Mankind has long talked in terms of cosmic harmonies – Pythagoras’s “geometry in the humming of the strings” and Plato’s “music of the spheres” – and cultures the world over have made up tales across the millennia to explain the stellar configurations they observed in the night sky. Light itself, as an astronomer will tell you, carries its own stories, about the formation and evolution of the universe.
All of which comes to mind as the Scottish International Storytelling Festival approaches, with its annual Edinburgh-based celebration of the tale-teller’s art, as well as associated traditional music. This year’s event features performers from Spain and Latin America as its “Festival of Dreams” theme focuses on the Spanish-speaking world. Other guests hail from Finland, Jamaica, Brazil and across the UK, but our cosmic musings are promoted by one particular event which sees the auspicious convergence of a storyteller, a harpist and an astronomer at the Royal Observatory on Edinburgh’s Blackford Hill.
Billed as “a session devoted to the observable facts and mysterious fictions of star lore”, Star Tales features storyteller Linda Williamson, an American who lived for years with Scottish travellers, Edinburgh-based Japanese harpist and storyteller Mio Shapley and Joe Kennedy, a PhD astronomy student with the observatory.
“Obviously our ancestors didn’t have the scientific instruments and the knowledge that we have today,” says Williamson, who will be telling tales from various cultures – Scots Traveller, Shoshone American and ancient Sumerian. “The point is that we’re still looking at the same parts of the sky where the myths are focused, and astronomers have information and key features that they note in their observations and they have to be able to interpret those features in the sky and communicate them. So they have their stories too.”
Williamson quotes Albert Einstein’s comment about imagination being more important than knowledge – “for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” She also cites stories such as How Grizzly Bear climbed the mountain, a Shoshone tale about a banished grizzly who climbed into the night sky, leaving a snowy trail and a stellar configuration we know as Ursa Major – The Great Bear – with the nine galaxies now known to border it.
For harpist and storyteller Shapley, an obvious way into the night sky is the constellation Lyra, which represents the lyre of Orpheus in Greek legend. She will also, however, narrate The Weaving Princess and the Cowherd, a Japanese tale with a 2,600-year-old pedigree which directs our gaze towards the Summer Triangle and the stars Deneb, Altair and Vega and which informs the annual Japanese celebration of Tanabata on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Shapley will also play some appropriately Japanese folk music, as well as her own compositions in celebration of the night sky.
Speaking on behalf of the Royal Observatory, public engagement manager Olivia Johnson, herself an astronomer, says that when the Storytelling Festival approached them, “it occurred to us that we could do something that combined the storytelling and folklore with the science, not in a stories-are-nice-but-science-is-fact sort of way, but thinking about the ways in which light tells us modern astronomers its own story, about how the universe evolved and how stars and planets form.”
“These stories have been told by people everywhere in the world,” says Thomson, “because they were looking up at the night sky, being observational astronomers, and trying to make sense of it and projecting humanity into the natural world. All of that still applies to what we’re doing today as astronomers.”
Thus the stuff of stars becomes the stuff of legend and of science. As Williamson, astronomers and others (not least Joni Mitchell) remind us, we are star dust. ■
Star Tales is at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh on 26 October. The Scottish International Storytelling Festival runs until 31 October. See www.tracscotland.org/festivals