Northern Arizona Astronomy: Astronomical mythology and nursery rhymes have something in common

Astronomical mythology exists in every culture. The constellations may be different, but their purpose was to convey survival information in oral story form to those who would follow, especially since early humans did not have written language.

The type of knowledge often needed to be conveyed included when the best times to plant and harvest were and when certain game animals appeared that might be hunted; etc. Much of what we know about the ancient past has been from the study of mythology, or sky lore, stories that include detailed astronomical facts which demonstrate an understanding of measured astronomical cycles. Scholars have studied the astronomical information these stories that are often found to contain details so specific that it could not simply be that ideas were added just to enhance the tales. Such myths were devised as a way to pass on important knowledge about the world and the universe, and what better way than to use nature’s original calendar, the night sky, which changes and marks events from season to season.

These myths tell us how the ancients understood astronomy and the repeating cycles of time. Some explain such complex topics as the measurement of precession, how the solar system was created, and why the galactic center or why the North Pole is located where it is.

There are numerous examples of astronomy found in Greek mythology. One needs only to look at the constellations that are found in the night sky that match the stories of the Greek pantheon. However, one might find it surprising to discover their presence has made it into some familiar stories in classical literature, such as “The Iliad of Homer”, written about 750 B.C.E. Researchers have shown that Homer assigned each planet and star to a mythological character, and that battles between Greeks and Trojans mirrored the movements of stars and planets as they fought for ascendancy in the night sky. The basic themes of these astronomical myths are so universal and enduring that some stories survive into modern times as nursery rhymes. Here is one in particular that most will recognize:

"Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after."

OK …So what is so astronomical about that? The rhyme is a metaphor about water, and the moon, the celestial body most universally associated with water. Scholars have traced the history of the Jack and Jill rhyme to an early Scandinavian tale about two children, Hjuki and Bil, who were abducted by the moon while on their way to get well water. Their names are derived from the early Scandinavian word "jacca," which means to increase, and "bila," which means to decrease. If we look at the moon, both Jack and Jill can be seen made up from the dark lunar Maria (not unlike the way some see the face of a man in the moon). From New moon through first quarter, the moon increases, or waxes (up the hill), illuminating Jack. Once the moon is full, both Jack and Jill are visible together. As the moon decreases, or wanes to last quarter, (falls down), only Jill is visible. This interpretation might seem a bit far-fetched if it were not for the fact that this rhyme is not an isolated example. It is one of many similar folktales and rhymes known world-wide designed to teach young people the rudiments of astronomy. The lunar-rain association has also been confirmed by modern meteorological studies, which show that lunar cycles often correspond to the timing of precipitation.

Each of these constellations all appear together in the night sky around the spring Equinox which would indicate the time ancestral English farmers should begin planting their crops.

Williams Monthly Star Party

Friday, April 12. Members of the Coconino Astronomical Society, in conjunction with the city of Williams, will host its monthly Star Party from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., at Glassburn Park, in the natural area west of Rod’s Steakhouse parking lot. Several large telescopes will be on hand.


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