We’ve been observing Lakota star tales recently, noting some of the many ways the People (what the Lakota call themselves) made use of stellar information. The stars were employed to tell when to plant and when to harvest, they suggested where the People should be geographically and when, and were used as an inspiration for their art and as the source for their calendar.
One Native American myth was told of the Great Bear, the seven stars of Ursa Major that we often think of in the west as the Big Dipper. Remembering an oral tale told to me in ceremony, the Great Bear runs across the horizon in the Fall, climbs the tree in the Winter, reaches his peak overhead and is shot in the Spring, finally falling back to Mother Earth through the Summer.
At least, that’s what the myth looked like in 1000 BC, observing twilight and these stars.
In the centuries following 2788 BC when Thuban marked the highest ascent of any star in heaven, the Dragon (Draco) was King. It guarded the North Celestial Pole, the center of observational astronomy. Tales surrounding this passage are numerous, but as it moved off this pinnacle, its legendary influence began to wane.
We also know that around 600 BC, Thales attempts to convince Greek sailors to begin using Ursa Minor (as the Phoenicians were already doing) as a celestial central indicator instead of Ursa Major. The Little Bear was starting to draw closer to the North Celestial Pole about this time, and therefore was a more accurate marker for sailors.
This suggests that sometime between 2788 BC and 600 BC, Ursa Major, the Great Bear, was being used to visually determine due north. We have only a few circumpolar constellations that might fit the bill. After Draco, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, you’d have to travel back to around 8000 BC when the stars we know of as Hercules vied with the stars of Draco for control of the Heart of Heaven, but certainly no other since then. That’s ten thousand years ago.
In China the Imperial Dragon was used by observational methods to visually identify the seasons, rising in the form of rain clouds in the spring, falling back to the earth in the autumn, the dry season, and sleeping through the winter as he rests his head on the pillow of the earth. This is how they saw the constellation Draco.
In Egypt we saw how Apophis (Apep, Apop- our dragon) was ritualistically ‘stabbed’ in the neck each New Year as the first stars began to emerge through twilight. The Sumerians had similar customs at their New Year’s ceremony.
The Lakota are doing exactly the same thing, but they are using the correct indicators for their time. The seven brightest stars of Ursa Major walk along the horizon until it climbs the Tree of Life, whose celestial ‘trunk’ is the Celestial Meridian, the line that connects due North on the horizon, to due North overhead. The radiating lines of longitude and latitude that converge on the North Celestial Pole are the great branches of this World Tree.
As the Great Bear reaches the height of heaven, he is ‘shot’ by the Sky People, and begins his fall back to Mother Earth.
But this is EXACTLY what the Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks and even Chinese are doing (in this last case using a simple common pin to ‘stab’ or ‘capture’ the dragon).
ANY culture seeking to unravel the complicated maze of heaven and harness it in the form of a calendar would find this information most useful. Start with the Center, then find the Circle. If you don’t have the correct Center, you don’t have the correct Circle.
Understanding that this is how the Lakota gave back to the Great Spirit, to encourage ‘Wakan Waste’, the cosmic power of good, they thought it important to get it right.
The problem is, because of precession, these points, both the Center and its Circle, keep moving through the stars at a regular rate. The sky picture changes across time, but very slowly.
The myths of the Lakota were thought to have been authored between 1000 BC and 100 BC. Besides the Sacred Hoop, the stars of interest to the Lakota were those called ‘Dried Willow’, which included the constellational stars of what we call Triangulum and Aries, precisely where the Vernal Equinox, or Spring, was at that time.
At the start of the first millennium BC, the stars of Ursa Major were being used in myth to mark the season, and to start a new unit of time; a New Year.
The Bear circled the Center.
As the Sun passed over the Vernal Equinox, Spring was found among the stars of their ‘Dried Willow’, our Aries.
For their mythical time, we have our astronomical Center and Circle.