Procyon In Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions

The Winter’s Triangle from the Hubble telescope. Procyon (upper left), is the ninth brightest in the sky and is named Puana.
While Thalassa is a fictional planet, the science of the Procyon system and its role in mythology and Polynesian navigation is based on real research.

 Artist: Brook Kapukuniahi Parker

O na hoku no na kiu o ka lani.
‘The stars are the eyes of heaven.’

Hawaiian Sailing Proverb (Pukui, 1983)

Procyon is a close stellar neighbor and one of the brightest stars in the sky. Because of its prominence, it is a member of the Winter Triangle asterism – a group of noticeable stars that form a triangle pattern in winter’s night sky. More importantly, it has been important in mythology in many cultures, and in addition to being used for navigation, it is known for its astrological influences. For example, to the Mesopotamians, Procyon foretold wealth and renown and in astrology, it portended wealth, fame, and good fortune (Wikipedia). These are partials reasons why I choose Procyon in the book — Milo’s goals to get rich exploiting the planet aligned with these influences.

But Procyon is also important in Polynesia cultures as well. In Tahitian culture, Procyon was considered one of the pillars propping up the sky from Earth (Henry 1907) and it was known to the Māori. But my principal focus was on its use in Hawaiian voyaging traditions, where it played a major part in the discovery of Hawaii.

Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions

The ancient Hawaiians saw Procyon as part of an asterism including four other stars, in Ke Ka o Makali’i (“the canoe bailer of Makali’i”) that assisted them while navigating at sea. Recently named Puana (Maori for “blossom”), it had no recorded Hawaiian name outside of its use in the asterism (Johnson et al., 1975). The constellation was part of a curving formation in the shape of a bailer surrounding the western constellation Orion. Makali’i has several meanings in Hawaiian: 1) it’s the name for the Pleiades, a group of seven stars called Nā hiku o Makali’i (meaning seven little eyes); 2) it was the name for the third modern voyaging canoe (following Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘i loa) built by native Hawaiians to resurrect ancestral voyaging traditions; and 3) it was the name of the navigator of the legendary canoe of Chief Hawai’iloa, who is often identified as the discoverer of Hawai’i.

The Great Bailer asterism rises in the east in the winter and sets in the west in the summer.

Puana forms Ke Ka o Makali’i with Capella (Hoku-lei: star lei), Sirius (A’a: burning brightly), Castor and Pollux (Namahoe: the twins), and Canopus (Ke Ali‘i o kona i ka lewa: chief of the southern heavens) (Brosch, 2008). Polynesian navigators at sea looked east for rising stars to use as clues to direction and the constellation was seen to rise in the east like a cup (Hawaiian Star Lines). In the illustration below, Ke Ka o Makali‘i is shown rising in the eastern sky, which typically occurs in the winter.

Puana was part of a star compass (out of 200 stars!) indicating east and was used by knowing where stars rise out and set in the ocean. Because the stars were not always visible they were used along with the sun, moon, flight path of birds, other marine life, and the direction of waves, to navigate through the great Pacific. But according to Nainoa Thompson, the navigator of the Hōkūle‘a, it was more than a science and involved the integration of all elements into a mental construct in your head. As Thompson describes it:

Navigation that I’ve spoken of so far is more external; it’s what you see; it’s looking at the stars, infinite and far away; it’s looking at small waves that are very close. Taking this information and making it knowledge is one thing. Being able to navigate is another. There is a whole other journey that goes on, and that’s internal. It’s one that tests you to do things you can’t do in your normal life. Much of navigation is this internal journey.

Nainoa Thompson, Voices of Wisdom.

Procyon in SOT

In Songs of Thalassa, Sage is the navigator, guiding Hawaiians into the stars, as her tutu had foretold, and reconnecting Hawaiians with their ancestors (“…a river of beings, extending into space and eternity…”). This is why she is named Sage Thompson. Procyon was the focus of the story for several reasons: 1) Because it was used in Hawaiian voyaging traditions it served as a good metaphor for Sage pioneering a journey into the unknown; 2) It was relatively close to Earth (11.46 light-years) and would likely be an early target for starships, and 3) it’s old enough (1.9 billion years) to have evolved life. I would have used Sirius (A’a’), which is a super interesting star and mythologically the “source of the Polynesian people” but it is too young to have life (230 million years). The part of the story where Sage looks to the sky for the Winter Asterism but realizes she is in the constellation and is now part of her ancestor’s mythology. It is also meant to drive home that she is isolated but the stars can lead her home.

Further Reading

  • Brosch, N., 2008. Sirius Matters. Holland: Springer.
  • Bryan, E. H. and R. A. Crowe. Introduction to Hawaiian Astronomy (reprinted from Stars Over Hawai’i. Petroglyph Press, Hilo Hawaii.
  • Coleman, Stuart Holmes. 2002. Eddie Would Go, the Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero. MindRaising Press, 271 pp.
  • Harden, MJ. 1999. Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian Elders Speak. Aka Press, Kula, HI. 239 pp.
  • Hawaiian Star Lines, Accessed 2016
  • Holberg, Jay B. 2007. Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky. Springer Science & Business Media, 250 pp.
  • Henry, T. 1907. Tahitian astronomy. Birth of the heavenly bodies. J. Polynesian. Soc. 16(2): 101-104.
  • Mahelona, J. K. and R. K. Johnson. 1975. Inoa Hōkū: A Catalogue of Hawaiian and Pacific Star Names. Ocarina Books, 272 pp.

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