The Algonquin Song of the Stars
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
Life is a collection of discoveries among which are nuggets that illuminate our souls. Today I want to share with you a gem from my treasure trove.
In 1882 Charles G. Leland, journalist, essayist and folklorist, began collecting legends from the northern Algonquin Indians. He published his findings in 1884, prefacing the stories with the statement that the old people said the tales were once sung and that many of them were poems. Leland's book ended with a poem that is as beautiful and insightful, at least for me, as any piece of literature I have ever known. Here it is.
THE SONG OF THE STARS
We are the stars which sing,
We sing with our light;
We are the birds of fire,
We fly over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We make a road for spirits,
For the spirits to pass over.
Among us are three hunters
Who chase a bear;
There never was a time
When they were not hunting.
We look down on the mountains.
This is the Song of the Stars.
When I encountered this poem, I felt as though my whole life had been preparing me to appreciate it. Within it are allusions to stories and it contains provocative ideas. On the one hand it sounds ancient, on the other it points toward the future, and I am very comfortable with it as a contemporary astronomer.
The story about the hunters chasing a bear has been widely publicized since Leland's time. Indeed, it has been in Boy Scout books for many years. This is a story relating the stars to the earth and the seasons. One fine spring day three hunters began chasing a bear, quite unaware of the journey they had embarked upon. The illusive creature lead them northward, keeping out of reach ahead of them. So intense was the chase that the hunters did not even notice when the bear stepped from earth to sky: they followed, rising above rocks, trees and mountain tops. The longer they pursued, the more determined they became. After many months, they got close enough to wound the bear. Blood dripped down, captured by leaves, transforming the landscape in crimson glory. The bear swooped down to earth. Hidden in a cave, it rested, healed and gained strength. When spring arrived the hunters found the bear and took up the chase again.
Every year the story is retold by movements of the sky and cycles on the ground. The bear, formed by the four stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper, rises upward in the northeast on spring evenings. The three hunters, the handle of the Dipper, follow. By summer they are high over the North Star as darkness comes. When autumn arrives, the hunters arrow finds its mark, as the bear moves low in the northwest and forests blush in fulfillment of the year. On winter evenings, the bear passes under the Pole Star, brushing the horizon to disappear from easy view. With the blossoms of spring, however, bear and hunters are rising up again. Every year the drama repeats to help us remember the order of things, as well as the stories that connect children to their ancestors.
The poem reminds us of the concept that the Milky Way as the road for spirits traveling to the next world. This Algonquin idea is common to many other North Americans, and it is found across the waters in Scandinavian lands.
The key line in the poem is, "Our light is a voice." The allegory of light as a voice is so appropriate, since the only way we can learn about stars is by analysis of the energy that crosses the immense distances between them and us. Indeed, light is the only "voice" that speaks to us of stars. When we look at them, we begin to comprehend the messages that stream in with their light. At first we could understand only their brightness, colors, patterns and directions. Then we learned how to determine distances. Finally, we were able to disperse light into the energy spectrum and we could read the "words" more clearly. Indeed, much of the history of astronomy has involved learning how to interpret the essence of starlight--to hear the harmonics of the music and discriminate the words of the Song of the Stars.
For me, at least, the Algonquin Song of the Stars expresses, in simple words and a few short lines, the long journey of discovery of the cosmos that began when people gathered in caves to tell stories relating themselves to things close by and far away, continuing into scientific laboratories and observatories where instruments and the language of mathematics amplified our abilities to perceive, measure and discern, and on into the future as we continue to look around and magnify our comprehension of ourselves as travelers through oceans of space, thriving on currents flowing from stars.