What is Astronomy, really? Well, technically speaking it is the branch of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe as a whole. However, the subject of thought around such objects and space is so much more than just a science. It is a beautiful reminder of life and death, size and scale, meaning, predictability and possibility; a present look into the past.
Religiously, spiritually or scientifically, we all look up at the stars at one point or another and feel wonder. I believe that star gazing is one of the most humbling and fulfilling activities one can engage in, even if just for five minutes. A glance up and in to the mystery of the night sky can remove one’s attention from hindering engagements in everyday life and steal a moment in time. After all, time is relative.
Whether you look to the night sky for its immediately simple beauty or you study the individual stars and planets’ relative movements among constellations for great tales of Greek Gods, or anything in between, your intentions are the same. The night sky maps not only deep space and its history, but stories of legends, behavioural beliefs and continually progressing physics. Each area of interest can provide unending attention and knowledge. I have always been fascinated by the Milky Way’s streak across the entire night sky from one horizon to the other.
Physically, the Milky Way galaxy retains its spiral, disk-like shape along with most other galaxies in the universe. Its constant spin means the centre of the disk is dense with stars and solar systems while the outer edges are far less dense. As Earth resides closer to the outer, cooler edge of the galaxy, but within the same linear plane, we look directly into the Milky Way and so see its entirety as a single band of celestial mass. The hundreds of billions of stars it contains, billions of lightyears away, gives it the milky glow from where it gets its name.
Without considering the amazing scientific nature of this great collection of bodies around our tiny Earth, many cultures from around the world have developed their own significance for the milky band across the night sky. I particularly enjoy African tales of the Milky Way; of which their are many. Many traditional cultures share one important idea regarding the Milky Way, one relating it to the afterlife in some way. The streak which stretches over our heads has been referred to as God’s backbone, as well as the spine of the sky which holds all of the other constellations in place. Another tale places the glow there after a “fire of life” was extinguished with a grass mat, kicking up grey ash and orange ambers into the dark abyss as a reminder.
But the explanation for its concentrated band across the sky which was most beautifully explained to me once, is as follows: Just as hippos walk the same track away from and back to water in the dark of night causing permanent and prominent pathways through the bush, so too do our ancestors across the heavens. The footpath remains because of the great presence of our ancestors and the frequency at which they travel across the sky, between the heavens, to watch over us. I’ve heard the Shangaan term “xirimele” used for the Milky Way, which originates from the route verb, “plough”. This term explains an area with high spirituality, or fertility as a farmer would seek at the start of a season. This footpath, dense with our ancestors’ presence, is the richest soil of the sky and sits above us often unnoticed, but never dull.