In Maya-Quiche mythology (Popol-Vuh) the Milky Way is described as a great white serpent.
The Aztecs believed that the Serpent of the Milky Way was eaten each day by an eagle standing for Uitzilopochtli, the god of the midday Sun, associated with the south and the colour blue. This god was one of the four sons of the divine pair who ruled the creation - ‘the Lord and Lady of Duality’.
The Zuni Indians of New Mexico have a secret society called after the Milky Way. It bears the emblem of the goddess of butterflies, flowers and the Spring, who is also the Sun’s jester and acts as intercessor between him and mankind. At festivals, members of this society put on shows of unbridled obscenity. The Milky Way is called the roof-tree of Heaven.
In Peruvian Inca mythology, the Milky Way was the great river flowing through Heaven, from which the thunder-god drew the water which he sent down as rain. However, their descendants the Quechua Indians regard the Milky Way as a heavenly road as well as a river.
Baiame, the supreme deity of the Aborigines of south-western Australia, lives in the sky, seated on a crystal throne beside which flows a broad stream - the Milky Way.
In the Turkic and Tatar languages the Milky way is known as ‘the birds’ road’ or ‘the road of the wild geese’, as it is by the Finns in the Volga region. To Estonians and Lapps it is the birds’ road as well. The Buryat and many Yakut regard the Milky Way as a seam across the sky. The Samoyed of Turukhansk call it the sky’s spine. It is not just European folklore which says it was formed from milk spilled in the sky, as the legend of Hera confirms. She grew angry with the infant Herakles (Hercules), tore her nipple from his lips and the milk which spurted out formed the Milky Way. Similar legends are to be found among such Altaic tribes as the Buryat. In China, too, the Milky Way is a river, the Celestial Stream, as it is for the northern Siberian tribes and for Koreans and Japanese as well. Tatars from the Caucasus and Ottoman Turks call it the straw-thief’s road, according to a legend which Uno Harva believes originated in Persia. Some Yakut believe that the Milky Way is the track left by the snow-shoes of a hunter-god pursuing a six-legged stag. This stag would be the Great Bear and the god’s house the Pleiades. The Tungus believe the hunter is a bear and the Milky Way becomes ‘the track of the bear’s snow-shoes’. Muslim Tatars hold it to be ‘the pilgrim road to Mecca’.
For the Celts, the Milky Way was the chain belonging to the Irish god. Lug, patron of the arts and lord of peace and war.
The Finns believed that:
it was the branches and trunk of an enormous tree felled across the sky. This was an oak which grew so tall that it shut out the light of the Sun, the Moon and the stars. The clouds stopped moving across the sky because they were caught in its monstrous branches. Then a tiny little creature emerged from the sea or from underground and struck the tree with a gold or copper hatchet. The tree came down, darkening a part of the sky but setting the Sun, the Moon, the stars and the clouds free.
Sallustius, a fourth-century Neoplatonist philosopher who refused the Emperor Julian’s offer to make him his heir, provided a semi-symbolic, semi-scientific explanation. He regarded the Milky Way as the upper limit of mutable matter.
In all traditions the Milky Way is regarded as a roadway, built by the gods, linking their world with the Earth. It has also been compared with serpents, rivers, footprints, spurts of milk, seams and trees. Souls and birds use it for travelling between the two worlds. It symbolizes the road taken by pilgrims, explorers and mystics from one place to another on Earth, from one plane to another in the cosmos and from one level to another in the psyche. It also marks the boundaries between the busy world and the stillness of eternity.