The Night Sky: Calendar, Compass, Culture

For some modern viewers, the sight of a sky full of stars is unnerving, making them feel small and insignificant.  In “We’ve Got Tonight,” Bob Seger sings, “Why should we worry, no one will care, girl.  Look at the stars, so far away/ we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?”  This makes a curious statement.  Because the stars are so far away, what we do is irrelevant.  No one will care if we spend the night together, just as the stars don’t care.   Not much in the romance department.

Ancient people had a very different view.  Their lives were inextricably linked to the stars and planets.  The rising and falling of stars with the seasons, the appearance and disappearance of the planets determined what happened on earth.  We see this as astrology, but the ancient people saw no difference between astrology and astronomy.  They needed to understand the motion and patterns of the night sky because their lives were entwined with them.  The stars weren’t distant at all.  They were immediate and active.


For the ancient peoples, the sun and moon provided easy measures of time.  Every 29 days or so, the moon begins a new cycle of waxing from a slim crescent to a full moon and then waning back to the last crescent before it goes completely dark, only to start over again.  Some modern people still use a calendar based on the cycles of the moon.  The Chinese traditional calendar, the Islamic calendar, and the Jewish calendar are all lunar, with twelve months of 29 or 30 days.  The Chinese calendar adds extra days as needed at the end of the year to correspond to the solar calendar.  The Jewish calendar adds them every Leap Year.

For many ancient societies, each of the moons had a name, indicating a significant seasonal marker: New Rains Moon, Deep Frost Moon, etc.

By the stars’ position, people could identify which moon it was.  Take the most identifiable asterism in the night sky, The Big Dipper, which many ancient people saw as part of a celestial bird.  In the early evening in January, the dipper seems to stand on its handle (or wing).  By April, it lies upside down.  By July, it seems to stand on the outside of the cup.  In October, it lies right side up.



The pointer stars, the outside of the dipper’s cup, point to the North Star.  You can find approximate north by sighting along any straight object aligned with the North Star.  The opposite end of the same stick points south.  Once those two are established, you can find east and west with only a little more work.  As recently as the 1800’s, escaping slaves used the Big Dipper, “The Drinking Gourd,” as a guide to lead them to freedom in the north.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross serves the same purpose as a circumpolar asterism, but the pole itself is an empty space, sometimes referred to as a cave, unmarked by a star.  This was the case in the Northern Hemisphere as well 10,000 years ago, when the center was between stars.

Night Clock

The Big Dipper appears to move in the course of the night, swinging around the unmoving center of the sky, the North Star.  It would be easy for people to judge how late it was by how much the dipper had moved.


More importantly, for the ancient peoples, the night sky, especially the Milky Way, was a powerful, frightening force that was connected to all life on earth.  It contained creation and death, darkness and light.

Seeing The Milky Way

The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in.  It contains, according to the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, over 400 billion stars, including our sun.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Milky Way, start with finding a familiar constellation like Orion (diagram).  The Milky Way passes over the figure’s shoulder.  You’ll need a dark sky, away from sources of light pollution that will rob you of all but the brightest stars.

The three “belt” stars, the very bright shoulder star Betelgeuse, and the very bright “foot” star Rigel make this constellation easy to differentiate from others.



With some help from the Hubble telescope, you can see the rest of the story!

Source: httyp://















(Photo source: Patrick’s Photoblog,

In the photo, look for the three stars of Orion’s belt and the bright smudge that is the Orion Nebula.   The Milky Way rises almost vertically in the center of the photo.

The Milky Way looks like a river of bright stars flowing across the sky.  The name comes from the ancient Greeks, who said it was milk from cows, with each star a cow, though the story was later changed to milk spilled by the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, as she suckled Heracles.  The confusion probably came from the ancient Egyptians, for whom the Milky Way was sacred cow’s milk of Hathor, a goddess who was often represented as a woman with a cow horn headdress, or a sacred cow.  (See earlier post “The Eye in the Hand” for more on Hathor and Tanit.)

For the East Asians, it was the Silvery River of Heaven. For Finns, the Pathway of the Birds.  For Hungarians, the Warriors’ Road.  For many cultures, including the Maya, the dark rift within the white band was considered the Black Road, the Pathway of the Dead.

Linda Schele and other prominent Mayanists have held that for the ancient Maya, the movement of the Milky Way in the night sky repeated their creation story.  When it is vertical, it is the World Tree, first used by the creator gods to lift up the sky and separate it from the water.  (See the dramatic Milky Way photo by Dyer.)  As the night goes on, and a different section of the Milky Way becomes visible, the shape is interpreted as the Crocodile Tree, where the World Tree grows out of a crocodile’s back, and again later, when the Milky Way stretches horizontally across the sky, it is seen as the Celestial Canoe that carries the Paddler gods to the place of Creation, near Orion, where they set the first stone.  The placing of the hearthstones and the lighting of the first fire began our time, the fourth age.



The Dark Patches

The Australian Aboriginal peoples see their creation stories in the Milky Way as well, but they deal more with the black areas of the Milky Way, what astronomers today refer to as dark dust clouds.  If you have a really good sky for viewing, you can see these dark areas quite clearly.  (In the stunning photo by John Gleason, you can understand how people could see shapes in the dark sections.)

According to Bill Yidumduma Harney, his Wardaman people see all their creation figures in the Milky Way.  Even more, the important sites for viewing specific moments echo in the landscape the position of the important stars in the sky.  At those special places, when the sky is in perfect harmony with the land, the Wardaman feel the sky is alive and star beings can easily go from one world to another.   Note the carving of the emu on the rock that coincides with its appearance in the sky.

(For a complete though not easy explanation of Wardaman cosmology as expressed in the night sky, see Dark Sparklers by Hugh Cairns and Bill Yidumdum Harney.)

The night sky – The World Tree, The Crocodile, The Emu, The Dolphin, The Paddler Gods, The Seat of Creation, The Birthplace of the Stars, The River of the Dead, The Black Dreaming Place, The Warrior Road, The Pathway of Birds – is still there, waiting to amaze you, to fill you with wonder.  Find a dark spot on a clear night and let it become part of your world.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Creation, Cosmos, and the Imagery of Palenque and Copan,” by Linda Schele and Khristaan D. Villela, University of Texas, Austin

Maya Cosmology,

“2012 and the Milky Way Tree,” by Brian Keats, October 2009

A Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, by Lynn V. Foster

“Beautiful Milky Way Photography,” in Paulo Gabriel’s blog,

Professor Gene Smith’s Astronomu Tutorial: The Sturcture of the Milky Way,” University of California, San Diego,

Tony Garone’s simulations of Maya Creation story superimposed on star maps,

Patrick’s Photoblog,

Observatorio ARVAL,

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