Astronomy and mythology: written in the stars
Updated: Nov 13
This article was written by Ben Coley, Bushwise Trainer and author of the new Specialist Astronomy Qualification now offered by FGASA.
Since the dawn of time, humans have looked to the heavens to understand the world.
From learning to interpret the passing of time, to navigating at night, to predicting the best times of the year to plant crops, our understanding of the night sky and astronomy has shaped our society. Not only have the stars given us the ability to plan our lives, they have offered us the ideal storyboard to record our cultural stories, memories, ideals, and experiences.
For field guides, the diamond-studded sky offers a unique opportunity to discuss the cultural significance of man’s history. To be able to do this whilst immersed in the pristine wilderness is an experience that many guests will cherish forever.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous and beautiful stories that have migrated from the constellations to our consciousness.
Orion is undoubtedly the most famous and recognisable constellation in the sky. Many people are aware of the classic Greek myth depicting the great fight between Orion and his arch nemesis, Scorpio, the giant celestial scorpion. But its origins lie far deeper in human history.
Many of the constellations were adopted by the Greeks from ancient Mesopotamia, and Orion is thought to have originally depicted their great hero Gilgamesh from as far back as 3000 BC. Many of his exploits have been recorded in literature, and a series of tablets from Sumerian times, known as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In Africa, the three stars representing the great belt of Orion have been identified by different tribes and cultures as various different animals, including zebras, warthogs and even tortoises.
In one story, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak are believed to be three zebras that roamed the heavens. A hunter, depicted by the giant red star Aldebaran (Taurus), tried to shoot one of them with his arrow but missed. The zebra, terrified after their near escape, and by the nearby stalking lion (Betelgeuse), escaped to Earth when the stars touched the western horizon. In some Bushman cultures this is believed to be the origin of the zebra species on Earth.
Crux (the Southern Cross)
The Southern Cross is the most famous collection of stars in the southern celestial sphere. Its four main stars shine brightly and their unmistakable footprint has been used by ancient civilisations and sailors for millennia as a beacon for navigation.
When viewed from Australia and New Zealand, Crux is a circumpolar constellation (never setting below the horizon) and has been so influential in their history that it has been honoured by being placed on the national flags of both countries.
In Africa, the Xhosa and Zulu tribes saw the Southern Cross as groups of giraffes parading across the heavens – perhaps placed there by the animals themselves, to ensure the Moon didn’t get lost as it traversed the skies. Bushmen tribes had a great deal of respect for lions, the apex predator with whom they shared the land – there are various references, often involving red-coloured stars, to these celestial beasts.
To some groups, the four stars of the cross represented a pride of lions, with the dimmer fifth star (Epsilon Crucis) as their young cub. The pointer stars, or Alpha and Beta Centauri, were the two pride males following the pride as they continuously circled their hunting grounds in search of prey.
Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is the forgotten sign of the Zodiac and one of the most underappreciated constellations in the sky. It can be found close to Scorpius and Sagittarius and despite being overlooked as a zodiacal sign, the Sun spends as many as 18 days a year within its boundaries.
The constellation represents Asclepius, the medicine man of the gods and is usually illustrated holding a rod with a snake wrapped around it. According to Greek mythology, Asclepius learned the secret of resurrection by watching a serpent revive its mate with some magical herbs. Hades, Greek god of the underworld complained to Zeus that this was too much power for mankind to have. Zeus agreed, striking him down with a lighting bolt and placing him in the sky to honour his life and service.
To this day, many medical companies use the “Rod of Asclepius” as their logo, including the World Health Organisation.
Canis Major and Canis Minor
The large and small hunting dogs are usually considered to be the faithful companions of Orion, aiding him in slaying Taurus, the bull. However, both these constellations have their own stories. Canis Major is thought to be Laelops, a great dog that could run down and capture anything it chased. It was gifted to Europa by Zeus after his seduction of her in Crete, along with a magical javelin and a bodyguard fashioned from bronze.
Canis Minor is thought to be the Teumessian Fox, another mythological creature that could never be caught. For reasons unknown the giant man-eating fox was set upon Thebes and created havoc amongst the people. Laelops was brought in to capture the menace but since their magical powers cancelled each other out, the two protagonists engaged in an endless pursuit before Zeus finally turned them both to stone and placed them in the sky.
Aquila represents the faithful eagle that served Zeus, carrying his lightning bolts and delivering him the souls of heroes. It has been suggested that at some Roman emperors’ funerals, an eagle was lightly fastened to the top of the pyre so that once the bird’s feathers were singed by the flames, it would break free and take to the skies, carrying with it the emperor’s soul.
The story of Aquila is also coupled with Hercules and the unfortunate events surrounding the titan, Prometheus. Some sources suggest the human race was sculpted out of clay by Prometheus and the titan was intent on improving the lives of his creation.
In one story, he stole fire from the gods and gifted it to mankind. Zeus saw this as a great betrayal and punished not only Prometheus, but all of mankind. He fashioned Pandora, the first woman, and sent her to Earth with a box containing misery and evil that was soon opened by people, its contents spreading great pestilence to the world. This is the origin of the fabled notion of not opening Pandora’s Box for fear of the repercussions!
The immortal Prometheus was chained to a rock and Zeus sent Aquila, his faithful eagle, to peck at his liver every day. Being immortal, Prometheus’s liver would regenerate each night, only to befall the same fate the next day. Prometheus was doomed to suffer this anguish for eternity but was eventually rescued by Hercules, who killed Aquila with one of his poisoned arrows.
Learn more about our night sky
The beauty of constellation mythology and cultural starlore is that we have no way of knowing exactly which stories are true. In fact, the truth is irrelevant. The stars became the ultimate tapestry for cultures to record their ideals and their beliefs, and the sheer diversity of stories is a treasure trove for any budding guide to regale to their guests. Be it African, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Aztec, Aboriginal or the Hopi from North America, there is a tale that will resonate with every guest.
Bushwise now includes a specialist astronomy course, based on the new Advanced Astronomy qualification offered by FGASA, with the intention of arming its students with a plethora of information about the night sky and the cultural sagas depicted within.
We hope this unique knowledge will not only make our guides unique within the industry, but also arm them with the ability to wow their guests – inspiring them to unleash the power of their imagination, and share this new-found knowledge with friends and loved ones across the globe.
Expand your knowledge of the night sky and astronomy while you train to become a field guide. Apply today and start your career journey with Bushwise.