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Stargazing

/ 09:42 PM December 26, 2013

My column last Wednesday was about a night cruise down the Iwahig river in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, mainly to watch fireflies. The column resulted in some friends inquiring about arrangements for those tours, which I’ll discuss toward the end of today’s column, but I thought of first writing more about one of the bonuses in the fireflies tour: a sky-watch focusing on stars several hundred light miles up in the sky.

Hunters and giants

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Although it was a cloudy night when I took the Iwahig river cruise, there were many stars out, with two constellations standing out: Orion and Pleiades (not Pleidades, as one reader, “cogito728sum,” pointed out).  The tour guide used one of those powerful green laser pointers to explain those two constellations, as well as the planet Venus. Jupiter, unfortunately, was a no-show that night.

Orion is a hunter in Greek mythology and with some imagination, you can figure out where his head is, his belt, an arrow, a club and a shield. What is so fascinating is that although many other cultures in the world have their own names and myths for this constellation, many do tend to see a hunter, sometimes with dogs, and in other cases even with prey. This suggests that the names were given by hunters, and since hunting-gathering was probably humans’ earliest form of subsistence, those names must date back to antiquity.

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Our Iwahig river tour guide mentioned that three stars in the constellation, usually called Orion’s belt in western astronomy, are called “Tres Marias” or “Three Kings” in the Philippines. These names were clearly introduced by the Spaniards, who called these stars “Las Tres Marias.” In central America they are called “Los Tres Reyes Magus,” the three kings.

Again, similar interpretations do occur across cultures. In Afrikaans, a Dutch dialect used in southern Africa, those three stars are called “Drie Konings” (three kings) or “Drie Susters” (three sisters).

Local astronomy

The stargazing during the Iwahig cruise reminded me of the late Dante Ambrosio’s book, “Balatik Etnoastronomiya: Kalangitan sa Kabihasnang Pilipino” (UP Press, 2010).

Ambrosio combined his training as a historian, poring through Spanish archives describing different cultures in the Philippines, with anthropology and folklore, to produce his fascinating book, compiling the often complicated descriptions from various ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines of the sun, the moon and the stars, including their movements.

After I got back to Manila I found my copy of the book and realized “balatik” was in fact the name given to Orion in several Philippine languages. Now, what might a balatik be?  This is a trap with a slip noose, used to snare birds and mammals (for example, wild pig or baboy damo).  The context again is hunting. But note that in Ilokano, according to Ambrosio, there is another name, gagan-ayan, which refers to a weaving frame.

After discussing Balatik or Orion, Ambrosio goes on to survey folklore for Pleiades. In the Philippines, several groups call that constellation “Moroporo” or “Molopolo,” which the late William Henry Scott explains as “boiling lights” or a “flight of birds” although other researchers say it refers to a plant. The Teduray of Mindanao, Ambrosio says, see the jaw of a pig, killed by the hunter Seretar, which is their name for the constellation Orion.

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In modern western astronomy, the name Pleiades refers to Seven Sisters, but in the folklore of many other  cultures, people see six stars rather than seven.

Ambrosio’s book reviews other ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines and their names for stars, constellations, even the entire Milky Way (lalan na langaw in Maguindanao).

It’s unfortunate that in the Philippines, “stargazing” or “star-watching” refer to following celebrities. I don’t know what’s worse, celebrity-worship or thinking of the stars only as horoscope names, fretting, around this time of the year, about what the stars “say” about our fortunes for the coming year.

People presume that because of pollution, you won’t find anything in the night sky in Metro Manila and other urban centers but you’d be surprised at what you can catch if you’d just go out of the house and look up. If you don’t have too many buildings blocking your view, you can still pick out some constellations, and a planet or two.  Incidentally, the buildings that obstruct your view, usually high-rise condominiums, do have roof decks where you can sometimes get breathtaking views of the skies.

Star-watching can provide all kinds of fun educational activities for families. Younger children can be quite content when asked to describe what they see. Tough little boys will pretend they’re not interested, but you can point out the car company Subaru’s logo, which has six stars, is actually the Japanese rendition of Pleiades. Subaru chose the six stars to represent the companies that merged to create the car company.

Older children (and adults) can go into more complex astronomy: the kinds of stars, what light years are, planets, meteor showers.

And, as Ambrosio shows so clearly in his book, folk knowledge about celestial objects tell us, too, about human beings: our curiosity about nature, our earth-bound interpretations.   The appearance and disappearance of celestial objects, during the day, during the year, mark transitions in community life, with appropriate religious rituals. There’s astronomy too in the Bible. Read Amos 5:8 “He who made the Pleiades and Orion. And changes deep darkness into morning…”

Astronomy—whether modern or folklore-based—continues to permeate our lives and our cultures. Next time you watch the sci-fi comedy “Men in Black” and a dying alien gasps,  “To prevent war, Galaxy is on Orion’s belt,” you can proudly say that’s a hint about where to find a vital energy device (a marble actually) needed to save the world. I won’t give you the ending, which depends so much on a new twist to Orion’s belt.

Firefly tours

Now for a bit more information about the Iwahig tour. I was with friends and we had our own self-drive rented van so we went straight to the Iwahig river. Each cruise lasts about half an hour and starts at around 7 p.m. The cost per banca is P600, which can take a maximum of three passengers (besides the tour guide). If you’re alone, you still pay P600.

A more expensive route is to look for tour operators on Baywalk (Rizal Avenue) in the center of Puerto Princesa.  They ferry you to Iwahig on a larger boat, with dinner but charge, I am told, more than P1,000 per person.

A few more tips. Better to go on a moonless night, with clear skies. Do bring mosquito repellent.

Many years ago I directed an anthropology field school in Donsol, Sorsogon, where, besides whale shark (butanding) watching, there were informal firefly tours. Apparently these tours are now formally organized for tourists. So if you don’t catch the  butanding  you can still go home talking about the fireflies, and maybe the stars.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: Astronomy, Fireflies, Iwahig River, palawan, Science, Stargazing
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