The Many Ways the Constellations Reveal Themselves

The Tragically Hip is one of my all-time favourite bands.  My favourite Hip song is called Bobcaygeon.  The line that stands out is, “It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations  reveal themselves, one star at a time.” The awe the night sky inspires is a universal human experience.

Anthropologists tell us that people have been playing connect-the-dots with the stars since we showed up as a species.  Constellations helped with navigation.  Anyone who follows the stars in the Northern Hemisphere notices the North Star.  It doesn’t appear to move like all the other stars in the sky.

The patterns that cultures come up with reflect their stories.

The patterns that cultures come up with reflect their stories. Their subjects are animals, heroes, gods and sacred objects. It’s one of the ways that we try to make sense of the world and our place in it.

For example, the three stars we in the west think of as the horns of Aries come from tales of the winged ram with the fabled golden fleece. The Tswana people in Africa tell stories about a sacred giraffe in the sky. He reaches his long neck up above the clouds to keep the sun on track. Every culture has its star lore.

Our western constellations come from what is now Iraq.   The Babylonians and Sumerians drew on existing oral traditions around 1,000 BCE.  When Greece became a superpower, they adopted the same system.  During the Roman Empire, Ptolemy set up the first genuinely standard system.

Our 88 modern constellations were established by the International Astronomical Union in 1930

Ptolemy settled on 48 constellations.  They’re more or less what we still use in the northern hemisphere.  Our 88 modern constellations were established by the International Astronomical Union in 1930.  They cover the whole sky around the world.

Meanwhile, in Asia, another set of constellations evolved.  Every Chinese New Year, we hear the animal for which the year is named.  They are a convenient way to keep track of the year.  This is the Year of the Pig.  Those animals come from the twelve constellations in their version of the zodiac, combined with the lunar calendar.

The southern hemisphere has its own star patterns.  Also, the dark patches in the Milky Way are more pronounced down under.  As a result, the indigenous peoples of that part of the world created what researchers call dark cloud constellations.  The Emu in the Sky is an example from the aboriginal people of Australia.

Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide

Another set of ancient star lore is starting to be revived.  It comes from the indigenous people of North America.  I found out about it this week. I stumbled onto a great book available from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.  It’s called Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide

It caught my eye because our family cottage is on the traditional territory of the Ojibwe people.  I’ve had the privilege of attending some of their public ceremonies.  I’ve always been fascinated by their traditions.  Even so, this was the first time I’ve heard their take on constellations.

Like all other cultures, Ojibwe star knowledge is drawn from their sacred traditions.  This includes the seasons, the four directions and the spirit animals of their clans.  Where we see the Big Dipper, they see a furry carnivore called a fisher.  They think of the Little Dipper as a loon.

The semi-circle of stars we call Leo’s mane is the curly tail of a cougar in their system.  They think of the part of the sky we call Cancer as the outline of their unlikely hero Nenabozho.  Our stick figure man Orion is similar to their Wintermaker figure.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms”

Muriel Ruckeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Cosmology has only been considered a science since the post-war period. Before that, it was seen as part of the culture. Readers will have noticed that new scientific discoveries are being made in cosmology every day.

This means that the race is on to preserve the heritage of traditional cultural cosmologies before they are lost.   It also means that we all need to learn as much as we can about the new scientific cosmology.  We’ll need to base our meaningful stories on it for future generations.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
Star Stories
Ojibwe Star Map Constellation Guide
The Importance of Cosmology in Culture: Contexts and Consequences


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