#BlackInAstro: A Glimpse Into African Cultural Astronomy

Title: Celestial Women in Africa

Author: Dr. Jarita Holbrook

First Author’s Institution: University of the Western Cape, South Africa

Status: Submitted to Cultural History of the Universe, Science, Technology & Innovation Studies, University of Edinburgh; Available on arXiv [open access]

Dr. Jarita Holbrook

Dr. Jarita Holbrook studies more than just the sky. After earning her PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics from University of California, Santa Cruz, her interests shifted towards something more interdisciplinary: cultural astronomy, particularly indigenous African astronomy. Her work has centered how humans relate to space, whether that’s in her award-winning movie Black Suns: An Astrophysics Adventure, the AAS Oral History project that serves to record generations of astronomers and their stories, or in her research on cultural astronomy. Today’s Astrobite focuses on one of her recent publications about indigenous African astronomy, exploring the relationship between women and the night sky in African cultures.

Stories and beliefs surrounding the night sky are reflections of the culture that creates them and their ideals; accordingly, the goal of this study is to look at feminine celestial bodies to understand “how the idealized role of women gets projected onto the sky and how the behavior of celestial bodies gets projected onto women” in various cultures. It is important to note that Africa is a large continent (see Figure 1), with no singular “African culture”—in reality, it holds over 50 nations, and many more languages. We’ll be looking at a few examples from various groups described in the paper, but this is by no means representative of the entirety of Africa and its many different cultures.

Figure 1: Map of Africa, showing country names and basic geography. (Source: Google Maps)

Women & The Moon

The phases of the Moon change on a ~29 day cycle as the moon revolves around the Earth, changing our perspective on how it’s illuminated by the Sun (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Diagram of phases of the moon. (Source: NASA)

The menstrual cycle in humans coincidentally takes a similar amount of time, ~28 days. Since these periodic cycles are so close, cultures often connect the two, sometimes even causally (that is, the Moon causes menstruation). Some groups, such as the Dinka women in Sudan, use the phases of the moon as a tracking method for menstrual cycles. 

Since the Moon is connected to menses, it is often gendered as female, and the phases of it “growing” to a Full Moon are related to pregnancy. Among the Pedi in South Africa, the Moon’s phases are related to the phases of a woman’s life, with the waning and waxing crescents appearing in murals about the beginning and end of life. The Arimi of Tanzania (East Africa) consider the Moon female only at certain parts of its cycle. At Full Moon, when it appears “pregnant with all living things,” major annual ceremonies are held. Similarly, the G/wikhwena San people of Botswana consider the Moon male as it waxes, and female as it wanes. Also in Tanzania, the Sandawe have a female Moon in their creation myth. The Sun fell in love with the Moon and dried out the Earth, and the Moon created rain to make the Earth fertile again, releasing humans (the children of the Sun and Moon) upon the Earth.

In Carthage, Tunisia, the Moon goddess of fertility Tanit was their patron deity for many years starting in the 5th century BCE. Her symbol involves the shape of a crescent moon, and Tanit was later Romanised to become the Caelestis, the origin of our modern word “celestial.” A darker example is found in the Subu people of Cameroon, where the dark features of the Moon are seen as a woman who was punished for breaking the rules and chopping firewood on their day of rest.

“Girls of the Night”

The Pleiades are a tight cluster of stars, brightly visible in the night sky. There are 6 main stars (with an occasional seventh interloper, Venus) and are often considered a group of sisters or sometimes a clutch of eggs. There are many myths across the world connected to this astronomical object, such as the Greek myth from which its commonly used name arises. The Tuareg of the Sahara have their own myth for the Pleiades, calling them the six “girls of the night” with individual names for each bright star (Mâteredjrê, Erredjeàot, Mâteseksek, Essekâot, Màtelarhlarh and Ellerhâot). The 7th “star” is considered to be the eye of a boy from a different legend, and is suspected to be the interloper Venus (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3: Simulations of the night sky around the Pleiades at various dates, showing the movement of the interloping “seventh star” of the group, often found in various cultural stories. The interloper is actually the planet Venus. (Figure 3 from today’s paper.)

Other groups had different names for this celestial object. The Arimi of Tanzania named the Pleiades “Kiimia” and considered her to be the supreme wife and mother, with her return in September marking the end of the dry season. Her characteristics signalled the ideals for women in their culture, such as caring for people and offering water to those in need. Many other cultures used the heliacal rise (that is, the first time a celestial object reappears in the sky in a given year) of the Pleiades to mark the start of cultivation or the new year. The KhoiKhoi people of Southern Africa also have a legend for the Pleiades: a group of women in a polygamous marriage sent their husband out to hunt, and told him not to return without meat. He was unsuccessful in his hunt, and thus unable to return home. This again is a reflection of societal gender roles, and the expectations of behavior for both men and women.

Other Celestial Bodies

Most of Africa considers the Sun male, such as the famous Egyptian Sun god Ra. However, a few cultures consider the Sun female, either permanently (such as with the G/Wikhwena San of Botswana) or as it changes position on the sky. The Sandawe of Tanzania consider the Sun less masculine when it is lower in the sky and less harsh, and it becomes more masculine as it reaches its zenith. In Hausa and a few other Berber languages, the word for the Moon is masculine (a young boy) and the Sun is its mother, chasing it around the sky.

Caption: The Sun’s path through the sky. (Source: NASA APOD)

Venus is another celestial body that is almost universally considered female, likely because it’s bright and beautiful, two qualities commonly associated with women. Its “evening star” and “morning star” phases (when Venus is visible at sunset or sunrise) are each 263 days, astoundingly close to the period for pregnancy/human gestation of 255-256 days, giving another coincidental link between the cycles of the sky and the cycles of the body. There are also many cultures where Venus is considered the wife of the Moon in some way, such as the Tabwe and Zande people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There are many other celestial bodies that are somehow related to femininity. The Arimi of Tanzania consider the Small Magellanic Cloud female, and it helps to bring the heaviest rains of the season. Female animals appear in constellations, such as female giraffes in Crux and a female steenbok as the brightest star in Pavo in G/Wikhwena San culture. The Tuareg of the Sahara consider Polaris (the pole star, which appears stationary in the sky) to be a Black woman, who keeps still for fear that the other stars will kill or enslave her. For the |Xam people of South Africa, a girl creates the Milky Way by throwing ashes and roots into the sky. In Ancient Egypt, the sky goddess Nut “swallows the Sun (Re) every night and gives birth to him in the East every morning” and her daughter Isis (the star Sirius) follows her husband Osiris (the constellation Orion) across the sky to put him back together after he was killed. Isis (and earlier Hathor) were both associated with the star Sirius and served as mother/female goddesses. Lastly, such as in the Akan of Ghana, many important ancestral women are said to have come down from the sky, giving them authority as they are “of the land that they now occupy.”

Although this is not a comprehensive study of all African sky lore, this gendered study provides an intriguing insight into the cultural importance of celestial bodies and how they align with expectations and ideals of women. Some results were expected and in alignment with other cultures around the world, but others (such as female suns and male moons) were unexpected and unique. Women of Africa’s sky are magical goddesses of creation, and also women who have suffered or been punished, showcasing the breadth of human experience. 

As astronomers, we too often neglect the history of the field of astronomy and the rich cultural heritage of the sky, especially from a non-Western perspective. All of this information preserves a snapshot of people and their cultures through connections to the sky. Studies such as this highlight the richness of humanity’s history of looking up, which is far more expansive than just the modern research field we’re a part of. 

We would like to acknowledge that we are summarizing research outside of our field. While we are trained astronomers and physicists, and practiced writers of paper summaries, we are not experts in social science research. We have done our best to capture the findings of this literature accurately and respectfully, but do defer to the original papers and to the authors of the studies.

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a third-year graduate student and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing, and playing with her rescue dog.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this post! I enjoyed the introduction to new perspectives in cultural astronomy that I had not appreciated before. The concept of projection of our beliefs onto the night sky is very interesting. Thanks again.

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