We’re sitting on the ground around a small, slow burning fire.
The embers are dim, golden orange in colour. The night is dark. Lit up around us are the faces of people sitting around the fire, huddling close for warmth. There is a soft hum of chatters and clicks. People are smiling. Facial lines and wrinkles are amplified in the shadows cast by the glow of the fire. Above… beyond the fire, beyond us people, and our conversation is an enormous sky, alive with a myriad of stars and planets.
The sound of footsteps behind us draws every person’s words to silence. The Elder is approaching. The circle opens and he is humbly welcomed into our group…revered, silent.
And then he starts to speak.
He says, “The Sky above us is blue rock, it rests on the Earth”.
Each one of us is now listening closely.
He carries on, “The Sky is where the Gods and Spirits of the dead live… the Sky is not to blame for this drought, for the death of two of our hunters, for our problems. The Sun is to blame for no water, for the thirst and hunger we feel today. But it is not the first time our tribe has had difficulty like this… I see the smiles and hope among us. This will pass.” Our anxious feelings are allayed.
He goes silent. The sound of the bush takes over as a hyena whoops in the distance. After a moment a jackal cries out and an elephant calf trumpets in frustration… each person around the fire, know the calf is being weaned and is yearning to drink milk from its mother.
The Elder speaks again, this time his smile widens across his cheeks to reveal a myriad of wrinkles. His face uncovers a life in the African bush. From rain and abundance to drought and suffering, we can see it in his face.
He jauntily says, “Some Stars are animals like porcupines; they have eyes, teeth, ears and little spines on their bodies. Other Stars are antlions who gaze at the Earth and drop down to catch ants. Tomorrow morning, many of the Stars will fall to the ground and we will see them as insects.”
We look to the enormous sky feeling our imaginations expand. We, ourselves, creating stories of miniature porcupines, hungry antlions and insect stars. Each feeling our own personal sense of wonder at the enormity above us.
A voice from the dark on the other side of the flickering fire says, “But what of the moon, Elder?”
The Elder took a moment to think, “That Moon you see tonight, so thin and pointed on both sides, shows us that this time is dominated by the Man’s spirit. The Moon, when she is full and bright and rounded, will reveal the Woman’s strength and spirit. And when there is a shadow over the Moon, this is the work of the lion who puts his paw over the Moon to darken the night for better hunting.”
The Elder draws our attention to three bright stars sitting close to one another in the sky in a perfect line, “These three are zebras… a stallion in the middle and his two mares on either side.”
“Tomorrow morning,” he said, “before the light strikes the earth, you will see the brightest star in the sky. This is the ‘Old Star’ who guides the sun up and across the sky.”
Our creative imaginations take us to places of myth, faith, belief, miracles and the magical, revealing something primal within. For millennia human beings have created our own stories about the world, the sky, the universe and life itself.
We lie back, supported by the earth beneath the sandy soil, our splayed feet warmed by the dying embers. The sounds of the bush take over once again…
The beliefs in the story above are all derived from a single tribe in the Kalahari called Nyae Nyae !Kung Bushmen, studied by Lorna J. Marshall. The ‘three stars’ in a line are more commonly known as Orion’s Belt and the ‘Old Star’ is the planet Venus. Storytelling was once the repository of the world’s knowledge, before script and written language. In it we can find something deeply primal, deeply human…