Native American Legends
Why the Stars are in the Sky
An Eskimo Legend
To the Eskimos the stars are not just put in the sky to give light
or guide the wandering traveler. They are living things, sent by
some twist of fate to roam the heavens forever, never swerving from
their paths. One of these creatures who left the earth and went
to live in the sky was Nanuk the bear.
One day Nanuk was waylaid by a pack of fierce Eskimo hunting dogs.
Nanuk knew only too well that Eskimo dogs are not to be trifled
with, and he tried to give them the slip. Faster and faster he ran
over the ice, but the dogs were still at his heels. For hours the
chase went on, yet he could not shake them off.
In the fury and terror of the hunt, they had come very close tothe
edge of the world, but neither Nanuk or his pursuers noticed. When
at last they reached it, they plunged straight over into the sky
and turned into stars.
To the Europeans they are the Pleiades, in the constellation of
Taurus the bull. But to this day Eskimos see them as Nanuk the bear,
with the pack of savage dogs out for his blood. Up in the sky directly
overhead the Eskimos see a giant caribou, though we call it the
Over on the other side of the sky, they can make out some stars
in the shape of an oil lamp. (We say it is the constellation of
Cassiopeia.) On the horizon between then lamp and the caribou the
Eskimos see stars like three steps carved out of the snow. They
call it the stairway from Earth to the Sky, but we talk of Orion
the Hunter. Sometimes, on the darkest nights, the Eskimos' dead
ancestors come out to dance. The stars are the lights round the
dance floor. Then Gulla glows across the sky: the shimmering pattern
of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
To the Norsemen it was Bifrost, the bridge from our world to Asgard,
home of the gods. But to the people of the Far North, the loveliest
and most wonderful star of all is the sun. They see her as a young
girl of dazzling beauty. In their brief Arctic summer she is there
night and day, for this is the season of the midnight Sun, when
her brother Aningan, the Moon, chases her round and round the North
Pole so she cannot escape over the horizon. Aningan the moon is
a great hunter, and he chases animals as well as his sister the
Sun. He has a faithful pack of hunting dogs to help him. Sometimes
his hounds are carried away by the joy of the hunt, and they jump
over the edge of the sky and run down the stairway in Orion to Earth.
That is why there are shooting stars.
After hunting Aningan rests in his igloo, which he shares with
his cousin Irdlirvirissong. His cousin loves jokes and games, and
sometimes she comes out and dances in the sky. She is so funny that
if the Eskimos see her they roar with laughter. But first they make
sure none of their sorcerers or their other leaders are nearby,
for if Irdlirvirissong knows that people are laughing at her she
will be angry, and her punishments are terrible. She kills people
who make fun of her, and eats them up. The sorcerers are powerful,
and ordinary Eskimos tremble before them, especially Angakog, the
mightiest of all. Yet even Angakog's magic arts are powerless against
the planet Jupiter. For Jupiter is mother to the Sun and the Moon,
and a constant peril to all sorcerers. They have to be very, very
careful, or Old Mother Jupiter will open them up and devour their
livers. Angakog trembles in fear of her, even as the ordinary folk
tremble in fear of him.
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