THE MILK SPILLED FROM HERA’S BREAST
Who, of all those who have turned their eyes to the stars, has not wondered at that mysterious cloud that twines it devious way across the sky like a river’s mist, awaiting the breath of the dawn-wind! And who, realising that their veil that flutters across the heaven is woven of a myriad close-set suns, has not felt a sense of awe and reverence steal upon him, a spirit of humility that takes possession of his soul!
The ancient Akkadians regarded the Milky Way as “a Great Serpent,” of “the River of the Shepherd’s Hut,” and “the River of the Divine Lady.“
Anaxagoras, who lived in 550 BC, and Aratos knew it as “that shining wheel, men call it milk.“
The Greeks call it “the Circle of the Galaxy,” and during all historic time it was regarded as “the River of Heaven,” and “Eridanus,” the Stream of Ocean.
In mythology it represented that stream into which Phaeton and the chariot of the sun were hurdled by the enraged Jupiter.
Orientals fancied here a river of shining silver, whose fish were frightened by the new moon, which they imagined to be a hook.
Aside from the resemblance of the Galaxy to a serpent, and a river, the most popular notion of it among all people and in every age (sic) has been to regard the Milky Way as a highway amid the stars, the “Via Lactea” of the ancients. Chiefly it has been the road to heaven traversed by the souls of the departed.
The way to God’s eternal house.
Star Lore, William Tyler Olcott, pp. 391-392.
It blew me away when I realized that Chapter XXI of Homer’s Iliad was the one where the Milky Way was evoked, visually running between the constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius. This is the chapter where Achilles is so outraged over the lost of his best friend (and lover?) Patroclus that he’s gone mad and is filling the river so full of the dead bodies of Trojan princes that it is blocking its watery passage. The river rises up in rage against Achilles.
This chapter brings to life what all of these ancient mythologies are saying in an amazing extended choreography.