Is it a Bird, is it a Plane…
That great gig in the sky. Beautifully it sits there millions of light years away and we stare at it in wonder, wondering perhaps why on earth it’s called the “Milky Way.” Well, wonder no longer! Fittingly for a mystical ball of stars, its history embeds itself in mythology.
The term “Milky Way” is derived from Latin via lactea, which in turn came from galaktikos kyklos of Hellenistic Greek, meaning “milky circle.” Incidentally this is also where we get the now well-known word “galaxy.” As unfortunate as it is, the name has nothing to do with chocolate…believe me, we’re both disappointed! It does however have some legend behind it…
Taken from Greek mythology, the system of stars was the result of milk being spilt by Hera when suckling Heracles. Zeus had the child with a mortal woman and tried to feed Heracles while Hera was sleeping, as the milk would endow the child with godlike qualities. Hera however awoke from her slumber and wasn’t happy to be feeding another woman’s mortal child, so she pushed Heracles away, and the spilt milk formed the Milky Way. You can of course read more about this story, and on the Greek gods and myths (of which there plenty); right now however, I thought it might be nice to run through some myths about the Milky Way from different cultures.
The Maori people of New Zealand believe the Milky Way is the canoe of Tama-rereti, and the Southern Cross was the anchor. Meanwhile, in Armenian mythology it is called the “Straw Thief’s Way,” from a legend about the god Vahagn stealing straw from Assyrian ruler Barsham and spilling some across the heavens while making his escape.
Cherokee folktale tells a similar story of a dog stealing some cornmeal and being chased away, therefore the name translates to “The Way the Dog Ran Away.” Hungarian mythology states that Csaba rides down the Milky Way when the Székely people are threatened. The Khoisan people in southern Africa believe that in the beginning there was darkness, and a lonely girl who wanted to find other people threw fire embers into the night sky.
Other names the Milky Way is known as include ‘Birds Path,’ ‘Road to Santiago,’ ‘Silver River,’ ‘River of Heaven,’ ‘Straw Way’ and ‘Winter Street.’
Now to throw just a little bit of science your way: the Milky Way is 100,000 – 120,000 light years away and it contains 100 – 400 billion stars. At the center is Sagittarius A* which is believed to be a supermassive black hole. The galaxy itself is moving at a velocity of approximately 600 km per second, and the oldest known star is at least 13.6 billion years old, therefore it was formed just after the Big Bang. I feel enlightened now, I hope you do to!
Do you know of any other names for the Milky Way? Do you too often find yourself staring up at them in awe and wonder?