Posted on Monday, January 16, 2017
By Kadri

The Great Canoes in the Sky by Stephen Robert Chadwick and Martin Paviour-Smith

In The Great Canoes in the Sky, the star lore and constellations of the Pacific are introduced in a very organized fashion.

To begin with, there are of-course the necessary Solar system objects and myths related to them, and the Milky Way.  After that, though the book goes by themes, that are apparent in that area's star lore.

Because of the nature of the islands, and the history of sailing from one island to another, the ocean is an important theme. It is interesting to both read about the canoes as constellations, who and why is said to maybe be travelling by them, etc.

Another side of it, is the navigational wisdom of the peoples of the South Pacific. The methods that are talked about, are fascinating, and as described do appear to take a long time to learn, and require fastidious observations and a good memory. One of the methods that was used historically for navigation there, was by using so-called star paths. A star would rise and set at the same distance from north or south, and there would be other stars that are on the same path - this way you can find directions and even manage to have a star compass, where Polaris, (that is not visible in the South Pacific) marks north, the Southern cross stars point towards the South, and then there are pairs of stars rising- and setting directions for other compass points.

Another fascinating theme in the star lore, is birds as constellations. It's curious to find out that almost across the South Pacific islands, there is a generic bird constellation, whilst different island nations would also have some more specific birds. It's also interesting, as some more information is provided on the birds, so it won't just be a strangely named creature to someone who is not yet familiar with the fauna of that region.

One whole chapter is dedicated to the Pleiades open cluster. It is curious to find how this cluster of blue stars has for so many people been a group of young women, and also how the nearby Orion although seen as a different character that consists of partly other stars, is in pursuit of the women also for the people of the South Pacific islands.

The creation myths and cosmogony of the South Pacific is introduced as well. Interestingly enough, it is at the end of the book rather than at the beginning, how I feel like most books about star-lore would start. The variety of myths from pushing apart a mother and a father to give light to the world, and climbing to a number of heavens and what might be seen there, can be found there.

Fascinating discussion about the observational methods and astrophotography follows in the next chapter. Focusing on the issue of whether or not a photograph of an object really represents the object better even after a lot of image processing compared to a painting.

It's a fascinating book where the different layers of what one can think, and know about the night sky are presented at about the same level, not making one side of it more prevalent than the other.

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