Feb 07, 2012
Where does the idea of constellations come from? And how do these arbitrary groups of stars relate to mythology?
The argument shapes up nicely in the light of traditions that name specific constellations as mythical creatures thus conveyed to the night sky. Examples are again in no short supply. Thus, a chief of the Snohomish (Washington State) related that a few of the first people, who were unaware that the sky was about to be raised, climbed up into the sky, as was customary to do, and were forced to remain there, in the form of familiar asterisms:
‘But a few people did not know about the sky pushing. Three were hunters who had been chasing four elk for several days. … The elk jumped into the Sky World, and the hunters ran after them. When the sky was lifted, elk and hunters were lifted too. In the Sky World they were changed to stars. At night, even now, you can see them. The three hunters form the handle of the Big Dipper. The middle hunter has his dog with him – now a tiny star. The four elk make the bowl of the Big Dipper. Some other people were caught up in the sky in two canoes, three men in each of them. And a little fish also was on its way up into the Sky World when the people pushed. So all of them have had to stay there ever since. The hunters and the little dog, the elk, the little fish, and the men in the two canoes are now stars, but they once lived on earth’.
An informant from the Kathlamet (border area of Washington and Oregon) reported a transformation of the first ‘people’ into stars following the severance of the ‘rope’ that had occasioned their transportation to the sky: ‘Then [Bluejay] cut the rope and the sky sprang back. Part of the people were still above. They became stars. [Therefore] all kinds of things are [in the sky] – the Woodpecker, the Fisher, the Skate, the Elk, and the Deer. Many things are there’. In eastern Colombia, the Sikuani agreed that, following the destruction of the string of arrows upon which Tsamani and his siblings had travelled to the sky, the members of the party turned into familiar asterisms:
‘They remained in the sky, to one side of the sun. When they got there Máva gave them other clothing, and when they threw away the ones they had worn on earth they turned into stars, into groups of stars: Kahúyali, Híwinai, Tsamáni, Íbarru, Sáfarrei. They can be seen in the summer, for in August they begin to appear early in the morning. Not all of them can be seen at the same time’.
Of this party, Kahúyali represented Orion, who ‘can be seen in the sky without a left leg’, Tsamani Delphinus, three brothers the Pleiades, and their sisters Coma Berenices. In Amazonian Peru, meanwhile, the Shipibo-Conibo would finger the Pleiades as Huíshmabo, Orion as the cripple Quíshioma and the constellation ‘Hare’ as Ráya – three brothers who had ventured into the sky along a chain of arrows. Or again, in the far southeastern tip of Australia, members of the Bibbulmun nation figured that many familiar asterisms were mythical characters well known to them, at least in 1924:
‘Now Wommainya and his family and his brotherinlaw may all be seen in the sky. Wommainya (Vega) stands beside the lake, and in the middle of the lake his two boys still stretch out their hands to him (two stars south of Vega). Wommainya looks angrily at Irdibilyi (Altair), and sees the spear still sticking through her heart, and near the women’s fire sits Karder (Delphinus), because he was lazy and tired, and would not hunt for meat or look out for his nephews. … Wommainya, Irdibilyi, Karder, and the boys sit down in the sky, so that all Bibbulmun shall see them and shall keep the camp laws’.
Joining the dots, the following picture now emerges: around the world, bands of people passed on myths regarding mysterious supernatural beings that had lived on earth, but at some point moved up into the sky, where they occupied permanent positions. Looking up at the starry firmament, people then projected the famed members of this departed race onto the stars, either framed individually or in bunches. Practically every culture arrived at different identifications, but the fundamental concept was the same.
Where does this leave the nature of such mythical beings themselves? The solution to this enigma is intimately tied up with the origin of creation mythology as a whole. Steering clear of the pointless hypothesis of alien visitors as advanced by Erich von Däniken, a promising scenario involves extraordinarily vivid transient events in the atmosphere, as observed globally during prehistoric times. Once our scientists are ready to recognise the full impact such near-earth plasmas must have had on the earth and its inhabitants, we may want to thank our lucky stars that some survived to tell the tale.
Rens Van der Sluijs
Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs: