The term “Milky Way” is truly ancient. On old star charts this ghostly band was often labeled by its Latin equivalent, Via Lactea.
Personally, I think it should be called the Smoky Way, for against a dark sky it looks much more smoky than milky. Interestingly, to Australia’s aborigines, the misty appearance of the Milky Way is the smoke reflecting the light of stellar campfires.
Today, the Milky Way’s brightest section, just above the “Teapot” of Sagittarius, suggests a puff of vapor emerging from that more modern contrivance.
To certain American Indians the Milky Way was the path of their braves marching into heaven, and with the bright stars like Vega and Altair along its course representing campfires along the way. These Indians took notice of the phenomenon called Gould’s Belt, a string of stars that trace the path of the Milky Way. It is named after the 19th-century astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould, who first studied it in detail from the Southern Hemisphere, where it is far more pronounced.
The Milky Way involves a poignant Japanese legend. Halfway up in the eastern heavens around 11 p.m. local daylight time is the familiar Summer Triangle, marked by Deneb, Altair and Vega. Vega represented Orihime, who produced brilliantly colored fabrics. Across the “Heavenly River” (the Milky Way), Altair represented the cowherd Kengyu. After meeting each other they received divine permission to marry, whereupon both abandoned their occupations. This angered the gods who separated them and sent them back to their original jobs on opposite sides of the Heavenly River.
The couple however, received permission from the gods to get together for one night each year, July 7, but only if the sky is clear. As a result, the evening of July 7th has become a young-people’s holiday in Japan called Tanabata. Prayers are then offered for clear skies so that Orihime and Kengyu, the star-crossed lovers can be reunited.