Decoding the myths and legends from our ancestors
Author: Haritina Mogosanu. Reproduced from RASNZ Yearbook 2012, p29.
What happens when the traditions defining our cultures lose their meaning as they are removed from the context that created them? What if culture is really just a set of instructions assembled by our ancestors to make sure that we survive? Are not survival of the individual in order to ensure the survival of the species the first two laws of life?
When in Rome do as the Romans do. We follow traditions and rules: we cook in a certain way, we marry, give birth and bring up our kids following our own traditions. These are what define us as human and what makes us different while other things such as love, respect and loyalty remain constant no matter where we go.
The star lore was written a long time ago when humankind was still in the cradle. Stories our ancestors were telling 2,000 years ago about the stars were a naive attempt to explain the celestial phenomena.
Once the cyclicality of the sky was observed, people considered the constellations to be useful markers for the most important moments of their lives - harvest or the middle of the cold season for example. But for each culture, the seasons in which the same constellations appeared in the sky were different, because their geographical location was different. The activities they were performing in those conditions were also different. That is why we have one sky yet there is great diversity of our star lore.
For example, the star lore of the New Zealand Maori reflected their unique astronavigation techniques in the Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, the star lore of ancient Romanians, the Dacian people, was entirely agricultural. Both cultures had advanced astronomical knowledge yet the stories they told about the same stars were very different.
Most of the stories surrounding particular constellations encode instructions essential for the survival of a particular cultural group. Some cultures had to rely on stars more than others. Two examples are the Polynesians, navigators throughout Pacific and the Arabs, navigators (at night) through the Sahara Desert. That is why their star lore is so rich and the astronomical knowledge is, each in its own way, very advanced. All cultures produced stories about the stars and relied on the stars to measure time.
This is the case of the peoples of the Pacific who navigated the vast. empty ocean by the stars, migration of birds and the patterns of the waves.
In order to remember the navigational stars to perfection, the Polynesians invented stories, chants and songs appropriate to their oral traditions. Today .most of these stories handed down from generation to generation, labelled as cultural information, have lost their original meaning. The people of the Pacific don't have to navigate anymore from island to island using the stars. They can simply take the plane or use Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) like the rest of us do.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the celebration of Halloween was a reminder of the dead souls. Autumn (when Halloween takes place) is the time of the year when nature looked like it was dying. It is possible that Halloween was actually a reminder to prepare for the cold season. The celebration was associated with the star cluster Pleiades in the autumn sky.
The same star cluster is used to mark the start of Maori New Year celebrations in New Zealand. Matariki (Maori New Year) is the time of the year when tradition says to remember those who are gone. This occurs around the Winter Solstice of the Southern Hemisphere, during the longest nights and shortest days and when nature is at its minimum activity.
It is possible that by understanding why these sky legends were so important in the ancient times, we will be able to safeguard their original meaning. By doing that we could also safeguard our cultural heritage. Furthermore, what we call culture today may well be a mixture of instructions developed by our ancestors in order to ensure our survival in specific geographical and climatic conditions.
The example of Christmas being initially the celebration of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is a classical one. Celebration of the Winter Solstice for the ancient Europeans, gave them the indication they were half way through the cold season. Knowing when Winter would finish was vital for planning the food provisions. They marked that by celebrations that included decorating coniferous trees with ornaments that would remind them of summertime flowers. The Winter Solstice celebration was so culturally important that it was also adopted by the Christians.
Through the centuries, with the development of written calendars, the event has largely lost its initial meaning and it became instead a major religious marker. Today, at the Antipodes, Christmas is celebrated on the beach, often with a barbecue, because it occurs in the middle of the summer. People still decorate Christmas trees that are incongruous amongst the beauty of the native trees flowering at that time.
By studying the ancient lore and legends of our sky according to the geographical conditions in which they originated, we may be able to understand the reasons why they were created, and why that particular information was considered so important to our distant ancestors that it was recorded in the stars. Perhaps we could discover that some of these legends contained vital information about how our ancestors survived - or they could simply give us more insights into their way of life.