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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 22 December Solstice 1996

Slavic Star Lore
by Jadran Kale, Zupanijski muzej, HR-22000 Sibenik,Croatia

Today, when we read the 6th century record by Jordanis, we regret the absence of more detailed information on the 344 stars known to the Goths. Similarly, Best's failure to record the Maori chief's offer to name 300 stars is a loss (editor's note: reference added to publications list). When thinking of such unfortunate omissions, I better appreciate our luck to have documented many of the traditions of the Slavic peoples. Particularly, when just a few generations later, we see such knowledge endangered as those cultures are forcibly altered or disappearing. Today, this ethnoastronomical data is gathered in the cartographic archives in Zagreb. At some level, the destinies and the goals of the informants are stored on these pages and in the strange signs on those maps. Large population movements, and even disappearances are nothing new in history. This time we have ethnographic research enabling us to look more closely into traditional knowledge and distinctive heritage.

The most comprehensive study written about Slavic star lore, is Gladyszowa's "Folk knowledge about stars" from 1960. This fieldwork inherited the pre-war distribution of populations and state boundaries, documented in the "Atlas of folk culture", a pioneering project during the thirties. Additionally, general ethnographic (1851, 1897.) and cartographic (1967.) questionnaires were given to the South Slavic peoples and neighboring settlements. These materials were archived at the University of Zagreb and the Academy. They bring together a number of ethnoastronomical descriptions gathered from places where they have not only been forgotten, but erased as a result of migration and death. Future studies will benefit from this material, but are likely to be accompanied with thoughts about the peculiar and painful side of the ethnographic present.

Such star lore contains elements of the conflicting sides of life in the family, community, and neighborhood. With many variants across the Mediterranean, there is the story of a straw-road made after a shameful theft from a spiritual relative. This story becomes more understandable when associated with the Albanian highland proverb that one must not take a single straw from his godfather's wealth, or when related with the symbolic scene of shoe-wiping before leaving the house. To several South Slavic peoples, probably the most powerful lesson in the night sky, is eternalized in the stars of the Pleiades. Many proverbs and tale fragments lead to a story about "The Little Vlachs Brothers" (also to be recognized as "The Little Turks", "The Little Sokac-Croats", or under a dozen patronymics described among the Bosnian Muslims), who tried to steal a bride from another community. They were pursued and frozen in an ever-lasting moment while close to the reach of the pursuer's staff. The importance of this lesson can easily be estimated from its widespread presence among all the South Slavic peoples (except the Slovenes), and by the significance of the stars involved (Pleiades, Sirius, Orion's Belt).

To understand this lore, one must be aware of related circumstances. As with classic sky lore and artistic representation, such etiologies were meant to be a powerful lesson of the appropriate social behavior. The actions pictured in the sky included both good (to be emulated) and evil (to be avoided). Also, lore connected with the sky and stars usually presents the characters in symbolically stronger or divine forms. Not all lore is worthy of being situated at such an the night sky. The examples of star lore mentioned here are no exception. Even harsh messages about bad behavior obtained their final polished forms in the sky. Star lore is a kind of cultural memory. Its erasure is on a par with the destruction traditional codex's themselves.


Gladyszowa, Maria: Wiedza ludowa o gwiazdach (Folk knowledge about stars). Wroclaw, 1960.

Jankovic, Nenad Dj.: Astronomija u predanjima, obicajima i umotvorinama Srba (Astronomy in the lore, customs, and the folk wisdom of the Serbs). Belgrade, 1951.

Kale, Jadran: Izvori za etnoastronomiju (Sources for ethnoastronomy). In: Kucerin zbornik, 103-120. Sibenik (Croatia), 1995.

Maticetov, Milko: Slovenska ljudska imena zvezd in predstave o njih (Slovenian folk-names of the stars and their perception). In: Anzeiger fuer Slavische Philologie 6, 60-103. Wiesbaden, 1972.

Rut, Mariia Eduardovna: Russkaia narodnaia astronimiia (Russian folk astronomy). Sverdlovsk, 1987.

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