Astronomy is an old age tradition in Africa. As with all other cultures, various ethnic groups developed their own interpretations of the solar system. Take for example the Xhosa traditional calendar, which began with in June with isiLimela (Pleiades) and ends in May when Canopus, a large star visible in the Southern Hemisphere signalled the time for harvesting. The Xhosa calendar in its original form is as follows:
The solar system and its interpretations had both similarities and differences among various groups. The following lists some of them:
Orion and the Pleiades
The beginning month of the year, isiLimela or the Pleiades signified the ‘digging stars’. The appearance of these stars in southern Africa signalled the need to start hoeing the ground. According to tradition, Xhosa men used to count their years of manhood from the time in June when the isiLimela first became visible. According to Tswana culture, the stars of Orion’s sword were ‘dintsa le Dikolobe’, three dogs chasing three pigs of Orion’s belt.
The Milky Way
The Milky Way was viewed by the Sotho and Tswana as Molalatladi, the place where lightening rests. It was further believed that this place of rest also kept the sky from collapsing and showed the movement of time. Some even claimed that it turned the sun to the east, in a way to explaining the rising of the sun. It was also believed that it was a supernatural footpath across the sky along which ancestors’ spirits walked. To the Xhosa the Milky Way appeared as raised bristles on the back of an angry dog. It was also referred to as ‘Night’s backbone’, ‘Sky’s spine’, and ‘God’s back’, suggesting that the Milky Way held up or held together the sky.
For the Venda stars are hanging from the solid dome of the sky by cords, while other groups believed the stars to be holes in the solid rock dome of sky. The Tswana held that stars were the spirits of those unwilling to be born. Others again believed that they were the souls of those so long dead that they were no longer ancestor spirits.
For the Khoisan the moon was the Lord of Light and Life. Among the Xhosa it was believed that the world ended with the sea, which concealed a vast pit filled with new moons ready for use. This explained the cycle of the moon starting with a new moon. The Tswana saw it as a woman carrying a child, who was caught gathering wood when she should have been at a sacred festival.
The Khoisan believed the sun was once a man who made it day when he raised his arms, as a powerful light emitted from his armpits. But as the man grew older, he slept longer and it grew colder. In order to keep the warmth, children crept up on him and threw him in the sky, where he became round and as a result it stayed warm and bright since then. Another version goes that the sun was originally a man whose head shone brightly. However, this man was lazy and would sleep til late, keeping the light to himself. As a result, his head was chopped off and thrown into the sky so that the light could be shared with everyone.
Canopus and the Southern Cross
Canopus was known by some groups as the ‘ants’ egg star’ because of its prominence during the season when the eggs were abundant. The bright stars of the pointers and the Southern Cross were also seen as giraffes, though different groups had their own ideas about which were male and female. Among the Khoisan the two Pointers were male lions that once were men, but turned into stars by a girl with magic powers. They saw the three brightest stars of the Southern Cross as female lions. According to traditional healer Credo Mutwa, the Southern Cross is the Tree of Life, our holiest constellation.
While the stories may vary according to a particular group, the interpretations were often fairly accurate of how different ethnic groups understood and engaged with their environments. The common thread with all the interpretations is that all cultures had the need to explain the world to themselves in a manner that made sense to their cultural and traditional customs and ways of life.