If you look at sky at night from a rural area or less light polluted area, especially on a new moon day or when moon is not above the horizon you can see a band of hazy light that seems to be arcing across the sky. Even the accident civilizations didn’t miss this band of hazy light we now call the Milky Way, and they all these civilizations came up with all different mythological explanations. Most of the people in Asia (e.g. India, china, japan, Korea), regarded the Milky way as a river a silvery, shiny, celestial stream. We in India call it as Akashganga (the Ganga of the sky or Heaven). On the other hand North American Indians regarded Milky Way as a pathway for souls to the other world.
In both Finnic people (people from Finland and Estonia) and the Baltic people (of Latvia and Lithuania) referred Milky Way as “the pathway of the birds”. The name apparently came from the observation of Finns that migratory birds used the galaxy as a guideline to travel south, where the believed bird home resided (Linktukoto).
But where did the name “Milky Way” actually came from? The first ones to associate Milky Way to milk were the ancient Egyptians. They considered Milky Way as a pool of cow’s milk. The Milky Way was idealized as a fertility cow-goddess by the name Bat (Later on combined with the sky goddess Hathor). But the actual name “Milky way” was derived from Greek word for milk.(in Greek, “Galaxias”). According to mythology Milky Way was created by Heracles when he was a baby. Father of Hercules (Zeus, King of the gods) was fond of him, who was born of the mortal Alcmene. He decided to let the Hercules suckle on his divine wife Hera’s milk when she was asleep, an act which would bless baby with god like qualities. When Hera woke and realized that she was breastfeeding an unknown infant, she pushed him away, resulting in a stream of divine milk spilling across the sky.
The first to actually suggest that the Milky Way might consist of distant stars were the Greek philosophers and Anaxagoras and Democritus. Democritus’ views were supported by the observations done by Olympiodorus the younger in sixth century, and later by a number of astronomers.
The actual proof that the Milky Way consist of huge collection of distant star came from a great Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. He almost couldn’t believe his eyes, when he first turned his telescope to that dim hazy light that runs across the sky in 1610. Until early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained the entire star in the universe. The observations made by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of the many galaxies.
Our home galaxy the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy with a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light years. It is estimated to contain 100-400 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets and this just one of the many galaxies present in the universe. Our solar system is at a radius of 26,490 light years from galactic center, on the inner edge of the Orion arm. The galactic center is an intense radio source known as Sagittarius A, assumed to be a supermassive black hole.
The Milky Way is visible from earth as a hazy band of white light arching across the night sky. Although all the stars visible to naked eye in the entire night sky are part of the Milky Way, the term Milky Way is limited to the band of light. The origin of light is unresolved stars and other materials located in the direction of the galactic plane. Dark region in Milky Way also known as dust lanes are the areas where interstellar dust blocks light from distant stars. The area of the sky that the Milky Way obscures is called zone of Avoidance.
Today we have come a long way from the myths, and we are looking at our galaxy with a different point of view. So make sure you see the Milky Way next time when you are out observing the night sky.