Thursday, November 1, 2012

Native American Skies -- Cherokee, What the Stars are Made Of

Pleiades Constellation
Cherokee called it Ani Tsutsa
When the Cherokee looked up at the dark moonless skies, they saw billions of spirit campfires.  Like today, they also saw patterns in the stars and told stories about the constellations.   The constellation that we call the “Pleiades”, the Cherokee called “Ani Tsutsa”, or the “Seven Boys”.   The story goes that eight young boys got so angry with their mothers that they prayed to the spirits to lift them into the sky.  They danced around the Council House until they started to rise up off the ground.  One of the mothers managed to grab the foot of their son and pull him back down, but the other seven floated up into the sky and you can see their bright campfires at night.

The milkyway, according to old Cherokee stories, was created long ago when the earth was young and there were not many stars in the sky.  The people made corn meal from dried corn and stored it in large baskets.  One morning an old man and his wife discovered that something or someone had gotten into the cornmeal during the night.  In the middle of the spilt meal were giant dog prints.  They were so large that the Elders decided that the dog must be a spirit dog from another world.  They did not want the spirit dog in their village, so they decided to frighten it so bad it would never return.  They put on their turtle shell rattles, got their drums and hid by the corn meal baskets.   Late that night they heard a great whispering noise like many birds flapping their wings and looked up to see a giant spirit dog swooping down to land by the baskets.  When it began to gulp down mouthfuls of cornmeal, they jumped up and made a great noise like thunder.  The giant dog ran across the night sky and the cornmeal that spilled from its mouth turned into the stars of the Milky Way.

Some Cherokee had different opinions about the stars according to James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee.  He wrote, “Some say they are balls of light, others say they are human, but most people say they are living creatures covered with luminous fur or feathers.  One night a hunting party camping in the mountains noticed two lights like large stars moving along the top of a distant ridge. They wondered and watched until the light disappeared on the other side. The next night, and the next, they saw the lights again moving along the ridge, and after talking over the matter decided to go on the morrow and try to learn the cause. In the morning they started out and went until they came to the ridge, where, after searching some time, they found two strange creatures about so large (making a circle with outstretched arms), with round bodies covered with fine fur or downy feathers, from which small heads stuck out like the heads of terrapins. As the breeze played upon these feathers showers of sparks flew out.  The hunters carried the strange creatures back to the camp, intending to take them home to the settlements on their return. They kept them several days and noticed that every night they would grow bright and shine like great stars, although by day they were only balls of gray fur, except when the wind stirred and made the sparks fly out. They kept very quiet, and no one thought of their trying to escape, when, on the seventh night, they suddenly rose from the ground like balls of fire and were soon above the tops of the trees. Higher and higher they went, while the wondering hunters watched, until at last they were only two bright points of light in the dark sky, and then the hunters knew that they were stars.”

The Cherokee also had an alternative explanation for meteorites or falling stars.  Again from “Myths of the Cherokee”, “At night, when some one is sick or dying in the settlement, the Raven Mocker [a witch] goes to the place to take the life. He flies through the air in fiery shape, with arms outstretched like wings, and sparks trailing behind, and a rushing sound like the noise of a strong wind. Every little while as he flies he makes a cry like the cry of a raven when it "dives" in the air--not like the common raven cry--and those who hear are afraid, because they know that some man's life will soon go out. When the Raven Mocker comes to the house he finds others of his kind waiting there, and unless there is a doctor on guard who knows how to drive them away they go inside, all invisible, and frighten and torment the sick man until they kill him.”

All peoples and cultures have been fascinated by the beautiful night sky.  And occasionally they see something really special like the Super Nova of 1054.  The Anasazi recorded this extraordinary event in a petroglyph in Chaco Canyon.

-- Courtney Miller

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