When you look at the night sky - what do you see?
Stand there long enough and your brain will try to organise them into a pattern. It’s what we humans do. Then you notice that some of the stars seem to stand still while others move around in circles. You can tell this because you can see where they were in relation to the landscape around you. Then you notice ( we humans are good at noticing) that when a particular group of stars disappear or reappear on the horizon there are heavy winds, so you don’t go out on the sea, or the bison will soon be moving across the plain, or that now is a good time to plant crops, or that winter will soon be coming and its time now to prepare stocks. The stars, sun and moon give a way to measure time and anticipate what might come next in daily life. With anticipation comes learning and the ability to change for the better. The sun gave a daily measure of time, the moon with its changing phases gave a bigger chunk of time – the month. And the six-monthly rise and fall on the horizon of the asterism known as Pleiades gave an indicator of the changing of the seasons. How to convey these insights so that others learn the signs, remember, and prepare?
The cave peoples told these tales and passed them on within their communities to keep the information alive. Some people believe that the early cave paintings reflect the star asterisms in the sky. They told the stories from the experiences of their every day lives, and of the myths they wanted to emulate.
In 1925 the International Astronomical Union defined 88 constellations in the night sky with 48 of them based on the Greek Myths. Above your head are five major Greek myths played out for you in the different constellations! Some have two or three constellations each, but some have fifteen or more! Do you know which constellations are in what Greek myths? Their influence on the star images spread across Europe and into the resulting worldwide colonies which define the Western world today.
However, not every community sees the stars in the same way - they have their own stories for the same asterisms – the little groups of stars - and the constellations – the bigger cluster of stars. These stories were told in communities where the storyteller tells the bones of the story - but their voice, stance, gestures, pace and rhythm all add quality and meaning to the story. All of which is lost in translation when the story goes from the mouth of the storyteller (immersed in the local community traditions and values, which do not have to be spelt out to the audience because they share it in common) to the ear of a translator (with their own different cultural beliefs and values which may counter the teller’s beliefs) then to the pen of the transcriber (who may come from a totally different landscape, country, or culture and is trying to make senses of the words they hear). Even the transition from the pen of the transcriber to the published page is fraught - as divorced from the landscape, the local traditions, and tribal mores the written word is crafted in the world of the author and publisher.
A striking example of this language transition is a rock formation in Wyoming called ‘Devil’s Tower’. Originally it was known in the local language as ‘Bear Lodge’ and it is believed by some that an initial literal translation into English was misheard as ‘Bad God Tower’ rather than as ‘Bear Lodge Tower’. Layered with a Christian influence it became ‘Devil’s Tower’. There is currently a move to restore its original name.
But in changing the story to reflect the new teller’s world view, how do you know you are not desecrating the story from its meaning to the original teller of the tale. Consider the Christian celebration of Easter and the Passion of Christ - where he dies for the sins of the people, saves them and then is resurrected. If a new teller decides that ‘resurrection’ doesn’t fit with the way they want to tell the story and tells that Christ was only injured then miraculously healed, then this is changing the story and affecting the beliefs and values of the original teller and culture. It is called cultural appropriation and is one of many ways that indigenous culture bearers are concerned that their cultural life and beliefs are being eroded.
Some traditions bearers say “don’t try to tell the stories.” But in the absences of an indigenous teller what happens to the stories? It is important to know the stories to know where we have come from, where we have commonalities and our differences.
The different stories of the same stars in the night sky are important to understand and share, but to do this properly we must respect the culture we are exploring, try to understand that culture, know our own culture so that it doesn’t spill into the retelling, and most important of all we must research it.
Equity has a guide for Storytellers who are working with material from other cultures.
By Janet Dowling