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Names for the Milky Way in Different Cultures

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#1 Alexandrite

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Posted 12 February 2024 - 03:30 AM

I have been reading a wonderful Russian book about the names of objects in the night sky, and their cultural and linguistic histories. (Yu.A.Karpenko, "Names of the Night Sky", 1981)

 

Since I was writing notes and translating from this book for my next informal presentation about medieval Astronomy (nothing too fancy, just my local medieval group), I thought I'd share this part here too - about different cultural names of the Milky Way.

Hopefully I won't be the only person who finds this fascinating! wink.gif

 

 

"The names associated with the Milky Way deserve a special mention, though there are too many to name them all. Its milky appearance inspired the Ancient Greeks to tell the story of how Zeus decided to let the infant Hercules suckle on his divine wife Hera's milk when she was asleep, an act which would endow the baby with godlike qualities. When Hera woke up and realized that she was breastfeeding an unknown infant, she pushed him away and the spurting milk became the Milky Way (and by extension, gave its name to galaxies in general – “gala” meaning “milk” in Greek.) The Greeks saw spilt milk in the sky before they created the myth in order to explain it, and they actually called it “The Milky Circle”.

 

It was not until Galileo looked at the Milky Way through a telescope, that it became obvious that it was actually made of millions of stars – until the year 1610, people had no idea what the Milky Way even was. They could only guess – some thought it was actual clouds among the stars, or a reflection of sunlight, or gases escaping from the Earth at night, or even a line of glue that holds celestial hemispheres together. Around 2,500 years ago Pythagoras had the right idea about it, and so did Persian astronomer al-Biruni, but it could not be proven until Galileo’s time, and people still debated it for decades afterwards.

 

In Sanskrit, the Milky Way was called “the Divine Way”. The Vikings called it “Odin’s Way”. The Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese called it “Sky River”, “River of Heaven” or “Silver River”. These watery names exist in Indonesian, Equatorial African, and Australian Aboriginal cultures, and some Native American languages. But naming it after a road, path, or trail dominates in most languages around the world, and the variety of these names reflects their cultural significance.

 

A huge swath of Africa through the Middle East to Mongolia calls it “Haymaker’s Way”, “Godfather’s Straw” or “Route of Scattered Straw” – you can easily picture this in a dry climate. Scandinavian and other northern cultures call it “Winter Way”, “Path of Snow” and “Skiing Path”. Imagine skiing across the sky! Others associated this celestial road surface with dust (Incas), ash (Dakota people of North America), golden sprinkles (San bushmen), sand (Germans), flour (Hungarians and some Native Americans), white clay (South Americans), and even sheep. The name "Birds' Path" is used in several Uralic and Turkic languages and in the Baltic languages - these peoples observed that birds follow the course of the galaxy during their migration period. There are other evocative animal names - Hawaiians called the Milky Way “Fish Jumping in Shadows”, people in Thailand called it “The Road of the White Elephant”, and an Irish legend tells of the “Way of the White Cow”.

 

Though the name “Milky Way” actually comes to us from Rome, the Romans had their own name for it also - “via caeli regia”, “the Ruler’s Way”. Many places in Europe took the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” literally, and called our galaxy “The Road to Rome” because pilgrims followed it when traveling. In Spanish and Portuguese, it’s Camino de Santiago - “The Road to Santiago”, in England “St James’ Way”, and in Russia and Ukraine “Way of Moses” or “God’s Way”.

 

Hungarians called it “The Warrior’s Way”, with the stars as sparks from their warriors’ horse-shoes. Another Scandinavian name is “The Way of Souls”, presumably to Valhalla. The Moldavian and Romanian name is “The Road of Slaves”, to remember the people lost to the Mongolian Horde – similar names exist in Russian regions, “Batu Khan’s Way” or “Mamai’s Way”. In this way, people hoped the sky would remember the people they lost.

 

People saw more mundane, everyday things in the Milky Way as well – some Slavic people saw a “Belt”, Syrians saw a “Long Ribbon”, and Ptolemy in Egypt saw simply a “Ribbon”. Babylonians saw a “Golden Ribbon”, Yakutians saw a “Celestial Rope” and Mongolians saw a “Sky Seam”. Some thought the sky was held together by glue, others envisioned it to be a column or supporting structure, or a spine or backbone.

 

We realise how intimately connected everyday people’s lives were to the night sky, and which worries, beliefs, everyday things and impressions of Nature they assigned to something they couldn’t understand until the invention of the telescope."

 

(edited for paragraph spacing)


Edited by Alexandrite, 12 February 2024 - 03:44 AM.

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#2 John_Moore

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Posted 12 February 2024 - 05:46 AM

That sounds like a very nice book to read, Alexandrite.

 

Just a query, as I'm currently exploring folklore names concerning features on the Moon, would there be any reference about them in it?

 

Thanks

John


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#3 epsilon160

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Posted 12 February 2024 - 06:31 AM

Beautiful and fascinating read! Thanks for sharing this with us.



#4 dave253

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Posted 12 February 2024 - 07:00 AM

Archeoastronomy is indeed a fascinating topic!

The only name I recalled is ‘Via Lactea’.

 I love reading articles about it in my old Astronomy and S&T magazines. Some of the authors are members here.

As a fellow Australian, I’m particularly interested in indigenous sky lore.

 

Thanks for posting.


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#5 Alex65

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Posted 12 February 2024 - 10:04 AM

When I was a kid my dad was stationed in West Germany and I remember that the German term for the Milky Way was Milchstraße (Milk Street).

 

I have lived in the UK for many years now and I have never heard (or read) the term St. James' Way when talking about the Milky Way, so it must be an archaic name. 



#6 AstroBobo

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Posted 13 February 2024 - 07:26 AM

Very interesting because the traditional croatian name is actually "Godfather’s Straw". Story goes like this (machine translated):

 

There is also a story about how Cigo (word comes from "cigan", a derogatory name for gypsies in the Balkans) stole straw and drove it home in a horse-drawn carriage. But as the cart shook, the straw fell all over the road, and the gendarmes burst into the yard just as Cigo was unloading the straw. When the gendarme asked whose straw it was, Cigo answered: "Well, gendarme, whose straw would it be? Godfather's straw." And just like the godfather's straw scattered along the country road, so are the stars scattered across the entire night sky. On clear nights, we can follow the trail of scattered stars from horizon to horizon and remember Ciga and his rattling chariot.

 

Our neighbors from Slovenia call it "Rimska cesta", the "Roman road". There's another traditional croatian name, translated to "Mary's crown".


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#7 birger

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Posted 13 February 2024 - 04:47 PM

It is very interesting to learn about different cultures' impression and myths about the sky we all share. Swedish still uses the old name "Winter Street" (Vintergatan), while Danish and Norwegian seem to have adopted the translation of Latin Via Lactea (Melkeveien). I believe I read somewhere that the name "Winter street" could possibly come from seers trying to determine the weather of the upcoming winter by studying the Milky Way.

 

I personally enjoy seeing other cultures' constellation patterns too, for example the Sami constellation of Sarva the Elk (a giant constellation consisting of Auriga, Perseus and Cassiopeia).


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#8 JohnTMN

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Posted 14 February 2024 - 05:43 AM

"The names associated with the Milky Way deserve a special mention,"

Gosh, that's cool, I can't wait till you get into what our different cultures call/named each constellation.

welcome to being part of "global", flowerred.gif


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#9 Bill Weir

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Posted 14 February 2024 - 04:01 PM

This might be of interest. https://www.rasc.ca/...sterism-project

 

Bill


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#10 Tony Flanders

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Posted 14 February 2024 - 06:38 PM

In India the Milky Way is traditionally the sacred river Gunga -- what we call the Ganges. Personified by the goddess of that name.


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#11 AstroBobo

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Posted 15 February 2024 - 12:34 AM

This might be of interest. https://www.rasc.ca/...sterism-project

 

Bill

Wow, this is cool!



#12 luxo II

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Posted 15 February 2024 - 04:20 AM

The Running Emu, as it rises in the east from down here. Once you’ve perceived the analogy, at certain times of the year it’s quite hard not to notice it.


Edited by luxo II, 15 February 2024 - 04:20 AM.

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#13 Alexandrite

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Posted 15 February 2024 - 11:53 PM

Just a query, as I'm currently exploring folklore names concerning features on the Moon, would there be any reference about them in it?

Yes, but I haven't got to that section yet! It's the last chapter of the book. Just had a quick flip through, and it mentions names for Lunar features starting from circa 1600s. It seems like different astronomers tried to name different features, but the names changed and not all names carried through to today.

 

 

Archeoastronomy is indeed a fascinating topic!

The only name I recalled is ‘Via Lactea’.

 I love reading articles about it in my old Astronomy and S&T magazines. Some of the authors are members here.

As a fellow Australian, I’m particularly interested in indigenous sky lore.

I'm very interested in Indigenous sky stories, too!
I love the concept of "the Dark Emu" - the negative space (darker, shadowed area) in the Milky Way being a celestial object of its own. There are probably recent, Australian-published books about this.

 

 

When I was a kid my dad was stationed in West Germany and I remember that the German term for the Milky Way was Milchstraße (Milk Street).

 

I have lived in the UK for many years now and I have never heard (or read) the term St. James' Way when talking about the Milky Way, so it must be an archaic name. 

Milk Street! My brain pictures a milk cart rattling around a dark street at night, spilling milk droplets onto cobblestones :)
 

St James' Way is definitely an archaic term.

 

 

Very interesting because the traditional croatian name is actually "Godfather’s Straw". Story goes like this (machine translated):

 

There is also a story about how Cigo (word comes from "cigan", a derogatory name for gypsies in the Balkans) stole straw and drove it home in a horse-drawn carriage. But as the cart shook, the straw fell all over the road, and the gendarmes burst into the yard just as Cigo was unloading the straw. When the gendarme asked whose straw it was, Cigo answered: "Well, gendarme, whose straw would it be? Godfather's straw." And just like the godfather's straw scattered along the country road, so are the stars scattered across the entire night sky. On clear nights, we can follow the trail of scattered stars from horizon to horizon and remember Ciga and his rattling chariot.

 

Our neighbors from Slovenia call it "Rimska cesta", the "Roman road". There's another traditional croatian name, translated to "Mary's crown".

Wow, fascinating! Thank you for sharing the actual story!

 

 

It is very interesting to learn about different cultures' impression and myths about the sky we all share. Swedish still uses the old name "Winter Street" (Vintergatan), while Danish and Norwegian seem to have adopted the translation of Latin Via Lactea (Melkeveien). I believe I read somewhere that the name "Winter street" could possibly come from seers trying to determine the weather of the upcoming winter by studying the Milky Way.

 

I personally enjoy seeing other cultures' constellation patterns too, for example the Sami constellation of Sarva the Elk (a giant constellation consisting of Auriga, Perseus and Cassiopeia).

I love the evocative, beautiful imagery conjured in the mind's eye by these names. You can't help but feel just a tiny bit closer to understanding a culture, by connecting with their legends and imagery.

 

 

Gosh, that's cool, I can't wait till you get into what our different cultures call/named each constellation.

welcome to being part of "global", flowerred.gif

Oh yes :)

 

 

In India the Milky Way is traditionally the sacred river Gunga -- what we call the Ganges. Personified by the goddess of that name.

That's beautiful! An earthly River Ganges, matched by a celestial one.
 


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