The Galaxy


Voie Lactée, soeur lumineuse

des blanches rivières de Canaan,

et des corps blancs de nos amoureuses,

nageurs morts suivrons nous d'ahan

ton cours vers d'autres nébuleuses.



La Chanson du Mal-Aimé


MEN's SPIRITS were thought to dwell in the Milky Way between incarnations. This conception has been handed down as an Orphic and Pythagorean tradition [n1 See F. Boll, Aus der Offenbarung Johannes (1914), pp. 32, 72 (the first accepted authority has been Herakleides of Pontos); W. Gundel, RE s.v. Galaxias; A. Bouche-Leclerq, L'Astrologie Grecque (1899), pp. 22f.; F. Cumont, After Life in Roman Paganism (1959), pp. 94. 104. 152f.] fitting into the frame of the migration of the soul. Macrobius, who has provided the broadest report on the matter, has it that souls ascend by way of Capricorn, and then in order to be reborn, descend again through the "Gate of Cancer." [n2 Commentary on the Dream of Scipio 1.12.1-8.]. Macrobius talks of signs; the constellations rising at the solstices in his time (and still in ours) were Gemini and Sagittarius: the "Gate of Cancer" means Gemini. In fact, he states explicitly (l.12.5) that this "Gate" is "where the Zodiac and the Milky Way intersect." Far away, the Mangaians of old (Austral Islands, Polynesia), who kept the precessional clock running instead of switching over to "signs," claim that only at the evening of the solstitial days can spirits enter heaven, the inhabitants of the




northern parts of the island at one solstice, the dwellers in the south at the other [n3 W. W. Gill, Myths and Songs from the South Pacific (1876), pp. 1566ff., 185ff.]. This information, giving precisely fixed dates, is more valuable than general statements to the effect that the Polynesians regarded the Milky Way as "the road of souls as they pass to the spirit world." [n4 E. Best, The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori (1955), p. 45.]. In Polynesian myth, too, souls are not permitted to stay unless they have reached a stage of unstained perfection, which is not likely to occur frequently. Polynesian souls have to return into bodies again, sooner or later [n5 Since so many earlier and recent "reporters at large" fail to inform us of traditions concerning reincarnation, we may mention that according to the Marquesans "all the souls of the dead, after having lived in one or the other place (i.e., Paradise or Hades) for a very long time, returned to animate other bodies" (R. W. Williamson, Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia [1924], vol. I, p. 208), which recalls the wording of the case as we know it from book X of Plato's Republic.].


Two instances of relevant American Indian notions are worth mentioning without discussion. The important thing is that the tradition is there, more or less intact. Among the Sumo in Honduras and Nicaragua their "Mother Scorpion. . . is regarded as dwelling at the end of the Milky Way, where she receives the souls of the dead, and from her, represented as a mother with many breasts, at which children take suck, come the souls of the new­born." [n6 H. B. Alexander, Latin American Mythology (1916), p. 185.]. Whereas the Pawnee and Cherokee say [n7 S. Hagar, "Cherokee Star-Lore," in Festscbrift Boas (1906), p. 363; H. B. Alexander, North American Mythology, p. 117.]: "the souls of the dead are received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way, where it bifurcates, and he directs the warriors upon the dim and difficult arm, women and those who die of old age upon the brighter and easier path. The souls then journey southwards. At the end of the celestial pathway they are received by the Spirit Star, and there they make their home." One can quietly add "for a while," or change it to "there they make their camping place." Hagar takes the "Spirit Star" to be Antares (alpha Scorpii).




Whether or not it is precisely alpha, because the star marks the southern "end" of the Galaxy, the southern crossroads with the ecliptic, it is at any rate a star of Sagittarius. or Scorpius [8 This is no slip of the tongue; the zodiacal Sagittarius of Mesopotanian boundary stones had, indeed, the tail of a Scorpion: but we just must not be drowned in the abyss of details of comparative constellation lore, and least of all in those connected with Sagittarius, two-faced as he is, half royal, half dog.]. That fits "Mother Scorpion" of Nicaragua and the "Old goddess  with the scorpion tail" of the Maya as it also fits the Scorpion-goddess Selket-Serqet of ancient Egypt and the Ishara tam.tim of the Babylonians. Ishara of the sea, goddess of the constellation Scorpius, was also called "Lady of the Rivers" (compare appendix #30).



Considering the fact that the crossroads of ecliptic and Galaxy are crisis-resistant, that is, not concerned with the Precession, the reader may want to know why the Mangaians thought they could go to heaven only on the two solstitial days. Because, in order to "change trains" comfortably, the constellations that serve as "gates" to the Mi1ky Way must "stand" upon the "earth," meaning that they must rise heliacally either at the equinoxes or at the solstices. The Galaxy is a very broad highway, but even so there must have been some bitter millennia when neither gate was directly available any longer, the one hanging in midair, the other having turned into a submarine entrance.


Sagittarius and Gemini still mark the solstices in the closing years of the Age of Pisces. Next comes Aquarius. The ancients, no doubt, would have considered the troubles of these our times, like over­ population, the "working iniquity in secret," as an inevitable prelude to a new tilting, a new world-age.


But the coming of Pisces was long looked forward to, heralded as a blessed age. It was introduced by the thrice-repeated Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in the year 6 B.C., the star of Bethlehem. Virgil announced the return of the Golden Age under the rule of Saturn, in his famous Fourth Eclogue: "Now the Virgin retbrns, the reign of Saturn returns, now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth If the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world!"




Although promoted to the rank of a "Christian honoris causa" on account of this poem, Virgil was no "prophet," nor was he the only one who expected the return of Kronos-Saturn [n9 See, for example, A. A. Barb, "St. Zacharias the Prophet and Martyr," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11 (1948), pp. 54f., and "Der Heilige und die Schlangen," MAGW 82 (1953), p. 20.]. "lam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna." What does it mean? Where has Virgo been, supposedly, so that one expected the constellation "back"?


Aratus, in his renowned astronomical poem (95-136), told how Themis-Virgo, who had lived among humans peacefully, retired at the end of the Golden Age to the "hills," no longer mingling with the silver crowd that had started to populate the earth, and that she took up her heavenly abode near Bootes, when the Bronze Age began [n10 Cf. Al-Biruni, dealing with the Indian ages of the world, and quoting the above passages from Aratus with a scholion (Alberuni's India, trans. E. C. Sachau [1964], vol. 1, pp. 383-85).]. And there is Virgil announcing Virgo's return. This makes it easy to guess time and "place" of the Golden Age. One need only turn back the clock for one quarter "hour" of the Precession (about 6,000 years from Virgil), to find Virgo standing firmly at the summer solstitial corner of the abstract plane "earth." "Returning," that is moving on, Virgo would indicate the autumnal equinox at the time when Pisces took over the celestial government of the vernal equinox, at the new crossroads.


Once the Precession had been discovered, the Milky Way took on a new and decisive significance. For it was not only the most spectacular band of heaven, it was also a reference point from which the Precession could be imagined to have taken its start. This would have been when the vernal equinoctial sun left its position in Gemini in the Milky Way. When it was realized the sun had been there once, the idea occurred that the Milky Way might mark the abandoned track of the sun-a burnt-out area, as it were, a scar in heaven. Decisive notions have to be styled more carefully, however: so let us say that the Milky Way was a reference "point" from which the Precession could be termed to have taken its start, and that the idea which occurred was not that the Milky Way might mark the abandoned track of the sun, but that the Milky Way was an image of an abandoned track, a formula that offered rich possibilities for "telling" complicated celestial changes.




With this image and some additional galactic lore, it is now possible to concentrate on the formula by which the Milky Way became the way of the spirits of the dead, a road abandoned by the living. The abandoned path is probably the original form of the notions insistently built around a projected Time Zero. If the Precession was seen as the great clock of the Universe, the sun, as it shifted at the equinox, remained the measure of all measures, the "golden cord," as Socrates says in Plato's Theaetetus (153C). In fact, apart from the harmonic intervals, the sun was the only absolute measure provided by nature. The sun must be understood to be conducting the planetary fugues at any given moment as Plato also showed in the Timaeus. Thus, when the sun at his counting station moved on toward the Milky Way, the planets, too, were termed to hunt and run this way.


This does not make very sound geometrical sense, but it shows how an image can dominate men's minds and take on a life of its own. Yet, the technical character of these images should not be forgotten, and it is to prevent this that the verbs "to term" and "to spell out" are used so often instead of the customary expression "to believe."


To the American Plains Indians, the Milky Way was the dusty track along which the Buffalo and the Horse once ran a race across the sky [11 J. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, 19th ARBAE 1897-98 (1900), p.443.]. For the Fiote of the African Loango Coast the race was run by Sun and Moon [n12 E. Pechuel-Loesche, Volkskunde van Loango (1907), p. 135.]. The East African Turu took it for the "cattle track" of the brother of the creator [n13 S. Lagercrantz, "The Milky Way in Africa," Ethnos (1952), p. 68.], which is very close to the Greek legend of Herakles moving the herd of Gerion [n14 See W. Gundel, RE s.v. Galaxias.]. The convergence of so many animal tracks along this heavenly way is, once again, not a pointless conjunction of fancies. The Irawak of Guyana call the Galaxy "the Tapir's way."




This is confirmed in a tale of the Chiriguano and some groups of the Tupi-Guarani of South America. According to Lehman-Nitsche, these people speak of the Galaxy as "the way of the true father of the Tapir," a Tapir -deity which is itself invisible [n15 O. Zerries, "Sternbilder als Ausdruck jagerischer Geiteshaltung in Sudamerika," Paideuma 5 (1951), pp.220f.]. Now, if this hidden deity turns out to be Quetzalcouatl himself, ruler of the Golden Age town Tollan, no other than "Tixli cumatz," the tapir-serpent dwelling in the "middle of the sea's belly," as the Maya tribes of Yucatan describe him [n16 E. Seler, Gesammelte Abbandlungen (1961), vol. 4, p. 56], the allusions begin to focus. Finally, the actual scheme is found in that Cuna tradition described earlier: the Tapir chopped down the "Saltwater Tree," at the roots of which is God's whirlpool, and when the tree fell, saltwater gushed out to form the oceans of the world.


Should the Tapir still seem to lack the appropriate dignity, some Asiatic testimonies should be added. The Persian Bundahishn calls the Galaxy the "Path of Kay-us," after the grandfather and co­regent of Kai Khusrau, the Iranian Hamlet [n17 Bdh. V B 22, B. T. Anklesaria, Zand-Akasih. Iranian or Greater Bundahishn (1956), pp. 69, 71.]. Among the Altaic populations the Yakuts call the Milky Way the "tracks of God," and they say that, while creating the world, God wandered over the sky; more general in use seems to have been the term "Ski-tracks of God's son," whereas the Voguls spelled it out "Ski-tracks of the forest-man." And here the human tracks fade out, although the snowshoes remain. For the Tungus the Galaxy is "Snowshoe-tracks of the Bear." But whether the figure is the son of God, the forest-man, or the Bear, he hunted a stag along the Milky Way, tore it up and scattered its limbs in the sky right and left of the white path, and so Orion and Ursa Major were separated [n18 U. Holmberg, Die religiosen Vorstellungen der altaischen Volker (1938), pp. 201f.]. The "Foot of the Stag" reminded Holmberg immediately of the "Bull's Thigh" of ancient Egypt—Ursa Major.




With his penetrating insight he might easily have gone on to recognize, in that potent thigh, the isolated "one-leg" of Texcatlipoca, Ursa Major again, in Mexico-the day-sign "Crocodile" (Cipactli) had bitten it off-the great Hunrakan (= 1 leg) of the Maya Quiche [n19 Going further south, he would have found there again the lining up of Ursa and Orion and the violent tearing up of celestial figures. Says W. E. Roth ("An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-lore of the Guiana Indians," 30th ARBAE 1908-09 [1915], p. 262; cf. Zerries, pp. 220f.) of the Indians of Guiana: "All the legends relating to the constellations Taurus and Orion have something in common in the detail of an amputated arm or leg." And that goes for parts of Indonesia too. But then, Ursa Major is the thigh of a Bull, and the zodiacal Taurus is so badly amputated, there is barely a half of him left. More peculiar still, in later Egyptian times it occurs, if rarely, that Ursa is made a ram's thigh (see G. A. Wainwright, "A Pair of Constellations," in Studies Presented to F. L. Griffith [1932], p. 373); and on the round zodiac of Dendera (Roman period) we find a ram sitting on that celestial leg representing Ursa, and it even looks back, as befits the traditional zodiacal Aries. We must leave it at that.].


There is an insistent association here, right below the surface, which is still revealed by the old Dutch name for the Galaxy, "Brunelstraat." Brunei, Bruns, Bruin (the Brown) is the familiar name of the bear in the romance of Renard the Fox, and is as ancient as anything that can be traced [n20 The notion of the Milky Way as "Brunelstraat" seems to be present in ancient India: the Atharva Veda 18.2.31 mentions a certain path or road called rikshaka. Riksha is the bear in both senses, i.e., the animal and Ursa Major (see H. Grassmann, Worterbuch zum Rig-Veda [1915] s.v. Riksha). Whitney (in his translation of AV, p.840 ) suggested rikshaka as a road "infested by bears (?).” A. Weber, however, proposed to identify rikshaka with the Milky Way ("Miszellen aus dem indogermanischen Familienleben," in Festgruss Roth [1893], p. 131). Since the whole hymn AV 18.2 contains "Funeral Verses," and deals with the voyage of the soul, that context too would be fitting. (That the souls have to first cross a river "rich with horses" is another matter.)]. It is a strange lot of characters that were made responsible for the Milky Way: gods and animals leaving the path that had been used at "creation" time [n21 The shortest abbreviation: the Inca called Gemini "creation time" (Hagar, in 14th International Amerikanisten-Kongress [1904], p. 599f.). But the very same notion is alluded to, when Castor and Pollux (alpha beta Geminorum) are made responsible for the first fire sticks, by the Aztecs (Sahagún) and, strange to say, by the Tasmanians. (See below, chapter XXIII, "Gilgamesh and Prometheus.")]. But where did they go, the ones mentioned, and the many whom we have left out of consideration? It depends, so to speak, from where they took off. This is often hard to determine, but the subject of "tumbling down" will be dealt with next.




As for Virgo, who had left the "earth" at the end of the Golden Age, her whereabouts in the Silver Age could have been described as being "in mid-air." Many iniquitous characters were banished to this topos; either they were thrown down, or they were sent up—Lilith dwelt there for a while, and King David [n22 See J. A. Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthem (1711), vol. I, p. 165; vol. 2, pp.417ff.], also Adonis [n23 "Es ton eera," see F. K. Movers, Die Phonizier (1967), vol. I, p. 205.], even the Tower of Babel itself, and first of all the Wild Hunter (appendix #20).


This assembly of figures "in mid-air" helps to give meaning to an otherwise pointless tale, a veritable fossil found in Westphalian folklore: "The Giants called to Hackelberg [= Odin as the Wild Hunter] for help. He raised a storm and removed a mill into the Milky Way, which after this is called the Mill Way." [n24 J. Grimm, TM, pp. 1587f.]. There are other fossils, too, the wildest perhaps being that of the Cherokee who called the Galaxy "Where the dog ran." A very unusual dog it must have been, being in the habit of stealing meal from a corn mill owned by "people in the South" and running with it to the North; the dog dropped meal as he ran and that is the Milky Way [n25 Mooney, pp. 253, 443.]. It is difficult here to recognize Isis scattering ears of wheat in her flight from Typhon [n26 See R. H. Allen, Star Names (1963), p. 481; W. T. Olcott, Star Lore of All Ages (1911), p. 393.]. And yet, the preference of the very many mythical dogs, foxes, coyotes—and even of the "way-opening" Fenek in West Sudan—for meal and all sorts of grain—more correctly "the eight kinds of grain" –a trait which is hardly learned by eavesdropping on Mother Nature, could have warned the experts to beware of these doggish characters. They are not to be taken at their pseudo-zoological face value.


Thus, everybody and everything has left the course, Wild Hunter, dog and mill—at least its upper half, since through the hole in the lower millstone the whirlpool is seething up and down.




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