Constellations from other perspectives

The night sky is one of the few things that every pain and culture has in common. Every culture in the world has watched the stars at some point. Astronomy has helped cultures develop, the Vikings and Polynesians used stars to help navigate the oceans. Astronomy helped with the development of the calendar, for instance the mound in Newgrange in Ireland that was used to measure the day of the winter solstice through a small opening where light shines through. As cultures learned about the sky, perhaps they developed stories about the stars, their own constellations.

However, the constellations we learn about these days are Eurocentric. This is because, in the northern hemisphere, the constellations were described by early Greek and Persian astronomers and became part of the lexicon of modern astronomy; especially when the International Astronomical Union used these constellations as a basis to map the sky.

The modern view of the constellations, I.e. Scorpio, Orion, etc. all came from Greek astronomers but other cultures defined their own constellations based on their society's experiences. In particular, First Nation groups in both North and South America developed their own view of the cosmos and their own constellations. For instance, the Mi'kmaq nation of eastern Canada have their own constellations. Coincidentally, in the location of the Big Dipper, the Mi'kmaq define a bear constellation, I.e. where the constellation Ursa Major is found (Great Bear). Based on the movements of this constellation throughout the year, the Mi'kmaq created a myth about the bear to describe the changes of the seasons. I paraphrase the story here from the following sources ( Clark, E. Indian Legends of Canada, 1960 and Dempsey, F. 2008, JRASC, 102, 59).

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The Great Bear and the Seven Hunters

In the spring of every year, the great bear (the four stars of the big dipper) wakes from her hibernation in her and den and she leaves in search of food. While the bear is searching, she is spotted by one of the hunters, chickadee. But chickadee is too small to hunt the bear on his own, so he summoned his fellow hunters for help. Chickadee and his six companions birds chase after the bear, with robin in the lead followed by chickadee, moose bird, pigeon, blue jay, and two owls. (The closest three are the handle of the Big Dipper)

The seven hunters chase the bear across the sky throughout the summer and into the autumn. But, by then the most distant hunters lose the trail of the bear and fall off the chase. First the two owls lose the trail and soon after blue jay and pigeon give up the chase. The remaining three keep trying and by mid-autumn catch up to the bear.

As the three hunters close in on the great bear, she stands on her hind legs to defend herself. Robin aims at shoots the bear with an arrow, but being so close he is covered in splattered blood. He flies into a nearby maple tree to shake the blood off of his feathers. The blood spills onto the trees making the leaves red.

Chickadee eventually catches up to robin and the two build a fire and begin to cook some the bear meat. When the meat is ready the moose bird joins the duo. But moose bird is clever, he knew the others managed to kill bear and it would take time to prepare the meat. If moose bird took his time then he could arrive when the meat is cooked and would not need to do any work. That is why a moose bird shows up at the end of any hunt. Even though moose bird did not help robin and chickadee still shared their food.

Throughout the winter the skeleton of the bear lies on its back, but the its spirit enters another bear waiting for spring when the bear rises again and the hunt begins anew.

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This story hints at the richness of astronomical lore in these other societies. From the story, one can envision how by watching the constellation one could develop a calendar and time the passing seasons. It also hints at similarities with European astronomy in that both groups have a bear constellation, however it is unlikely that any First Nation culture from Canada or Northern US would define a constellation as a scorpion, they would not have experience with scorpions.

As astronomers we seek facts and knowledge about the universe, but we tend to forget (conveniently) that our knowledge is seeded in the Greek tradition and then the western tradition of facts and numbers. There is still much knowledge we can learn by exploring the sky lore of other cultures and by discussing these other traditions encourage other ways to engage with astronomy.

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