Stars of the Night Sky

The Zulu and Xhosa word for the moon is inyanga which is thought to be of Khoi-khoi origin. Whereas Europeans have traditionally talked about a “man on the moon”, the Zulus and other African tribes see a woman carrying a bundle of sticks. A Zulu tale tells that meteors (or shooting stars as they are popularly known) result when celestial cattle rush off to better pastures in another part of the sky. Their hooves break through the floor of the sky, creating streaks of light that soon fill up with mud. The bright star Spica seen high up looking north in winter is also the main star in the constellation of Virgo. Known by Zulus as iNonqoyi it is also see as the wildebeest star. San Bushman considered the star Sirius to be the Grandmother of Canopus. These are the two brightest stars in our night sky and visible from early November right through to May in South Africa. The morning “star” is known as iKhwezi amongst Zulus.

The Southern Cross – which is prominent in our winter night sky – was recognised by the early Portuguese seafarers as a symbol of their faith. Bushmen knew it as the “giraffes” because these were the big stars. Other African tribes saw the two pointer stars of the Southern Cross (alpha and beta Centauri) as the male lions and the three brightest stars of the cross as the female lions.

Some of the loveliest stories in Africa are spun around the Pleiades – ‘The Seven Sisters’. It is not easy to recognise this cluster and it takes good vision to see the seven stars. Yet if we take a pair of binoculars or a small telescope we soon count 40 or even 100 stars. In total there are over 500 stars in this small open cluster near the constellation of Taurus. The Zulus know them as isiLimela and they believe these stars die in the winter (as they sink below the western horizon not to be seen for many months) and when the rainy season starts in late spring they are reborn as they reappear in the east. These stars are also referred to as the hoeing or digging stars, thus having importance as agricultural signs. For Xhosas the dawn rising of isiLimela was a traditional indicator for a male coming-of-age.

The Milky Way was seen by the San people of southern Africa as a girl that threw the hot glowing ashes from a fire into the sky to make a clear and visible path. Zulus refer to it as umTala a “hairy stripe” in the sky.

ASSA: South Africa Sky 2005

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