Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Shark in the Milky Way: a Hawaiian Legend

The Milky Way as seen through the Hawaiian trees, by active KÄ«lauea (photographed by Sean King)
There are a great many myths that our ancestors created to explain the white and dark patches of the Milky Way in their night's sky. Looking up to see this band of light in the sky, some of them would liken it to a great river or a walkway, while some others thought it was the remnant flames of a horse-rider or chariot dragging starlight or sunlight across the sky. Many of our ancestors, including the Norse and the Algonquin peoples, thought of the Milky Way as a path, perhaps leading to Valhalla or a great village, which their friends and family could follow once they had died. 

The Polynesian peoples commonly thought of the Milky Way as a great river or sea in the heavens, though many of their legends include mention of a great shark. The people of Tuamotus, for instance, considered the Milky Way the sacred ocean of the god Kiho-tumu, and great dark patch in the Milky Way was formed from his ship, which was known as The-Long-Shark. Indeed, many of the Polynesian peoples of various regions had legends that included a shark or great fish swimming in the Milky Way.

Rena Ekmanis' Canoe at Night

Last night I was reading Vivian L. Thompson's "Hawaiian Myths of Earth, Sea, and Sky" (as some of you know, I'm working on another planetarium talk - this one will deal with mythologies of the heavens and connecting ancient people to our modern pursuits in space exploration). One of the stories Thompson shares is called "The Shark in the Milky Way". It tells of one of the adventures of the trickster god Ka-ulu. Here is a very-brief paraphrasing of that story:

This version holds that Ka-ulu's brother, Ka-ehu, had been abducted by a great king, a chief of Far Island. Ka-ulu becomes Ka-ulu-the-Strong and decides to find his brother. 

The king fears Ka-ulu, so he sends Great-Rolling-Surf to kill the strong man. Ka-ulu uses his strength to break the Great-Rolling-Surf into little waves.

The king then sends Great-Stone-Man-with-Eight-Foreheads, a giant made of stone. When this giant attacks, Ka-ulu grabs him and holds him down until the ground and grass and trees grow over him. The Great-Stone-Man thus becomes a stone mountain with eight rolling hills.

The king send his Great-Barking-Dog to attack Ka-ulu, but the latter uses his strong hands to break the Great-Barking-Dog into pieces, each of which became a little barking dog that ran off in fear.

Ka-ulu approaches the king's mountain home. The king throws Great-Rock at Ka-ulu as he climbs the mountain. Ka-ulu crushes the Great-Rock into many little pebbles.

Ka-ulu then approaches the king and places his strong hands on the king's throat. Threatening the king's life, Ka-ulu asks for the whereabouts of his brother. The king, a weakling and fearful for his life, tells Ka-ulu to go ask the Chief of Sharks about the location of Ka-ehu.

Ka-ulu goes to Chief of Sharks and asks where Ka-ehu can be found. Chief of Sharks tells Ka-ulu that Ka-ehu is inside of his great stomach, but there is room for two if Ka-ulu would like to join him. 

Knowing better than to be eaten by a great shark, Ka-ulu grabs the Chief of Sharks by his jaws and pulls them so wide that Ka-ehu can walk out of the shark's stomach. Before Ka-ulu and Ka-ehu leave, Ka-ulu grabs the Chief of Sharks and throws him into the sky. The great shark's body breaks upon and the heavens and shatters into millions of pieces, forming the great white streak across the sky that we now know as the Milky Way.

What would you think of the heavens above if you were alone on a canoe in the great sea? Would you create your own myths and legends from the patterns in the stars, the wanderings of the planets, or the patches of the Milky Way? (image from Thompson's book)

If you'd like to read a bit more about the legends of Ka-ulu, definitely check out the Asia-Pacific Digital Library's versions of the stories. I'll soon be putting together a post that will outline the talk I'll be giving on the constellations and mythology, so stay tuned for that.

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