In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from May 2, 2019 is now updated and slightly rewritten.
While Juno was asleep, the great god Jupiter brought Hercules, the illegitimate baby he sired on Alcmene, to suckle on the breast of his sister-wife and thus become immortal. But the baby bit down too hard on her nipple and Juno woke with a start and pushed the child away from her, leaving her milk to spew into the heavens, creating the Milky Way. The 16th-Century Venetian artist Tintoretto painted the scene in the 1570s.
At least, that’s one version the Romans told. In another, told by Eratosthenes, Juno woke to see the love-child of her husband at her teat and in anger and jealousy, threw him down: same result.
But there are many versions of the origin of the Milky Way, or galaxy, as it was known. In one, the sun, which circles the daytime sky from east to west, leaves behind a trail of sparks which are seen at night as the Milky Way.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, says it is a road lined with the homes of the gods, the way the Palatine Hill in Rome was home to the wealthy elite.
The Roman word for the streak of light across the sky is Via Lactea, or the Milk Road, although they more commonly called it “Galactos,” or Galaxy, from the Greek Γαλαξίας κύκλος (Galaxias Kyklos) — “Milky Circle.”
In his magnum opus, Astronomica, the Second Century Latin poet Manlius catalogs many versions. One suggests the Milky Way is the seam where the two half-globes of the heavens are welded. Or it might be the abode of the souls of heroes who have died. He noted the bioluminescent glow of a ship’s wake and surmised the bright path in the night sky might be the same.
Or, he cites Democritus from the Fifth Century BCE, that it might be the accumulation of myriad stars too faint to see individually. Which is surprisingly the way we know it now.
The Milky Way is a spiral collection of stars in a Frisbee disc about 180,000 light years across — that is more than a million trillion miles (yes, a million, one trillion times over). It contains between 100 billion and 400 billion stars (counting is hard because of dust obscuring parts, and also because counting that high is exhausting). And it is one of billions of similar collections of stars in the visible universe. Each is called a galaxy.
The sun and earth sit about halfway out from the center of the circle and spin around the galactic center about once every 240 million years, traveling at a speed of 140 miles per second.
That spiral shape is iconic, and found over and over in nature, like in the cloud spiral of a hurricane.
But as I was going to say when truth broke in with all her astonishing matter-of-fact, it is the mythology of the Milky Way that is found in religion and poetry. The spilled milk is common to many cultures, but it is not the only primordial explanation for the spew of light that courses the heavens.
In China, it is the Silver River; in Japan, the River of Heaven. The Sanskrit name is the Ganges of the Sky. In Scandinavia, it is called the Vintergatan or “Winter Street,” because it can be seen only in the winter, since the long summer days never darken black enough at night to make it visible. In Medieval Europe, it was known as “The Road to Santiago,” as it was used to guide pilgrims to the church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. (Conversely, the actual road to Compostela the pilgrims walked was called La Voje Ladee, or “The Milky Way.” And Compostella itself bears a folk etymology from Latin: field of stars.)
In Australia, one Aboriginal peoples in Queensland consider the streak of light as a swarm of termites blown into the night by primordial hero Bur Buk Boon, through a hollowed log that became the first didgeridoo.
In ancient Babylonia, the god Marduk sliced off the tail of the evil dragon Tiamat and threw it into the sky, forming the Milky Way.
After the Milky Way, the second most common name is “The Birds’ Path,” after a belief that migrating birds used the glow in the night sky to navigate. It is called that in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey, Kazakhstan, parts of Ukraine and Poland, and in variation in the Tatar language.
When you build a campfire at night and poke the logs, a cloud of sparks fly up with the smoke. In Spanish, these sparks are chispas, in French, étincelles, in Latin, scintillae. (In Vulgar Latin, this became ‘scintilia, into Medieval French as estancele and hence our word, “tinsel.” Who knew?) I imagine those flying sparks in my imagination continue upwards, blowing and whirling, to become the band of scintillae in the sky.
There are those of scientific mind, and those of esthetic. In school, my best friend was a math and science whiz — we called him “Gizmo.” We shared an interest in astronomy, although his was objective and filled with numbers, and mine was a delight in the vastness, the beauty and the cosmic. Giz had a Criterion Dynascope 6-inch reflecting telescope and we spent many nights pointing the thing at the sky, looking at the rings of Saturn or the craters of the moon. And the nebulae, including the fuzzy spot in the sky we call the Andromeda Galaxy. To this day, on a dark moonless night, I can still make out with my naked eye among the buckshot of stars, the sublime blur in the sky.
I would spend hours at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, part of my spiritual home a the American Museum of Natural History. It is much changed now, rebuilt as the Rose Center. I loved the old halls, including the black-light murals, the orrery, the meteorites, the scales to compare your weights on other planets and the famous sign:
But most of all, I loved the photographs. Black and white images taken with the Wilson and Palomar observatories’ telescopes, framed and lit from behind to make them glow. The image of the Andromeda Galaxy was stunning.
It may be hard to conceive the magic those old images had, now that we are so used to the full-color pictures sent down to us from the Hubble Telescope in orbit. Those images are also stunning, even though they are often presented to us in false color.
But the real thing can be even more awe inspiring than the pictures. I remember a night I spent north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, in back country 60 miles from the nearest paved road, on the way to the Toroweap Overlook.
The night sky was intense; I sensed stars numbered in Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions.”
At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west.
So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I hadn’t seen so many stars since I was a child.
The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius.
I leaned back on the car hood, with my head against the windshield and stared straight up. For two-and-a-half hours I sat there, looking heavenward, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look.
What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. Then, as I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars.
And, of course, I was. It was true. I was having my spiritual vision, as it were, like some Lakota doing the Sun Dance, or a Sufi experiencing transcendence. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that my vision turned out to be factual. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.
I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent. The vision-experience may simply be a radical change in perspective.
When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.
At 3:30 in the morning, awakened by coyotes and owls, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled.
The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled again, and the east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa. It had rained briefly during the night and when I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise.
Astronomy has moved ahead, working with computer images now instead of photographic plates. Perhaps because I grew up and became a writer rather than a scientist, I miss the awe and beauty of those million-dotted pictures, glowing white hot, like Moses’ bush, and giving a visual, esthetic image of the majesty and immensity of the universe.
The great color images from the Hubble telescope have replaced the old Mt. Wilson pictures in the popular imagination of most younger students, giving a newer, more rainbowed sense of the awe of the universe. Like so much else, the images have become just more “media.” They are too pretty.
But for me, there is the reality of a night sky that city lights blot away, leaving us only with the snapshots. The spinning Milky Way traversing the inner dome of heaven and the spatter of stars, so far away they cannot be measured in any sense meaningful to our lives on this planet, are the very ground of reality.