In the 21st century, it is safe to say that when most people look at the stars, they think of science. Perhaps they are reminded of lessons that they learned in school about what causes the motion of celestial objects, or perhaps they are looking for something they heard about in the news. What we often forget; however, is that before we were able to scientifically explain astronomy, the stars were more of a cultural phenomenon than a scientific one.
Before television, electricity, the printing press, or even a written language, parents of ancient times had the same monumental task as parents today of trying to put their children to bed every night. Without any electronic entertainment systems, books to read bedtime stories from, or even homework to give just to kill some time, parents had to be very resourceful in the evening hours until their children fell asleep. Fortunately for them, however, they had a constantly changing picture book in the night sky from which they could create an endless number of bedtime stories.
The constellations came to be from the ancients playing a giant game of connect the dots. Looking out in the night sky they might see a group of stars that they think might be a man holding a club (Orion the hunter). From that image they could then tell many stories about how Orion was so great of a hunter to the point where he is honored by being among the stars. The seasons and the way the night sky changed over the course of the year would also play into the stories. While today, we know the sky changes because of the Earth’s changing position relative to the Sun, our ancestors would make the image leaving the sky at certain points in the year a part of the story. In the case of Orion, they noticed that another constellation that looked to them like a giant scorpion (Scorpio) took Orion’s place in the sky in the summer time as if it were chasing Orion out of the sky. As a result, they came up with a myth that Orion was killed by the Scorpion in an epic battle and as a result can never share the same sky with it. The Lakota, however, saw Orion not as a man, but as a hand. Also because of the lack of scorpions in South Dakota, they would not see a giant scorpion in the sky. The point being, before the advent of written language and certain myths becoming the dominant stories of the constellations, what someone saw in the stars when they looked depended entirely on their culture and life experiences.
At camp a few weeks ago, we decided to travel back in time and give a group of 4th graders a blank shot of the night sky with no stars or constellations labeled and have them come up with their own constellations and myths. I was able to learn about many constellations that I had never seen or heard of before, such as the constellation of the ice cream cone being chased through the night sky by a shark, the constellation of the titanic hitting the iceberg, and of course the constellation that spelled out one of the camper’s names in perfect cursive because he was so awesome that the Gods chose to put his name in the stars. It was an amazing exercise not only because it allowed the campers to show each other and their teachers their different cultural backgrounds, but I was also amazed by how detailed their stories were (one group who saw a flower did a full theatrical reenactment of the lifecycle of a plant).
So next time the power goes out in your house at night, do not be afraid even if you do not know the constellations! Simply look up at the sky and tell your children what you see and who knows? Maybe years from now our descendants will tell epic stories of how the ancients used to feed their sharks ice cream.