Milky Way (mythology)
There are many myths and legends about the origin of the Milky Way, the crowd of stars that makes a distinctive bright streak across the night sky.
Mythology among cultures
Ancient Armenian mythology called the Milky Way the "Straw Thief's Way". According to legend, the god Vahagn stole some straw from the Assyrian king Barsham and brought it to Armenia during a cold winter. When he fled across the heavens, he spilled some of the straw along the way.
The Khoisan people of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa say that long ago there were no stars and the night was pitch black. A girl, who was lonely and wanted to visit other people, threw the embers from a fire into the sky and created the Milky Way.
A Cherokee folktale tells of a dog who stole some cornmeal and was chased away. He ran away to the north, spilling the cornmeal along the way. The Milky Way is thus called ᎩᎵ ᎤᎵᏒᏍᏓᏅᏱ (Gili Ulisvsdanvyi) "The Way the Dog Ran Away".
Peoples in Eastern Asia believed that the hazy band of stars was the "Silvery River" of Heaven (Chinese: 銀河, Korean: eunha and Japanese: ginga). In one story, the stars Altair and Vega were said to be two lovers who were allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, when a flock of magpies and crows formed a bridge over the galactic river. That day is celebrated as Qi Xi, the Seventh Night (Chinese: 七夕, Korean: chilseok and Japanese: tanabata).
Among the Finns, Estonians and related peoples, the Milky Way was and is called "The Pathway of the Birds" (Finnish: Linnunrata, Estonian: Linnutee). The Finns observed that the migratory birds used the galaxy as a guideline to travel south, where they believed Lintukoto (bird home) resided.
In Estonian folklore it is believed that the birds are led by a white bird with the head of a maiden who chases birds of prey away. Only later did scientists indeed confirm this observation; the migratory birds use the Milky Way as a guide to travel to warmer, southern lands during the winter.
Greek and Roman
The Greek name for the Milky way (Γαλαξίας Galaxias) is derived from the word for milk (γάλα, gala). One legend explains how the Milky Way was created by Heracles when he was a baby. His father, Zeus, was fond of his son, who was born of the mortal woman Alcmene. He decided to let the infant Heracles suckle on his divine wife Hera's milk when she was asleep, an act which would endow the baby with godlike qualities. When Hera woke up and realized that she was breastfeeding an unknown infant, she pushed him away and the spurting milk became the Milky Way.
A story told by the Roman Hyginus in the Poeticon astronomicon (ultimately based on Greek myth) says that the milk came from the goddess Ops (Greek Rhea), or Opis, the wife of Saturn (Greek Cronus). Saturn swallowed his children to ensure his position as head of the Pantheon and sky god, and so Ops conceived a plan to save her newborn son Jupiter (Greek Zeus): She wrapped a stone in infant's clothes and gave it to Saturn to swallow. Saturn asked her to nurse the child once more before he swallowed it, and the milk that spurted when she pressed her nipple against the rock eventually became the Milky Way.
Older Greek mythology associates the Milky Way with a herd of dairy cows/cattle, where each cow is a star and whose milk gives the blue glow. As such, it is not associated with legends concerning the constellation of Gemini, with which it is not in contact. The constellation was named for the twins, Castor and Polydeuces, who sometimes raided cattle. To look at Gemini is to look away from the Milky Way. In addition, Gemini (in combination with Canis Major, Orion, Auriga, and the deserted area now called Camelopardalis) may form the origin of the myth of the Cattle of Geryon, one of The Twelve Labours of Heracles.
In the Hindu collection of stories called Bhagavata Purana, all the visible stars and planets moving through space are likened to a dolphin that swims through the water, and the heavens are called śiśumãra cakra, the dolphin disc. The Milky Way forms the abdomen of the dolphin and is called Akasaganga which means "The Ganges River of the Sky".
In Hungarian mythology, Csaba, the mythical son of Attila the Hun and ancestor of the Hungarians is supposed to ride down the Milky Way when the Székelys (ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania) are threatened. Thus the Milky Way is called "The Road of the Warriors" (lit. "Road of Armies") Hungarian: Hadak Útja. The stars themselves are sparks from the horseshoes.
To the Māori the Milky Way is the waka (canoe) of Tama-rereti. The front and back of the canoe are Orion and Scorpius, while the Southern Cross and the Pointers are the anchor and rope. According to legend, when Tama-rereti took his canoe out onto a lake, he found himself far from home as night was falling. There were no stars at this time and in the darkness the Taniwha would attack and eat people. So Tama-rereti sailed his canoe along the river that emptied into the heavens (to cause rain) and scattered shiny pebbles from the lakeshore into the sky. The sky god, Ranginui, was pleased by this action and placed the canoe into the sky as well as a reminder of how the stars were made.
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The Kaurna Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains in South Australia see the band of the Milky Way as a river in the skyworld. They called it Wodliparri (wodli = hut, house, parri = river) and believe that positioned along the river are a number of dwellings. In addition, the dark patches mark the dwelling place of a dangerous creature known as a yura; the Kaurna call these patches Yurakauwe, which literally means "monster water." Moreover, Aboriginal Groups from the Cape York region of Queensland see the band of light as termites that had been blown into the sky by the ancestral hero Burbuk Boon. Further south the band of stars that comprise the Milky Way are seen as thousands of flying foxes carrying away a dancer known as Purupriggie.
In addition, the Aranda who come from central Australia see the band of the Milky Way as a river or creek in the skyworld. This stellar river separates the two great camps of the Aranda and Luritja People. The stars to the east of this river represent the camps of the Aranda and the stars to the west represent Luritja encampments and some stars closer to the band represent a mixture of both.
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- Hyginus, Gaius Julius. Poeticon astronomicon. Book 2, Chapter 43.
- Prabhupâda (translator). Bhagavata purana. Canto 5, Chapter 23.
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