Note: My most recent book, Star Myths of the World, and how to interpret them, Volume Four: Norse Mythology, was officially published on August 1st of this year, although it is still taking some time to make its way to all the various book-selling channels and book-stores. Just a few days after its official publication date, and well before any actual copies of the book could have made their way to local book-sellers here in the united states, let alone to book-sellers in India, I received an email from an interested reader in Kerala, India, who had noticed many celestial aspects within the traditional annual celebration of Onam, which is particularly associated with Kerala and which is akin to Chinese Lunar New Year in its significance to the Malayali community in India and around the world.
Intriguingly enough, the ancient mythical foundation of Onam, which the festival commemorates, each year involves an encounter between a powerful Asura, Mahabali (a beloved king who ruled Kerala during a mythical Golden Age) and the deity Vishnu -- and I had actually discussed some of the aspects of this Vishnu myth in the chapter on Ragnarok in this recent book on Norse mythology, without even being aware of the festival of Onam which is connected with this particular myth and which is commemorated every year among the people of Kerala.
The following essay, written by Kamala Nayar of Kerala, India, was sent to me on August 6th, and I was planning to post it during the month of August during the traditional celebration of Onam (which typically spans ten days and which would have been observed beginning on August 15th this year), along with commentary and perhaps some photos from this year's festival, but the state of Kerala was devastated by historic floods which caused the observation of Onam to be canceled or at least postponed and greatly restricted this year (see this previous post).
In this essay, Kamala provides arguments linking aspects of this annual festival to the sun's annual passage through Leo and Virgo during the Malayalam month of Chingam (which corresponds to the August-September period), and gives some insight into rituals and traditions associated with this complex and extremely significant traditional celebration.
I have edited Kamala's original text only lightly -- at the end of the article, I will provide some additional observations based on my understanding of the celestial language of the world's Star Myths and thoughts about some aspects of the festival in light of my own experience in studying the system of metaphor which forms the foundation of myths and sacred traditions around the world and which certainly seems to be involved in the structure underlying some of what takes place each year in the celebration of Onam.
During the text of Kamala's article, I will have occasion to interject a couple of comments to note points where I might suggest a different celestial interpretation -- I will place these "editor's notes" within brackets [brackets], in italics, and will explain more fully in my own comments on Onam which will follow Kamala's article.
The connection between the world's myths are remarkable, and overwhelming in their abundance and richness. Here we find a celebration in Kerala, India which has as its mythical origin an episode involving the god Vishnu which has strong connections to episodes in Norse mythology (as well as to other important Star Myths from other cultures around the world).
These connections, I am convinced, are due to the fact that the world's ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories can be shown to be built upon a common system of celestial metaphor. It is apparently a very ancient system -- there is no need to believe that the culture of the Norse in far northern Europe and the culture of the Malayali in southern India were in direct contact with one another at some point. It is far more likely, I believe, that their ancient myths and sacred traditions descend from some common predecessor culture, probably of extreme antiquity and now forgotten and unknown to conventional history, as do the myths and sacred stories of virtually every culture around the world.
It is fascinating to me that Kamala would be moved to write to me about the celestial aspects of the Onam festival (which I did not know about) but which celebrates an episode involving Vishnu which I did write about in Star Myths of the World, Volume Four: Norse Mythology, just a few days after the publication of that book (which discusses the "three steps" of Vishnu in relation to specific aspects of the Ragnarok accounts, some of them suggested in a 1965 article by Georges Dumézil which is referenced in the book), and before Kamala or anyone else could have known that my book discussed this episode in the sacred stories surrounding the god Vishnu.
Below is the essay by Kamala Nayar:
"Chingam: When the constellation Leo heralds the mother goddess wielding the sickle"
by Kamala Nayar August 6th, 2018
Chingam, the first month of Malayalamera resounds with festivity and gaiety in the small south Indian state of Kerala, popularly known among the people as "Gods own country." Chingam, which corresponds to the period of English months from early August till early September, is the reminder of the arrival of the bountiful harvests from the lush green rice fields that once upon a time sprawled throughout the state. Although at present agriculture has dwindled to a great extent in Kerala, there is still no dearth in the rejoicement of the harvest festival "Onam" that falls during this month. It is the festival of bounty produced by the seeds sown during the middle of May, with the first fall of rains and which nourished by the heavy rains during the following months attain their full elegance, through the bounty of the land. The prosperity of this month is considered as a precious boon from Mother Earth for the hard work rendered on her soils. In return, as a mark of gratitude to Mother Earth (addressed as "Amma"), many offerings were traditionally made from the harvests -- usually in the form of rice puddings, since rice is the main staple crop of Kerala.
There is more to describe about this significant month of the Malayalam calendar, called Chingam, which is pronounced in a way that sounds like yet another Indo-Asian word: Simham, meaning "Lion". The etymology of Simham, when analysed, reveals its common usage in many of the Indo-Asian countries, particularly in Indonesia, for the majestic animal that holds its head high; including in the name of the small prosperous country, Singapore. One wonders what prompted the ancient people of Kerala to name the first month after this proud king of the jungle: was it because it is the foremost among the animals, even though Kerala has always been home to tigers in the Sahyagiri region from very ancient times, rather than lions? What, then, might be the reason behind the choice of this animal's name for the month?
Let's turn to archaeo-astronomy to help crack the puzzle of the naming of this prime month of the Malayalam calendar after the lion. Astronomy certainly influenced the day-to-day activities of our Malayalam ancestors. In Kerala the Malayalam calendar from very ancient times appears to connect the names of the months to the constellation in which the sun is traveling during that period. Thus during the period of Onam which marks the harvest of the staple crop -- rice -- the sun reaches the constellation "Leo". It is therefore evident that our forefathers shared the same knowledge of stars and constellations with people of other cultures such as Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Morrocans, and even Mayan, even through the dark ages when communication between different parts of the world was very negligible.
A constellation is an apparent configuration of stars when seen from Earth, formed in a pattern with mythological associations. Though it appears to have been recognized by the ancient Egyptians, the constellation of Leo was first catalogued in a surviving text by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century, along with all the other constellations of the zodiac.
Leo is a star formation resembling a crouching lion facing westward. It has a distinctive head and mane formed by a sickle-shaped set of stars with bright Regulus, marking the handle of the sickle. The sickle of stars looks like a reverse question-mark and the star Regulus serves as the handle of the sickle. Behind the sickle, toward the horizon in the east, three stars form a small triangle that marks the rear of the Lion. Leo has always been associated with the Sun and was thought to regulate the seasons.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Mesopotamians had a constellation similar to Leo as early as 4000 BC. The Persians knew the constellation as Shir or Ser, Babylonians called it UR.GU.LA (“the great lion”), Syrians knew it as Aryo, and the Turks as Artan. Babylonians knew the star Regulus as “the star that stands at the Lion’s breast,” or the King Star. This evidence reveals that the leonine outline of the constellation Leo was well known to the different ancient cultures in an age when communication is conventionally held to have been absent between different regions of the world.
Goddesses who wield the sickle
The sickle shape of the constellation is very interesting in this context particularly due to the sickle's association with agriculture as a tool for harvesting rice and other cereals. Could there be any link between the constellation's sickle-shape and its association with ancient farming rituals? It is in this context that the role of religious deities in ancient agriculture is important.
Many cultures around the world, including in ancient India, associated goddesses with natural phenomena such as fertility, the harvest, rivers, mountains, animals, and the earth itself. On account of the importance of the harvest in sustaining the people, gods of agriculture were highly revered from very ancient times as these earth gods were believed to bring fertility to the fields of their worshipers. Prominent among these goddesses were Demeter, Ceres, Aphrodite, Parvati, Innana, Ishtar and a long list of others. They were mostly "goddesses of grain" who shared kind and benevolent qualities -- the Roman Goddess of agriculture, Ceres, is the typical of them. She was invoked on a daily basis as the true nurturer of humanity, and revered to such an extent that the Romans had a common expression "fit for Ceres," which meant "splendid."
Thus agriculture around the world was often associated with a female divine element, and this association is reflected in Indian villages as well, which historically have been primarily agriculturally based. Female deities of the villages are referred to as grama-devatha, meaning "goddess of the village." These female deities of the village often display fickle and fiery temperaments, while the male village deities, when present, are often worshipped as subordinate to the goddess, and whose role is primarily the protection of the village from outside forces. In many stories about the origin of a female deity of the village, she is described as once being a mortal woman, to whom injustice is done and whose wrath then unleashes her power, and causes her to take on a Goddess form. Her worship then might serve as a reminder to uphold ethical standards, and might serve to instill the fear of being punished otherwise. The grama-devathas are considered to be the guardian deities of the village and the local places where they are worshipped.
The less localized Hindu Gods such as Siva and Vishnu are more universal and "idealistic" Gods, taking care of the Universe as a whole, and only descending to Earth in times of desperate need, perhaps once in thousands and thousands of years. The grama-devathas, on the other hand, are considered to be the villagers' own deity, concerned solely with the welfare and day-to-day needs of the local people. And the fact that grama-devathas are not specific to religion or caste makes their worship open for all. Perhaps it is these grama devathas who were later consecrated in the famous Bhadrakaali temples of India.
Now, a common feature noticed in all these deities or grama-devathas is the sickle they carry in their hands and this sickle symbolizes harvest. The tool is believed to have a dual purpose, harvesting physical crops or human souls. As mentioned previously, these female dieties were understood to guard the prosperity of the villagers and also to unleash punishment for an injustice meted out upon the devotees of the goddess, and these devotees are primarily the local women. This power of the "sickle" is portrayed in Goddesses of agriculture world over, as seen in Goddess Artemis who also wielded the sickle both for harvest as well as in her role as Virgin Huntress of retribution. In fact the ancient agricultural model, Ceres, is portrayed holding a scepter in one hand and a basket of flowers, fruits and grains in the other. Her name has become the root word for cereal, describing all manner of grains.
Is it possible that the sickle that represents Leo's head also connects to the one that the revered "Amma"or Mother Earth holds in her hand, as is seen in her images?
The Hand that holds the scythe mounts the lion
There is no doubt that the mother goddesses or grama-devathas in India are depicted as holding the sickle, and we have already seen that the stars of the constellation Leo contain a sickle-shaped outline in the night sky. Thus, the fact that goddesses in India are also frequently depicted as mounted on the king of beasts, argues that these goddesses are closely associated with Leo, and that the sickle may thus connect to the same constellation as well. The association with lions is especially notable in the deities of the north Indian temples, perhaps because the lions in the northern regions are portrayed as a symbol of prosperity or strength an are referred to as Sakthi. The most popular monument is that of the goddess Durga Mata who came riding the fearsome lion on the occasion to slay the the vile demon Mahishasura. Clearly, then, goddesses in India can be shown to be connected to lion imagery and thus likely to Leo.
It’s quite noteworthy that this powerful beast was also the bearer of Goddesses from many other ancient cultures throughout the world. David Mathisen, for example (2012), has discussed various manifestations of the Great Goddess and their association with lions, citing numerous examplesof images from various cultures. Many goddesses in mythology are described as riding on a lion, riding in a chariot that is pulled by a lion, or sitting on a throne flanked by lions. In ancient Greece, the goddess (or Titaness) Rhea was often shown seated on a throne flanked by lions. The same goddess known as Cybele in Anatolia or Phrygia (often called the Earth Mother) was also associated with lions and closely identified with Rhea by scholars. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar was also closely associated with lions, and the Ishtar Gate features lions. The Sumerian goddess Inanna is often identified with Ishtar and thus would be associated with lions as well.
Mathisen further explains that if we take a look at the sky chart above, we can see that the the large and important constellation of Virgo, the Virgin (Kanya in the Indian language) is rising behind Leo. He discusses that in spite of the great volume of literature written about these extremely important goddesses in the ancient world, very few historians appear to make the connection of the fact that Virgo following Leo probably accounts for the image of the goddess either riding in a chariot pulled by a lion or riding on a lion herself.
In the great temple at Hieropolis, the Syrian Goddess Atargatiswas supported by lions and she held a scepter in one hand and a spindle in the other (Johanna Stuckey, 2009). August is shared by the astrological signs of Leo the Lion and Virgo the Virgin, and is sacred to the following Pagan deities: Ceres, the Corn Mother, Demeter, Lugh, and all goddesses who preside over agriculture (Witches Of The Craft -- Lammas).
Goddesses and antelopes
Many goddesses in mythology are therefore connected to agriculture as symbolised by the sickle and sheaves of grains they hold -- and their association with lions seems to portray their strength, justice and connection with prosperity. The association of goddesses with antelopes, however, particularly in India, requires further analysis.
Apart from the connection to the lion, archeological depictions and rituals of ancient cultures of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and other parts of northern and southern India portray goddesses flanked by a deer or antelope. Goddess Durga also has a black buck as her vahana or "vehicle," as indicated in the Tamil Thevara hymn (Pathikam 921) that praises Durga as Kalaiyathurthi, or "the one who rides a deer".
In Tamil Nadu, the blackbuck (Kalaimaan) is considered to be the vehicle of the Hindu goddess Korravai . Korravai (Korṛawai) or Korravi was the goddess of war and victory in the ancient Tamil pantheon. She was considered the mother of Murugan, the Hindu god of war, now the patron god of Tamil Nadu,. The earliest references to Korravai are found in the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, considered to be the earliest work of the ancient Sangam literature. Korravai is identified with the goddess Durga, especially in early iconography where she is presented as fierce and bloodthirsty. Harvest and war were important aspects in the life of the ancient Tamils and they worshiped Korravai for the success in both the fields and upon the battlefield. Later Korravai was adopted into the Hindu pantheon and connected to the goddesses Durga, Kali and Parameswari.
At the Mukteshwar temple at Bhubhanehwar in Orissa, a goddess is depicted as dancing on a black buck (10th century) and this goddeess dancing frantically on the antelope's back is reminiscent of the southern martial goddesses of victory Korravai. In Tamil Nadu, the connection between the blackbuck (Kalaimaan) and the goddess Korravai is indicated in the stone carving at Mamallapuram, where the goddess is seen flanked by both an antelope and a lion.
So the association of the antelope with the grama-devathas or goddesses of agriculture needs to be analysed. Could there be a connection to the goddess's role in farming rituals?
When Goddesses ride through the seasons
In Greek mythology the Horae were the goddesses of the seasons. They were originally the personifications of nature in its different seasonal aspects, but in later times they were regarded as goddess of order in general, and of natural justice. Traditionally, they guarded the gates of Olympus, promoted the fertility of the earth, and rallied the stars and constellations. The course of the seasons was also symbolically described as the dance of the Horae, and they were accordingly given the attributes of spring flowers, fragrance and graceful freshness.
The story of how the four seasons came to be, originates with Demeter, the Greek mythological goddess of the harvest. She was the goddess who blessed the earth and made sure that everyone had a great harvest. However, according to the stories, whether or not the harvest would be good depended largely on her moods. The myth of Demeter and Persephone explains the origins of the seasons. Demeter is assigned the zodiac constellation Virgo the Virgin by Marcus Manilius in his first century Roman work Astronomicon. In art, the constellation Virgo is often depicted holding Spica as a sheaf of wheat in her hand and sitting beside the constellation Leo the Lion.
During the month of August, the Great Solar Wheel of the Year is turned to Lammas, one of the four Grand Sabbats celebrated each year by Wiccans and modern Witches throughout the world. Lammas marks the start of the harvest season and is a time when the fertility aspect of the sacred union of the Goddess and Horned God is honored. This union may help in our analysis of the antelope connections among goddesses in India.
A parallel symbolism of seasons can be observed in the ancient culture of Kerala based on the extensive research which highlights that many of the goddesses of the Kerala region, who are now enthroned in grand temples, were in previous times local village deities (gramadevathas) who -- like Demeter, Ceres and Ishtar -- were worshipped for protecting their crops. With the encroachment upon rice fields and other agricultural lands due to urbanization, the goddesses were enshrined in larger abodes which became the present popular temples such as those at Kodungalloor, Atukaal, or Chottanikkara. The main deities of all these temples, Bhadrakali or Kali Devi are therefore closely linked with seasons as indicated by the annual festivals and associated rituals which are celebrated mostly during the Malayalam months from Kumbmam through Meenam and up to Medam (corresponding to English months from mid-February through mid-May). The Malayalam month Kumbham which coincides with the lapse of winter, marks the initiation of productive phase in plants, when they get ready for fertility soon after their hermitage in the previous period of chilly nights.
According to Nair (2016) when the Sun reaches at the tenth degree of the constellation Aries (pathamudayam in Kerala -- late April of the Medam month corresponding to spring in Europe), it is a festive occasion in many of the Bhadrakali temples of Kerala, especially in the villages which were the once rice bowls of the region. On this occassion a kanyaka (virgin) carries the sacred antler of a deer in the belief that Goddess Parvathi is riding on the antelope. The temple where the antler is worshipped in reticence is opened only on the eve of pathamudayam to facilitate the annual ceremonial offering -- puja and ponkala -- to the Goddess of the temple, after which the temple remains closed during the rest of the year. This day on pathamudayam when the temple is opened is very auspicious as the sun passes on this day into Aries at the vernal equinox, a solar event that is believed to be an appropriate time for commencing rice cultivation. It is on this day that farmers plough a few yards and sow a pinch of paddy seeds to mark the begining of the agricultural year following which the seeds sprout and the rice plants flourish in the seasonal monsoon showers that unfailingly visit the region during that time of year.
The sun's entry into the constellation of Aries in Medam (the corresponding Malayalam month) thus marks the begining of the advent of the glorious Sun up the starry vault of heaven to reach His golden throne during Chingam (mid-August to early September) in the constellation of Leo, when rice is harvested from the fields, thus paving the way for a sumptuous Onam (Nair, 2016).
Therefore the ceremonial procession of the gramadevatha or Goddess Bhagavathy mounted on an antelope may reference the zodiac sign Aries (associated with the symbol of a horned ram), during the patahmudayam in Medam. Aries transports Her through the forthcoming seasons, finally to see her mount the Lion during the harvest of rice in the month of Chingam which represents the constellation Leo; while the benevolent Sun smiles at Her all the time. So we see the transition of the Goddess from zodiac sign Aries, on the antler / antelope which may be an ancient ritual of worshipping the agricultural cycle, because according to Nair (2010), the antler was the first plough to be used by the ancient people of India [editor's note: I will present some discussion following this article upon the possibility that the antler in these traditions and rituals represents a constellation other than Aries]. And then at last the kanya or virgin arrives for the grand festival of Kerala, Onam, during the month of Chingam / Singam, when she has finally reached the constellation of Leo. The rise of Virgo closely following Leo was celebrated in many other ancient cultures as seen in the association of Demeter and Lammas Sabbat with this time of year, thus revealing the importance of the goddesses in ancient agriculture.
The mingling of the seasons with Mother Earth can be seen clearly through these rituals and ceremonies of the goddesses or grama devathas. Mother Earth after her hibernation during the chilly nights of the Makara season of the Malayalam calander (mid-December to January) gets ready for her productive phase in Kumbham season (February to mid-March) when she is anointed with much pomp while the festivity continues up to the Meenamseason (March to mid-April ) with the arrival of Vasantham (spring).
During Medam (early May) the fields are getting ready with the first ploughing on the auspicious day of pathamudayam, which is symbolised by the virgin gramadevatha, often represented in traditional ceremonies by a young girl who has not attained puberty, crowned by the antler, who is taken in a ceremonial procession. The antler, reminiscent of the first tool to be used for ploughing, is kept as an object of worship in certain temples.
Following the ceremonious ploughing and land preparation, rice (the main staple crop of Kerala) is sown in the fields during early period of the Malayalam month Edavam (mid-May) with the rains arriving to nurture them during mid-Edavam (late May to early June) and taking them to maturity. The crop then becomes fertile as the rain recedes and the wind dances briskly among the stalks during Mithunam to Karikkidam seasons (late June to mid-July). By this time the productive earth stands proudly adorned by golden sheaves rustling in the strong breeze and thereafter the smiling sun takes her hand to start his ascent towards the constellation of the king of beasts, the Leo, where we see the shy Virgin Mother Earth joining the radiant sun in a waltz of seasons, as the constellation Virgo rises closely behind Leo.
Thus the puzzle of the "Lion" after which the harvest month Chingam is named, its association with the benevolent Mother earth who is also the Mother of Agriculture as a symbol of prosperity or harvest, and the question of association of the antelope or deer with its elegantly branched antlers which was apparently used as a plough by the first farmers of our fields, are all answered, while from above, Heavens blesses the virgin mother who has become productive with the arrival of the Chingam-Kanni, corresponding to the English months from early August to early September. Only the question of sickle remains to be answered as to whether the sickle outline found in Leo's is connected to the harvesting tool used by women in agriculture and symbolized in the depictions of the gramadevathas and goddesses, holding them in their hands.
So with renewed awareness of our connection to generations stretching back for thousands of years, and their connection to the cycles of the heavens, we can get ready to welcome the arrival of the Virgin Mother of Earth crowned by antlers and riding on her mount, the king of beasts, towards the constellation of Leo, as we prepare to celebrate the festival of Onam during the month of Chingam.
1. Horae in https:/en .wikwipedia.org/wiki/ Horae
2. JohannaStuckey (2009) Beltane Vol.8-3
3. Koravi. http common.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Durga-Korravai.jpg
4. Mathisen (2012). The Mathisen Corollary-January 2012, MatriFocus –Cross-Quarterly For the Goddess Woman
5. Nair, V.S. (2016). History-Straight From The Horse’s Mouth; The State Institute of Languages, Kerala pp.268
My comments on this subject:
I am grateful to Kamala Nayar for her insights into the festival of Onam.
In fact, this important festival (the existence of which I was previously unaware) is absolutely overflowing with connections to the worldwide celestial system which underlies the Star Myths of many other cultures, including the myths of ancient India.
The time of year surrounding the point of the September equinox is associated in the ancient system of celestial metaphor with the soul's plunge out of the realm of spirit and into the "lower realm" of the incarnate condition. Note, for instance, that the famous Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece (whose origins stretch back far into the centuries prior to the "classical" period) were also celebrated at this particular season each year (around the beginning of September), and were closely associated with the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, as well as with the understanding of our situation during this incarnate life as a soul that has been plunged into the lower realm, taking on a body.
The festival of Onam is traditionally associated with the legend of King Mahabali, who was a benevolent ruler of a mythical Golden Age in ancient Kerala. Concerned that Mahabali has acquired too much power, Vishnu takes on his avatar of the dwarf Vamana, and attends a great sacrifice festival which Mahabali is holding as a means of consolidating and demonstrating his great earthly power.
Disguising himself as a mendicant holy man, Vamana requests a boon from the king, which was customary at such formal rituals. Mahabali asks what boon Vamana would have Mahabali give, and Vamana requests as much land as Vamana can cover in three paces. Amused, Mahabali grants the wish, at which point Vamana (who is in fact the god Vishnu) grows to enormous size and begins to take his three universe-encompassing strides.
With the first step, Vamana covers the entire earth. With the second step, he strides across the heavens. For the third step, the king offers his own head, and Vamana steps upon it, sending Mahabali to the underworld.
Thus, the prosperity of the Golden Age is ended -- but Mahabali is permitted to return once each year, at the festival of Onam, during which the abundance of that mythical time is again celebrated, with feasting, ritual dances, decorations of flowers, the wearing of new clothes, and other similarly symbolic activities.
I am convinced that this myth, which has echoes in myths found around the world (including in Norse myth, as discussed in my latest book) has a celestial origin. This celestial origin, in fact, explains the many parallels of this important episode.
As touched upon in my latest book, the various avatars of Vishnu (and the other gods of ancient India) often relate to nearby constellations in the vicinity of the constellation most commonly associated with that god. This pattern, in fact, is similar to the transformations of the god Zeus in Greek myth, for example -- Zeus is most closely associated with the constellation Hercules in the heavens, but he takes on different "avatars" during different mythical episodes, often while in the process of seducing mortal women, such as when he takes on the form of a Swan (see the nearby constellation of Cygnus), or the form of a celestial shower (the nearby column of the glorious Milky Way itself), or even the form of a Bull (during the abduction of Europa).
Similarly, the various avatars of Vishnu can be shown to be associated with various different constellations (some of which are discussed in Star Myths of the World, Volume Four: Norse Mythology). The avatar of Vamana, which is the dwarf avatar of Vishnu, is almost certainly associated with the constellation Hercules, a constellation which can be shown to play the role of a dwarf in many myths from around the world, including the god Bes of ancient Egypt, as well as dwarf-figures in the Norse myths (also discussed in the new book).
Note that the constellation Hercules appears to be taking mighty strides across the heavens -- and that indeed the forward leg of the constellation (as outlined by H. A. Rey) appears to be stepping on the "head" of the constellation Ophiuchus, just as Vamana steps upon the head of Mahabali in the Vishnu mythology:
See again the image of Vamana stepping upon the head of Mahabali in the image at the top of this post. Below is another depiction of Vamana stepping upon the head of the king:
Note that the banishing of a benevolent figure (often one associated with a Golden Age) to the netherworld for a period of time (but with a promised return) is an extraordinarily important and widespread mythical pattern. The authors of Hamlet's Mill (1969) spend some time tracing out this myth pattern around the globe, and note that it is found in the story of the Titan Kronos (banished to the underwater cave of Ogygia by Zeus), and the myth of Saturn, of Jamshyd, of Osiris, of King Arthur, of Prometheus, and of many others (we could also add the descent of Christ to the underworld for a period of time before returning).
The banishing of the benevolent king or ruler of the Golden Age to the underworld has important parallels to our own condition in this incarnate life -- as Alvin Boyd Kuhn explains throughout his masterful 1940 text Lost Light, the image of the god sleeping beneath the waves (for example) is a figure of our own slumbering divine spark, buried within our incarnate body which is composed primarily of the lower elements of earth and water (the mortal "clay"). See for instance pages 159, 182 and 564 through 567 of that text.
The festival of Onam, and the myth with which it is associated, thus reminds us of the reality of this "sleeping divinity" -- and of the multitude of blessings which are available when we reconnect with that Infinite channel. We have, in fact, access to unlimited abundance in our connection to the divine realm, although most of the time we live and act as though we do not.
The association of the festival with the local goddess and with the harvest, which are highlighted in Kamala's article above, are also extremely important. The goddess in these rituals is clearly associated with the constellation Virgo, who is associated with the time of harvest and with the plunge down into the "lower half" of the year which takes place at the fall equinox (the sun passing through the sign of Virgo just prior to the point of September equinox). The sun's descent into the lower half of the year was also associated with the descent of the divine spark into the "lower realm" of this incarnate life.
It is very noteworthy that Kamala points out a connection between the goddess and a horned antelope, in addition to the fairly well-established connection between the goddess and the lion (which can be seen in ancient artwork from many cultures). Kamala suggests that this may indicate a connection to the zodiac sign of Aries, and while that is a possible explanation, I believe that it is much more likely that the nearby constellation of Centaurus is being indicated in these myths and rituals. The constellation Centaurus is located in the immediate vicinity of the constellation Virgo, and (as I first discussed in my 2014 book The Undying Stars and in all of the Star Myths of the World books since then) can be envisioned as a great stag with sweeping antlers just as easily as it is envisioned as a Centaur.
The constellation Centaurus (especially in its role as a deer or stag) is closely associated with Virgo in many world myths, including in the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia (ancient Greece), as well as in the Native American myth of the Old Man and his Daughter. I would argue that it is very likely that the connection between some of the goddess figures of India and the antelope or blackbuck which Kamala Nayar discovers in her article, as well as the rituals and worship involving antlers (and in one case, a virgin carrying or wearing an antler or antlers) find their foundation in the constellations Virgo and Centaurus (as does the myth of the goddess with the Horned King, to which Kamala also makes reference in her article).
These connections which Kamala has found are very important.
There are many more celestial connections in the Onam festival which could be profitably explored -- enough, in fact, to fill an entire book. Most will have to await examination and discussion at another date. However, we should briefly mention another traditional aspect of the Onam celebration with echoes in many other cultures: the serpent boat races, or Vallam Kali. The shape of these boats is reminiscent of the great war canoes (or waka) of the Maori, and the sleek ocean-going canoes of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. They are also reminiscent of the famous Viking longships, the dragon boats used in festival races in the Chinese culture, and even of the reed boats used by the Indigenous people of the Lake Titicaca region, and the ships buried at Giza in Egypt and depicted in ancient artwork from the Egyptian civilization.
Below are snake boats used in India for the traditional Kerala snake boat races:
I would argue that these boats may also reflect a celestial original: the constellation Scorpio, which can be shown to play the role of a boat or ship in many myths around the world, from the myths of ancient Japan to the myths of the ancient Norse. The constellation Ophiuchus, which almost certainly plays the role of King Mahabali as discussed above, stands directly above Scorpio, and in some myths is envisioned as standing in the "boat" or "ship" formed by Scorpio (when Scorpio is envisioned as a boat or ship).
Finally, the Onam festival features elaborate costumes in which men and women dress up as gods and goddesses -- and indeed take on their identities. It can be shown that many of the characteristics of these costumes (and the deities they represent) have celestial origins and connections to specific aspects of certain constellations.
A detailed examination of each of these costumes and deities could easily fill an entire book. Some of them are more difficult to decipher, but others are quite self-evident. Perhaps the most important point to make about the parading deities who appear during the Onam festival is the message that Onam (like other ancient rituals and festivals around the globe) reminds us of our connection to the divine realm, and indeed our own inner divine spark. Many previous posts have explored the concept, depicted in the ancient myths, that the gods stand ready to help us, and even to "act through us," if we are attuned to their presence.
The modern world, it seems, wishes to sever the connection of men and women to the Infinite Realm, the Invisible Realm, the realm of abundance and pure potential, the source of all blessings . . . the realm of the gods. But the ancient myths, and the world's surviving ancient festivals, remind us of our connection to that realm, and remind us that even if the divine spark is "banished" to the netherworld (which, as Alvin Boyd Kuhn would argue, represents this lower realm of the incarnate life), there is the promise that the sleeping divinity will return or re-awaken.
We have access to that abundance, and the world's ancient myths -- and rituals -- point us towards that truth.