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Star Stories - A Tradition That Spans Time and Cultures

Stargazing and storytelling are universal, age-old past-times. For millenia, people have looked to the sky, seen shapes in the stars, and attached stories to them. Constellations and their movements have been used to navigate the seas, predict personalities and major events, and to teach moral lessons.

“The sky was always there,” says Anthony Aveni, professor emeritus at Colgate University and author of Star Stories: Constellations and People. “The sky was the storyboard, filled with tales about the meaning of life and social relations.”

Aveni speculates that linking myths and legends to constellations may predate cave paintings. And, while different cultures have enshrined different constellations and stories, there are many common themes.

The cluster of stars known in the Greek system as Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, is recognized almost universally as a group of between six and eight stars. In fact, Aboriginal Australians also call them the Seven Sisters, KungaKungaranga, while Iroquois see them as seven children.

The Iroqouis legend of the constellation is a reminder of the importance of taking time to carry on traditions and give thanks. The appearance of Pleiades – mid-autumn in the north – is perfectly timed for a signal to celebrate the annual harvest.

Seasonality is a common theme among constellation myths, according to Aveni. Stories progress as constellations move across the sky – hunter chasing hunted, lovers pursuing each other or forever kept apart.

“These things we see in the sky, which all appear and disappear at precisely the right time, are cues that cause us to think about what's important to us,” Aveni said.

Many constellation myths hold moral lessons, and there are as many cautionary tales about how not to behave as there are good examples. And, while these are old stories that often include outdated ideas about gender roles and proper behavior, Aveni says the deeper meanings remain relevant.

“All of these myths have meaning. There is truth in myth,” Aveni argues. “It's not our scientific truth. It's not the kind of truth we can say is provable empirically. But they're all true in the sense that they tell stories that relate to people.”

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.