Words and worlds

The Milky Way is the galaxy containing our solar system. It is visible from Earth, not as individual stars but as a band of light that crosses the sky. But how did it get its name, and what is it called around the world?

The Milky Way

This is the common name for the galaxy in English, transliterated from the Latin via lactea, via the Greek Galaxias Kuklos (lit. “Milky Circle”). The word “galaxy” also comes from the Greek for milk, gala. Similarly, in French, it is la voie lactée and in Italian la via lattea. The myth behind this name is that Zeus tried to get his demigod son, Hercules, to suckle from the breast of the goddess Hera in order to make him fully immortal. Hercules started to take Hera’s milk while she was sleeping, but she woke up and pushed him away, spilling the milk over the heavens.

The Road to St James’

In many Western European countries, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is an important pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Compostela in Galicia. Pilgrims would use the Milky Way galaxy as a guide to follow the right way. Hence, it is known as Camiño de Santiago in Galician, Camí de Sant Jaume in Catalan and Strascine de Sande Jàchepe in the Apuchian dialect of Italian. The name Compostela itself means “field of stars”.

The Silver River

In Far East Asian countries, the Milky Way is known as the Silver River - 銀河 in Chinese, 天の川 in Japanese, 은하수 in Korean and Ngân Hà in Vietnamese. The Silver River forms the backdrop for a common folk tale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, who fell in love but were banished to be separated by the galaxy because their love was forbidden. Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month, a flock of crows and magpies formed a bridge across the galaxy and the lovers could be together.

The Way the Dog Ran Away

In Cherokee myth, the Milky Way is known as The Way the Dog Ran Away, or ᎩᎵ ᎤᎵᏒᏍᏓᏅᏱ. In a folktale, a dog stole some cornmeal and ran away northwards, spilling the cornmeal in the stars and leaving the galaxy behind.

The Birds’ Path

In Uralic Europe Baltic States, the position of the Milky Way was associated with the migration patterns of birds, who used it to know how to travel south. It is known as Putnu Ceļš in Latvian, Paukščių Takas in Lithuanian and Linnunrata in Finnish.

The Path of the Children of Uisneach

Sometimes known in Irish Gaelic as Sgríob Chlann Uisnich and in Scottish Gaelic as Slighe Chlann Uisnich, Milky Way’s creation is attributed to another love story. The tragic heroine Deirdre threw herself into the grave of the Sons of Uisneach to be united with them in death, but the king separated them in the graveyard as this was forbidden. When trees grew from the graves and the branches entwined, the king dug up the bodies and buried them on opposite sides of a lake. The Milky Way emerged in the sky as a bridge of stars, connecting Deirdre with the Sons of Uisneach.