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Articles: Mythology, Astronomy and Ancient Folklore (Part 2)

By Grainne Kirwan

The Chinese had a number of myths and legends regarding astronomy. One tells how the Goddess Xi He gave birth to 10 suns, one for each day of the ancient week. As each sun returned from the worldly sky, she washed it and dried it in the world tree in the east. One day, instead of one of the 10 suns rising in the sky in its sequence, all 10 suns rose at once and threatened to extinguish the world. Yi, the hunter god was the first deity to feel pity for humankind, and he interceded with a sky god, Di Jun, who gave him a magic bow and arrows to shoot the 10 suns down. There are also a number of myths relating to stars - some relate to how a wise man was metamorphosed into a star, or how quarrelling brothers became two stars in opposing trajectories.

A specific legend relates to two Stellar lovers - Weaver Maid and Draught Ox

Weaver maid was the daughter of a sky god, and she lived by the eastern Sky River (Milky Way) weaving cloudy robes. The sky god took pity on her lonely life and allowed her to marry her stellar lover. But she began to neglect her weaving, so the sky god punished her by separating the lovers on each side of the Sky River, only allowing them to meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month.

The Chinese thought eclipses were caused by a dragon swallowing the sun and the whole population scared it away by making as much noise as possible. They were able to predict some eclipses, and it was necessary to do so, in order to gather enough people to scare away the dragon. But court astronomers Hsi and Ho failed to predict an eclipse of the Sun and were executed for endangering the safety of the world.

We know from the stone monuments, and also the feast days (i.e. equinoxes and solstices) that the ancient pagan religions such as the druids and Wiccans watched celestial activity with great religious interest. However, very little of the ancient beliefs remain. Wiccans in particular pay much attention to the lunar phases. Some branches of the religion will only carry out certain rituals at certain times. For example, if the ritual is designed to increase something (e.g wealth) it will be carried out at a waxing phase of the moon. If it is to decrease something (e.g. helping to give up something) it will be carried out during a waning moon. The most powerful lunar stage is a full moon.

Its alright for us, with our modern knowledge to look back at the mythologies of hundreds and thousands of years ago and in some ways marvel at their intelligence, and in other ways almost laugh at some of the explanations they came up with for celestial phenomena. However, in another 2000 years, what will historians think of what we believe? If the records we leave for future generations to study are on videos, dvds and books, what will they think of us? We should also consider the type of information we send out to any possible intelligent life forms on other planets everyday. Who would want to meet us if they believe our perceptions of aliens are somewhere between 'Independence Day' and 'A.L.F.'?

Also, while our calendar seems entirely logical and obvious to us, it may not be so to future generations. The calendar is based around our 365.25 day journey around the sun, and this time is split into 12 fairly equal sections, each of which are approximately the same length of time as it takes the moon to revolve around us. For the moment, it makes logical sense, and we have no valid reason for changing it. However, at some point in the future this may change and our calendar may be based on some other, non-astronomical event.

Alien abduction stories are often the cause of mixed feelings on this earth. Without either subscribing to or ridiculing these stories, an interesting point is that they only began to become prolific when the space age began. Some believe that they are clearly related to the older beliefs of fairies. What is true is that there is some common ground - ancient myths regarding fairies often relate to humans being taken away either by choice or by force, by the fairies, and being returned some time later. Also there were stories of children who were half human and half fairy, similar to the 'I was abducted to help create a cross-breed race' story often depicted by possible abductees. There can be no cause and effect specified here - if all things are possible, then it could always have been aliens, always have been fairies, genuinely been a mixture, or some kind of Jungian collective unconscious at work.

Even modern day religions, which attempt to distance themselves from astronomical events, are influenced by celestial events. Chanukah and Christmas both have their roots in ancient celebrations of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. A main reason for these events is that when the first pagans were being converted, some compromises had to be made. As the pagans still wanted to celebrate on their original feast days, the new feast days were brought as close as possible to those dates, without actually coinciding.

In the United States alone more than 20,000 people make a living as astrologers.

Needless to say, there is no statistical proof of any kind of accuracy. People continue to believe because of several reasons:

  • Vagueness - most of the information given in readings is so vague or general that it can be applied to anyone.
  • Flattery - readings are generally positive - if someone tells us that we are intuitive, imaginative, sociable, adventurous, intelligent, sensitive, easy-going or thoughtful, we're disinclined to question it.
  • Will to believe - no-one visits an astrologer hoping that they will get it wrong and our desire to believe manifests itself in all sorts of ways. We give clues about ourselves, which help the astrologer to tell us things that seem pertinent.
  • 'Milgrim' effect - as we think we are listening to someone who knows what themselves are talking about, we are happy to believe them.
  • Selective memory - most of what was incorrect is quickly forgotten, while the correct predications and statements are more likely to be remembered.

In conclusion, mythology and astronomy have been linked for centuries, and they are still linked. It is unlikely that we will ever reach a point where our belief systems are not influenced by astronomical phenomena and beings.

This article is Copyright © to the author named at the top, and Midlands Astronomy Club. If you wish to reproduce this article, please seek permission from the author through the Club. Your consideration is appreciated.