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On the Heavens

Humanity has been studying and dreaming about and mythologizing the heavens since before the beginning of recorded civilization. No doubt, our ancestors were telling tales about the sun and stars even as they made the long trek out of Africa. Studying the heavens formed the very basis of some civilizations (see Sumer and the Maya, for example), giving rise to calendar systems, festival cycles, and whole arcs of mythology.

For those interested in the origins of the myths of the heavens (as opposed to just the science, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself) a good place to start is Exploring Ancient Skies: A Survey of Ancient and Cultural Astronomy by David H Kelley and Eugene F Milone. Dense -- though never boring -- Kelley and Milone's book offers a solid grounding in the place of "naked eye" astronomy in ancient civilizations, how our ancestors' observations shaped their civilizations, and the myths and legends that arose around celestial phenomena. A useful interdisciplinary reference, which I recommend for older children and adults interested in the history of astronomy.

Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook Containing The Constellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes and the Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus by Theony Condos is a useful collection of primary source material. Organized by constellation, this books offers little in the way of commentary, instead allowing readers to compare and contrast myths on their own. If you are a writer setting a story in the Classical Age or a poet looking for inspiration, add this to your library.

Another excellent resource is the heavily-illustrated Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets by EC Krupp. There is a heck of a lot of information packed into these pages, covering civilizations around the world. I was especially struck by how Krupp ties ancient stories and traditions to modern lore; for example, the lunar rabbit with our modern Easter Bunny, and the Dog Days of Summer with the rising of Sirius.

Sun Lore of All Ages: A Collection of Myths and Legends by William Tyler Olcott obviously focuses on our star, but does include some information on the moon, too. You'll find lots of different creation myths here, as well as sun-catcher myths and a brief survey of solar worship.

My favorite books for younger readers are The Planet Gods: Myths and Facts About the Solar System; Once Upon a Starry Night: A Book of Constellations; and Zoo In the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations, all by Jacqueline Mitton and Christina Balit. Published by National Geographic, these books contain gorgeous illustrations, simple -- but not simplistic -- text, glossaries, and appendices of useful facts. Along with A Child's Introduction to the Night Sky: The Story of the Stars, Planets and Constellations -- And How You Can Find Them in the Sky by Michael Driscoll and Meredith Hamilton, these would make excellent gifts for a child who has just been presented with a first telescope.*

Books outside the Greco-Roman tradition are hard to find, so They Dance in the Sky: Native American Star Myths by Ray Williamson, Jean Guard Monroe and Edgar Stewart is a real treat. Short introductions orient the reader, offering background on the peoples and regions which are home to these tales. The stories themselves feature Coyote, the five Wolf Brothers, six wives who eat wild onions and then leave their husbands, and many other tales.  Perfect for reading aloud. 

In line with the previous volume is Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back: A Native American Year of Moons by Joseph Bruchac**, Jonathan London, and Thomas Locker. Accompanied by dark, moody illustrations, the poems here celebrate the thirteen scales on Old Turtle's back, each of which relates to one of the moons of the year.

Finally, for all the Heathens out there, look for Theft of the Sun and Other New Norse Myths by Douglas Rossman. A skilled storyteller, Rossman here "reweaves" traditional tales, offering fresh insights into ancient stories.

So, there you have them: a few of the books currently available on the mythology and lore of the heavens. I am sure that I missed a few. If you have any favorites, please email me or post in the comments section. Good books need all the pr they can get.

 

*For really young readers, check out The Big Dipper by Franklyn Branley and Molly Coxe, part of the Let's Read and Find Out Science series.

** Bruchac is the author of numerous books celebrating and exploring various Native American cultures. I recommend all of them. 

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

Comments

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Saturday, 19 January 2013

    It's not easy to find, but "Star Myths of the Vikings" by Björn Jónsson has a lot of material on Norse astronomy. Some of it is synthesized in the Germanic Mythology website page on Germanic astronomy (http://www.germanicmythology.com/ASTRONOMY/GermanicAstrology.html) which ties together some of the Norse myths and constellations. Some of it seems a little like over-reaching, but much of it really seems to be spot-on.

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