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How the Milky Way Got Its Name

How the Milky Way Got Its Name

Have you ever wondered why our galaxy is called the Milky Way and what it’s called in other

languages? Well, wonder no more. Like many words we use today, the English

name of our galaxy is derived from its Latin name: Via Lactea. Translated, that means “the

road of milk.” The Romans actually got the name from the Greeks, who called our galaxy

“galaxias kyklos” or “milky circle.” Incidentally, the Greek name is also where

we get the term “galaxy.” No one knows exactly who came up with the

name, but it isn’t difficult to see how the name came about. From Earth, at least

if you’re well outside the boundaries of city lights, our galaxy looks something like

a band of milky light over a black background, as we are viewing it on its side and the billions

of distant stars in our galaxy create a nice visible band of light.

As for why the ancient Greeks called it the “milky circle,” the myth goes that Zeus

brought Heracles to Hera to suckle when she was sleeping. Hera was in conflict with the

little infant, as you would be if your husband brought home a half-mortal child that wasn’t

yours. As baby Heracles was having his meal, Hera woke up suddenly and pushed him away,

resulting in a few drops of spilt milk. The drops created the galaxy that is now known

as the Milky Way. Various other languages have translations

of “Milky Way” as the name of the galaxy, such as the German “Milchstrasse” and

the Norwegian “Melkeveien.” There are, however, many other mythological origin stories

that explain the various alternate names of the Milky Way in other languages.

In Finland, the Milky Way is called “Linnunrata,” or “path of the birds.” In Finnish Mythology,

the world was formed from a waterfowl’s egg bursting. The sky was the shell of the

egg, and the Earth as we know it was flat. At the edges of the Earth was “Lintukoto,”

or the home of the birds. Lintukoto was a warm region where birds migrated during the

winter. The band of light that the Greeks thought of as milk was, according to the Finns,

the path that the birds took on their way to Lintukoto. Thus, it’s Linnunrata, “path

of the birds.” Armenia has a different idea about the Milky

Way. There, it’s called hard goghi chanaparh, or “Straw Thief’s Way.” The story goes

that the god Vahagn stole cartloads of straw Barsham, the Assyrian King, and took it to

Armenia during a particularly cold winter. To get there, he fled across the Heavens and

dropped some straw on the way, making the Milky Way.

Likewise, the Milky Way is called various forms of “straw way” in several other

languages across Central Asia and Africa. It’s Ça Taxina Taça in Chechen, or “the

route of scattered straw;” traditionally “kumova slama” or “Godfather’s Straw”

in Croatian, though Milky Way is also used now in Croatia; and samanyolu or “road of

straw” in Turkish. It’s likely that Arabs heard the story in Armenia first and spread

the name to various other lands. In many northern countries, the Milky Way

is called the “Winter Way,” such as the Icelandic “vetrarbrautin,” the alternative

Norwegian “vinterbrauta,” and the Swedish “vintergatan.” The reason for this is

thought to be because, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way is more visible during the winter.

In much of East Asia, the galaxy is referred to as, translated, the “Silver River.”

A Chinese legend says that once upon a time, there was a beautiful young maiden named the

Goddess Weaver, the daughter of the Celestial Queen Mother. One day, a Buffalo Boy was tending

his herd when he spied the Goddess Weaver bathing in a nearby lake. The two instantly

fell in love, and were soon married and produced two children. But the Celestial Queen Mother

grew jealous of their love and stole the Goddess Weaver away. When the Buffalo Boy pursued

them, the Queen took out a pin and drew a silver river between them so that they would

be separated forever. That silver river was the Milky Way. In Japan and Korea “silver

river” means galaxies in general, not just the Milky Way.

In Spanish, the Milky Way is called a few different things. First, via lactea, or the

Milky Way. Camino de Santiago means the “Road of Santiago” or “Road to Santiago,”

and was used for the Milky Way because pilgrims used it to guide them to Santiago de Compostela,

a holy site. Compostela is the third way to say the name of the galaxy, and this one is

perhaps the most accurate of all the different names. It literally means “the field of

stars.” Bonus Facts:

• A popular festival in Japan is Tanabata, a star festival. The festival has its origins

in the “Silver River” myth. On the seventh day of the seventh month each year, the Goddess

Weaver and the Buffalo Boy are allowed to meet for just one day. The people celebrate

with a day off work or school, and they write wishes on pieces of paper which are then hung

from trees. In some cities, people light lanterns to float in nearby rivers. It’s likely that

the celebration got its start in China some 2000 years ago before it migrated to Japan,

where it really kicked off. • The Milky Way is thought to contain over

100 billion stars, and could contain up to 400 billion. It’s about 100,000 light years

across. • Right now you are simultaneously hurtling

around the sun at 66,600 mph while sitting on a rock that is spinning at 1,070 mph. On

top of that, our whole solar system is rocketing through space around the center of the Milky

Way at around 559,234 mph. On top of that, our galaxy is hurtling through space at around

671,080 mph, with respect to our local group of galaxies.