Tales of the Milky Way
By Paul Curnow
A little over a year ago, I arose at around 4am to take a quick wander outside to look at the night sky. Displayed before me were thousands of stars accompanied by the glow of millions of others that comprise our Milky Way Galaxy. Every time I'm fortunate to have a view of our galaxy like this I am in awe at its breathtaking stellar beauty. However, at the same time as being moved by what was displayed before me, I was also somewhat saddened. For this was not the sky I see from my suburban backyard, this was the sharp black sky as seen from Arkaroola in South Australia.
As a child, I have fond memories of the streetlights in Adelaide being switched off at around midnight and I remember spending long hours just staring at the heavens sitting on the front lawn. Back then, I knew little about the stars and constellations before me, but I was struck by the magnificence of what I could see. Sadly today, I seldom see anyone sitting out on his or her front lawn gazing skyward. For today, we live in a society that is ever moving at a faster pace. People rush home from work, log onto their computers, watch television and some even have personal safety concerns about sitting outside watching the skies.
Also, over time we have built ever-larger metropolises that like a glowing cancer slowly invade our view of the night sky through the spread of city lightning. I have always found this an irony that the light from some of the stars we see has been travelling for aeons and is only lost in the last fraction of a second in the light haze from our cities. Therefore, standing there, on that doorstep in Arkaroola really drove home to me what we have lost. It occurred to me that if I could travel back in time, even just a little over one hundred years, this was the sort of sky I would have seen from Adelaide. How I wish I could travel back to those times – even just for a night!
Apart from Arkaroola being located a little further north, the view of the sky was essentially the same view that the Kaurna Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains had for thousands of years. In addition, I could see the same stars that the Ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians studied and worshipped for centuries. This view of the heavens, which had captivated numerous ancient cultures, still captivates humankind to this day. However, today we live in an era of scientific enquiry where we have the tools to understand our galaxy like never before.
Therefore how did ancient cultures perceive the view of our galaxy? Did they truly understand the nature of the night sky? Well fortunately for us, we can still gaze into the minds of the ancients and be given insight into what they thought about the nature of the Milky Way and how it came into being. For example, the term ‘Milky Way’ comes to us via the Ancient Greek religion. In mythology, the Greco-Roman hero Hercules, who was the son of the immortal god Zeus (the Roman Jupiter), was placed at the breast of the goddess Hera to feed while she was sleeping. Zeus who was known for his many affairs had developed a relationship with a woman named Alcmene and as a consequence of their union she had given birth to Hercules. Consequently, Zeus had placed Hercules to suckle at the breast of the goddess in order for him to drink the milk of the gods and thus aid in his development of 'godlike' qualities. However, even as a child the mighty Hercules had an incredible appetite to feed and in his haste bit the goddess Hera while feeding. In immense pain, Hera tore the infant away spraying milk across the heavens. This is the origin of the term ‘Milky Way’ which we still use to this day. Furthermore, even the word ‘galaxy’ is derived from ‘gala’ (γάλα) the Greek word for milk. In Latin it was called Via Lactea.
The Kaurna Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains see the band of the Milky Way as a river in the skyworld. They call it Wodliparri (wodli = hut, house, parri = river) and believe that positioned along the river are a number of dwellings. In addition, the dark patches are where a dangerous creature known as a yura lives; the Kaurna call these patches Yurakauwe, which literally means “monster water.” Moreover, Aboriginal Groups from the Cape York region of Queensland see the band of light as termites that had been blown into the sky by the ancestral hero Burbuk Boon. Further south the band of stars that comprise the Milky Way are seen as thousands of flying foxes carrying away a dancer known as Purupriggie. In addition, the Aranda who come from central Australia see the band of the Milky Way as a river or creek in the skyworld. This stellar river separates the two great camps of the Aranda and Luritja People. The stars to the east of this river represent the camps of the Aranda and the stars to the west represent Luritja encampments and some stars closer to the band representing a mixture of both.
The Khoisan, who come from the Kalahari Desert region in southern Africa, believe that long ago a time existed when there were no stars in the heavens and the sky was very dark. They believe that a young girl, who was lonely, wanted to visit other people, therefore, she threw the embers from a fire into the sky and created the people who are the stars in the Milky Way. The Pokomo people of Eastern Africa believe that the stars of the Milky Way are camp fires. The misty white haze of the galaxy is said to be the smoke coming from the campfires of the ‘ancient ones’. Interestingly, the Euhalayi of New South Wales, have a very similar belief. They also believe the stars are campfires and the haze is smoke. These campfires belong to the dead as they make their celestial journey across the sky.
The Yuman Tribes who come from southern Arizona, in the United States, believe that the Milky Way is a trail left in the sky by an antelope who was in a race with a deer across the heavens. Furthermore, the Yakuts in Siberia say the Milky Way is a trail of snow made by a great hunter who is pursing a celestial stag through the sky. In Europe, our galaxy has been known by many a name throughout history. For example, in France it is La voie lactée, in Holland Melkweg and in Norway it is known as Melkeveien, all translating to “milky way.” In Hungary it has been known as Hadak Útja, which means, ”The Road of the Warriors” and it is believed that ’Csaba’ who was the mythical son of ’Attila the Hun’ rode across the heavens. In Iceland it is known as Vetrarbrautin, “The Winter Way.”
Amazingly, by the 4th century BCE the earliest known scientists to suggest that the Milky Way might actually consist of millions of distant stars were Anaxagoras and Democritus. Confirmation of this came in 1610 when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) turned his small telescope towards the night sky and could see the sky is made up of countless stars. Accordingly, British astronomer & mathematician Thomas Wright (1711-1786) believed that we were emersed in a flat layer of stars. Expanding this idea further in 1755, philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), speculated that our galaxy was a huge city of rotating stars held together by gravity. What’s more, the brilliant Kant surmised that some of the nebulae that could be seen in the celestial ballet of stars above might be separate "galaxies" in their own right, comparable to our own.
So what do we know about the galaxy in which we reside today? Well, we know we live in a barred spiral galaxy that consists of a central bulge and spiral arms. Recent revision estimates tell us the Milky Way contains approximately 100+ billion stars and is roughly 100,000 light years across. You and I are located a little under 30,000 light years from the centre of our galaxy and around 20,000 light years from the edge. If you were to drive your car at a speed of around 160 km/hr towards the centre of our Galaxy, it would take you approximately 221 Billion years to reach the centre.
(Image courtesy of Ikufumi Makino)
Additionally, in the past it was believed that the galaxy may contain up to 400 billion stars, but this is now considered a gross over estimate. Also, it is somewhat difficult to define the actual age at which the galaxy first formed, but the age of the oldest star in the Milky Way yet discovered is estimated to be approximately 13.2 billion years old. Furthermore, it has long been believed the Milky Way was a classic spiral shaped galaxy, however, recent observations backed up by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2005 indicate that the galaxy is likely a barred spiral. In fact coupled with other research it is likely to be a Sbc Hubble class galaxy with a loosely-wound spiral structure somewhat like NGC 3992 (M109). Furthermore, our galaxy is part of a cluster known as ‘the Local Group’, which consists of three large galaxies and over 30 smaller galaxies. Of those galaxies, the Andromeda Galaxy is believed to be the largest and our own galaxy the second largest. The Canis Major Dwarf, located some 45,000 light-years from the galactic centre is considered to be the closest to our own lying some 25,000 light-years away from us.
Moreover, hovering around the central bulge of our galaxy, mostly concentrated in a large area of the southern sky in the constellation of Ophiuchus, Scorpius and Sagittarius are 151 globular star clusters the first of which was discovered by Abraham Ihle, a German amateur astronomer in 1665. The astronomer Harlow Shapley would later use these clusters to estimate the size of our galaxy in 1918. However, many of Shapley’s size estimates were in error but what they did help establish was the position of the Sun within our galaxy. Previously, throughout much of human history often reinforced by religion, people had believed that we were at the centre of everything; Shapley established that this was incorrect.
So what is the ultimate fate of our galaxy? Observations tell us that the Andromeda Galaxy, which is located around 2.5+ million light years away, is falling towards us at 400,000km per hour and will collide with us in about 3 billion years. However, based on the nature of past evolutionary experience it is somewhat unlikely that humankind will be around to experience it. So the next time you’re outside gazing up at the stellar splendour of our galaxy, spare a thought for the countless millions that have come before you and have marvelled, wondered, romanticised and hypothesized about our Milky Way Galaxy.
Krupp, Dr. Edwin C., 1991, Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths & Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars & Planets, Oxford University Press, New York.
Pring, Adele, 2002, Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People (draft), DETE, Adelaide.
Willis, Roy, 1995, The Hutchinson: Dictionary of World Myth, Helicon & Duncan Baird Publishers, Oxford.
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Updated 13th February 2011