Our galaxy, the Milky Way. A barred-spiral galaxy of estimated diameter between 100,000-180,000 ly, it contains approximately 100-400 billion stars, of which our very own Sun is but a below average one.
It appears as a dim band of stars across the night sky, the band like structure appearing as such since we view it from within. Its name is a translation of its Latin name, Via Lactea, which itself is derived from the Greek word Galaxios, meaning milky.
It represents one of the most mysterious visuals of the night sky, and numerous tales and stories have been built up to explain it over the years. It has been variously called a heavenly river, spilt milk and even a canoe by various communities of the world.
Today we will see a few of the stories that have tried to explain the existence of the Milky Way in the sky.
1. Baby Heracles, creator of the Galaxy.
Heracles is well known for being the poster-boy of Greek mythlogy. The sheer number of achievments accumulated by him would perhaps outnumber those of any other two dozen Greek heroes combined. And a large reason for this was the fact that he possessed divine strength, strength much greater than a human that allowed him to wrestle bare-handed with the Nemean Lion and hold up the sky in the stead of Atlas.
But how he acquired this strength also makes for an interesting read. Heracles was born in the line of Perseus, to his granddaughter Alcemene whom Zeus visited in the guise of her husband and first cousin Amphitryon.
Zeus was especially fond of the newborn babe, and had already tried to give him a bright future, only to be foiled by a jealous Hera. He had declared that the child born in the line of Perseus on the day Heracles was supposed to be born would be the King of Mycenea. But Hera ordered her daughter, Eileithyia the Goddess of Childbirth to block the delivery of Alcemene and instead bring forth the birth of the child of Sthenelus, Amphitryon and Alcemene’s uncle who had usurped the throne of Mycenea after his brother Electryon had beeen accidentally killed by Amphitryon. Eurystheus was born to Sthenelus and eventually became the ruler of Mycenea and was the one who issued forth the twelve labours that Heracles completed. (Goes on to show, never count your chicken before they hatch)
In revenge, Zeus planned to empower Heracles by the hands (rather, the tits) of Hera. One day, when Hera was sleeping, Zeus took the infantile Heracles to Olympus, and allowed him to suckle on Hera’s breast. When Hera felt someone was drinking her milk, she was startled awake. Seeing a strange child suckling on her, she threw away the child from her bosom, who was rescued in time by Zeus. But by then, Heracles had drunk enough of the divine milk that his strength was equal to the gods, as he was nursed, even though unwillingly, by the queen of gods. (Now that’s a set of ‘divine’ mammaries)
As Hera threw away the baby Heracles, milk spurted from her breast and splashed across the heavens, forming the band across the sky which we see today as the Galaxias or the Milky Way.
2. The Bridal Veil that stretches over Lightyears.
The ancient Estonians had observed a very critical fact, that the migrating birds follwed the path laid out by the Milky Way in the sky. This fact was eventually confirmed by the scientists in recent times. Their story of the galaxy tells how this guiding path in the sky came to be.
Ukko, the god of sky, thunder and lightning had two sons and two daughters. His daughter Lindu was charged with taking care of all the birds. She was the one who guided them when the set out for their migration and when they returned. She was a cheerful and lovely maiden, and had many admirers among the gods, who wanted to marry her.
The first to make a move was the Pole Star. In a handsome Oaken wood carriage drawn by 6 Brown Horses, he came bearing 6 lavish gifts as he proposed Lindu. But Lindu rejected him, saying that he was always fixed in his own place and never moved anywhere. (Good guys always, always suffer)
Then came a carriage of Silver came the Moon drawn by ten silver horses, with ten gifts to woo her. But again Lindu rejected him, and said that he always followed the same path across the sky, and he even waxed and waned at the same pace. Disappointed, the Moon also returned.
Following the Moon in a carriage of gleaming Gold, drawn by twenty golden horses and carrying twenty gifts, came the Sun, but he too was rejected for being too predictable and regular.
Finally, in a Diamond coach drawn by a hundred rainbow horses came the Northen Lights carrying a thousand gifts. At the first glance at the beautiful yet unpredictable Northern Lights, Lindu fell in love and agreed to marry him. (This just goes on to show that all girls, even divine maidens, dig bad boys)
As the Northern Light could not bear the sunrays for long, he asked Ukko for the far Northern Skies as his dowry, and on receiving them, promised to soon return to marry Lindu. (A swindle, if I ever saw one)
Lindu set about preparing for her marriage. All the spirits of nature were engaged in preparing for the upcoming marriage. The birds chose the choicest of flowers to adorn Lindu, while the earth gave up the most beautiful gems to create jewellery. The Mountains gifted her a bridal-veil made from a waterfall as she waited for Northern Lights to come back and marry her.
But her wait was long, for months passed but there was no sign of the Northern Lights. Lindu waited listlessly, and did not even pay attention to her duties, and many birds lost their way when they were migrating. As time passed, she realized that the capricious Northern Light was not coming back, and tears fell from her eye as she mourned her broken heart.
Ukko, saddened to see his daughter in grief, ordered the four winds so that they would lift her from earth and bring her back to his palace in sky. As she floated into the sky, her bridal veil stretched out behind her, forming the Milky Way which the shows the birds which way to go during migration, and thus Lindu still continues fulfilling her duties till this day.
In Estonia, the Milky Way is known as Linnunrata, or The Birds Way, in memory of the beautiful goddess Lindu, who forgot that “All that glitters is not gold”.
3. Milky Way: Galaxy, Heavenly River, Lover’s Bane.
Chinese myths are rich in deities, adopted and adapted as they are from Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. The highest deities of Heaven are Sanqing, The Three Pure Ones, the creators and supreme Trinity of Taoist pantheon. But the day to day workings of the cosmos are overseen by Yuhuang Dadi, the Illustrious Jade Emperor of Heaven who presides over the Celestial Court and rules the three realms with infinite wisdom.
He is married to Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, the overlady of Heaven and the Goddess of Life, Happiness and Immortality. She owns magic pills that grant eternal life and has a Celestial Peach Garden, which grantt youth to whoever eats them.
But even the most powerful of goddesses was not able to break free of the stereotype of the evil mother-in-law, and created the whole of Milky Way in a bid to safeguard her daughter from her ‘unworthy’ mortal husband.
The seventh daughter of the Divine Royal couple was Zhi Nu, the Weaver Goddess, in charge of all crafts and responsible for weaving the beautiful clouds that adorn the dome of heaven. As the gods are wont to do, she and her sisiters often descended to the mortal world to spend some time. On one such occasion, Zhi Nu heard a beautiful melody floating in the air, and stumbled upon a cowherd boy playing a flute as he watched over the grazing cattle.
The name of the cowherd was Niu Lang. He was born the youngest son of his father, and when his father died, his elder brothers had given him only an old bull and a herd of cattle as his share, keeping the rest for themselves. Zhi Nu was so enchanted by the sounds of his flute that every day she used to come down to listen him play. As time passed, they both fell in love with each other, secretly married, and even had two children. (Its such a surprise!!!)
Zhi Nu slowly started ignoring her heavenly duties to spend time with her mortal family. Xiwangmu noticed this when less and less clouds were seen in the sky, and saw that her daughter often descneded to the mortal world. Curious, she sent a messenger to secretly tail her, and the messenger promptly reported the truth to the Queen. Angered that a mere cowherd had the audacity to marry her daughter, she ordered that Zhi Nu should be brought back to the skies, and never allowed to return to her new family.
As a despairing Niu Lang watched his wife being taken away from him, he was surprised when the old bull he had received as his inheritance started to speak. It told him that Zhi Nu had secretly bestowed some magic into it, and it can carry him to her abode in the sky.
So Niu Lang took his two children with him and rode his bull to chase after Zhi Nu. But they were not meant to meet, for Xiwangmu noticed him, and taking her hairpin, slashed it across the sky, creating the Heavenly Silver River between the two. Try as they might, the lovers were unable to cross the river and waited at opposite banks. Zhi Nu was the star Vega of the Constellation of Lyre, while Niu Lang was the star Altair of constellation of Aquilae. Their two children were the stars Beta-Aquilae and Gamma-Aquilae who remained with their father on the other side of the silvery river.
So great was their sorrow, so deep their love, that the magpies(considered auspicious birds in China) sympathised with them, and built a bridge across that river for a day every year, when the two would be able to cross over and meet each other.
The Jade Emperor was also moved and turned Niu Lang into an immortal, and appointed him as the Heavenly Official in Charge of Cowsheds,officially giving approval to the marriage.
The Seventh Day of the Seventh Month, the day on which the Magpies form the bridge, is celebrated as the Qixi Festival in China, and is contemporarily known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. In Japan, the festival is celebrated as Tanabata.
Remember this folks, beware of Mothers-in-law, for they are cruel, cruel creatures.
4. The Descent of the Heavenly River
The River Ganges is the lifeline of millions of people who live along its 2500 kilometer long course across the Indo-Gangetic Plains, one of the most densely populated areas of the world. It is held sacrosanct by Hindus, to the extent that even a single dip is considered enough to give you salvation. Its purifying effect is well-documented, with scientific studies showing that Ganges water has a strong and unique germicidal property and an unusually high oxygen content.
The Ganges is considered a Heavenly river that descended to Earth to wash away the sins of mortal. Hindu’s explain Milky Way as the path which Ganga, the deific personification of the river, took as she descended to the mortal world.
King Sagara was a mighty king of the Suryavansh, one of the two semi-divine royal families of Hindu Mythology. He had two wives, and from one, he had a son Anshuman, his heir, while his other wife had given birth to 60,000 sons.
Sagara conducted the Ashwamedha Yajna, the ritualistic sacrifice where a horse is left to roam all over the world and all those countries over which the Horses passes unchallenged accept the suzerainty of the monarch conducting the sacrifice.
Indra, the king of Heaven, in his paranoia feared the growing might of Sagara and in a bid to foil his Yajna, he stole the Jorse and hid him near the hermitage of Sage Kapila, who had been deep in meditation for thousands of years.
The 60,000 sons of Sagara searched all over the earth for the Horse, and finally find it near the Sage. Thinking that the Sage was the one who had stolen the horse and was now pretending to be in meditation, they heckled him, causing Kapila’s meditation to be disrupted. Angered, Kapila Muni opens his eyes and the energy of penance accumulated in them burns all of the 60,000 princes to ashes. (Laser powered eyes, anyone?)
As their last rites had not been carried out as per the scriptures, the princes turned into dissatisfied ghosts who were tied to the mortal plane even after death. Anshuman, seeing the deplorable condition of his half-brothers, pleads before Kapila Muni for mercy. Kapila, now a lot calmer, says that if the Celestial river Ganga could wash their ashes, then the prinves would be able to attain salvation.
Ganga was born when Lord Vishnu, one of the three Supreme deities of Hinduism, in his incarnation as Vamana, the Dwarf, covered the whole universe in two steps and his nail pierced a hole on the edges of the universe and caused the primordial waters sorrounding the creation to rush inside in a bid drown everything. But Vishnu managed to contain the torrential flow and trapped it beneath the nail of his pinky toe, giving Ganga the name Vishnupadi, one who resides in the feet of Vishnu.
Later on, Bramha, one of other gods of the Supreme Trinity, obtained the primordial waters which were stored in his Kamandalu, the ceremonial vessel the Brahmins and ascetics carried with them.
Anshuman’s great-grandson, Bhagiratha was determined to give salavation to his ancestors, so after strict penance over hundreds of years, he appeased Bramha, who ordered Ganga to flow down to the mortal world.
Ganga, displeased on being asked to descend to mortal world by leaving the Celestial world, rushed out of Bramha’s Kamandalu with such a torrential flow that it threatened to destroy the entire mortal plane. Bhagiratha, alarmed by this, prayed to Bramha who asked him to go to Lord Shiva, the last part of the Trinity, for help. Shiva agrees to it and opens up his locks of hair for Ganga to descend into.
Arrogant in the strength of her flow, Ganga arcs across the sky in a pale band, planning to wash away Lord Shiva as well. But as soon as she falls on top of Shiva’s head, it is as if she fell down into an inescapable cage, for even her endless flow was unable to escape from them. Humbled, she begs Shiva for forgiveness, and the Lord releases her in form of a gentle stream from his head, and hence bears the name Gangadhar, the one who bears Ganga. (Those are some seriously cool dreadlocks)
As Ganga flowed down from Shiva’s locks, she mistakenly destroyed the ashram of Sage Janhu, who, in his anger, drank up the flow of the river. Bhagirath, distressed by the interruptions coming up one after another, pleads to the Rishi to release Ganga into the world back again, and the sage allows Ganga to flow back out of his ear, giving the alternate name of the river, Janhavi, the one born of Janhu. (A real troublemaker of a river, if there was ever one)
Bhagirath finally, finally leads Ganga to the ashram of Kapila Muni where Ganga washes away the ashes of his ancestors and gives them salvation. She finally flows into the sea where she enters into the netherworld and thus completes her journey into all three worlds.
As Ganga flows through the sky, her form can been seen as the pale band of light known as Akash Ganga, or the Heavenly Ganga.
So we learn that, besides Hindu Mythology being in no way inferior to Marvel Universe in terms of special powers, we should never be arrogant, but always remain humble.
5. The Canoe in the Sky
The Maori of the Newzealand had a very interesting myth of how the stars and the Milky Way came to be.
One day, the great Maori warrior Tama-Rereti felt very hungry when he woke up in his whare(hut). But there was little food to be had in his home. So he decided to go out fishing and get something for him and his family.
He put out his Waka, his canoe, out into the lake Taupo. It was a breezy morning in spring, and Tama-Rereti had a great haul. As he leisurely caught fish in the lake, his basket was soon filled up and he was ready to go back home for lunch.
But the wind had died down, and he was becalmed. Rather than struggle to row back to his home at the southern shore of the lake, he decided to sleep for sometime in his canoe, till the wind picked up again.
With the soothing sound of the wakes and gentle rocking of the boat, he was soon fast asleep. In the meanwhile, a soft breeze had been born which slowly moved his canoe northwards.
When Tama-Rereti finally woke up late in the afternoon, he found he was near the far-bank of the lake and would be unable to make it back to his house before dusk.
In those days, thebworld used to becoke completely dark after dusk, for there were no moon nor stars in the sky. No animals nor humans could see at night, and only the Taniwha, dwellers of deep pits and caves, roamed during the night, capturing and eating whoever was foolish enough to roam at night.
Now Tama-Rereti was a great warrior and not afraid of the Taniwha, but he was wise and knew not to take a decision with a rumbling stomach, for he had not eaten anything since morning.
He drew his canoe near beach and tied it up, and set about to build a fire and roast his fish. Soon enough dusk came and went, it became dark. Tama-Rereti noticed that the pebbles in his fire were glowing brightly and casting a faint light of their own.
Looking at the black, black sky, Tama-Rereti had a great idea, and using some leaves, he collected the shining pebbles and placed them in his canoe. Sailing off, he soon reached the horizon, from where the great ocean of the sky started flowing. Sailing into the ocean, he started scattering the glowing pebbles everywhere. All through the night, he scattered the pebbles, till the whole of the sky was filled with them. As the first light of the dawn approached, he had reached near his village, and finally reaching his hut, went into a deep sleep.
In his sleep, Tama-Rereti met Ranginui, the Lord of the Sky. At first, he was afraid the Ranginui was angry at him for littering the sky with so many pebbles, but Ranginui was actually very happy with the new look of the sky and the fact that now the men and animals could see even in the night.
As a reward, Ranginui placed the canoe of Tama-Rereti in the sky, which appears in the sky as a pale band from below. The Southern cross anchors it in the ocean of the sky and the pointers act as the rope connecting them.
Just goes on to show us that Enterpreneurship was the ‘in’ thing even back in the day.
Thats was it for this edition, where we went through quite a few rendition of how our home galaxy was made, and perhaps more than a few of them were a bit wacky, but well, imagination is only bounded by itself. Whenever Man has encountered something new, he has tried his best to explain it, and the results, more often than not, are what have made up our mythologies.
In the next post, I will tackle the most popular blend of astronomy and myth, the Zodiacs.