For countless centuries, people of different cultures gazed at the glowing band of stars that bridged the sky and wondered what to make of it. While their stories are unique, there are many commonalities. Here are a few examples of how ancient cultures around the world explained the existence of the Milky Way:
Greece: Let’s begin with the ancient Greeks’ creation myth since it’s said to have led to the name, ‘the Milky Way,’ which has been in use for more than 2,500 years:
Zeus, the sky god and king of the gods on Mount Olympus, had a son, Heracles, with a mortal woman. To give Heracles godlike qualities, Zeus had the baby suckle at the breast of his sleeping goddess wife, Hera. Hera awoke, found an unknown baby sucking her breast, and pushed it away. Milk squirted from her celestial tit, creating the river of stars the Greeks called ‘galaktikos kyklos’ or ‘milky circle.’ A later Latin translation of the Greek was ‘via lactea’ or ‘milky way.’ Note that ‘galaktikos’ is the root of the much later term, ‘galaxy.’
China: According to ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl,’ a folktale more than 2,500 years old, Zhi Nu, seventh daughter of the Jade Emperor, and Niu Lang, overseer of the celestial cattle, fell in love. When the Jade Emperor found out, he made Zhi Nu weave clouds every day and banished Niu Lang to Earth, as a cowherd.
One day, Zhi Nu descended to Earth and bathed in a river. Niu Lang happened upon her and their love rekindled. The two lovers married and had children.
Eventually, the Jade Emperor learned of his daughter’s marriage and demanded that her mother, the goddess Queen Mother of the West, return Zhi Nu to heaven. Niu Lang was distraught that he’d been separated from Zhi Nu for a second time.
Niu Lang’s ox (this ox was once the God of Cattle, but that’s another story) built a special vehicle, so that Niu Lang and his children could travel to heaven to find Zhi Nu. Zhi Nu’s celestial mother caught wind of Niu Lang’s plan to find his wife and created the Silver River — a river of stars that split the heavens, permanently separating the lovers. As a result of the couple’s exile from one another, Zhi Nu became the star, Vega; Niu Lang became Altair.
Zhi Nu (Vega) and Niu Lang (Altair) gaze upon one another from opposing banks of the Silver River.
A flock of magpies was moved by the purity of spouses’ love and they built a bridge of birds over the Silver River where the two lovers could meet. The Emperor of Heaven was likewise moved by the couple’s love and he allowed them to reunite on the magpie bridge every year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Today, the Qi Xi Festival celebrates the love of Zhi Nu and Niu Lang.
The ‘Silver River’ is thought to be the sky-equivalent of the Han River, a 900-mile long tributary of the Yangtze.
Egypt: Egyptian mythology from several thousand years ago suggested that the luminous stream of stars is milk, spilled from the udders of a celestial cow (there are those milk and cow references, again). Not surprisingly, the ancient Egyptians saw the spilled milk bridging the heavens as the sky-equivalent of the Nile River.
There’s evidence that the Egyptian and Greek people interacted more than 3,000 years ago, so it’s possible that one culture influenced the other in terms of our galaxy’s ‘milky’ beginnings.
Botswana: The !Kung* Bushmen of the Kalahari desert observed the ghostly band of stars overhead and called it the ‘Backbone of the Night,’ possibly suggesting that the sky was a living being.
Australia: The Australian aboriginal tribes had numerous stories about the Milky Way. Many saw it as a river in the sky world.
The Kaurna people of southern Australia called the glowing band of light, ‘Wodliparri.’ They believed that Wodliparri was a sky-river and that fires burned along its banks. They noted that there were dark lanes traversing Wodliparri. They called these dark areas, ‘Yurakauwe’ — waters where monsters reside. Another aboriginal tribe believed that a giant crocodile lived in the river.
One creation story from Queensland involved Priepriggie, a great hunter, who happened upon a group of flying foxes, asleep in a tree. When Priepriggie killed the largest animal, the remaining flying foxes grabbed the hunter and hauled him into the sky.
All day, the Priepriggie’s tribe looked and looked, but couldn’t find any trace of him. At night, they heard Priepriggie faintly singing. The stars began to twinkle and they shifted position until they’d arranged themselves into a ribbon of luminous light that spanned the heavens. Thus, was the band of light we call the Milky Way created.
India: Followers of the Hindu religion referred to the ribbon of light in the heavens as ‘Akasaganga’ or ‘Ganges of the Sky,’ another sky-equivalent of a life-giving river on Earth.
Finland: ‘Lunnunrata’ (‘Pathway of Birds’) is what the early Finnish people called the Milky Way. They believed that birds followed Lunnunrata to their winter home, ‘Lintukoto.’ They were ultimately proven correct since some migrating birds do use the Milky Way as a navigational aid.
Norway: Norsemen saw the Milky Way as the path of deceased warriors being led by Valkyries to the hall of the dead, Valhalla, which is ruled by the Norse god, Odin.
Mesoamerica: The Mayan people believed the Milky Way to be the road spirits take to reach the underworld.
The Mayans believed that the moment of creation occurred when the Milky Way stood on end.
Navajo: In the Navajo creation story, Black God (the God of Fire and a practitioner of witchcraft) possessed a pouch of crystals. He carefully placed the crystals in the sky. Since the crystals didn’t shine by light of their own, Black God placed a fire-star in each constellation to make them glow.
Coyote watched Black God precisely set each crystal in the sky. Becoming impatient with Black God’s painstaking effort, Coyote grabbed the pouch and shook the remaining crystals into the heavens, creating ‘Yikaisdaha’ or ‘That Which Awaits The Dawn.’
The Navajo people view Yikaisdaha as a path that spirits follow when traveling between the Earth and the afterlife, each star in the path being a spirit’s footprint.
The Navajo people noted that, in January, Yikaisdaha is parallel to the eastern horizon, just before dawn.
Shoshone: The Shoshones of Wyoming tell a story of a grizzly bear who climbed a high mountain in order to go hunting in the sky. As the bear climbed higher, snow and ice clung to its fur. As the bear departed the mountain top and crossed the sky, the snow and ice fell off its fur, leaving a trail of luminosity behind.
Cherokee. The Cherokee tribe of southeastern United States believed the Milky Way was the road to the Land of Souls. The path was guarded by a large and a small dog, the stars Sirius and Mirzam. Travelers along the path to the Land of Souls must feed the two dogs or be trapped forever.
The Cherokee path to the Land of Souls and the two dogs that guard it.
These are just a few of the stories about the Milky Way from ancient cultures around the world. The stories were handed down from generation to generation, not just as entertainment around the fires, but as a means of making sense of the night sky above.
So, the next time you gaze at the Milky Way, don’t just look at the stars — consider the celestial rivers, the spirit paths, the spilled milk, and other stories our ancestors created to explain the ghostly luminescence they pondered during the long, dark nights of millennia past.