STARS ARE SMALL, DARK THINGS
As you watch the sun sink into the Kalahari sands, turn to face the east as the shadow of the earth bleeds into the flushed sky, and the first stars appear. The heat of the day begins to evaporate, and a breeze brings the gathering sounds of the night: the wailing cry of the jackal, the rasping cough of the western barn owl, the snapping clack of the barking geckos. As the light fades, the predators sniff the night air, and those who have not secured their place in a burrow or a tree, are alert to the dangers of the coming darkness.
San stories in the sky
There was a time when San people, speaking many different languages, lived in Tswalu and places like it, before the coming of cattle and sheep, and before the distinction between unbounded places and land fenced in by farming. At dusk, these people, in small groups, would gather around their campfire, prepare their evening meal, and tell stories. Watching the embers glow and the fire flicker, they saw in the sparks of light an earthly mirror of celestial activity, and just beyond the edge of the camp embraced by the firelight, they saw, at times, the star-like flash of a predator’s eye.
As these people, known in different places as Owners of the Shade, People of the Eland, Lords of the Desert Lands, or Smoking’s People, sat around the campfire, they could hear the sounds of the stars and discriminate their various colours. In the early history of the |xam, a young woman – the first maiden – created the Milky Way (!ko) by tossing ashes into the sky. Scented roots of different kinds had burnt in the fire of the first maiden. Young red roots made the red stars and the older roots made the white stars. The ashes stretched across the firmament, creating the great arc of the !ko (also known by the !kung as the backbone of the night).
Stars were given the names from old stories; young men transformed into lions by the stare of a maiden became the pointers to the Southern Cross. Others were named after animals; Betelgeuse was a female hartebeest, Castor and Pollux were the Eland’s wives and stars in Orion’s Belt were named for three springbok hunters. Stars sang and signalled the spring, and on a moonless night would light the path home. As the people told stories, they would watch for shooting stars, for these were the signals of the sorcerers’ work and, perhaps, of the death of a friend. A star falling made the sound of a dying heart, dropping from its usual place in the cosmos, just like the heart no longer beating the rhythm of life.
Our mother told me that a star shoots, for it resembles our heart. At the time of our death, when our heart does not breathe … a star falls … and the sound of the star dying away takes our heart away with it.
Unlike ordinary mortals, magicians and sorcerers continued to live after death and would return to the heavens as stars to exert influence over the living. These sorcerer-stars hovered above the campfire and at the edge of darkness around the camp, and could snatch away a life with the shooting of invisible arrows.
At the end of the early days when the San were losing their lands, star stories began to reflect the precariousness of the lives lived on colonial frontiers. One such story was told to linguist and ethnographer Lucy Lloyd in the 1870s by a |xam man named Dia!kwain whose father worried that he could become orphaned as a child and forced to fend for himself. Father taught me about the stars, said Dia!kwain, he used to say to me, that if I were sitting waiting by a porcupine’s hole, I must watch the stars … watch the place at which the stars fall, for this is where the porcupine is. The porcupine was alert to dangers of the coming daylight, and it watched the stars and knew, with its thinking strings (its thoughts), to turn back as the !ko began to fade and the star !gau ë|in, known as the Dawn’s Heart (Jupiter) arose. Returning home, it would be surprised by the waiting hunter.
Stars were not signs to be read, or heavens things who walked the sky, they had a terrestrial life too. Stars were known to guard bees’ nests, and could deliver a fatal sting to those tempted to taunt them. In the 1880s a young !kun boy, !nanni, told Lucy Lloyd that stars are small dark-coloured things that live in holes in the ground. At dawn, the star, afraid of the sun, was known to burrow an earthen hole, and then at dusk the star would ascend into the sky. In the day, young boys would hunt for stars that had fallen in the night, and see their burrows on the horizon. The star falls to the earth, !nanni said, and we take it up; we look at it, throwing it away, for it falls down, its light fading. Perhaps understanding the dangerous afterlife of some falling stars, the boys would seek out the star and they would kill it, but they knew the star was already dying.
The lore of the stars and the sidereal stories of the |xam, the !kun, the !xoo, the Nharo and others, offered ways to speak of both the origin of things, the fear of death, a relationship with home and country and to negotiate the changing life of the colonial frontier. In both the earth-bound world and in the sky, stars were sites of cultural meaning. The stories told and heard around the campfire, offered a vision of lives lived in a web of connection with the environment, and the world of both the physical and the spiritual. Stars indicated the change of the seasons and the times to prepare for winter or spring, guided their nocturnal prey and warned of the presence of the spirits of the dead. Stars offered a means to influence the lives of the living and embodied those who had died. Stars died as they fell to earth – but then they also appeared again to return to their celestial perambulation. For !nanni, the stars in their day-time burrows were dead things, yet their presence in the following night sky was a marker of endurance, survival and continuity.
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