‘Tis the season to ponder celestial bodies! With Christmas on its way, many of us are busy in the haze of gift-buying, ice-dodging, and trying to avoid the unceasing bombardment of our ear canals by Mariah Carey. However, Christmas is about more than presents and parties. It’s a time to remember the story of the nativity — and as stargazers, there’s one part of the story that’s particularly interesting to us at Sent Into Space: the three wise men, bearing gifts for the newborn, following a mysterious Star of Bethlehem.
Stars play an important part in tales and myths throughout history. You’ve probably heard of Orion’s belt before (the row of three bright stars that lie at the heart of constellation Orion), but did you know that this asterism* has its roots in Greek Mythology, and a fictionalised hunky hunter to rule all hunky hunters? Even their celestial sobriquets point to a kind of mysticism - why the term ‘heavenly body’? What has brought us to imbue them with notions of fate, and clairvoyance?
The answers to this lie in ‘starlore’, folklore with a focus on — you guessed it — the stars. In this article, we’ll be delving into the kinds of stories we have written about the stars and constellations throughout history, from Greek legends, to Ancient Chinese tales, from the birth of Jesus Christ, to the idea that the Milky Way was created by an indignant teen discarding some root vegetables.
What did the Greeks think about the stars?
Though the Ancient Greeks were around over a thousand years ago, their musings, discoveries, and ideologies have played a significant role in laying the foundations for Western civilization. To this day, talk of star signs and astrology are a staple of pop culture. Each of the twelve star signs are ascribed a name from Greek mythology – Gemini (representing the goddess of wisdom), Taurus, (goddess of beauty), and Cancer (associated with Artemis, the Moon goddess), to name a few. They all have a story to share based upon Greek legend.
Many assume that the concept of the zodiac is a product of pseudoscience or a mere old wives tale, but the zodiac is actually a belt-shaped region in the sky encompassing the ecliptic plane (the orbital region covering the Earth’s journey around the Sun). This region is separated into 12, 30° sections. The signs of the zodiac, from Aries through to Pisces, correspond to these celestial longitudes, or in layman’s terms, slithers of the sky. From bestiality, to shape-shifting, human-sheep hybrids, to prisoners-of-war turned fish-transformers, Greek myths about the stars are by no means shy of zany orchestration.
Orion’s Belt in Ancient Greek Mythology
One particular constellation that can be seen the world over is Orion, also known as The Hunter. The Aussies sometimes refer to Orion as ‘The Saucepan’, whilst Latin American countries have ascribed the phrase ‘Las Tres Marías’, or The Three Marys, to the asterism within the constellation.
According to the Ancient Greek myth, Orion was the handsomest of all men, son of Poseidon the sea god and Euryale, an immortal gorgon with living snakes for hair. There are a few variations of this myth. A popular version of Orion’s origin story centres on his pining for Pleiades, the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione. In an effort to win their love, he began to pursue the sisters, only to be foiled by Zeus and banished to the skies above for all eternity.
Constellation Orion contains two of the ten brightest stars in the sky, Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), as well as numerous nebulae, including The Horse Head Nebula.
Ursa Major & Ursa Minor (The Big Dipper & The Little Dipper)
Another notable Greek myth concerning a major constellation is the story about Ursa Major, The Big Dipper. Ursa Major is Latin for ‘greater bear’ or ‘she bear’. As the myth goes, the wedded Zeus fell in love with a girl called Callisto. After Zeus’ wife caught ear of this she turned Callisto into a bear. Whilst Callisto was in animal form, she found her son, Arcas, but naturally, he did not recognise his mother and attempted to attack her. Zeus intervened and turned Arcas into a bear too. Zeus sent Arcas (Ursa Minor, The Little Dipper) and Castillo into the sky, where they’ve remained ever since.
Though it is common knowledge that the Ancient Greeks played a significant role in the history of astronomy, many academics and historians would argue that the Greeks were heavily inspired by Babylonia during the Seleucid era (312–64 BCE). Therefore, we might best term this cornucopia of literary delights as Greco-Babylonian.
References to the Stars in the Bible
At this time of year, Christians across the globe will come together to reflect on Christ’s origin story as written in the Bible, of which The Star of Bethlehem, or the Christmas Star, practically secured the status of supporting protagonist. According to the Gospel of Matthew, a bright star appeared in the sky on the day Jesus was born. This was the star that the three wise men, or biblical magi, used to guide them to Jesus’ crib.
This story has become such a big part of our culture, that even non-religious primary schools will put on a nativity at Christmas time in the UK and across the pond, as well as in Belgium where it is told in theatres using puppets. But what star was it?
The Star of Bethlehem - A conjunction of Jupiter, Regulus & Venus?
Some astronomers have toyed with the idea that the bright star that appeared was a real occurrence comparable to something like the Great Conjunction — a rare phenomenon involving the planets Jupiter and Saturn moving so close to each other (in an angular sense, not in a longitudinal one) as to appear merged. Coincidentally, last year, on Dec 1st 2021, another Great Conjunction occurred just in time for the anniversary of Jesus’ birth (read into this what you will).
South African Celestial Stories
A legend hailing from the Kalanga people (a southern Bantu ethnic group inhabiting northeastern Botswana, Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland, and Limpopo Province in South Africa) held that the stars were actually the eyes of the dead and those who didn’t quite make it to live here on Earth. There are many other celestial stories that have come from this region of the world.
The Milky Way
A rather unique myth belonging to South African tradition speaks of the origin of the Milky Way. According to this tale, a Mother was busy cooking vegetables for herself and her daughter. The daughter became enraged over her Mother’s insistence that she refrain from helping herself to the vegetables. In a fit of rage, the daughter grabbed the root veg from out of the pot and threw it into the skies. The red and white glowing of the stars thus represents the vegetables the girl flung into the night sky.
Another tale hailing from South Africa pertains to The Southern Cross, or Crux, the smallest constellation that we can see in the sky. It is probably the most well recognised constellation in the southern sky amidst many other animal-shaped constellations. One interpretation of Crux within South African tradition is that four of its brightest stars represent a herd of female giraffes. The herd are flanked by two other stars to signify a pair of giraffe bulls in pursuit of the female herd. Other versions compare the constellation to a lion advancing upon a pride of lionesses.
Starstruck Tales from Ancient China
Unlike the Greeks, who had carved up the night sky into 48 constellations, the Ancient Chinese recognised 28 constellations divided into five areas. Many of these constellations were given names inspired by great warriors who had distinguished themselves in battle. They were also named after animals, certain days in the calendar, as well as other tales within Ancient Chinese folklore.
One constellation, the northern constellation of Tzu-Wei, was inspired by Po I-k’ao, one of Wen Wang’s sons. Wen Wang was a powerful leader during the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled Ancient China from 1045 BC to 256 BC. He was seen as a threat to the dynasty and was eventually taken prisoner by the dictator Chou. His son, Po I-k’a, did everything within his power to free his father: he tried getting on Chou’s good side by offering gifts (ten concubines, seven chariots, a monkey, and a magic carpet that would instantaneously clear the mind of anyone who sat on it), all to no avail.
Then, one of Chou’s mistresses tried to seduce Po I-k’a. Following the rejection of her advances, she set about slandering his name. Po I-k’a told the King of his mistress’ deceitful ways but the King would not listen. Po I-k’a struck the King’s mistress and was sentenced to be crucified. The tale took an even more horrific turn when Po’s father was forced to eat his son, or else he would be executed too. The remains of Po I-k’a were then sent to the heavens, becoming stars forever more.
Sent Into Space and the stars
Whilst we’re certainly not in the business of myth-making, over the years Sent into Space has gathered some incredible stills and videography of the stars, especially the sun.
If you would like to collaborate on a project with us and the stars, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’re always looking forward to another solar excursion! Unlike Icarus, our only downfall is the trajectory of our spacecraft.
*an asterism is a pattern of stars that is not a constellation