Category Archives: Crow/Raven
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Pleiades Star Lore Around The World
For many tribes in the African continent, the Pleiades mark the beginning of the agricultural season.
East Africa – In the Swahili language, the Pleiades are called: “kilimia” which means to “dig” or “cultivate.” The Pleiades appearance in the heavens is seen as being time to start digging or the arrival of rain.
North Africa – The Tuareg Berbers call the Pleiades by the name of: Cat ihed, pronounced as: shatt ihedd or Cat ahăḍ, pronounced as: shat ahadd. The name means “daughters of the night” in the Berber language. Other Berber tribes have called the Pleiades star cluster by other names such as: Amanar “the guide” and Tagemmunt “the group.”
The Tuareg Berber have a proverb that translates into English as:
“When the Pleiades fall, I wake up looking for my goatskin bag to drink. When the Pleiades rise, I wake up looking for a cloth to wear.”
It is a proverb that takes note of the changing of the seasons to prepare for the heat of summer and the colder weather that the rainy season brings.
South Africa – The Basotho call the Pleiades “Seleme se setshehadi” meaning the “female planter.” When the Pleiades leave the night sky around April, the Basotho’s tenth month, along with the appearance of the star Achernar marks the beginning of their cold season. Like many South African cultures, the Pleiades are associated with agriculture and plenty. The Khoikhoi tribe call the Pleiades by the name of Khuseti, the stars of rain or rain bearers.
The Pleiades star cluster is known by several names among many tribes.
Karatgurk – In the stories told by the Wurundjeri of Victoria, Australia, the Pleiades represent a group of seven sisters known as the Karatgurk. They were the first to hold the secrets of fire and each of the sisters carried live coals on the end of their digging stick. The sisters refused to share the coals with anyone and eventually were tricked into giving up the secret of fire to Crow who in turn brought the gift of fire to the rest of humanity. As to the sisters, they were taken up into the night sky where their glowing fire sticks became the stars of the Pleiades cluster.
Kidili – A moon god of the Mandjindja from Western Australia, he had tried to rape some of the first women on Earth. In retaliation, the lizard men, Wati-kutjara attacked and castrated him using a boomerang before leaving him to die in a watering hole. As for the women, they became the Pleiades star cluster.
Kungkarungkara – They are the ancestral women in the lore of the Pitjantjatjara tribe.
Makara – According to the Adnyamathanha tribe, the Makara (The Pleiades) are the wives of stars within the Orion constellation.
Napaltjarri – From Central Australia, they were seven sisters being chased by Jilbi Tjakamarra. He had attempted to use love magic on one of the sisters. She refused Jilbi’s advances and she and her sisters fled from him. They fled all the way to Uluru where they searched for honey ants. While there, the sisters again saw Jilbi and they went to Kurlunyalimpa and the other spirits of Uluru who transformed the sisters into stars. In response, Jilbi transformed himself into the Morning Star seen in Orion’s Belt where he continues to chase after the seven sisters.
The Seven Sisters And The Faithful Lovers – In this story of the Koori’s Dreamtime, the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters were a group of seven beautiful ice maidens. Their parents were huge mountain whose peaks were hidden by the clouds and an ice-cold stream who flowed from some snow covered hills. The Seven Sisters would wander the land, their long hair flowing out behind them like storm clouds. Their beauty was so great, that many men loved them, but the sisters were always cold in returning any affections.
One day, a man by the name of Wurrunnah, caught two of the sisters and forced them to live with him while the others continued on their journey home to the sky. Wurrunnah soon found that the sisters he caught were ice-maidens and took them to his camp fire in order to try and melt the ice off of them. This only served to put out his fire and dimming the brightness of the two sisters.
The two sisters were very lonely and sad by their captivity and every night, they would look up to the night sky where they could see their sisters calling for them. One day, Wurrunnah told the two sisters to go out and gather some pine bark. After a short trip, the two came to a big pine tree where they began with stripping the bark off of it.
As they stripped bark off the pine, whose totem was the same totem as the sisters, it began to extend upward towards the sky. The two sisters saw their opportunity and climbed up the tree to their home in the sky with their sisters. The two sisters never did regain their full brightness in the heavens and is why two of the Pleiades are dimmer than the others. The journey of the seven sisters is remembered every time it snows.
The Berai Berai Brothers And The Seven Sisters – Another story told of the Seven Sisters is that when they were on earth, of all the men in love with their beauty, the Berai Berai or two brothers were the most devoted. They always brought all the choicest catches from their hunts to the Sisters as an offering and token of their love. This love was not returned and when the Sisters wandered away, up to the mountains, the Berai Berai followed after them.
After the Sisters left for their journey to the sky, the Berai Berai mourned. A grave depression fell upon them that they eventually died. The spirits of the Dreamtime took pity on the brothers and placed them up in the sky, up where they could hear the Sisters sing. On clear nights, the Berai Berai can be seen, represented by the stars that form Orion’s Sword and Belt.
The name for this constellation in Lithuanian is Sietynas and Sietiņš in Latvian. Both of which have a root word: sietas meaning “a sieve.” In both Latvian and Lithuanian folk talks, the Pleiades constellation is shown as an inanimate object, a sieve that is stolen by the devil from the god of thunder or it is used to bring light rain by the thunder god’s wife and children. In some Lithuanian folk songs, Sietynas is depicted as a benevolent brother who helps orphaned girls to marry or he helps walk soldiers across fields.
Ben Raji Mythology
Living in western Nepal and northern India, the semi-nomadic Ban Raji refer to the Pleiades as the “Seven Sisters-In-Law and One Brother-In-Law” or “Hatai halyou daa salla.” For the Ban Raji, when the Pleiades rise up over the mountains at night, they see their ancient kinfolk. The timing for the appearance of the Pleiades over the Nepali mountains along the Kali River, marks when it is 8 p.m. local time.
Bronze Age And Celtic Mythology
In Bronze Age Europe, the Celts and possibly others may have associated the Pleiades with grief, mourning and funerals. At this period of time and history, the time of the Autumn Equinox and Solstice would have occurred around the time that the Pleiades star cluster rose in the eastern skyline as the sun set. The precession of the constellations over the centuries and millennia would have since changed for the timing of the Equinox and Solstice celebrations. This Solstice celebration is possibly a predecessor to the modern Halloween, Samhain and All Souls Day celebrations. While a good many Pagan and Wiccan sites are quick to point out such a connection, more secular sites don’t necessarily see a connection. What seems more plausible is that it does have connections as a Harvest Festival and the end of the harvest season before winter comes.
An artifact discovered in 1999 called the Nebra Sky Disc, due to where it was found in Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt in Germany, shows the Pleiades star cluster on it along with the Sun and Moon. Two golden arcs on the disk mark the solstices. It has been dated to somewhere around 1600 B.C.E. and part of the Bronze Age Unetice culture. Unlike the megaliths of much of Europe, the Nebra Sky Disc is a portable astronomical instrument.
Aztecs – The Aztecs based the beginning of year on the appearance of the Pleiades asterism when it rises in the east before the sun’s morning light became too bright. They called this star cluster by the name of Tianquiztli, meaning “marketplace.”
The Aztecs were very good astronomers and kept careful track of the heavens. Their calendar was based on a 52-year cycle. The Pleiades were carefully watched to make sure the world wouldn’t end. At the end of each 52-year cycle, the Aztecs held a religious ceremony to ensure the rebirth of the sun and continued movement of the heavens. The Aztecs strongly believed their ceremony would prevent demons of darkness from coming to the Earth and devouring mankind. For this, they offered up to the gods human sacrifices.
Mayan – During colonial times, the Pleiades were used to track the time by diving up the night.
An epic legend tells the story of the Pleiades star cluster. There had been a long standing feud between the heavenly twins Hun-Apu and Xbalanque and a giant named Zipacna. With the help of several other youth, the twins pretended that they were building a house. They started with digging a large hole in the ground. As they were digging, Zipacna came along and asked what they were doing.
The twins told Zipacna they were building a house but were having trouble with digging a hole for the foundation deep enough. Zipacna was persuaded to help and he went down into the hole. Once he was at the bottom of the hole, the twins and their helpers began to throw stones, dirt and tree trunks down on him. When the hole was completely filled in and everyone was certain that Zipacna must be dead, they continued to build a house over the spot marking his grave.
Unknown to the twins, Zipacna was still alive. Yes he had been knocked out by the weight of everything piled and thrown on him. Once he had regained consciousness, he lay there and waited, pretending to be dead until the house was completed.
With the house completed and everyone inside celebrating, Zipacna made his move. Throwing up his shoulders, Zipacna’s great strength allowed him fling the house up into the sky towards the heavens. There, the twins and everyone with them became the Pleiades, unable to get back down to the earth.
Monte Alto Culture – This also includes other cultures such as Takalik Abaj and Ujuxte who are known to have made early observatories. They used the Pleiades stars and Eta Draconis as references in the night sky. The Pleiades are called “The Seven Sisters” and thought to be where they originated from.
To the Chinese, the Pleiades are known as Mao, the Hairy Head of the White Tiger of the West. The Pleiades seem to be the first stars mentioned in astronomical literature, appearing in the Annals of 2357 B.C.E. Aside from the name Mao, the Pleiades are also known as The Blossom Stars and Flower Stars.
The ancient Egyptians recorded seven stars within Pleiades. Some scholars believe that the seven chambers of the Great Pyramid represent the seven stars of Pleiades.
The goddess Hathor has an interesting take in her role and aspect as a Mother goddess for it was believed by the ancient Egyptians that “Seven Hathors” would appear at the birth of a new baby, foretelling his fate. The reason they’re mentioned is that during the Ptolemaic Period, when Egypt was under Greek rule, the Seven Hathors became identified with the Pleiades star cluster.
Aside from Hathor, the Pleiades also represented the goddess Net or Neith, the “Divine Mother and Lady of Heaven.”
French History And Literature
La Pléiade is a post-Renaissance literary movement that references the Pleiades constellation and seven poets from the Alexandrian period during the reign of Ptolemy II. The La Pléiade title has been used by two groups of poets from Toulouse during the beginning of the 14th century and another group founded by Pierre de Ronsard in 1553. Their goal was to promote the classical literature of Greek and Rome with translations rather a perceived, outdated use of Latin. While the group were not known for being innovators, they did provide the foundations of French Classicism.
The Pleiades were considered by some ancient Greek astronomers, such as Eudoxus of Cnidos to be a distinct constellation separate from Taurus. This asterism is mentioned of by Hesiod and Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey. The ancient Greek text Geoponica mentions the rising of the Pleiades cluster. The Greek temples of Hecatompedon, built in 550 B.C.E. and Parthenon, built in 438 B.C.E. are oriented to the rising of the Pleiades.
For the Greeks, the setting of the Pleiades around October and November was a time to bring their ships in to port and to plow and sow their lands. Hesiod makes mention of the Pleiades numerous times in his “Works and Days,” alluding to their importance as a time of stormy weather and planting. Greek sailors were known to consult the heavens for the appearance of the Pleiades before setting sail.
Orion And The Pleiades
The Greek story is perhaps the most well known to many Westerners about the Pleiades star cluster.
The Pleiades is a group of seven sisters whose father is the titan Atlas. As their story goes, the Pleiades were traveling with their mother Pleïone, through Boeotia when they encountered the Greek hero Orion. He expressed such a deep infatuation and interest in them that he relentlessly pursued the sisters and even their mother. And with their father Atlas now holding the earth up on his shoulders, this very likely encouraged Orion in his antics as he thought no one could stop him.
After running from Orion for seven years, the sisters became tired of such extreme harassment and pursuit. In their desperation, they appealed to Zeus who in response, placed them up in the heavens, specifically in the Taurus constellation where they would be protected by the mighty bull from Orion’s unwanted advances. In the accounts that include Pleïone being chased by Orion, she too is placed up in the heavens, this a further punishment for the titan Atlas to be separated from not only his wife, but daughters.
In the end, being placed up in the heavens doesn’t seem to have helped them much, for when Orion died, he too was immortalized up in the heavens as a constellation. He can be seen up there still chasing after the Pleiades.
Variations to this story say the Pleiades committed suicide after the death of their brother Hyas. Other versions say that when the sisters pleaded to the gods for mercy from Orion, they were changed first into doves and then later into stars.
If the Pleiades weren’t getting chased by Orion, then they became stars after committing suicide over the fate of their father Atlas. Or the loss of their siblings the Hyades and Hyas. After their death, the god Zeus placed the sisters up into the heavens to become the famous star cluster.
Companions Of Artemis
This version of the myth follows closely the more well-known story of the Pleiades being chased by Orion. The Pleiades were the companions of the virgin goddess Artemis. She wasn’t too happy with Orion when he came upon the Pleiades while playing. In his lust and infatuation, he chased the Pleiades. On their behalf, Artemis pleaded with Zeus to intervene and he did so by transforming the sisters into doves and then into stars, becoming out of reach of both Artemis and Orion. Zeus, not to be completely without compassion for his daughter, the path of the Moon passes between the Pleiades and Orion so that she has a chance to be reunited with her friends on a regular basis.
Contrarianism – Daughters Of An Amazon Queen
While many variations of the Greek myths regarding the Pleiades are similar, especially in regards to names and parentage; Theocritus’ Idylls, using references from Callimachus differs greatly from the more familiar myths. In the Idylls, the Pleiades are the daughters of an Amazon queen. Their names are: Coccymo, Glaucia, Lampado, Maia, Parthenia, Protis and Stonychia. The sisters are supposed to have created ritual dances and nighttime festivals.
Ancestors Of Dionysus
In Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, the Pleiades appeared as an omen of victory for Dionysus’ war against India. There is further mention that the pleiad Electra was the foster-mother of Harmonia, the grandmother of the Greek god Dionysus. And thus in a way, Electra can be seen as Dionysus’ ancestor.
Indian Astronomy And Mythology
The Pleiades are known by a number of different names such Karttikeya, Kṛttikā, Kārtikā, Kumara or Subrahmanya. In both Indian astronomy and Hindu astrology, the names Krttika and Kartika translate into English as: “the cutters.” Like the ancient Greeks, India has a number of different, varying and often conflicting stories of Kṛttikā.
Hindu Mythology – A story associated with this star cluster tells how the war-god Skanda was raised by six sisters known as Kṛttikā, making it so that one of his names he is known as is Kartikeya or “Son of the Kṛttikā.” Skanda or Kartikeya was born to Agni and Svāhā after the Kṛttikā had impersonated themselves as six of the seven wives of the Saptarshi in order to make love with Agni. When the Saptarshi learned of this incident, they began to doubt their wives’ chastity and divorced them. Since then, the wives were known as the Kṛttikā.
As the six Kṛttikā, they are seen as the mothers of Skanda, his six faces represent them. Slight variations to this say that Skanda developed his six faces in order to drink the milk from his six mothers.
Hindu Astrology – Kṛttikā is the third nakṣatras or lunar mansion out of twenty seven other naksatras. The Pleiades are known as the Star of Fire and one of the most prominent of nakshatras associated with anger and stubbornness. They are ruled by the Hindu god of war, Kartikeya. Another deity associated with Kṛttikā is Agni, a god of sacred fire. Additionally, it is ruled by the sun or Surya and has the symbols of a knife or spear. There is a Hindu tradition of naming children according to the naksatra they’re born under. Each naksatra will have four syllables associated with it that is used for that start of a child’s name.
Kumarasambhava – “The Birth of the War God”
In an epic poem written by Kalidasa from the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., the gods had wished for a god to born in order take on and kill the demon Taraka who had a geas or boon that he could only be killed by a son of Shiva.
The problem, is that Shiva was deep in his meditations and not at all interested to his wife Parvati. That is, at least not until Kama, the god of love struck Shiva with an arrow. Now, after having practice abstinence for so long, Shiva’s virility was incredibly potent and the other gods fear what would happen. So they took Shiva’s seed and dropped it into a fire. It is from this, that the god Skanda, whose name means: “Spurt of Semen.”
Tamil Mythology – The Pleiades are known as Karthigai, they were the six wives of six Rishis, represented by the stars of Ursa Major. The seventh was known as Arunthadhi, associated with the star Alcor. She is the wife of Vasistha, the seventh Rishi or Sage. He is associated with the star Alcyone. Another name of the Karthigai is Saptha Kanni, meaning the “Seven Virgins.”
A variation to this story is that the Krttika had all lived together up in the heavens. One day, Agni, the god of fire fell in love with the seven Karthigai or Krttika. In trying to forget his love for them, Agni wandered the forest until he met Svaha, the star Zeta Tauri.
Svaha was immediately infatuated with Agni and disguised herself as one of the Krttika in order to seduce him. Agni truly believed he had made love with one of the Krttika. Svaha became pregnant and gave birth to Skanda.
As soon as Skanda was born, rumors began to circulate that one of the wives of the Rishis was his mother. This caused the Rishis to divorce their wives. Of them all, only Arundhati remained married. The other Krttika went on to become the Pleiades.
The Pleiades are known as Lintang Kartika in Javanese, it is a name that is from the Sanskrit word Kṛttikā, one of the nakṣatras in Hindu astrology.
In Japan, the Pleiades star cluster is known as Subaru, meaning “coming together,” “cluster” or “united.” The name and image are also the same name for a car manufacturer, Subaru.
Another name for the Pleiades is Mutsuraboshi, meaning “six stars.” This name dates from the 8th century Kojiki and Manyosyu documents. The Pleiades have also been called the Hoki Boshi, meaning “dab of paint on the sky” or “brush stars.”
A story found among the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, tells the story of Dümur, the eldest son of Ligedaner who is the mother of all the stars. Ligedaner is identified as being the star Capella in the Auriga constellation, Dümur is identified as the star Antares and the youngest son is identified as Pleiades.
Ligedaner’s sons came down from the vault of Heaven to visit with her where she lived on the atoll Alinablab. While there, a contest was proposed that who ever was the first to reach a certain island somewhere out in the East would be named the King of Stars.
The contest was agreed to and the sons prepared themselves to take off to claim the title of King. Ligedaner asked Dümur to take her with him in his canoe. Dümur refused as he saw that his mother wanted to take as many things with her as she could and thereby slow down the canoe with its weight.
Ligedaner asked each of her sons in turn to take her with them in their canoes and each in turned refused. Until she got to her youngest son, Pleiades who finally accepted her request to go with him. Ligedaner had seven objects she was taking with her and as she got into the canoe, she instructed Pleiades where to load and place each object.
When they were finally loaded up, Pleiades took his place to start rowing. He was surprised to find that instead of being weighed and slowed down by all the objects, that his canoe shot out into the water with great ease nor did he have to use his oars. The seven objects it turned out, had been previously unknown sail rigging and with his canoe driven by the wind, it took no time at all to catch up with his brothers.
As Pleiades’ canoe caught up with Dümur’s canoe, Dümur demanded, on his rights as the first-born son that his youngest brother hand over his canoe to him. Dismayed, Pleiades complied with the demands. Ligedaner proceeded to play a rather mean trick on Dümur by turning the canoe around and then when she jumped with Pleiades into the sea, she took with her the yardarm. Together, Ligedaner and Pleiades swam on towards the island to the East.
Dümur found that in order to sail Pleiades’ canoe, he had to fasten the sail to his shoulders, causing him to become bent over. By the time Dümur reached the island, he found that his youngest brother Pleiades and Ligedaner had beaten him there already and that Pleiades now claimed the title of King of the Stars. Angry, Dümur desired to never see his brother Pleiades again. This separation fo Dümur and Pleiades can be seen in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere as when Pleiades rises in the East, Dümur (as the star Antares) sets in the West. The bent back of Dümur is also seen represented by the curved line formed by the stars outlining the bent body of Scorpius.
Etymology – The Eagle
Pronunciation: There are a few different variations – ˈækwɨlə, əˈkwɪlə and ˈækwɨli
Also known as: Αετός Δίας (Aetos Dios), Aquila Jovis, the Bird of Zeus and the King of Birds
The constellation Aquila, the Eagle has been recognized as early as 1,200 B.C.E. The Euphratean uraanographic stone, dating from the Mesopotamian cultures, depicts this constellation. The constellation lies just a few degrees north of the celestial equator. Many ancient cultures such as the Persians, Hebrews, Arabs, Greeks and Romans all saw an eagle represented in this constellation.
The constellation is seen first with a straight line of three stars that symbolize the wings. The tips of the wings are seen to extend out further to the southeast and northwest. The head of the eagle is seen as stretching out towards the southwest. In older depictions of this constellation, the Eagle is sometimes shown carrying the youth Ganymede.
The constellation known as Aquila is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Aquila is also mentioned by Eudoxus in 4th century B.C.E. and by Aratus in 3rd century B.C.E. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 22nd in size.
Constellations bordering with Aquila are: Aquarius, Capricornus, Delphinus, Hercules, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Sagittarius, Scutum, and Serpens Cauda. The best time to spot Aquila is during the month of August in the Northern Hemisphere.
Antinous – Obsolete Constellation
The astronomer Ptolemy catalogued nineteen stars altogether in Aquila and Antinous. The now obsolete Antinous constellation had been named during Emperor Hadrian’s rule in 132 C.E. Sometimes the cataloging of stars is erroneously attributed to Tycho Brahe who cataloged twelve stars in Aquila and seven stars in Antionus. A Hevelius cataloged some twenty-three stars in Aquila and nineteen in Antionus.
Among the Arabs, Aquila has been known as the Flying Eagle, Crow or Raven. The Persians knew Aquila by the names: the Falcon and the Flying Vulture. The Turks referred to this constellation as the Hunting Eagle.
Chinese Astronomy And Mythology
There is a rather famous and well known love story found in Chinese mythology that is related to the constellation of Aquila, or rather several of its stars. It’s a story that is also similar to the love story connected with the Cygnus constellation.
In Chinese astronomy, the modern day constellation of Aquila lies in the area of the heavens known as Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ, the Black Tortoise of the North and the Three Enclosures or Sān Yuán that divides the night sky of the Chinese Heavens.
The star Zeta Aquilae is located in a part of the night sky seen as Tiān Shì Yuán or the Heavenly Market Enclosure. The rest of Aquila’s stars are found in the area of the night sky ruled by Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ, the Black Tortoise of the North.
In modern day, Aquila is known by the name of Tiān Yīng Zuò, which means: “the heaven eagle constellation.”
Hegu – The Battle Drum
The star Altair and the two stars to either side of it, Beta and Gamma Aquilae form the asterism known as Hegu, a battle drum.
Tianfu – Celestial Drumsticks
The Chinese have an asterism comprising of the stars 62 Aquilae, 58 Aquilae and Eta Aquilae that they call the Celestial Drumsticks.
Youqi – Banner Flags
The stars Delta, Iota, Mu and Sigma form a banner flying to the right of Hegu.
The stars from Sagitta in the north represent a banner to the left side of Hegu.
The Three Generals
Altair, Beta and Gamma Aquilae are also known as the Three Generals with Altair representing the commanding officers with this two subordinates.
Tiabian – Trade Officials
The stars Lambda and 12 Aquilae along with the stars in the constellation Scutum represented a team of Trade Official overseeing the organization of the markets. An area of the heavens that includes the Hercules, Ophiuchus and Serpens constellations. The officials were located just outside of the market walls.
The star Zeta Aquilae formed part of this wall.
Lizhu – The Empress’s Pearls
An L-shaped pattern formed by the stars 1, 69, 70 and 71 Aquilae represent four pearls worn by the Empress. These same stars are also astrologically connected to the Emperor’s harem.
Qi Xi – The Princess And The Cowherd (Herd-Boy And Weaver-Girl)
This is a rather old story that dates as far back as at least the 6th century B.C.E. where it first appears in a collection of stories called the Book of Songs or Shih Ching. The book was possibly compiled and put together by Confucius. However, this book was later destroy a few centuries later by the emperor, Shih Huang Ti who is remembered more for his burning books instead of the construction of the Great Wall of China.
Chih Nu, identified with the star Vega was the daughter of the Sun-God. Chih Nu was known for being very good and skilled with weaving, especially her creation of tapestries. On one particular day, Chih Nu was looking out the palace window and spotted one of her father’s herdmen, Ch’ien Niu. For these two, it was love at first sight and Chih Nu’s father, the King was very happy when he discovered the news.
All started off well, for it was considered a good match, given how Ch’ien Niu was known for being a hard worker and took care of the royal flock with due diligence.
A wedding was planned in which Chih Nu wove her own wedding dress out of starlight. All started off well and the newly married couple were very happy and deeply devoted to each.
It would seem that this deep devotion was also the source of a problem, for it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Chih Nu’s and Ch’ien Niu’s duties and responsibilities were becoming neglected. Chih Nu’s loom stood forgotten and gathering dust in a corner while the royal cattle that Ch’ien Niu was to tend, began wandering out, straying far across the heavenly plains.
Chih Nu’s father, the Sun-God and King gave the two lovers repeated warnings and still they failed to follow through with their respective obligations and responsibilities. Things got bad enough that the Sun-God finally took measures, the first of which was to banish Ch’ien Niu to the other side of the Heavens to tend the royal cattle there.
Once Ch’ien Niu had crossed the only ford, T’ien-tsin, the Sun-King then ordered that both borders of the ford be closed off so that neither lover could cross. Chih Nu begged her father, but he would not relent on his royal decree.
Eventually, Ch’ien Niu had pleaded her case to the magpies who took pity on her. They decided that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh monty, that they would help the parted lovers. On this day, all the magpies across China would fly up to the Heavens and create a bridge with their wings. This way the two lovers can cross and be together. On this day, Chih Nu cries, at first it is tears of joy that come down as soft, gentle rain. As the day progresses and starts to end, Chih Nu’s tears become a down pour of rain as she knows the two lovers must part ways for another year.
Their task done, the magpies fly away again back to their fields. The next day, when people see the magpies, they take heart knowing that the magpies have done their duty by the way their feathers look trampled. If the magpies’ feathers aren’t trampled, then the people say that bad weather has prevented from flying up to the heavens to form their bridge. Children are also believed to throw stones at any magpies found on the seventh day of the seventh month as these birds are seen as neglecting their duty to go with the others to form the bridge for the two lovers.
Qi Xi Variations
This story is told in China, Korea and Japan, so there are a few different names and variations to the story of Qi Xi. In one version, the star Altair is identified as Niu Lang and his two children are identified as Beta and Gama Aquilae who become separated forever from their wife and mother Zhi Nu, who is identified with the star Vega, in the Cygnus constellation. This separation is represented by the river, the Milky Way.
Another version places the Herd-Boy as an orphan who observes Weaver-Girl among some seven Weavers who descend from the heavens to bathe in a nearby stream. By snatching Weaver-Girl’s robe, Herd-Boy compels her to marry him and ends up sharing her immortality.
Much like the previous version, the two slack off in their duties and it is Weaver-Girl’s grandmother, a Queen of the Heavens who separates the two. The rest of the heaven’s take pity on the young lovers and they are allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month with magpies forming a bridge for them to cross.
In Greek Mythology, there are a few different myths regarding the Aquila constellation. Generally, Aquila is seen as a large golden eagle who serves as Zeus’ messenger and companion animal.
Periphas was a priest of the god Apollo, he lived in Attic at the time and was an autocthon, one of the Earth-Sprung Rock. He was considered so virtuous and beloved by the people that they made him a king and began to honor him like a god.
This angered the god Zeus who was ready to strike down this insolent mortal with one of his thunderbolts. The god Apollo intervened and requested that Zeus instead transform Periphas into an eagle. Zeus went into Periphas’ house and transformed him while Periphas was with his wife. As she didn’t want to be separated from her husband, Zeus also transformed her into a bird, a vulture, represented by the constellation of Lyra, the heavenly vulture.
As Periphas had shown piety and honors to the god Apollo while he had been mortal, Zeus made him the king of birds and tasked him with guarding the sacred scepter and thunderbolts. For Periphas’ wife, Zeus made her a sign and image of good luck regarding all the matters of humankind.
During the ten-year war that Zeus and the other gods held against the Titans, Zeus had an eagle who carried the thunderbolts that he used to hurl at the Titans. In gratitude for the eagle’s service and loyalty, it was given a place up in the heavens as the constellation Aquila.
In other accounts, Zeus adopted the eagle as his bird when it first appeared to him before the Titan War as a sign of good omen while making sacrifices.
The constellation of Aquila is also tied to the story of Ganymede, Zeus’ cup-bearer.
Ganymede was the son of King Tros of Dardania and the basis for the kingdom of Troy in Greek mythology. An exceptionally beautiful youth, Ganymede had caught the attention of Zeus when he was out watching over his father’s flock of sheep. Now, depending on the versions of the story being told, Zeus, either in the guise of an eagle or sending the eagle Aquila, came and carried him off to Mount Olympus. As compensation to King Tros, Zeus gave him some horses.
Once there, Ganymede faced the wrath of Hera, the wife of Zeus, who was angry and very likely jealous that her husband had taken such a fancy for a young boy. In addition to this, she was also angry that Zeus intended for Ganymede to replace Hebe, Hera’s daughter as the cup-bearer after an incident where Hebe had accidentally spilled some nectar of the gods. And it couldn’t have set well with Hera that Zeus immortalized Ganymede in the constellation of Aquarius in addition to immortality and eternal youth.
Another version of this myth says that it was Eos, the goddess of the Dawn who carries off Ganymede to Mount Olympus and then Zeus took him from her to be the cup-bearer.
Regardless of the versions of the story told, Ganymede does become the cup-bearer to the gods and basically serves them their wine. Further variations of this story tell how Ganymede would ride Zeus’ eagle Aquila, accompanying this god on his travels. Both the Aquila constellation near Aquarius and the constellation of Crater, said to be Ganymede’s cup are near Aquarius to complete this story.
Ganymede also becomes deified as he was given immorality and eternal youth by Zeus and ends up being the one responsible for the annual Nile River flooding and the life-giving waters of rain. Some scholars have pointed out that like the story of Capricorn, the Greeks are borrowing from other older stories and cultures as well as coming up with their own stories to explain the images and what the constellations mean.
In Roman times, the name Ganymede was sometimes used for handsome slaves who served as cupbearers. Furthering this, many have pointed out that the story of Ganymede is a clear indication and precedence for homosexuality in Greek culture. Others, like in Plato’s writings of dialogues between him and Socrates say that it wasn’t homosexuality; instead, they point out the meaning of the name Ganymede for “taking pleasure of the mind.” That Zeus loved Ganymede non-sexually for his mind. Still, other sources point out that this is where the Latin word for catamite originates. Additionally, the Roman poet Ovid says that Zeus who turned into an eagle to go retrieve the youth Ganymede.
Aquila Guarding The Arrow of Eros
Another minor story of Aquila that is more attached to the constellation of Sagitta. In this one, Aquila is seen guarding the arrow of Eros that has hit the god Zeus and caused him to become love-struck.
Zeus And Nemesis
During one of Zeus’ many exploits with chasing after and raping other women, he is to have somehow enlisted the aid of the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
In this story, Aquila represents Aphrodite as she’s disguised herself as an eagle, pretending to chase after Zeus who is in the guise of a Swan. All this so he can get the goddess Nemesis to offer him shelter. It is only afterword, when Nemesis has gone to sleep that she learns the swan she thought she had rescued is really the god Zeus in disguise and he rapes her.
To commemorate this conquest, Zeus places the image of the Eagle (Aquila) and the Swan (Cygnus) up into the heavens. Really?
In Hindu mythology, the constellation of Aquila is seen as being Garuda, a half-eagle, half-human deity. Garuda is sometimes depicted as being the mount for the Hindu god Vishnu and to have been large enough to block out the sun. He is the sworn enemy of the Naga serpent race. He is a symbol of violent force, speed, and martial prowess in battle.
Alternatively, the line of three stars that also includes Altair is seen as being the footprints of the god Vishnu.
The Greek constellation of Aquila is very likely based on the Babylonian constellation of MUL.A.MUSHEN, the Eagle. The Babylonian’s constellation is also located in the same area of the night sky as the Greek’s constellation. The author, Gavin White in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, says that the Eagle carried the constellation called the Dead Man or LU.USH in its talons. It’s a story that carries a lot of connections for later Greek and Roman stories of Antinous and Ganymede.
There is a Sumerian story of the hero Etana, who descended to the heavens with the help god Shamash’s eagle while looking for a plant of birth to help ease his wife’s labor pains for the birth of their son, Balih. This plant could only be found in the higher reaches of heaven where Anu lived.
While riding on the back of the eagle, Etana noticed how the earth began to look smaller and smaller the higher they flew. This caused him to become nervous or scared and loose his grip on the eagle’s back.
One version of this story has Etana living for 1,560 years and having only two children. Another version of the story has Etana falling to the earth for daring to try and enter the realm of the god Anu. There is some thought too, that the plant in question, may refer to Mountain Arnica, which is poisonous, but when taken in the right doses, can ease labor pains during birth.
This story seems to have been the inspiration behind the Greek story of Ganymede.
There are several different myths and stories regarding Aquila among the Polynesians.
Futuna – Aquila is known as Kau-amonga, which means the “Suspended Burden.” The name is in reference to the Futunan’s name for Orion’s belt and sword, Amonga.
Hawaii – Among the Hawaiins, the star Altair is called Humu, as in the humu humu fish. The whole of the Aquila constellation is called Humu-ma, the “Humu cluster.” The Humu-ma constellation is believed to influence astrologers.
Marquesas Islands – Here, Aquila is known by the name of Pao-toa, meaning the “Fatigued Warrior.”
Māori – The Māori of New Zealand called Altair by the name of Poutu-te-rangi, meaning “Pillar of the Sky.” Due to this star’s position in the heavens, it has been used in different Māori calendars. In one, Poutu-te-rangi is the ruling star for the months of February and March. In another calendar, it is the ruling star for March and April. Poutu-te-rangi is also the star that rules over the annual sweet potato harvests.
Pukapuka – Aquila is known by the name of Tolu, meaning “three” and comprises of the stars Alpha, Beta and Gamma Aquilae. The star Altair is known by the name of Turu and was used for navigation.
Tuamotus – Aquila is known by the name of Tukituki, meaning to “Pound with a hammer.” The star Beta Aquilae is called Nga Tangata, meaning “The Men.”
Many of the Roman myths regarding the Aquila constellation are very similar to the Greek stories from which they took, borrowed or stole. There are a few additional myths and stories that can be found.
To start with, the eagle represented in the constellation is thought to be Aetos Dios, the golden eagle who serves Jupiter.
Interestingly, the constellation Aquila is known as Vultur volans, the flying vulture by the Romans. This name shouldn’t be confused with the name Vultur cadens, the Roman’s name for the constellation Lyra.
Aetos Dios & Prometheus
Keeping in mind that the Romans called Aquila a vulture, it then ties in with the story of Prometheus and his being chained and bound to the top of a mountain where a large vulture would come and eat his liver every day as punishment.
In the Greek and Roman mythology, Prometheus is the titan who took pity on humankind and gave them the gift of fire after all the other gifts had been given out. Enraged by this act, the god Zeus had Prometheus chained and bound to a mountain. Every day Prometheus would be attacked by a giant vulture or eagle who ate his liver every day as it would grow back by the next. Being immortal, Prometheus suffered a lot as his wounds would heal every day. Eventually after many years, the hero Hercules comes along and frees the mighty titan after slaying the vulture. After it’s death, the god Zeus placed the vulture up into the heavens to become the constellation Aquilla.
Aetos Dios & Psyche
A Roman novel dating to the second century C.E., The Golden Ass and written by Apuleius, there is an incidence in which the goddess Venus sends Psyche to go get a pitcher of water from the river Styx.
Given the deadly nature of the river Styx, the bird Aetos Dios, of his own freewill and his past services to Cupid, comes to aid Psyche in getting water so she wouldn’t come to harm. What seems a little odd in the story given here is that Aetos Dios lies to Psyche, claiming that Venus had sent him to come help her and mentions nothing at all about acting on his own violation, either way, Psyche has the water and returns to Venus with it.
The constellation of Aquila, along with 18 other constellations of: Ara, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Aquila, along with the other avian constellations of Cygnus and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
Aquila’s alpha star, Altair forms part of an asterism known as the Summer Triangle. It is the southern point of the Summer Triangle. The other stars, Deneb, found in the constellation of Cygnus, is the triangle’s northeastern point and Vega, found in the constellation of Lyra to the northwest.
Stars of Aquila
Alpha Aquilae – Also known as Altair, is the brightest star within the Aquila constellation and the 12th brightest star overall in the night sky. Altair’s name comes from the Arabic phrase: “al-nasr al-tair,” meaning “the flying eagle” or “vulture.” Ptolemy named this star Aetus, the Latin word for “eagle.” Both the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians referred to Altair as “the eagle star.”
Beta Aquilae – Also known as Alshain, it is a yellow star. Alshain’s name comes from the Perso-Arabic word: aš-šāhīn, which means “the falcon.”
Gamma Aquilae – Also known as Tarazed, it is an orange giant. Tarazed’s name comes from the Arabic phrase: “shahin-i tarazu,” meaning “the balance” or “the beam of the scale.”
Epsilon Aquilae – This star, along with Zeta Aquilae have an Arabic name of Deneb al Okab, meaning: “the eagle’s tail.” To differentiate Epsilon Aquilae from Zeta Aquilae, Epsilon Aquilae is frequently referred to as Deneb el Okab Borealis as it is north of Zeta Aquilae.
Zeta Aquilae – This star, along with Epsilon Aquilae have an Arabic name of Deneb al Okab, meaning: “the eagle’s tail.” To differentiate Zeta Aquilae from Epsilon Aquilae, Zeta Aquilae is frequently referred to as Deneb el Okab Australis as it is south of Epsilon Aquilae.
Eta Aquilae – Also known as Bezek, is a yellow-white supergiant star. Bezek’s name comes from the Hebrew word bazak which means: “lightning.”
Theta Aquilae – Also known as Tseen Foo, is a binary star. Tseen Foo’s name comes from the Mandarin word tianfu, which means: “the heavenly rafter” and “drumsticks.”
Iota Aquilae – Also known as Al Thalimain, it is a blue-white star. Al Thalimain’s name, along with Lambda Aquila, in Arabic means: “the two ostriches.”
Lambda Aquilae – Also known as Al Thalimain, it is a blue-white star. Al Thalimain’s name, along with Iota Aquila, in Arabic means: “the two ostriches.”
Rho Aquilae – Also known as Tso Ke, is a white dwarf. Tso Re’s name comes from Mandarin and means: “the left flag.” As of 1992, this star is no longer part of the Aquila constellation and has since moved into the Delphinus constellation.
Glowing Eye Nebula
Also known as NGC 6751, this nebula is one of many found within the borders and star field that makes up Aquila.
Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall
Aquila is home to one of the largest single mass concentration of galaxies in the Universe found so far. It is referred to as the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall. It was first discovered in November of 2013 and has a size of about 10 billion light years.
Two major novae have been observed within Aquila. The first one was recorded in 389 B.C.E. and said to have been as bright as Venus. The other novae observed as the Nova Aquilae in 1918 which briefly shone brighter than Altair.
There are a couple of meteor showers associated with this constellation. They are the June Aquilids and the Epsilon Aquilids.
The June Aquilids meteor shower has only been studied by radar and are most active on June 2nd and 3rd.
The Epsilon Aquilids meteor shows is active in mid-March and is best seen using optical aids such as telescopes.