I talked about constellations with some of my more advanced students this summer, and we looked at the legends about Cassiopeia and Orion. It’s hard to explain to them the extent to which classical culture underpins the western world, since Mongolia’s history is so very different. But they were more familiar with the Greek gods than I had expected – some of them referenced “Hercules” (the Disney version), while others mentioned Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Not exactly authoritative sources on Greek mythology, but still better than nothing.
I picked the topic of stars because I like their universality. We all look up at the night sky and connect the dots to draw pictures – sometimes the same pictures, and sometimes different ones. The stories behind the constellations have lost a lot of their importance to Western culture (I say, though it clearly isn’t monolithic as I’m implying it to be), but we know they’re there, even if most of us couldn’t explain why Scorpio chases Orion around the night sky, without ever sharing it with him.
Naturally, I ended this class with one of my favorite activities: Now You Tell Me. I like giving my students a chance to be the teachers, as it gives me a chance to learn about Mongolian culture while they practice their English. I wasn’t sure how much overlap to expect when I asked if any of the Mongolian constellations are the same as ours, but it exists. The Big Dipper appears to be a pretty universal constellation: they picked it out straight off, though it’s apparently called “the seven gods” in Mongolian. Here, in their own words, is the legend that accompanies it.
Ones upon a time there were orphan eight boys lived. The monster stole the king’s queen. Then king was sad. King called the eight boys then “If one of you can rescue my queen, I will give my golden arrow”. The boys together rescue the queen. They fought with the monster for 2 days and 3 nights. Finally they could kill the monster. The boys sent king’s queen. King couldn’t cut the golden arrow so he shot to the sky then he told “who is first one of you he will the own of the golden arrow”. The youngest boy took the golden arrow he changed to north star. The brothers changed to 7 gods.
Not the most poetic or detailed retelling of a myth I’ve ever heard, but fascinating nonetheless. Apparently the monster was some sort of bird, though that seems not to have made it into their typed draft. Were they native speakers, we’d be having some discussions about the known-new contact, among other grammatical issues, but as they’re Mongolian teenagers, we’ll grant them some slack.
So if you currently reside in or are of a culture that a) recognizes the Big Dipper/the Plough/Ursa Major (yes, that’s slightly different, but we’ll count it) and b) calls it a name other than those previously listed, please share: what’s the story behind these stars and how they came to be there?