There are no roads to our cabin, but Vintergatan – the Milky Way – runs right above us every clear night. Especially when there is a new or slim moon, the speckled outlines of our galactic neighborhood can be seen in full splendor.
At first glance there is just a sea of sparkles, flickering beautifully. I look at the constellation map in my hand. It’s from an old blue book on stars I found in the wooden box with the long telescope that belonged to Isak’s grandfather. The centerfold features an illuminated star map, the kind that glows in the dark if you prep it with a flashlight. Thin lines connect the dots: Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, Orion, Perseus, Cepheus, Gemini, Pegasus. They’re all there.
I try to find their counterpart in the sky, but can only find the Big Dipper. Isak has taught me to follow the two outermost stars on the Dipper, tracing their line upwards to find the North Star. The whole sky rotates around that star, the one that steadily points the way north towards the pole. Orion comes over the horizon and we can make out his belt and bow. I stare at a cluster straight above me, almost at zenith. At first it’s just another collection of brighter stars, but I finally make out the “W” shape of Cassiopeia. And next to her must be Perseus, a particularly bright huddle high in the sky. We stay out for a long time, pointing this way and that, exclaiming over each picture we find, before finally coming inside with freezing fingers and pink cheeks.
I’m eager to continue this exploration of the hidden picture book above, but there are many cloudy nights in a row. Instead I settle for reading up on some of the stories featured in the slim blue book. It turns out that the Queen Cassiopeia, whom I spotted that first night, is part of a greater story involving many constellations.1,2 Next to her in the sky is her husband, an Ethiopian king named Cepheus, and closer to the horizon is their daughter Andromeda (who also gave name to the Andromeda Galaxy). The myth tells us that Cassiopeia was very vain and proclaimed to all that her daughter was the most beautiful being ever to grace the earth. This angered the sea god Poseidon, who, as everyone knows, created the most beautiful beings of all: the sea nymphs. Wild with rage, Poseidon created the sea monster Cetus (which can be seen hugging the horizon in winter, also known as the Whale), and this whale creature wreaked havoc on the seas and coasts of Cassiopeia and Cepheus’ country. They sought the advice of an oracle who told them the only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice Andromeda to the sea monster. And so, Andromeda was bound to a rock jutting out into the sea where she awaited certain death from the whale-like monster.
As this drama is unfolding, Perseus, who can be seen in the bright cluster next to Cassiopeia, is off defeating Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon whose gaze turns everyone to stone. Perseus slays her, and as her blood drips into the sea the winged horse Pegasus springs into being. (Pegasus can be found adjacent to Andromeda in the sky). Perseus stuffs Medusa’s head in a bag and is flying home (either on Pegasus or on the magical sandals Hermes had given him), when he discovers Andromeda, just as she is about to be devoured by Cetus. Perseus springs forward and thrusts Medusa’s head in front of Cetus’ eyes. The monster immediately turns to stone, and Andromeda returns with Perseus to be his wife. Together these constellations make up the celestial “royal family”. Cassiopeia suffers the humiliation of being upside down most of the year, as a reminder of the dangers of selfish vanity.
Finally, it’s a crisp and clear evening. I go out to pee, but stay for a long time, head tipped all the way back and hands turning numb in the cold. Every time I look for a new constellation, it always seems impossible to find. Could that cluster of stars be Auriga (the Charioteer) and are those two stars next to it the Gemini twins? No, it’s just a muddle of sparkly dots, in random heaps. But then I spot three brighter stars, that might go together. I look again and check the map – yes! – that must be the horns of Taurus, the characteristic V-shape moving up just beyond cluster of the Pleiades. It’s like one of those perception games; once you’ve seen the duck and the rabbit, you can’t un-see them. Every clear night now, I go out and there’s Taurus greeting me, between Auriga and Orion. Soon we’ve come to recognize lots of creatures; the Dragon, the Swan, the Little Dipper and Ursa minor, the Gemini, Pegasus and Andromeda.
In these fall months, if Orion is high in the sky, it means it’s really past my bedtime. I have come to appreciate now – through experience – how the stars, their constellations and stories have been a way to orient ourselves. If we are attentive, they can tell us where we are, and what time it is. But it has also served the purpose of orienting ourselves in the cosmos. The stories told us of the gods, of where the world came from, what we must take care to protect, what virtues to nurture, and what lessons we cannot forget. Perseus calls to us, “Be brave!” and Cassiopeia reminds us, “Don’t be too vain.” Of course, the constellations themselves are only the tip of the mythological iceberg, the visible reminders of a much deeper cosmology that we have mostly forgotten, but perhaps carry with us subconsciously in our culture.
Exploring the Greek stories has been enlightening, because so much of our western culture is based on those archetypal stories and myths. Once you start delving into them, they appear everywhere. The magical and mythical names that I’ve read in books and seen in films are suddenly there in the sky; Bellatrix, Sirius, Castor and Pollux, and Betelgeuse (a.k.a Beetlejuice). I’ve come to learn that the dog days of summer actually refers to the rise of Sirius, the leading star of the Great Dog (Canis Major) constellation. When Sirius returns above the horizon it means the hottest, most uncomfortable days of summer are here, days that can drive dogs mad with heat. The patterns above correspond to patterns below, and moving through a stellar landscape may lead to unexpected vistas of our culture and minds.
But the star sky up here in the north is different than the one the Ancient Greeks looked upon. The Zodiacs that told the ancients of the lives and fates of the people are not necessarily visible from this latitude. This made me wonder what stories are particular to this place, to the celestial window of the Arctic north?
I was struck by that I couldn’t remember learning anything about Sami constellations in school. Unsurprising, but disappointing. I began searching online, and visited in the well-stocked Sami section of the local library to learn more. It quickly became clear that the variations in the stories of skies are as varied as the Sami themselves. My knowledge on this topic is obviously limited to the few sources I have encountered. But still, there are some star stories that, in various versions, seem to be of great importance.
In the Arctic north, there is a great cosmic hunt underway on night sky.3 The great moose (or sometimes reindeer) Sarrva is a giant constellation, its body stretching to cover a large part of the sky. Some say that the crown can be found in the “W” of Cassiopeia, Perseus is part of the front legs, while the Chariotieer makes up the rear (see image below). This massive creature moves across the sky every night and is pursued by several hunters. Fávdna (Arcturus), the great hunter, aims to shoot the moose with his great bow, Fávnna Dávgi (part of the Big Dipper). In addition, the moose is chased by three hunters on skis, Gállabártnit – the same three stars that feature in Orion’s belt. Gállabártnit are the “sons of the old one”, and Gálla himself follows in their wake. He is the brightest star in our sky, also known as Sirius. According to one story,4 this star goes by the name Golginásti, meaning “the one who goes hither and thither”, and he picks up the clothes that the hunters have cast off as they get warm and sweat during the hunt. Later in the evening, the two hunters Cuoigit appear, the same stars as the Gemini, Castor and Pollux. In some stories an old woman, Boares Áhkku, is also out hunting the moose with her dogs (the Pleiades).5 She tames the moose, but it is lazy and just hangs around the goahti (kåta, gamme) all day. The old lady asks the gods for a different animal, and that is how the reindeer came to the Sami.
Every night the great animal crosses the sky, and every night the hunters come up across the horizon to pursue it. Favdna aims to shoot it with his bow, but he has to be careful – Boahji-násti (the Pole Star) is in the way. This star supports the dome of the sky, and the whole universe rotates around it. Johan Turi, the first Sami author, writes that “The Pole Star holds up the whole sky of stars. And on the last day, when the hunter Fávdna shoots and strikes Boahje-násti, the sky will fall and crush the earth. Then the whole world will be set aflame and everything will have its end.”6 Luckily, the Sarvva always moves just out of the hunter’s reach and returns each night to cross the sky yet again. Some say that this apocalyptic aspect of the myth is a newer addition, added after Christianization of large parts of Sami culture. Older indigenous stories often relied upon a cyclical understanding of time, rather than linear.7 As we change, so do our stories of the stars.
As I’ve been gazing up at the sky, I’ve wondered why I enjoy learning the stories, recognizing the stars, and following their movements. Shouldn’t it be enough to gaze at the dazzling, sparkling dome that illuminates us? Yes, that is enough.
Perhaps it’s part of the need for cosmic orientation that I mentioned. How do we make sense of the immensity of existence? There is the scientific approach to understanding our cosmic context, which can be awe-inspiring. I once went to a lecture with the astrophysicist Bengt Gustafsson, where he explained how each of our bodies carries particles from something like four different stars. Do you remember that hippie saying, “We’re all stardust”? I never knew it was so literal. Something so far-flung and distant is also part of us in the most intimate way.
The science also tells us how unimaginably vast the universe is, the astronomical distances to other stars and galaxies, and the smallness of the Earth, in our tiny neighborhood on the outskirts of it all. We are so miniscule – not even a fleck of paint in the universal picture. And yet, in the midst of the infinity, we are the only planet that we know of where life exists, at least as we recognize it. (And in the course of the past fifty years, we’ve managed to stack up an impressive array of ways to annihilate ourselves, climate change probably topping the list.)
So, the scientific story is certainly one way to make sense of things. But it tells us little of our human ancestors, how to live, or what life is for. There is freedom in that, but also a thrilling, terrifying emptiness.
Now, when I go out on a clear night, the band of glowing lights that stretches across the sky is no longer only the Milky Way. It’s also Lodde-ráidaras, the bird ladder. According to the Sami, this is the ladder that the birds use to migrate south every autumn. Now I have to wait for next fall, so I can keep watch and notice when they do.
1) Ovid, “Perseus offers to save Andromeda”, Metamorphosis Book IV, 1903.
2) Constellations of Words
3) Erlie, W. “Den samiske stjernehimmelen”, Natursekken.no.
4) Norrbottens Kuriren, “En färd över den samiska stjärnhimlen”, Norrbottens Kuriren, 2012.
5) Utsi, J.E., “Den kosmiska jakten”, Samer.se.
7) Sergejeva, J., “Nokre samiske stjernebilete: Eit jaktfolks forestellingar om stjernehimmelen”, University of Oslo, 2012.