Myths and Beliefs about Stars

Legends about the stars have been with us since the dawn of recorded history, many thousands of years ago. As time has gone by, the legends have been greatly refined, but they still exist.

Many of these legends were created primarily to explain things that ancient man had no other way to explain. One of the first challenges for early man was to name star groupings. Naming them allowed people to do more than just point into the night sky and refer to “that star”. The naming was done by many different cultures, sometimes naming the groups for animals or figures in mythology of the times. Because of the heavy influence of both Roman and Greek cultures on our culture of today, the most commonly known is the zodiac, not surprisingly based on Roman and Greek myth. However, they were far from the only culture that did this, and in fact, nearly all of the actual star names that are in use today are Arabic (examples; Rigel, Betelgeuse, Hadar, and Antares).

Astrology, which sought to answer the mysteries of life, relied heavily upon the motion and location of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and from astrology, astronomy was first born. Astronomy is the oldest pure science, yet it is still very young when comparing it to how long man has been around. Some of the greatest names in astronomy, like Galileo Galilei, were also astrologers and did astrology charts for people in an attempt to predict the future, or to explain an event that was currently occurring.

It is pretty easy to find information on Roman and Greek mythology, and to thus get an understanding of some of the stellar legends we are more acquainted with. What I find much more interesting are some of those legends that come from less known people and cultures.

Such is true of the star called Sirius. This star is the brightest star in Earth’s night time sky, visible from nearly anywhere, in both hemispheres. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star, and the people of the Nile valley long used it’s position in the sky as the signal for the annual flooding of the Nile, which was very important to continued life in that region. It is actually from Sirius that we get the phrase, “the Dog Days of summer”. The Egyptians even based a calendar on the rising and setting of Sirius. All of this is interesting and impressive, but it gets even more interesting.

In 1862, using equipment and techniques that were totally unknown to ancient cultures, it was found that Sirius has a companion star, which has been named Sirius B. Sirius B is a white dwarf star that is about the size of the Earth, but with the mass of nearly our own sun. Because of the brightness of Sirius and the small size and dimness of Sirius B, Sirius B is not visible to the naked eye. It would be similar to putting a candle in front of a flood light and trying to make out the feeble light of the candle when you looked directly into the much brighter light.

Yet, for many hundreds if not thousands of years, a small tribe in Africa called the Dogons, have had legends and stories about Sirius B, including that there are people who live in a planet revolving around that star and that have visited Earth. In fact, the Dogon people believe that they are descended from the people that came from the planet orbiting Sirius B. The question that comes to many minds is, how did they even know that Sirius B existed, long before they had the benefit of scientific devices that allow us to actually see the star and know it is there? It is an intriguing question, that, and one that we perhaps may never be able to answer. Could it really be that they really are descended from people living on a planet that orbits Sirius B? Who knows? At about 8 1/2 light years from Earth, at the fastest speed man has ever been able to attain in space, it would still take generations to go there. But it is a possibility that cannot be simply dismissed. The Dogon people had to have received their information from somewhere!

This is but one of many mysteries revolving around legends about the stars. It can be pretty easily seen, though, that legends usually do have a basis in fact. Science means that we cannot discount the possibilities until they are proven, one way or the other. So consider this: How many of the legends are actually true?