On a clear night, a glance up to the heavens in the African bush stirs something inside all of us. Whether old or young, there is an attraction to the great mysteries of the moon, planets and stars that seems as old as time. The celestial bodies mean different things to different people, or groups of people. Some of these feelings are written, but most are not. This article will mention a few myths you may not have heard about the night skies of Africa.
The planet Venus is known as both the ‘morning star’ and the ‘evening star’ as it is brightly visible at those times as both it and the Earth orbit the sun. Because of this difference in appearance it was believed to be two different entities in some African folklore. Many regarded the two Venuses as the ‘Wives of the Moon’ because of their great luminosity.
In San legends, morning Venus was known as the ‘Heart of the Dawn’ as she was responsible for leading the sun into the sky. This planet was a leader in the myths of the Tsonga people too, and it was believed that a young Tsonga boy would look to her to lead him through his traditional initiation and on to the responsibility of being a ‘man’.
With so many African traditional duties involving cattle, it is no surprise that the celestial myths follow suit. Venus, when high in the sky was a celestial stray cow in need of rescue. She was believed to be the first drinker of milk by the Xhosa and Herero tribes because of her appearance at milking time.
The Milky Way
A South African winter’s night in the bush allows one to see the Milky Way as clearly as could be. It flows ghostly white through the centre of our skies. Naturally, as it is such a dominant feature in our night sky, there are beliefs that surround it.
Some Tswana believe that at night the Earth is covered by a large blanket, eaten full of holes. The holes lead the blanket to tear, and its greatest spilt formed through its centre, the Milky Way.
It must be noted that modern science has proved that looking towards the Milky Way is actually towards the centre of our galaxy, and perhaps this shows the depth of wisdom of old.
In some legends sky is divided in two by a road, with vastly different weather on each side. The traveller could choose which way to look.
The Southern Cross and its Pointers
In many African myths the Southern Cross represents the journey of giraffes in the sky. In many others, they are the lions. Usually Alpha and Beta Centauri were the males of the species, and Alpha, Beta and Gamma Crucis were the females. This represents the usual, but not only, structure of females outnumbering males in a social group in the animal kingdom.
Also, in some myths, the Southern Cross itself is depicted as the giant head of a great giraffe.
Comets and Meteors
These days, the arrival of a comet is often a cause of much excitement amongst people around the world, but in ancient Africa, it was seen by most as a terrible omen. Some believed it was a precursor to the death of a chief or king.
More positively, they could also be seen as a herd of celestial cattle moving to better grazing, with their hooves breaking through the sky as they walk in a line. The Xhosa people believed that meteors were bad spirits being kicked out of the sky by the good spirits up there, so that their ancestors could live in peace and without evil influences. If a meteorite was found on the ground, as it was a piece of matter that fell from the heavens, it was believed to hold great power.
The Moon has always been a way for traditional Africans to measure time. It is regular in its waxing and waning, and so it could be used to set markers relating to when events occurred and were set to occur. Also, its phases of growth were used to symbolise life, death, development and decay.
In many San tales, the moon is portrayed as something not to be stared at for too long. In some tales she will start crying and be seen no more if one’s gaze were to linger too long. In others, she will take children who are lost in her beauty away to a place they will not recognise when they wake up. Interestingly, these myths may have been grounded in practicality, as when living in the bushveld, to stare too long at something that is bright and beautiful in the dark of night is never a good idea. One must pay attention to what is around you. Therefore, young children would be too afraid to be enticed by the moon as a distraction.
These are just a few of the traditional beliefs regarding the celestial bodies. They are ethereal to look at, and seem to draw one’s thoughts far away. The feelings the night skies bring are unique to all who take the time to see them. It is no wonder that there is such a great variety of stories marking the creation and demise of heroes and villains portrayed in the stars. So next time, when you look up, think of someone, in a vastly different time, doing the same thing, lost in myth and memory.
Thanks to Clarissa Hughes, whose excellent book, ‘Flowers in the Sky’ provided us with most of the information in this section.