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  • Milky Way in Mythology

    Mag 23 2011, 20:06

    Armenian
    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.

    Khoisan
    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.

    Cherokee
    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 Gili Ulisvsdanvyi "The Way the Dog Ran Away".

    Eastern Asia
    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).

    Egyptian
    Egyptian mythology, the Milky Way was considered a pool of cow's milk. It was deified as a fertility cow-goddess by the name of Bat (later on syncretized with the goddess Hathor).

    Finno-Ugric
    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. The name in the Indo-European Baltic languages has the same meaning (Lithuanian: Paukščių Takas, Latvian: Putnu Ceļš).

    Greeks and Romans
    Jacopo Tintoretto's "The Origin of the Milky Way"Greek and RomanThe 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), 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 intimately associated with legends concerning the constellation of Gemini, with which it is in contact. The constellation was named for the twins, Castor and Polydeuces, who sometimes raided cattle. 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.

    Hindu
    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 is 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".

    Hungarian
    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 Romania) are threatened. Thus the Milky Way is called "The Road of the Warriors" Hungarian: Hadak Útja .

    Māori
    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.