Origins of the Milky Way

Cosmic Temples, Views of the Milky Way. Created with

Imagine for a moment you are living in a time where electricity did not yet exist. You are standing in the middle of your town, city, village, or camp with no artificial lights to obstruct your view of the heavens above. You look up and see the vast night sky, filled with what seems like millions of lights. These lights glow like the dancing, shimmering crystals of an unblemished cave. You can point many of them out by name, shape, and location, and have even used them as a compass when you have been away from home. You see where a great number of these lights concentrate to form a sky bridge that goes from one horizon to the other. You pay witness to this bridge every single night, often recalling the old stories your elders shared with you about the origins of these lights. You then pass these stories on to your own children and grandchildren

Now you return to today’s time, where you are regularly bombarded by artificial electricity. You are standing in the middle of a rural countryside looking up at the night sky again. This time, you are only able to make out a few hundred lights. Most of what you can see appears as a black abyss. You are able to name one or two of the lights and point out one familiar constellation, but there is no visible bridge, not even a subtle haze. In fact, you have never witnessed the bridge in this lifetime. You know it is there, but you do not know any of its stories or the significance behind them. You do not remember how brightly the lights once glowed, or how many of them could be seen by those who came before you. While the sky does not play a central role in your life, you cannot help but feel like something precious has been lost to you…

“The Milky Way arch emerging from the Cerro Paranal, Chile, on the left, and sinking into the Antofagasta’s night lights. The bright object in the center, above the Milky Way is Jupiter, somehow elongated due to the panoramic projection. The Magellanic Clouds are visible on the left side, and a plane has left a visible trace on the right, along the Vista enclosure.” Source: Wikipedia

If you could see the Milky Way every night the way our ancestors once did, how might your perspectives and worldview shift? What if you knew that the stars and surrounding planets were living beings just as the Earth? Or that they too are made up of their own elemental spirits? For me, seeing the great bridge would be a reminder that we are always in the presence of the divine, the supernatural, the Creator with many names – and that we are not separate from any of it. I would remember our celestial origins and that at some point we all have existed and will exist as stardust. I would remember that those who have walked on will continue to watch over us from places in the heavens we cannot fully conceive of being earthside.

A view of the Milky Way toward the constellation Sagittarius, as seen from the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Source: Wikipedia

Across Turtle Island, or North America, many know the Milky Way as an ancient highway or river to the world of the ancestors. Some African traditions say it was created long ago by the remains of fire embers scattered into the pitch black sky by a young girl. Others around the world recognize the Milky Way as a guiding animal spirit like a serpent or shark, while others know it as a gathering of many animal spirits. These stories of the Milky Way’s creation and its purpose appear to be as endless as the sky itself.

If, for a moment, you put yourself into the shoes of an ancestor, perhaps those of a skilled seafarer, hunter, fisherman, warrior, priest, or traveling merchant who only had the stars as their means of navigation, what stories would you rely on to guide you along the journey? Would those stories feel less like children’s tales and more like systems of knowledge passed down through the generations to protect and inform you? Would your connections to nature and the ancestors feel more tangible and less like a distant dream? How might seeing millions of stars every night compare to seeing only a few? How might this affect your day to day life?

Nut swallows the Sun, which travels through her body at night to be reborn at dawn. Source: Wikipedia

I do not know how the Milky Way came to be through the eyes of my Taíno ancestors, but I can guess that the Creator being YokaHú may have had something to do with its formation. It is said that he created the sun and moon to illuminate the Earth from celestial darkness, so perhaps he also formed the starry bridge. Could it be a reflection of an ancestral river that continues to guide our people to the realms of the dead? I wonder how my West African ancestors would have understood the Milky Way. What deities or spirits were responsible for its creation in these ancestors’ eyes? Were they similar to the stories passed down by the Kemetians? They knew the Milky Way to be a pool of cow’s milk gifted from Hathor, as well as a heavenly waterway similar to the Nile, with the goddesses Nut, Mut, and Wadjet all connected to its creation. As for my pagan Irish ancestors, they would have known the Milky Way as Bealach na Bó Finne, or the Way of the White Cow. Similar to how the Kemetians viewed this bridge as a celestial version of the Nile, the Irish Celts considered it to be a reflection of their own River Boyne.

Regardless of the Milky Way’s origin, I can see so many of its connections to earthly waters and it serving as both a bridge and mirror to the otherworld. I can see how it would have influenced cultures and traditions around the world, inspired people from all walks of life, and why it was and still is considered so special and sacred to so many. Do you know what your ancestors said about the Milky Way? Even if the stories have been lost to colonialism, how do the stars still guide you, if at all today? How do you choose to listen?

“River of Souls,” by artist Carl Gawboy. Painting depicts the Milky Way, called Jiibay Ziibi, or River of Souls, by the Ojibwe people. A blue and black sky filled with the bridge of stars is shown with two spirits meeting at a riverbank. A canoe sits on the river, near one of the spirits who appears to be a guide. It is said that spirits would find a waiting canoe to travel to the great beyond along the path of the Milky Way. Source: Ojibwe Cosmos: Mercury in Retrograde, Earthly Stardust and Intricate Stellar Maps

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