Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, Fiona Macleod

The Milky Way

With the first sustained breath or frost the beauty of the Galaxy becomes the chief glory of the nocturnal skies. But in midsummer even what amplitude of space, what infinite depths it reveals, and how mysterious that filmy stardrift blown like a streaming banner from behind the incalculable brows of an unresting Lord of Space, one of those sons of the Invisible, as an oriental poet has it, whose ceaseless rush through eternity leaves but this thin and often scarce visible dust, "delicate as the tost veil of a dancing girl swaying against the wind." Perhaps no one of our poets, and poetry ancient and modern and of every country and race is full of allusions to the Galaxy , has more happily imaged it in a single line than Longfellow has done in

"Torrent of light and river of the air."

As a river, or as a winding serpent, or as a stellar road, it has imaginatively been conceived by almost every people, though many races have delighted in the bestowal of a specific name, as though it were not an aggregation of star-clusters and nebulæ, but a marvellous creature of the heavens, as, perhaps, we may conceive the Great Bear, or Orion, or moons-beset Jupiter, or Saturn among his mysterious rings. Thus in the Book of Job it is called the Crooked Serpent; the Hindûs of Northern India call it the Dove of Paradise (Swarga Duari), though they have or had a still finer name signifying the Court of God; and the Polynesians give it the strange but characteristic designation. "The Long, Blue Cloud-Eating Shark."
Last night I watched the immense tract for a long time. There was frost in the air, for I saw that singular pulsation which rightly or wrongly is commonly held to be an optical illusion, the aspect as of a pulse, or of an undulating motion of life such as one might dimly perceive in the still respiration of some sleeping saurian. There appeared to be countless small stars, and in the darker spaces the pale vaporous drift became like the trail of phosphorescence in the wake of a vessel: at times it seemed almost solid, a road paven with diamonds and the dust of precious stones, with flakes as of the fallen plumage of wings ---truly Arianrod, the Silver Road, as theCelts of old called it. Of course it was no more than a fantasy of the dreaming imagination, but it seemed to me more than once that as a vast indefinite sigh came from the windless but nevertheless troubled sea there was a corresponding motion in that white mysterious Milky Way, so infinitely remote.   It was as though the Great Snake---as so many bygone peoples called and as many submerged races still call the Galaxy---lay watching from its eternal lair that other Serpent of Ocean which girdles the rolling orb of our onward-rushing Earth : and breathed in slow mysterious response, and, mayhap, signed also into the unscanned void a sigh infinitely more vast, a sigh that would reach remote planets and fade along the gulfs of incalculable shores.
As winter comes, the Milky Way takes on a new significance for pastoral and other lonely peoples, for shepherds and fisher-folk all. Songs and poems and legends make it familiar to everyone. A hundred titles own it as a mysterious background, as Broceliande is the background of a hundred Breton ballads, or as Avalon is the background of a hundred romances of the Cymric and Gaelic Celt. The Hebridean islanders seldom look at it on still frosty nights without in the long idle hours recalling some old name or allusion, some ancient rann or oran, some duan or iorraim of a later day, related to the mystery and startling appealing beauty of the Silver Road. It has many names on the lips of these simple men, who have little learning beyond the Bible and what life on the waters and life in the hearts of other simple men and women have taught them. Sometimes these names are beautiful, as "Dust of the World" (or universe, an domhain) or the "Kyle of the Angels" (the Strait or Sound): sometimes apt and natural, as "the Herring Way," and "the Wake": sometimes legendary, as "the Road of the Kings " (the old gods, from Fionn back to the Tuatha Dedannan) or as "the Pathway of the Secret People": sometimes sombre or grotesque, as "The Shroud" or as "the Bag of the Great Miller."
There is especial interest for us, of course, in the legendary associations of the AngloSaxon and Scandinavian and Celtic or Gaelic peoples. These, in common with the majority of western nations, image the Milky Way more as a "road" or "street" than as a serpent or than as a river---though the Norse have their Midhgardhsormr, connected in association with the Weltuin-Spanner ("Stretcher-round-the-World ") or Ocean-Stream.
I do not know when the Milky Way as a designation first came into common English use. Possibly there is no prior mention to that in Chaucer's Hous of Fame:

"Se yonder, lo, the Galaxyë,
  Which men clepeth the Milky Wey
"

---an allusion which certainly points to already familiar usage. It is now, I fancy, almost universal. Perhaps the old translator Eden was among the first to popularise it, with his rendering of the Latin Via Lactis and Via Lactea as "the Mylke way" and "Mylke whyte way." There has been no need to derive the term from the Italian Via lattea or the French Voie lactée, since Eden's use and Chaucer's preceded that of any French poet or romancist. Certainly the phrase became part of our literature after it passed golden from the mint of Milton (paraphrasing Ovid)---

"Broad and ample road whose dust is gold,
And pavement stars, as stars to thee appear
Seen in the Galaxy, that milky way
Which nightly as a circling zone thou seest
Powdered with stars. . ."

It is rarely now alluded to as the Galaxy, and probably never by unlettered people. In most parts of England for centuries, and it is said in many parts still, the common designation is "the Way of Saint James." This has a singular correspondence in the name popular among the French peasants, "the Road of Saint Jacques of Compostella." Originally a like designation was common in Spain, though for a thousand years the popular epithet runs El Camino de Santiago, after the Warrior-Saint of the Iberian peoples. I am told that "the Way of Saint James" is common in certain counties of England, but I have never heard it, nor do I wholly recall the reason of this particular nomenclature. In some form the road-idea continually recurs. How many readers of these notes will know that the familiar "Watling Street"---that ancient thoroughfare from Chester through the heart of London to Dover---was also applied to this Galaxy that perchance they may look at to-night from quiet country-side, or village, or distant towns, or by the turbulent seas of our unquiet coasts, or by still waters wherein the reflection lies and scintillates like a phantom phosphorescence. Watling Street does not sound a poetic equivalent for the Milky Way, but it has a finer and more ancient derivation than "the Way of Saint James." The word goes back to Hoveden's "Watlinga-Strete," itself but slightly anglicised from the Anglo-Saxon Waetlinga Straet, where the words mean the Path of the Wetlings, the giant sons of King Waetla, possibly identical with the giant sons of Turenn of ancient Gaelic legend, heroes who went out to achieve deeds impossible to men, and traversed earth and sea and heaven itself in their vast epical wanderings. Another curious old English name of the Galaxy, of great beauty in its significance, is "WalsynghamWay." Why the Galaxy should be so called might well puzzle us, were it not explained by the fact that up till near the middle of the sixteenth century one of the most common English names of the Virgin Mary was, "Our Lady of Walsyngham," from the fact that the Blessed Mother's chief shrine in the country was at Walsyngham Abbey in Norfolk. Further, as "the Way to Walsyngham" in common parlance signified the road to the earthly tabernacle of Mary, so "Walsyngham Way," as applied to the Galaxy, signified the celestial road to the virgin Mother in heaven. Much more barbaric is a name for the Milky Way still to be heard in Celtic Wales, Caer Gwydiyon, the Castle or Fortress of Gwython. This Gwython or Gwydyon was a kind of Merlin Sylvestris. He was known as the Enchanter, the Wizard as we would say now, and was feared on this account, and because he was the son of Don, King of the Otherworld, Lord of the Secret People, the "fairies" of later tradition. Like Grania, the beautiful wife of Fionn, whose elopement with Dermid and their subsequent epical odyssey is the subject of one of the greatest and to this day most popular of Gaelic legendary romances, the wife of Gwython fled from his following vengeance from land to land, across seas, over mountains, "to the ends of the earth," and at last with her faery lover dared the vast untrodden ways of the remote skies. But long before they could reach Arcturus, or whatever the star or planet to which they fled, Gwython overtook them, led by the dust which these mortal if semidivine fugitives made long and soundless dark blue roads of heaven. He slew them and their winged horses and their aerial hounds, and standing on the verge of space flung the heads and limbs and bodies into infinitude. Hence the meteors and falling stars which at the season of the autumnal equinox and at the approach of winter may still be seen whirling adown the bastions of high heaven. So terrible in tragedy, so titanic the deed, that to all eternity, or as long as our world endures, the phantom iteration of that mighty vengeance shall commemorate the inappeasable anger of Gwython the Enchanter. Is there not convincing evidence in the unpassing dust of that silent highway of the doomed lovers---the dust of the trampled star-way that no wind of space has blown to this side or to that, that no alchemy of sun or moon has burned up or like dew dissolved?
Besides "Watling Street," our Anglo-Saxon forbears had Iringes Weg or Wec and Bil-Idun's Weg; Iringe and Bil-Idun having been famous descendants of the Waetla already alluded to. They were warders of the Bridge of Asgard, the Scandinavian Heaven. In time this Asgard-Bridge came to be given as a name to the Milky Way . . . though the later poets applied the epithet also to the Rainbow. Readers of Grimm's Teutonic Mythology will remember that he cites many collateral instances. Thus the Vikings knew the Galaxy as Wuotanes Straza, or "Woden's Street"; the Dutch have in common use Vronelden Straat, " the women's Street "; and the German peasants commonly call it Jakob's Weg. The Westphalian term is singular and suggestive, "Weather Street." One wonders if there is any common idea that weather is in any way as closely associated with the Milky Way as are the vernal floods and that autumnal rains with the Pleiades. Probably the bestowal of the name is due to the fact that when the Galaxy is clear and bright and scintillant the weather is serene and dry. A more poetic designation is that of the Finns, who delight in the term Linnunrata, the Birds' Way, either from an old Finnish and Esthonian legend that once by a miracle all the songs of all the birds of the world were turned into a cloud of snow-white tiny wings, or from the more likely belief that it is the road of winged spirits on their passage from earth to heaven. This is, of course, a very ancient conception. The ancient Hindûs revealed it in the phrase "the Path of Ahriman": the ancient Norse as "the Path of the Ghosts" going to Valhalla: the ancient Gaels as the Hero-Way, leading from Earth to Flatheanas, the Abode of Eternal Youth. It is strange and suggestive that not only the North American aborigines called it "the Trail to Ponemah" (the Hereafter), but that people so rude as the Eskimo and the Bushmen of South Africa call it "the Ashen Path," the road of fire-ember signals, for the ghosts of the dead. Even the Patagonians speak of the Milky Way as the white pampas where their dead are immortal huntsmen rejoicing in the pursuit of countless ostriches.
But of all popular names I do not think any is more apt and pleasant than that common to the Swedish peasantry, who call the Galaxy Winter Gatan---i.e., "Winter Street." It is the Winter Street we must all travel some day, if the old poets say true, when the green grass grows on our quiet beds, when the loudest wind will not fret the silence in our tired minds, and when day and night are become old forgotten dreams. May we too find it the Pathway of Peace . . . not the least beautiful of the names of the Milky Way, not the least beautiful of the legends connected with that lovely wonder of our nocturnal skies.

 

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