AFRICAN STAR TALES
Since the dawn of mankind, the human race has recorded its stories, myths and legends in the tapestry of their starlit night sky. Regardless of geographical location and culture, the celestial realm has long been the ultimate storyboard upon which the thoughts, beliefs and experiences of mankind has been logged. Their observations not only were not purely aesthetic in nature however, and it did not take the early settlers long to begin to understand the world by watching the passing of the stars night after night.
Man quickly began to notice the cyclical nature of the heavens and with that came the concept of time. Of course, modern day time keeping was a long way off, but by recognising the positions of various celestial phenomena, it was soon apparent that recurring weather conditions and temperatures could be predicted with a reasonable amount of accuracy. This knowledge could then be used to anticipate vital information on animal movements based on rainfall and fruiting times of the local flora. By the age of the pastoralists, this knowledge would prove invaluable for activities such as ploughing, sowing and reaping.
These early observations paved the way to modern society and it is fascinating to realise just how much of today’s world is linked to our ancestors’ observations of the darkness. Did you know that the days of the week are all named after celestial objects, or that our 12 month calendar is based on the phases of the Moon?? Perhaps this is why so many people are drawn to the stars and why just staring up on a dark night is such a therapeutic and powerfully emotive experience.
Let us now delve back into history and investigate some of these stories:
1. The Milky Way
The ethereal, spiral arms of our galaxy can be seen arcing across the sky, particularly during the winter months when it passes almost directly overhead. Even from suburban areas, the glow of countless stars is evident, but imagine what the sky must have looked like before the advent of electricity and industry and the pollution that they now cause!
The early Bushman told that this celestial beacon was created when a young girl threw the ashes of her campfire high into the sky to guide her father home from his hunting trip. To some tribes, the diffuse white streak represented the bellies of a huge heard of celestial springbok, while to others it traced a great footpath upon which spirts of our ancestors still tread. In Zulu culture, the opalescent band was created by the hooves of the gods’ great herd of cattle as they marched to and from their feeding grounds, slowly wearing through the boundary between the perpetually lit celestial realm and the Earth below.
2. The Moon
According to the Bushmen, the Moon is actually the sandal of a trickster god named !Kaggen that was once frozen in a local waterhole before being tossed into the sky to light up the night. However, the Sun was extremely unhappy about sharing the sky with another luminous object and, to this day, chases it through the night, cutting strips from the Moon until it is almost extinguished. At the last moment, the Moon begs for forgiveness and Sun relents its attack, allowing the Moon to recover until it becomes full again. At this point, the Sun recommences its onslaught once more.
Due to the repetitive phases of the Moon and its seemingly regular regeneration, many African folklore found it synonymous with reincarnation and recovery. This belief was honoured by the Bushmen during their hunting trips, trusting that if one looked at the Moon after shooting their quarry with a poison arrow, it would allow the prey to recover and escape.
The Moon’s repetitive phases have also been used for millennia to mark the passage of time and artifacts discovered in Africa seem to back this up. It takes approximately 29 days for the Moon to go through a full cycle and return to the same phase, and artifacts have been discovered in Africa that seem to recognise this. The ‘Ishango Bone’, found in the former Belgian Congo, is a baboon fibula decorated with various etchings that indicate its use as an ancient lunar calendar. It has been dated at over 35,000 years old!
3. The Southern Cross
The Southern Cross, or Crux, is the smallest of the recognised 88 constellations, but is probably the most famous in the southern sky. Not only does it point towards south, an invaluable navigation tool, but there are also many recognised animal associations.
The most common belief is that the 4 brightest stars of Crux are a herd, or ‘journey’, of female giraffe and the 2 Pointer Stars (Alpha and Beta Centauri) represent a pair of giraffe bulls in hot pursuit.
Another version of the story sees the cross symbolising the head of a giant giraffe (due to the diamond shape) and the Pointers as its neck. Some Bushmen tribes believed that the stars of the cross are a pride of lionesses, along with their young cub (Epsilon Crucis), with the Pointers embodying their 2 pride males following close behind as they prowl towards the horizon.
Orion as a constellation does not have any specific African mythology, but aspects of the constellation are well documented. The famous Belt of Orion has been seen by many cultures as various animals including both tortoises and warthogs. Perhaps the best story identifies them as 3 zebras. Mintaka, the first belt-star to rise was seen as the stallion, with Alnilam and Alnitak, his 2 mares following behind.
One version of Bushman starlore tells the story of the Great god of East who set out hunting and climbed up to the Large Magellanic Cloud where he aimed his bow at the 3 zebras of Orion’s belt. According to beliefs at the time, zebra were restricted to the heavens and were not found in Earth. The god missed however, his arrow falling short (symbolised by Orion’s ‘sword’ and the Great Orion Nebula), where it could not be retrieved due to the presence of a great lion represented by the giant red star, Betelgeuse. To honour the zebras’ escape, the god of the East sent them to Earth to live out their lives in peace. It is worth noting that even today, Zebras are not really hunted for food on account of the tough meat and excessively gamey taste.
5. The Magellanic Clouds
Looking directly south on a clear night, 2 imperfections stand out against the clarity of the darkness. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are sister galaxies of the Milky Way, locked in a gravitational war with us, and each other. They are named after the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who documented the ever-present clouds during his circumnavigation of the globe in early 1500’s.
However, these 2 smudges in the sky have been known since ancient times and were considered by early settlers to be indicators of summer and wet weather when visible at night. The Large Magellanic Cloud was often portrayed as the shield of ‘Naka’, the Horn Star (Canopus, the 2nd brightest star in the sky), as it slowly emerged from the eastern horizon, dragging in the start of the new year.
The bushmen saw the clouds as a pair of celestial steenbok, perhaps due to their diffuse nature rendering them hard to see under less than perfect conditions, in the same way that the diminutive steenbok prefers to remain hidden. Others saw the testicles of a great lion! As strange as this may sound, one must remember that the bushmen had huge respect for the apex predator with whom they shared the land, and there are multiple of accounts of celestial lions in their history.
These examples signify just a tiny percentage of ancient beliefs and stories associated with the heavens, despite many records being lost through the years, and much of it bastardised by centuries of oral tradition. Regardless of the specifics, it is plain to see that since mankind’s earliest origins, we have looked to the stars for guidance and a way to record our history.
This history is emblazoned in our genetics and it is no surprise that we still gaze in awe at the glistening, inky expanse above, night after night after night. Space may or may not be infinite, but it contains the hopes and dreams of every man, woman and child that has ever trodden the earth below, and will continue to be the ultimate blackboard upon which to etch our memories.