Seeing the Constellations with Different Eyes

Photo depicting the Ojibwe concept of Orion as the Wintermaker who ushers in the cold and wind.Orion and Pleiades as the Obibwe Wintermaker and Hole-in-the-Sky (Stellarium).

Seeing the Constellations with Different Eyes ~by Curt Nason

I believe it was an early fascination with the constellations and their associated mythology that sparked my lifelong interest in astronomy. The fascination continues, and it is fun and educational to learn how other cultures interpreted those stellar figures in the night sky.

Many of the familiar constellations originated several millennia ago in the Middle East, and they were adapted by the Greeks and Egyptians to mark the seasons and complement their tales of mythology. Later, seafaring explorers to the southern hemisphere returned with charts of star patterns unseen from Europe, and astronomers of a few centuries ago created new constellations to fill in gaps in the sky. In many cases the various constellation figures overlapped and shared stars. With astronomy becoming a more global and exact science, professionals formed the International Astronomical Union a century ago. One of their early tasks was to create official names and boundaries for 88 constellations covering the entire sky. These are the constellations of science, but individuals and cultures are free to see the sky as they please.

Bright stars and eye-catching asterisms such as Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper and the Pleaides star cluster were obvious targets to immortalize earthly creatures and activities. Rather than Orion being a hunter and the giant son of Poseidon, to the Egyptians he was Osiris, the god of light, riding up the Nile on a boat. In parts of China he was Commander Tsan, protecting farmers from barbarians seeking to steal their winter supplies. Brazilian tribes saw the figure as a turtle, or as the body of a giant caiman with its tail and head extending to constellations above and below Orion. The Inuit saw Orion’s belt and sword as three hunters pulling a sledge and chasing a bear, represented by the red star Betelgeuse, into the sky.

The Big Dipper forms the back half of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. We see it easily as a dipper, although I often need to explain what that is during visits to youth groups. In Britain it is The Plough, ancient Germans saw it as seven plowing oxen, and for others it was obviously a cart. Several First Nations tribes, including Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, saw the bowl of the Big Dipper as a bear and the handle stars, along with other stars in the constellation Boötes, as hunters. The hunters, who are named for birds, chase the bear from spring to autumn until only the three closest hunters remain above the horizon, at which time the bear is slain by Robin. The bear’s blood stains Robin’s chest and the leaves of the trees.

The Pleiades represent seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione and they mark the shoulder of Taurus the Bull. The Maori of New Zealand imagined them as the prow of their founder’s canoe, with the upper half of Orion forming the stern. Cherokee legend in the southeastern United States tells of seven boys who, in response to being punished for not working, performed a Feather Dance and ascended to the sky. Whereas most people can see only six stars in this cluster, the legends of seven girls or boys include that one of them gets lost or falls to earth.

I greatly enjoy the science of astronomy, but when viewing the constellations I am that “starstruck” lad of my youth watching an endless movie of monsters and heroes. The first time I saw the Pleiades I thought I had discovered a new constellation and called it The Lamp. Imagine my disappointment when I saw it named otherwise in a book.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on the first Saturday of the month at 7 p.m. in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. Contact Curt Nason for details.


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