops is aligned with one main passage directed towards the north pole of the sky as it was at that time - the star Thuban in the constellation Draco, the pole star in the year 4,500 years ago (earth's wobble takes 26,000 years). Other shafts point to Orion's Belt at certain times of the year, as if to indicate the afterlife destiny of the pharaoh, toward the deathless North Star on the one hand, and toward the constellation associated with the eternally reborn god Osiris on the other.

North American natives are animists: they believe that everything that moves is alive. Therefore, the live in harmony with nature and give a story to each part of it.

The Pahutes, a once large and prosperous ancient Native American tribe, now living mostly in Utah tell the story of why the north star stands still. The sky is full of living things, restless, travelling around the universe and leaving trails all over the sky. Some of the stars are birds who travel to warmer climates, some are animals hunting for better grazing land. There is one who does not travel. He is Qui-am-I Wintook, the North Star. Once he was Nagah, the mountain sheep, and one day he found a high mountain with steep sides, ending in a sharp peak reaching up into the clouds. He climbed to the very top. Shinob,the Great Spirit, was walking across the sky when he spotted Nagah stranded on the mountain peak. He decided to turn the sheep into a star, shining through the night for everyone to see. Other animist myths include that a water lily is really a star fallen from heaven, the Milky Way is the snow shaken from the cloak of Wakinu, the bear, as he crosses the Bridge of Dead Souls on his way to the Eternal Hunting Grounds, and the Seven Sisters are seven poor boys who, for ever cold and hungry in this world, were changed into stars.

Another astronomy related myth is that of the Legend of Little Star. The Blackfoot tribe from the plains of Alberta in Canada tell the legend of Little Star. Early one morning, the Morning Star told his father the Sun that he had fallen in love with a maid of the Blackfoot tribe. Despite the Sun's warnings, Morning Star stuck an eagle's feather in his hair, put on his scarlet cloak and shining black moccasins, and appeared before the maid, who immediately fell in love and agreed to be his wife. She left her home on the plains and flew up to his home in the skies. The Sun warned her that she must never look down on her earthly home, and she gave her word. After a little while a sun, Little Star, was born. One day, as she sat in the tepee of her mother in law, the Moon, she asked why the big iron pot in the centre always boiled without a fire. The Moon told her that it had a source to fuel it, but that she must never move the pot. At midday, when the Moon was asleep, the maid could not restrain her curiosity. She approached the pot and pulled it aside. To her surprise, she could see right through the hole beneath the pot to her former home. As soon as the Sun heard of her disobedience, he ordered her to return to earth with her child. They were wrapped in a caribou skin and lowered on a leather thong through the hole beneath the pot.

Like other cultures (e.g. Egyptians, South Americans and Druids) the early Native Americans built structures in alignment with celestial movements. The great Kiva (a subterranean ceremonial chamber perhaps dating from AD 700 to 1050) at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built by the Anasazi, ancestors of the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo, is oriented to mark the sunrise on the day of the summer solstice.
In Inuit myth it was once possible for any person to journey to the moon. This would happened when the moon visited earth and took a man or woman of his choosing back with him on the dog-sledge he used to travel around the sky. Some Inuit groups believed that the moon influenced the fertility and movement of animals. If the moon was angered by a human breach of a taboo, it was possible that he would punish the Inuit by sending the animals elsewhere. Shamans would make frequent visits to the moon to appease his anger.

Part 2 continuing Irish Astronomy, Mythology and Ancient Folklore

By Grainne Kirwan

Two reasons led me to speak on mythological aspects of astronomy at a recent TAS meeting. The first was a complete lack of knowledge on all technical or scientific aspects of astronomy. The second was a wish to understand what the earliest astronomers thought of the sky, before we understood it the way we do now.


The earliest recorded beginnings of astronomy are 3000 BC, though stargazing probably began much earlier. But the different mythologies of various civilisations have different celestial priorities - some focus on the constellations, some on the sun, and others on the moon. These priorities also result in different calendar types - for example, the Egyptians noticed that the annual flood of the Nile occurred at the same time as the first appearance of the Star Sirius, and they used this to determine that a year was 365.25 days long. However, most civilisations share many similar themes - for example the fear of eclipses and comets.
While some constellations seem to have taken similar forms despite great distances, others were seen very differently by various societies. Greek and Latin literature describe the seven major stars in the constellation of the Great Bear as seven threshing oxen. However, several different civilisations have also pictured the constellation as a bear. A Greek legend tells how Callisto, a nymph and companion of the huntress Artemis, was beloved by the god Zeus. His wife Hera was jealous and he changed the nymph into a she-bear. Hera caused the bear to be killed by Artemis in the hunt, and Zeus placed the bear among the stars. Perseus was a Greek hero who cut off the head of the female monster Medusa, the sight of whose face turned the onlooker to stone. The Arabs, following the legend, called the constellation the Bearer of the Demon's Head, and one of its stars, Algol, was their Demon star. The original Arab from of the name was ra's al-ghul, from which our word 'ghoul' is derived. Cassiopeia is named after a legendary Greek queen, and the W shaped constellation is designated as her chair. She was the wife of Cepheus, and she boasted that she was more fair than even the beautiful sea nymphs. The nymphs then arranged it that when the queen was placed among the stars after her death, she sat in a chair which turned upside-down around the pole to teach her humility.

Cygnus (The Swan) is the transformed hero Orpheus, who enchanted men, beasts, trees and rocks with his harp, Lyra, which lies next to it. The ancient Persians knew Draco (the Dragon) as a man-eating serpent, and the Greeks termed it the Dragon. The Greeks saw the creature residing within the garden of the Hesperides, or daughters of the Evening. There the Dragon was guardian of the stars or golden apples which hung from the Pole Tree in the Garden of Darkness. In Egypt the constellation was Typhon or Set, ruler of darkness and the circumpolar stars, and enemy of the Sun. Aries (the Ram) was noted by Berossos, a Babylonian priest of 275 BC, who said that the world was created when the Sun was in the Ram. In Greece, the constellation was connected with the legend of the Golden Fleece. Taurus (the Bull) was the disguised god Zeus who had fallen in love with the beautiful princess Europa. Taking the form of a white bull, he carried her off to the island of Crete. Gemini (the Twins) were two Greek heroes - the immortal Pollux, son of Zeus (and the brighter star) and Castor a mortal. Castor was killed in battle and, at the request of Pollux, they remained together by spending their time alternating between the upper and lower worlds. When both stars appeared in the sky, they were considered bringers of fair weather, and when both could not be seen it meant storms. Cancer (the Crab) was in Greek legend the crab which seized the foot of Hercules when he fought a nine-headed monster. According to the Greeks, in that part of the sky lay the Gate of men through which souls descended into human bodies.

Virgo has been associated as with several female deities. The Romans saw it as Proserpina (Persephone) who was carried off into the underworld by Pluto to be his wife, but was later allowed to return to the ordinary world for two thirds of the year. Ancient star maps often depict Virgo as a winged woman holding stalks of wheat or corn in her left hand. In Egypt, the constellation was connected with the goddess Isis, who formed the Milky Way by dropping wheat across the sky. In India the constellation was known as the Maiden and in the valley of the Euphrates it was associated with the goddess Ishtar, daughter of heaven and queen of the stars. In Peru the constellation was the Magic Mother or Earth Mother, and in Assyria it was the Wife of Bel (Marduk). Sagittarius was depicted as the wise Centaur Chiron with his bow and arrow. He was struck accidentally by a poisoned arrow and was placed among the stars by Zeus. Capricornus was described by the Greeks as the Gate of the Gods, through which the souls of the dead passed into the other world, and as such the opposite to the Gate of Men in Cancer. Early images of Aquarius show a man or a boy pouring water from a jar into the mouth of a fish. In India Aquarius was called Water Jar and in Peru it was the Mother of Waters. In Greece it was the beautiful youth Ganymede, cupbearer to Zeus and responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. The Greeks identified the two fish of Pisces as Venus and Cupid, who took the form of fishes when they leaped into a river to escape from a giant. The Babylonians, Syrians, Persians and Turks also depicted this constellation as comprising two fish. They also figured in the Hebrew Zodiac and the Fishes was considered the national constellation of the Jews, a special conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn took place in it three years before the birth of Moses and again in 7 BC, a herald of the birth of Christ.

In Egyptian mythology the Goddess Nut was thought to be the Milky Way. They saw the form of the Milky Way was similar to a woman lying with her arms stretched over her head. This symbolism is related to the myth of Ra (sometimes known as Re) the sun God. When the sun set each day, Ra died. To be reborn the next dawn, Ra had to travel underground through the dark hours of the night, each hour's doorway being guarded by frightening demons which the god had to succeed in passing. Many parts of this journey are depicted on the walls in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. At the end of his journey, Re manifests as Khepri, the sacred beetle. He rests momentarily before being born as a disc from the Goddess Nut.
Texts inscribed on the monuments at Egypt, tell of the pharaoh joining the circumpolar stars, which neither rise nor set, and therefore live eternally. These texts also tell of the pharaoh's journey to the constellation Orion, identified by the Egyptians with Osiris, the eternally resurrected god. As if to show the way, the Great Pyramid of Cheops is aligned with one main passage directed towards the north pole of the sky as it was at that time - the star Thuban in the constellation Draco, the pole star in the year 4,500 years ago (earth's wobble takes 26,000 years). Other shafts point to Orion's Belt at certain times of the year, as if to indicate the afterlife destiny of the pharaoh, toward the deathless North Star on the one hand, and toward the constellation associated with the eternally reborn god Osiris on the other.


North American natives are animists: they believe that everything that moves is alive. Therefore, the live in harmony with nature and give a story to each part of it.
The Pahutes, a once large and prosperous ancient Native American tribe, now living mostly in Utah tell the story of why the north star stands still. The sky is full of living things, restless, travelling around the universe and leaving trails all over the sky. Some of the stars are birds who travel to warmer climates, some are animals hunting for better grazing land. There is one who does not travel. He is Qui-am-I Wintook, the North Star. Once he was Nagah, the mountain sheep, and one day he found a high mountain with steep sides, ending in a sharp peak reaching up into the clouds. He climbed to the very top. Shinob,the Great Spirit, was walking across the sky when he spotted Nagah stranded on the mountain peak. He decided to turn the sheep into a star, shining through the night for everyone to see. Other animist myths include that a water lily is really a star fallen from heaven, the Milky Way is the snow shaken from the cloak of Wakinu, the bear, as he crosses the Bridge of Dead Souls on his way to the Eternal Hunting Grounds, and the Seven Sisters are seven poor boys who, for ever cold and hungry in this world, were changed into stars.

Another astronomy related myth is that of the Legend of Little Star. The Blackfoot tribe from the plains of Alberta in Canada tell the legend of Little Star. Early one morning, the Morning Star told his father the Sun that he had fallen in love with a maid of the Blackfoot tribe. Despite the Sun's warnings, Morning Star stuck an eagle's feather in his hair, put on his scarlet cloak and shining black moccasins, and appeared before the maid, who immediately fell in love and agreed to be his wife. She left her home on the plains and flew up to his home in the skies. The Sun warned her that she must never look down on her earthly home, and she gave her word. After a little while a sun, Little Star, was born. One day, as she sat in the tepee of her mother in law, the Moon, she asked why the big iron pot in the centre always boiled without a fire. The Moon told her that it had a source to fuel it, but that she must never move the pot. At midday, when the Moon was asleep, the maid could not restrain her curiosity. She approached the pot and pulled it aside. To her surprise, she could see right through the hole beneath the pot to her former home. As soon as the Sun heard of her disobedience, he ordered her to return to earth with her child. They were wrapped in a caribou skin and lowered on a leather thong through the hole beneath the pot.
Like other cultures (e.g. Egyptians, South Americans and Druids) the early Native Americans built structures in alignment with celestial movements. The great Kiva (a subterranean ceremonial chamber perhaps dating from AD 700 to 1050) at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built by the Anasazi, ancestors of the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo, is oriented to mark the sunrise on the day of the summer solstice.
In Inuit myth it was once possible for any person to journey to the moon. This would happened when the moon visited earth and took a man or woman of his choosing back with him on the dog-sledge he used to travel around the sky. Some Inuit groups believed that the moon influenced the fertility and movement of animals. If the moon was angered by a human breach of a taboo, it was possible that he would punish the Inuit by sending the animals elsewhere. Shamans would make frequent visits to the moon to appease his anger.

-Next Issue - Part 2 continuing Irish Astronomy,
Mythology and Ancient Folklore

 

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