If our galaxy could tell us its story, what would it say?
Scientists have pieced together the remarkable history of the Milky Way galaxy we live in, tracing how it evolved to its current form and how things will change when it collides with the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. But astrophysicist and folklorist Moya McTeer, in his new book The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, presents (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central, 2022), a story that reads very differently, written from the perspective of the galaxy. The Milky Way makes for a prickly narrator in her story – “Larry” in the passage below is the galaxy’s derisive nickname for the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the galaxies closest to us.
(Read the interview with McTire here.)
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Excerpt from Chapter 4: Creation
Do you understand how lucky you are to receive such vital information directly from me, the real galaxy? You’d probably be just as confused if the near-dwarf Larry wrote this, though I guarantee you wouldn’t find Larry’s explanations as interesting. That I am telling you this story – my story – is a gift. It’s as if you learned about . . . oh what do you people admire? It’s like Beyoncé taking time out of her busy schedule to give you singing lessons in person. But even this is not enough – it does not observe a hundred billion stars.
Your ancestors didn’t have this book, or the fancy machines your scientists use, or the thousands of years of knowledge you use. They knew nothing about the truth about the Big Bang. Instead, they had gods: powerful, immortal, otherworldly beings who created and maintained an ever-changing universe. Your ancestors, like you, made the best of the information available to them through their feeble human senses. Or at least the way you should. This hard work of understanding the world around them has given them a healthy respect for you. And although I am not a god and do not believe in anything, I still appreciate a good story, especially one that has at least a grain of truth in it – even disinterestedly enough if it does not include me. But let’s be honest, stories with me are always better than without. While I could tell you about the most popular or widespread creation myths, your life is extremely short, so I’ll move on to the ones I like.
I mentioned the ever-changing universe. I hope you now understand, thanks to science and the wonders of modern publishing, that the universe is changing, mutating, expanding. If you were left to learn from first principles, you would think that the universe is fixed and constant, because that is how it looks from your limited human perspective. And yet, somehow, some of the creation stories told by your ancestors describe a universe in constant motion, working in an endless cycle of birth and destruction. Some of your contemporary astronomers tell a similar story, but they tell it with math and computer code, not words.
One of these cyclical cosmogonies came from the Indus Valley people over four thousand years ago. They professed a religion called Hinduism, the oldest of the most popular modern doctrines on your planet. Hindus believe that the god Brahma himself created the cosmos – words like “universe”, “world” and “cosmos” were more or less interchangeable before they adopted their modern scientific definitions – and that our world is not the first to be he created.
Brahma is far from the only god in the Hindu religion. In fact, the idea that there is a single true god is relatively new. There is also Vishnu the guardian who maintains the balance of the cosmos. Not surprisingly, Vishnu was often associated with the sun, as both were considered to be the supporters of life on Earth. To complete the cycle, there is Shiva who destroys the universe so that it can be restored. But until that time comes, they say that Shiva destroys the imperfections of your world, so he is considered both good and evil. Together, the three gods, this triumvirate, work together to keep the universe moving on its own cycle, each doing their part when the time is right, until the end of eternity. Or if I know anything about immortal beings until they get tired of doing the same thing over and over again. But maybe I’m projecting.
Three thousand years later, and 4,500 miles to the north, Scandinavian tribes told their own cosmogony, which was to some extent based on truth. The stories were passed down by word of mouth for countless generations, your imperfect human memory and pesky personal preferences making small changes each time until they were written down in your thirteenth century. By that time, Christianity was firmly established in the northern lands, and even I find it difficult to say how different the Prose and Poetic Eddas were from the pagan stories that the early Vikings told around their fires. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention. The middle ages of mankind were boring, and I had other things to do.
The Eddas describe a great abyss that stretched between the first two worlds: Muspelheim, the world of fire, and Niflheim, the world of ice. Ice and fire met in the middle, and a giant god was born from the melted ice. His name was Ymir, and he was later killed by some beings that sprang from his body, and his parts were used to create other worlds in the Norse universe. There are nine of them in total, including separate houses for people and their gods. These worlds were supposed to rest among the roots and branches of Yggdrasil, the great world tree.
I will soon share more details about my body and the shape of the real universe, but suffice it to say that at no scale is space shaped like a tree. Well, it can look like tree roots if you zoom out enough.
(Image credit: Mindy Tucker)
However, there is this incredible grain of truth in Scandinavian history that I love to see. Life arose in the middle of the abyss, between the worlds of ice and fire, where the temperature was just right. Right to what, you ask? Liquid water, of course. You know, that filthy crap you’re all full of and dependent on. Northern people who lived literally in a land of fire and ice (volcanoes and glaciers) would have witnessed how life can flourish where they meet. Water, like the sun, nourishes your frail little bodies, so it often penetrates your most intimate stories.
So many of the creation stories told by your ancestors did not begin in chaos or nothing, but in the deep primordial ocean. My favorite ones involve a divine being diving to the bottom of this ocean to collect bits of dirt, which are then used to build the earth. The diver often takes on the form of some kind of animal, a surprisingly bizarre picture, and many stories involve several failed attempts before the silt from the ocean floor is successfully recovered.
These kinds of stories, sometimes collectively referred to as diving myths, are common among the indigenous peoples of North America. But similar stories can be found in modern Turkey, northern Europe, and eastern Russia. Some of the people who spend their short lives tracing the evolution of your ancestors’ stories—you call them folklorists or anthropologists—believe that the Earth-diver myths have a common narrative ancestor from East Asia that spread as humans migrated.
It is now clear that the story of Earth Diver as a creation myth is centered around the creation of the Earth’s land, with your mindless little rock at its center. You might think that this will put me off it, but you are definitely wrong. For all intents and purposes, Earth was the universe of your ancestors. Life on Earth originated in water. And humanity is the last attempt at life after so many catastrophic failures. More species have become extinct on your planet than are alive today. (R.I.P. trilobites. I had high hopes for them.) So, the stories about Earth Diver are largely true.
I never expected your ancestors to know everything about me. They obviously appreciated my presence, so I was content listening to their stories and watching them progress steadily towards science without knowing what they would find. It was funny. And maybe even a little inspiring.
But your ignorance of the vast universe around you is neither. You have the tools, the experts and the knowledge, all available to you, but you haven’t used them. Hence my decision to finally intervene. Now, as you read the rest of my story – which, again, is a privilege – remember that you are no smarter than your ancestors who believed the sky was made from the skull of a dead giant. You were just lucky to be born later.
An excerpt from The Milky Way: The Autobiography of Our Galaxy by Moya McTeer. Copyright © 2022 Moya McTeer. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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