The Milky Way fairytale
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The CONSTELLATION looked like a small cluster of cotton wool through the telescope. “Relax your eyes,” said astronomer Vincent Nettman. I didn’t know how to relax my eyes, I strained a bit more, clouds were coming, obscuring even the brightest object in the sky, the waning moon, and I joined my friends inside instead.
I was at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind, enjoying a talk on astronomy, a meal and a look at the summer stars in November. Clouds scudded across the sky. The wind blew on the tumulus deck, and it was surprisingly cold for a summer that’s been breathlessly hot.
I’d begun the journey through fiction. Having previously had no interest at all in the stars and a kind of a tin eye when I did turn my gaze upward, unable to distinguish anything beyond the obvious, here I was enraptured. I’d written a novella in which a character gazed at the heavens and knew what was, I had to fill in the blanks.
A friend proudly showed me his Android smartphone: he pointed it towards a winter Joburg sky and his Google sky app showed which stars were which, which constellations dotted the sky. It was like a revelation, like light shining through a dark corridor. Weeks later a group of us went into the country and again pointed his phone at the skies. Planets with exotic monikers assumed names, and we recognised the Scorpion’s tale curling into the sky. We pointed the phone towards the ground, and cleverly, the app showed us the sun on the opposite side of the earth, where yes, it was shining on the earth, making the fact that I was living on a globe as clear as day. We were all entranced – adults and children among us.
The stars looked close, almost close enough to pluck, yet they were unknowable, as mysterious as lovers yet unmet.
In search of more, I went to a talk at the planetarium. Constellations came into focus as the lights were dimmed – and Wits astronomer Claire Flanagan explained some of the myths surrounding the constellations.
Humans have always had a need to explain the unexplainable. A curl of stars became known as the Scorpio constellation, there were lovers separated by time. Cancer was created, according to Greek legend, because the figure of a giant crab was placed in the night-time sky by the goddess Hera. And the Milky Way, itself is a delightful name, which conjures up all sorts of fantasies.
I went searching out the mythologies: the Khoisan say that long ago there were no stars and the night was dark: a lonely girl threw the embers from a fire into the sky and created the Milky Way, with some calling it the “Star Road”. The Cherokees have an entirely different myth: a dog stole oatmeal, and while running spilled cornmeal along the way, thus the Milky Way is called “The Way the Dog Ran Away”. To the Xhosa the Milky Way seemed like the raised bristles of a dog. The Navajo say the Milky Way was created by a naughty god Coyote. The Hungarians call it “The Road of the Warriors” as an ancestor of the Hungarians is said to ride down the Milky Way when threatened. The Egyptians thought it a pool of milk. Each group of people has a set of myths relating to the stars and constellations and why they are placed thus in our night skies. Each becomes more fanciful, each reads like a fabulist’s fairytale at times
One such comes from the Namaquas who say that the sun was once a man. When he raised his arms he created day, sunlight shone from his armpits. But when he grew old and slept the people grew cold, and so children threw him into the sky where he has been ever since, remaining warm.
Friends took me to Maropeng for a birthday present where Nettman showed photos of beautiful constellations which we’ll never see and will never visit in our lifetimes. Consider these fun facts, to reach the moon, if we were to drive there would take four months. Try driving to Jupiter, in our own galaxy, that will take 750 000 years. Perspective shrinks, expands and finally becomes meaningless hearing of these distances.
Looking through telescopes I saw Jupiter’s four large moons circling that planet: they made real, till you see something with your own eyes you’re forced to accept on faith. The greyish pock-marks of the moon photographed brilliantly by using an ordinary cellphone. And then I tried looking at 47 Tucanae again. This was the clump of cotton-woolly looking ball I’d peered at earlier, a bright globular cluster.
Relax your eyes, I kept remembering and I blinked and slowly it swam into focus, pinpricks of planets, hundreds and thousands of them clustered in that constellation. It was so far away it was beyond comprehension – and because of that, in a sense, also dangerously, excitingly near. For the first time I began to grasp something of the nearness, of distance, of the fact that I was anchored here by gravity, and the time I live and the limits of technology, and yet, in a way not. You accept your place in the universe, peering up trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, and yet there’s a strange sense of peace associated with that feeling.