By Heather Thomas
Whilst others are transfixed by the latest TV drama, we on Maiden, are lucky enough to have a front row seat to one of nature’s most beautiful shows. I myself could spend hours sat still beneath the stars, spotting satellites, planets and making wishes on shooting stars.
On this particular leg on Maiden, we have made it our mission to learn more about the night sky. I happened to be browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookstore in Annapolis (One of our many stops on the East Coast of the US) and came across ‘The Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky’ printed in 1992. I knew immediately I had to buy it. With our trusty book in hand, we have been choosing a constellation each evening- identifying it, if conditions allow, and then reading about the myths and legends attached to it. Humans have been fascinated by the twinkling illuminations in the sky from the early days of humanity. Each ancient civilisation has a different stories and interpretations, most heavily influenced by religion.. Often shrouded in drama that puts GoT to shame, Gods and Goddesses usually are centre stage in the tales surrounding the sparkling patterns that we are so captivated with above.
One of the best known constellations in the Northern Hemisphere is Ursa Major- The Great Bear, whose seven brightest stars form the big dipper. Easily spotted, this is the one we started with. In Greek legend, Callisto, a Maiden desired by the god Zeus, was turned into a bear by Zeus’s jealous wife Hera. Zeus placed the bear in the sky alongside her son Arcas (Ursa Minor aka The Little Bear) Interestingly enough some North American tribes also saw a bear in this collection of stars. The 3 stars that made up the elongated tail in Greek legend, they saw as hunters pursuing the bear. The Housatonic’s tribe said that the chase lasted from spring to Autumn, when the hunters arrows pierced the bear and the blood fell to earth, causing the leaves to change colour and fall.
Lots of constellations have stories relating to the seasons- The Hydades, a V- shaped group of stars in Taurus, are known as the ‘rainy stars’ as their rising coincided with the beginning to the rainy season. Taurus (the bull) also has significance on New Years Eve in Scotland where they say that the bull rises in the twilight and crosses the sky.
One particularly beautiful cluster of stars is The Pleiades, known to many as the seven sisters. The ancient Greeks say that the sisters begged for the help of Zeus after being relentlessly pursued by Orion. Zeus first turned them into pigeons and then into stars.
Cassiopeia has very diverse interpretations. In Greek she is a Queen that was cast to the sky for her boastfulness. In China they were known as Wang Liang- a famous charioteer and in Welsh fokelore that saw the group of stars as Llys Don-the home of the King of the fairies.
I love the immense and varied imagination that these myths show, some of them passed on down the generations. You can almost imagine these stories being told round the light of the fire, underneath a blanket of stars to a group of mesmerised children. Perhaps on the next leg we will make our own stories inspired by the lights we see in the dark, we will keep you posted!