Thursday, October 3, 2013

Native American Skies: The Milky Way

Well, its October!  According to an old Navajo tradition, we can now (October thru February) go into the Hogan a speak  about the night sky.   “The time of winter stories is considered to be a time of sharing and reflection when bears, reptiles, and insects are hibernating, and while plants are regenerating their potency for their next life cycle in the spring.” [Nancy C. Maryboy, David Begay, “Sharing the Skies, Navajo Astronomy”]  This time of teaching ends with the first sound of Thunder ushering in spring.
Navajo Hogan

Today it is hard for us to understand why the night sky and the sun cycles were so important to ancient cultures.  If we need to know the time, we look at our watch.  If we need to know what day it is, we look at our calendars.  We are told when spring begins by TV broadcasters or by notices from local department stores advertising their spring sale.  Most of the population in the “civilized” world can’t see half the night sky for the light dome over the city they live in.  Today the night sky and the stories related to the stars, constellations, and planets are just a novelty.

Starry Night software on laptop showing
Milky Way aligned along pre-dawn horizon
But in ancient times, understanding the movements and related stories of the night sky and sun cycles were as critical as understanding the computer is to us today.  It was, in a way, their computer or their internet.  The answers to all of life’s questions resided in the sky, if you knew how to read it.

This doesn’t just apply to Native Americans, it applies to all ancient cultures.  For most of us, what we know about the constellations and movements in the sky came from the Greek astronomers who learned from the Summerians and Babylonians who learned from the Egyptians, etc.   “Western” cosmology is a hodge-podge of multicultural stories, legends and myths.  Most have lost their meaning and significance over the ages.


Dr. John J. Boucek, in his article for the Wet Mountain Tribune, observed, “It is an amazing fact that ancient cultures, though continents apart, have viewed the Milky Way and philosophized along similar lines as to its significance.

“The ancient Greeks titled it ‘that spinning wheel which men called Galaxios,’ the name being derived from the Greek gala or galactos, which simply means milk.  Hence the Latin term Via Galactica or Milky Way.

“A half dozen more Chinese poets, some from the pre-Confucian era refer to the Milky Way in similar terms, calling it the ‘Celestial River’ or the Han River, sometimes regarded as the ultimate source of the earthly Yellow River of central China.

“In American Indian legend, it is the path to the hereafter.  The Algonquins saw the campfires of their departed warriors in the bright stars along the way.

“The Norsemen saw the Milky Way as the path of their warriors on their way to Valhalla.”
In Hindu mythology the Milky Way was churned by means of a serpent to acquire the nectar of life.

I would add the old Cherokee Story that attributes the Milky Way to the trail of a naughty dog that got into the corn meal and tracked it across the sky.

The Navajo name for the Milky Way is Yikaisdaha which means “That Which Awaits the Dawn”.   The Navajo observed that there is only one time during the year when Yikaisdaha aligns perfectly with the horizon.  That time is in January just before dawn.  Amazingly, it aligns with the entire predawn horizon.

What is interesting to me is that at the base of the cosmological systems is the belief that the sky is a reflection of what is happening or has happened or will happen on earth.  So, each culture looks up and sees those things or events that are important to their particular culture.  The Olmec and Mayan astronomers watched and recorded the skies for thousands of years and came to the conclusion that all things have a cycle and if you follow events long enough, they will repeat.  This is very powerful because that means that if you learn the cycle, you can predict the future because it will repeat!
-- Courtney Miller

1 comment:

  1. Matthew 13
    [9] Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

    Revelation 13
    [9] If any man have an ear, let him hear.



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