Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Milky Way

When I was younger people often told me that the Moon was made from green cheese (the expression dates from 1546 and John Heywood who wrote that a simple person saw a reflection of the moon in a pond and mistook it for a cheese wheel). "But where did the milk come from to make the cheese?" I  asked. "Why from the Milky Way" my grandfather would reply waving his hand towards the night sky.  The ancients believed that the Milky Way originated from Juno who not unreasonably refused to feed the infant Hercules and her milk spilled across the sky. Some versions of the story have the account the Hercules bit Juno and she pushed him away. Other versions are that Juno did not feel inclined to feed Jupiter's love child with Alcmene despite Jupiter's cunning plan to place him on her breast whilst she was asleep. Tintoretto in 1575 painted The Origin of the Milky Way which illustrates this story with Juno's milk turning into stars. The painting can be seen in the National Gallery in London.

Shakespeare makes an oblique reference to the Milky Way in Hamlet in Act II, Scene 3 where the unnamed Player 1 announces "Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven". Shakespeare only uses the word milch twice in his entire body of work. The other occasion is in Venus and Adonis in Line 893 where he write of "a milch doe whose swelling dugs do ache". So Shakespeare clearly understood that the word milch means lactating or milk producing and so must his audiences. Stars in the heavens producing milk obviously refers to the Milky Way.  I managed to photograph the Milky Way on July 25th at 2 am. I used a tripod and long manual exposure. I took seven photos in total, five where poor, one showed some detail but the seventh one I took and which used about a ten second exposure gave the best result. I counted what I thought was ten seconds but it could have been anywhere between eight and twelve seconds. Its quite hard to see the Milky Way because of light pollution in the night sky from street lights and lights on buildings but given the right conditions it is spectacular sight and one which Shakespeare must have seen when he was a boy growing up in rural Warwickshire.   


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