Remote yet familiar, stars have fascinated people throughout history and are part of many myths and legends. Although the sun and the moon usually have the leading roles in mythology, often appearing as deities, the stars also appear in many stories. In some cultures, the stars represent part of the cosmos, such as the heavens or the home of the gods, or a path between the earth and another world. In many myths and legends, individual stars or constellations, groups of stars, have special significance.
deity god or goddess
cosmos the universe, especially as an orderly and harmonious system
Explaining the Stars. People who lived before electric lights and air pollution dimmed the night skies saw the heavens glittering
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
with thousands of stars. They developed various stories to explain their brilliant presence.
The Paiute of North America describe the stars as the children of the sun and moon. Because the sun loves to eat his children, the stars disappear whenever he rises above the horizon. However, the moon, their mother, often dances happily across the sky with the stars. To the Yakut of Siberia, the stars are crystal windows that allow the gods to look down at earth. The tent-dwelling Turko-Tatar people of Central Asia picture the sky as a large tent over the earth, with the stars as tiny holes in the tent.
The Milky Way, a dense band of stars that spans the sky, marks the center of the galaxy to which our solar system belongs. In myths, however, the Milky Way has been a road, a river, and a bridge between worlds. According to a Peruvian tradition, the Vilcanota River is a reflection of the Milky Way and water constantly circulates between the two, passing from the river to heaven and back again. The Navajo say that the trickster Coyote created the Milky Way by tossing a blanket full of sparkling stone chips into the sky. Scattered in a great arc, the stones formed a pathway linking heaven and earth.
In many traditions, the stars have been associated with death and the afterlife. The Maya considered the Milky Way to be the road to Xibalba, the underworld. Many Native Americans regard the Milky Way as the path followed by the souls of the dead. According to the Zulu and Ndebele people of southern Africa, the stars are the eyes of dead ancestors, keeping watch on the living from above.
Constellations and Individual Stars in Myths. Chinese mythology includes many references to the stars. Various deities, such as the god of literature and the god of long life, were associated with the stars. One myth that occurs in several versions concerns the Weaver Girl, the goddess who weaves the clouds, and the Herdsman, who tends the cattle of heaven. The two were lovers. When the gods placed them in the sky, the Weaver Girl became the star called Vega, while the Herdsman became either the star Altair or the constellation Aquila. The gods separated the lovers with the river of the Milky Way so that they would not neglect their work. But every year, on the seventh night of the seventh month, birds formed a bridge across the Milky Way allowing the Weaver Girl and the Herdsman to meet.
Berenice was the wife of Ptolemy III, a king of Egypt, in the 200s B.C. According to legend, she promised to sacrifice her hair to the goddess Venus if the gods brought her husband safely back from war. When Ptolemy returned unharmed, Berenice cut off her hair and placed it in Venus's temple as promised, but the hair disappeared. The royal astronomer told Ptolemy that it had become a constellation in the night sky, known to this day as the Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
underworld land of the dead
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
People have told many tales about the group of seven stars called the Pleiades. In Greek mythology these stars were the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas* and the ocean nymph Pleione. According to some accounts, Zeus* placed them in the sky to protect them from the hunter Orion. But then Orion became a constellation and continued to chase the Pleiades across the heavens. The cattle-herding Masai people of Africa see the Pleiades as a group of cattle, and their appearance in the sky marks the rainy season. The Inca of South America called the Pleiades Collca —meaning a place where grain is stored—and believed that the constellation protected seeds and farming.
The constellation Ursa Major, called the Great Bear or the Big Dipper, appears in many Native American myths. The Seneca of New York believed that the constellation was made up of a large bear and the six hunters who chased it into the sky. The Inuit of northern Greenland, though, see Ursa Major as a giant caribou. They imagine the constellation Orion as a series of steps in the great bank of snow that connects earth and heaven.
The constellation known as the Southern Cross figures in Australian mythology. According to a story from New South Wales, it is a gum tree in which a man and a spirit are trapped, their eyes blazing forth as stars. Two other stars are white birds that rose into the sky with the tree.
Many myths and legends refer to the morning star and the evening star. These are not true stars but names for the planet Venus, which shines brightly near the horizon early or late in the night, depending on the time of year. A Norse* myth says that the morning star was originally the toe of a hero named Aurvandil. Thor* had carried Aurvandil out of Giantland and across the river Elivagar. On the way, however, one of the hero's toes froze, so Thor broke it off and threw it into the sky. To the Greeks, the evening star was Hesperus, grandfather of the goddesses called the Hesperides, who guarded the golden apples of eternal life on islands in the western sea.