Actors on the Celestial Stage
… the constellations, for which the Salish not only have descriptive terms, but which
they deal with in special myths explaining the origin and configuration of each: frozen
in characteristic poses, terrestrial people are transported to the sky where they hold their
positions, as in a tableau vivant. (Lévi-Strauss, 1981)
It is time to consider in more detail the interrelations between the mythic stories told through countless ages by human beings as, the daily chores over, they relaxed around the camp fire and contemplated the grand pageant arrayed before them in the night sky, a pageant of illustrations from the book of ancestral memory. Because each and every myth in some measure evokes, through a network of analogies and inversions, the entire range of human experience, we could say that the symbol-strewn heavens are the very mind of the species made visible, speaking to us with ageless authority. On this unique, earth-spanning stage, the minded past of humankind, told in the cosmic, multi-layered language of myth, presents itself in the living present to those with eyes to see, or at least all those who have not been blinded by the uni-dimensional narrative of ‘science’.
So we find there the wondrous animals whose strange, non-human intelligence irresistibly suggests, as it did to our Palaeolithic ancestors and the ancient civilizations of Australia, Africa, Asia and the Americas, the sense of divinity in its allpowerful otherness; we find the gods and goddesses themselves, and the heroic archetypal figures of our own unconscious.
Now, if the essence of mythic thought is its cosmic reach, then the gigantic Emu visible in the Milky Way as it appears in the clear night sky of central Australia, its powerful beak pointing south toward the Musca constellation, is not just the image of this great bird of the desert spaces, it’s also the altered-state experience of dancing the Emu spirit; it’s the miracle of creation in what English-speaking Aborigines call ‘the Dreaming’ and the continuing wonder of the living earth imprinted with ancestral memory; it’s the awesome mysteries of initiation into adulthood, sexuality, life and death.1 For these desert people, too, the constellation astronomy and what white culture calls the Southern Cross is the claw of an enormous celestial Eaglehawk, likewise the emblem of sacred myth and ritual. In this mythic world the powers of heaven are living beings, the sun is a woman with a fiery exterior who