Where Stars Are Born

​How the Milky Way Came To Be - A Cherokee Legend

Long ago when the world was young, there were not many stars in the sky.

In those days, the people depended on corn for their food.

Dried corn was made into corn meal by placing it inside a large hollowed stump and pounding it with a long wooden pestle.  The cornmeal was then stored in large baskets.  During the winter, the ground meal could be made into bread and mush.

One morning, an old man and his wife went to their storage basket for some cornmeal.  They discovered that someone or something had gotten into the cornmeal during the night.  This upset them very much for no one in a Cherokee village would steal from anyone else.

Then they noticed that the cornmeal was scattered all over the ground and in the middle of the spilled meal they found dog prints.  Not ordinary dog prints, though.  These dog prints were so large that the elderly couple know this could be no ordinary dog.

They immediately alerted the people of the village.  It was decided that this must be a spirit dog from another world.  The people did not want to spirit dog coming to their village, for who knew what else it would do besides eat their cornmeal?

They decided to get rid of the dog by frightening it so bad that it would never return. 

They gathered their drums and turtle shell rattles and later that night, they hid around the area where the cornmeal was stored.

Very late that same night, they heard a sound like that of many bird wings.  They looked up to see the form of a giant dog swooping down from the sky.  It once again landed near the basket of meal and began to eat great mouthfuls.  

Suddenly, the People jumped up and began beating their drums and shaking their noise makers.  The noise was so loud it sounded like thunder.  The giant dog, startled, turned and began to run down the path.

The People chased after him, continuing to make the loudest noises they could.  The dog ran to the top of a hill and leapt into the sky, running across the black night sky until it disappeared from sight.

As the dog leapt and ran, some of the cornmeal spilled out the side of its mouth, leaving a path across the sky.  Each grain of cornmeal that spilled out of the great spirit dog's mouth became a star.  

The Cherokee People call the pattern of stars left behind gi li'ut sun stan un'yi (gil-lee-oot-soon stan-unh-yee), "the place where the dog ran."

That is how the Milky Way came to be.

Milky Way Mythology

To modern man, the night sky and stories related to the stars, constellations, and planets are not much more than a novelty, a source of curiosity.  Most of the population can't even see half of the night sky, obscured as it is by the dome of light that envelops the cities we live in.

Not so very long ago, though, before we became so "civilized," understanding the movements of the stars and planets, and their related stories, were critically important.  It was, in a way, their internet.  The answers to all of life's questions resided in the sky, if you know how to read it.

It's little surprise, then, that nearly eery culture has marveled at, and attempted to explain, the Milky Way.

Ancient Armenian mythology called the Milky Way the "Straw Thief's Way."  According to legend, the god Vahagn stole some straw from the Assyrian King Barsham and brought it to Armenia during a cold winter.  When he fled across the heavens, he spilled some of the straw along the way.

The Khoisan people of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa say that long ago there were no stars and the night was pitch black.  A girl, who was lonely and wanted to visit other people, threw the embers of a fire into the sky and created the Milky Way.

Peoples in Eastern Asia believed the the hazy band of stars was the "Silvery River of Heaven."  In one story, the stars Altair and Vega (the two bright stars near the bottom of the sky and parallel to the ground in the photo above), were said to be two lovers who were allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, when a flock of magpies and crows formed a bridge over the galactic river.  That day is celebrated as Qi Xi, the Seventh Night.

In Egyptian mythology, the Milky Way was considered a pool of cow's milk. The Milky Way was deified as a fertility cow-goddess by the name of Bat.

In the Babylonian epic poem Enûma Eliš, the Milky Way is created from the severed tail of the primeval salt water dragoness Tiamat and set in the sky by Marduk, chief god of the Babylonian pantheon.

In Irish mythology, the main name of the Milky Way was Beach Na Bó Finne -Way of the White Cow.  It was regarded as a heavenly reflection of the sacred River Boyne, which is described as "The Great Silver Yoke" and the "White Marrow of Fedlimid," names which could equally apply to the Milky Way.

To the Māori, the Milky Way is the waka (canoe) of Tama-Rereti. According to legend, when Tama-Rereti took his canoe out onto a lake, he found himself far from home as night was falling.  There were no stars at this time and, in the darkness, the Taniwha would attack and eat people.  So, Tama-Rereti sailed his canoe along the river that emptied into the heavens and scattered shiny pebbles from the lakeshore into the sky.  The sky god, Ranginui, was pleased by the action and placed the canoe into the sky as a reminder of how the stars were made. 

The Great Rift

The photograph above was taken in the winter (December 2020).  The Milky Way is most commonly photographed in the summer months.  During the summer, the Galactic Center is visible above the horizon.  

The Galactic Center is the rotational center of the Milky Way.  It is between 26 and 27 thousand light years away from earth.  The Galactic Center is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of black hole, with a mass approximately four million times that of our sun.

The Great Rift (sometimes called the Dark Rift or less commonly the Dark River) is made up of dark dust clouds that significantly obscure the center and most radial sectors of the Milky Way from earth's perspective.  

To the naked eye, the Great Rift appears as a dark lane that divides the bright band of the Milky Way.  The Great Rift covers one third of the Milky Way, and is flanked by strips of numerous stars.

One of the regions obscured by the Great Rift is the Cygnus OB2 Association, one of the largest regions of star formation near (in galactic terms) Earth.  So, when we look up at the starry band of the Milky Way and see the Great Rift, we're looking into our galaxy's star forming region.

Modern astronomy first began to notice the Great Rift in the 18th century.  However, it struggled to explain it until the early 20th century.  An American astronomer (E.E. Barnard) and a German astronomer and pioneer in astrophotography (Max Wolf) produced the currently accepted explanation.

According to Barnard in Astrophysical Journal (1919), "I did not at first believe in these dark obscuring masses.  The proof was not conclusive.  The increase of evidence, however, from my own photographs convinced me later, especially after investigating some of them visually, that many of these markings were not simply due to an actual want of stars but were really obscuring bodies nearer to us than the distant stars."

So, a path of destruction left by Phaeton trying to guide the chariot of the sun god Helios across the sky, losing control and wreaking havoc before being struck down by a lightning bolt cast by Zeus?

Or clouds of plasma and dust with a mass one million times that of our sun?

Can it be both?