In late October 2012, astronomers announced that they had created a massive, 9-gigapixel image of the center of the Milky Way, the spiraling galaxy in which our solar system is located. As reported on Space.com, the high resolution “cosmic photo” was created using data from the celebrated telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile. Zooming in on this astonishing image, labeled “the largest survey ever of the stars in our galaxy’s core,” astronomers were able to catalogue 84 million stars “at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy.”
If this “staggering” photo were printed in a typical book resolution, it would measure 30 feet wide by 23 feet high (9x7m). The image focuses on the bulge in the center of the Milky Way, “a concentration of ancient stars found near the core of most spiral galaxies.”
Concerning this technologically advanced composite photograph, which utilized thousands of infrared images, astronomer Dr. Dante Minniti remarks:
“Observations of the bulge of the Milky Way are very hard because it is obscured by dust… To peer into the heart of the galaxy, we need to observe in infrared light, which is less affected by the dust.”
Such gazing into the galactic core has produced an estimate by astronomers of some 160 billion possible planets in the Milky Way as well, a certain percentage of which likely have life on them.
The Milky Way in Myth and Religion
Humanity has been fascinated with peering into the heart of the galaxy since remote antiquity, possibly dating back tens of thousands of years. The Milky Way mythology around the globe appears to be among the oldest astronomical observations incorporated into myth, tradition and religion, passed along for millennia by peoples all over the world.
As I relate in The 2013 Astrotheology Calendar, the Milky Way Galaxy has been the subject of myths globally since ancient times, viewed as the “Celestial River” and “Great Sky River,” mirroring earthly waterways such as the Nile and Ganges. Asian myths called the Milky Way the “Silver River of Heaven,” where dwelt the sun and his daughter, in China reflecting the Yellow River, while in Peru it symbolized the Vilcanota River. The native Australians viewed the Milky Way as a river in the sky with dwellings and places of danger. The biblical “River of the Water of Life” (Rev 22) may also symbolize the Milky Way, with the “tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit” representing the 12 signs of the zodiac on either side.
Perceived as a “bridge that angels used to get to and from Heaven,” the Milky Way is said to be the biblical “Jacob’s Ladder” (Gen 28:12-13), a theme similar to that of the Egyptian god Set and his heavenly ladder, the original “Stairway to Heaven.” The celestial ladder was also a sacred symbol of the Egyptian goddess Nut, employed by the god Osiris to “enter her heavenly skies.” Calling it the “road or path of the sky,” the Pygmy perception of the starry trail is “God’s road to the sun in order to renew it.” Various Pythagoreans evidently perceived it as “an old and disused path of the sun.”
The Path of the Souls
From Africa to Asia, Europe and the Americas, the Milky Way has been considered the place whence life originates and returns. It is the “Path of the Dead” and “Path of the Souls,” serving, for example, as a path to the Viking otherworld of Valhalla, also called the “Asgard Bridge” or “Bifröst.” The Finns, Lithuanians and Estonians associate the souls with birds, calling the stellar highway the “path of birds” and believing migrating fowl “used the galaxy as a guideline to travel south,” a migratory path confirmed by modern science. Thus, the Milky Way was viewed as a pointer to the onset of winter, and symbolizes death and rebirth or resurrection.
Galaxy means ‘milk’
This “river of the sky,” “ladder to heaven,” “bridge of the dead” and “world tree” is also the “cow’s path.” The Greeks represented the Milky Way as the product of a herd of celestial cows and associated it with the nearby constellation of Gemini, whose twins were said to “raid the cattle,” reflecting these star clusters’ positions relative to each other. In this regard, the word “galaxy” derives from the Greek Γαλαξίας or “Galaxias,” the root of which is γάλα gala, meaning “milk,” a lacteal notion found globally.
As we can see, the marvelous Milky Way has inspired humanity with awe since antiquity, as the subject of possibly some of the oldest myths on Earth. Certain cultures understood that this breathtaking stellar landmark represents the center of our galaxy, and the myths of creation, death and rebirth as emanating from the Milky Way demonstrate this perception.
The deeper scientific knowledge now available to us through the high resolution cosmic imagery reveals good reason for our shared global wonderment at our Milky Way galaxy, which produced in humanity’s cultures these profound observations, insights, traditions, myths and religious ideas from thousands of years ago.
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